The Great Divide
University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) College Democrats
November 28, 2005
I had an "aha" moment a few weeks ago, as I was reading a speech that Granny D, 95-year-old Doris Haddock, had given in New Hampshire recently. You know "aha" moments. Those are when someone says something that suddenly makes sense out of a whole bunch of things that had not made sense before.
I had one of those moments years ago when some dumb survey came out that said, when people were asked what they feared most in a relationship, the men said they feared being humiliated, and the women said they feared getting killed. Think about that one. It explains a lot.
The "aha" moment I had recently pointed me in the direction of explaining what we Democrats have been asking ourselves over the course of the last two Presidential elections. Why do people who should know better vote against their own best interests and vote Republican?
Here's what Doris Haddock said: "In some ways the conflict of the Civil War was not resolved, but rather accommodated. This time it is a slavery of the mind, which is the hardest kind to deal with, as it is usually characterized by the unwillingness of the victims to be emancipated. But it must happen if the suffering of this nation and of the world is to end."
Granny D characterized the conflict as, on the one hand, "between those who believe that authority comes from above: from an Old Testament God, delivered through husbands, presidents, preachers, ayatollahs and plantation overseers to people arranged in layers according to their worth" and, on the other side, those of us "who instead believe that all men are created equal, and that the authority to govern issues forth from them, upward to their government--their common vessel of community--and not downward."
If your core belief is that authority and power flow down from above, "from heaven to the White House to husbands and ayatollahs," then, she says, "the free and joyful living of people can be quite the enemy."
Political leaders who grew up in the 1960s, the era of free-spirited flower children, were and are especially vilified by the authority clan, she said, pointing to both Bill and Hillary Clinton as examples.
"What attracted such hatred? It was their freedom, their sense of equality, and their joys," Doris Haddock said. "Those in the clan of authority are not given the privilege--the natural right--of living their own lives. They do as they are told, say and think what they are told. Smothered is their curiosity and their healthy skepticism, and also their imagination, joy, freedom, and lust for life itself. When they see others actually living lives, they react with anger, as if someone had cut to the front of a line that, for them, never moves."
Reading that speech, available online at granyd.com, I had my "aha" moment.
It explains why people who were brought up to follow a clearly laid out path of behavior and expectations would vote for the very patriarchal Republican Party. And it might explain why they are uncomfortable with the free-wheeling unpredictability of those of us in the Democratic Party.
It also explains, at least to me, a host of other dynamics, ranging from the evolution conflict that has sprung up recently, to the direction of the Supreme Court, to the underground effort to destroy Social Security.
If you are taught that the Bible is inviolate and the word of God, then of course anything in science which even remotely tends to refute that argument must be discarded. This is an argument that does not respond to logic.
Last summer I was in the Dixmont Town Office, getting a dump sticker or something. I got into a discussion with a reasonably intelligent woman who wants creationism to be taught alongside evolution in our public schools. For her, evolution was impossible because God made the universe in six days, not millions of years.
"Do you take day to mean 24 hours, one Earth day?" I asked.
"Yes," she said firmly, "one day on Earth."
"Even for that time before Earth was created, before it had a 24-hour day?" I asked. I suggested to her that over hundreds of years and through multiple translations by people of varying language skills, it might be possible that the English word "day" in today's Bible might have actually started out as "time" or "era," which would, of course, allow for evolution to take place.
Nope, her Bible, and her pastor, said the earth was 6,000 or so years old and that was that, everything taught in science classes that did not conform to that was pure garbage, and she resented her tax dollars being used to teach garbage.
Social Security. My sister in New Jersey got an email the other day from a friend, passed along as emails are these days, that said Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be rolling over in his grave if he were to see what his Social Security plan had evolved into. It started as a voluntary plan, one that took no more than 1 percent of wages, and it should have stayed that way, the email said, and now look at it. Yes, I thought, look at it, with all those deductions and benefits that have been tweaked to accommodate the population it was designed to serve. No matter for them that program has been remarkably effective in keeping our elderly and disabled out of abject poverty. For people with that frame of mind, who need permanence in all of life's rules, political evolution of a government program is just as bad as biological evolution.
And then there's the Supreme Court. A Supreme Court Justice nominee must, they think, recognize that the U.S. Constitution is the ultimate authority, an authority that is cast in stone. The original intent of the original framers must stand, today, they say, despite the fact that we live in a society those framers could not have envisioned two hundred years ago. And, despite the fact that our understanding of human rights has evolved, and expanded, over those centuries. That document is inviolate, they say.
Except, that is, when the freedoms enumerated in the Constitution conflict with the actions or desires of some other authorities in government that should trump it, like the President and the White House.
It appears that Judge Samuel Alito Jr. shares those views about the static nature of the Constitution, which makes him a dangerous man, I think, to have on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Granny D again: "This time it is a slavery of the mind, which is the hardest kind to deal with, as it is usually characterized by the unwillingness of the victims to be emancipated."
It would appear, judging from recent voting patterns, that the people we're discussing comprise about half the population of the United States. With this group, the bumper stickers that say "Question Authority" make no sense. Why would anyone want to do that? After all, they were taught, people in authority are smarter, have all the answers, and wouldn't do anything to hurt them. The President of the United States would not start a war without a good reason, never mind that the reasons keeps changing. We aren't torturing anyone, the President said, so why do we need a new law to stop something that isn't happening?
In that world, Republicans are fiscally responsible, rich people are rich because God wants them to be, they don't need either camels or needles these days when they've got Republicans to give them tax cuts, and it's not George Bush's fault that the recession and global warming happened on his watch.
It is hard for people to learn to question the authority figures in their lives. I understand this, at a very human level. It is devastating to learn that people you trusted, depended on, even loved, would deliberately do you harm. The Catholic priests caught up in sex scandals, the Protestant ministers embezzling from their flocks, the politicians on the take, under indictment, the straying husband or President caught in a lie.
So what can Democrats do?
I suggest we start by articulating our positions in terms of some of those authority sources -- like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, even the Bible where appropriate. Legitimate links, to sources we have relied on for years for our inspiration, but have not been particularly vocal about. We keep assuming, I think, that everyone is starting from the same point of reference we are. Often they are not. So we need to begin by articulating that starting point, and go forward from there with our values, our programs, our bills, the issues that reflect and build on those links.
And we need to keep pointing out when the Republicans violate the rules in those authoritative sources. Notice the brouhaha that was raised when the Senate Republicans, including our own Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted recently, twice, to deny habeas corpus writs to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners we have been holding for years without charges. This is a human right which goes back to the Magna Carta. People are outraged, and I am delighted at their outrage.
We need to pound away at those disparities between Republican values and actions, whenever and wherever they happen. Our silence presumes complicity.
Lastly, for all those already on our side and for those who are on the cusp looking over the fence, we Democrats need to keep pointing out our sense of freedom, of equality, and our joy in living full lives in community, with love and respect for our neighbors, be they next door or three nations and an ocean or two away.
If we do all this, I believe we can reclaim our place as the party of hope and opportunity, and we can reclaim our country as the beacon of truth and justice.
For me, as a citizen and as a candidate, it is the only way to go.