We live in a political era in which magical thinking is the norm.We no longer take our politicians at their word, preferring instead to ascribe our own motivations to them, turning them into human Rorschach tests and freeing them from the need to pay any attention to what we, as citizens, actually want.
We vote based for candidates, ignore their pronouncements and then hope, as if by magic, that they will suddenly do as we wanted them to do all along.
We saw this most clearly in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, in which both sides made claims for President Obama that belied what he actually had done or said. The right’s analysis went this way: Obama is just waiting for a second term, when he no longer will be weighed down by the need to face the voters, to unleash his socialist, anti-gun assault. He was just holding back, you’d hear on the talk shows, and would be gunning for you starting Jan. 20, 2013.
His supporters on the left offered their own versions of this: Once the second term starts, he’ll be able to move to left and govern as the natural progressive liberal that he is.
That both sides were making essentially the same argument — and that both sides essentially were wrong — says much more about the way we think about politics in 21st Century than it does about Obama, who remains the relatively cautious left-centrist that he’s always been.
This may seem like old news. Why bring up year-old political arguments as the government is shutting down and the political classes have already moved on to the 2016 election?
The answer is that the dynamic continues to play out. We still act as though we have a secret line to the inner workings of our favorite politicians’ brains.
In my home state of New Jersey, we have a governor with approval ratings in the 60-plus-percent range as he nears the end of his first term. Gov. Chris Christie is on the cusp of winning a second term by potentially historic margins, appears on national talk shows and is listed among the front-runners for the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
Things must be going like gangbusters in New Jersey, right? He must have the state on the path to prosperity and New Jerseyans must be happy with the direction he’s taking us.
Only, they are not. This is not a criticism of the governor (heaven knows I could write that column), but of larger headwinds that prevent us from honestly assessing who our politicians are and on what they stand.
Consider the conversation I had the other day. The woman I was talking with made the odd claim that, were Christie not part of the 2016 Republican presidential mix, he would fully back and implement the state’s medical marijuana law and legalize same-sex marriage. There is no evidence for the position — Christie, in every public statement made since he kicked off his initial gubernatorial campaign, has made it clear that he remains a hardcore conservative on social issues. He opposed the medical-marijuana law when it was passed and signed into law by his predecessor. He is opposed to marriage equality — though he has made a sop to public opinion by saying he would agree to putting it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. And he is pro-life.
This conversation is not an outlier. I’ve had similar conversations with others over the last year. People in New Jersey – or the ones who like the governor — see Christie as a regular New Jersey guy who says what he means, regardless of the consequences. They support him, which means that he must agree with them on the issues they believe are important.
The polls bear this out. The governor gets positive approval ratings on most issues, but voters’ opinions on those issues are in contrast with what the governor believes or has done. He is seen as doing a good job, despite an unemployment rate that remains higher than the nation’s as a whole and despite most New Jerseyans telling pollsters that the state remains on the wrong track.
But they like him and they like and respect the leadership he showed during and immediately after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the state.
Essentially, Christie is one of us and for us, so we either ignore our differences or rationalize them by attributing them to politics. The contradiction, of course, is stunning: Christie says what he means, we say, which is why we as a collective group of voters say we like him. But when faced with areas of disagreement, we forgive him, saying he has to play the kind of political games we hate.
Again, this is not a criticism of Christie, but of the dynamic. Libertarians do this with Rand Paul. They ignore the parts of his program that contradict his great libertarian principles — both he and his father are anti-abortion zealots and support a border fence designed to stop the free movement of people, something I would think would be anathema to someone who views the individual’s liberty as paramount. Democrats do this with Hillary Clinton, conveniently ignoring her history as Senate hawk with ties to the noxious Wall Street crowd that tanked the economy even as they raise her up as the next great liberal savior.
There are good reasons to support all three of these candidates and many, many more reasons not to. What troubles me is that we have entered an era in which we no longer try to navigate these political potholes by addressing them head on. You don’t have to agree with everything a candidate says to support her, but you should be able to explain what it is about her record that allows you to deal with the terrible taste.
Rather than address these things openly, we ignore the potholes altogether, or we make excuses. These guys don’t really mean what they say, we’ll argue, even when it is obvious that they do.
That is what I mean by magical thinking.
Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org; blog, www.kaletblog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook, facebook.com/hank.kalet.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013
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