Bratwurst and Politics — July 16, 2012

It was a nice summer barbecue, five couples and lots of kids.  Only the hosts knew them all, so the rest of us were all strangers to someone.  We hadn’t even finished with the brats and dogs when one woman piped up, “So, what does everyone think of Mitt Romney?”

She was a very sweet woman, big smile and outgoing personality, who we’ll call Linda.  She had recently moved here from DC, where, evidently, everyone she knows is a Democrat.  I think she was a bit taken aback when the expected Romney-bashing fest turned into a genuine political debate.  The seven people around the table were about evenly split.

I was just leaving the table when she launched the topic, and by the time I returned, she was defending the President’s economic record.  “I don’t see how it’s his fault at all,” she was saying.  Clearly, she was of the view that we can still blame George W. Bush for all our woes.  I wanted to point out that US corporations are sitting on over a trillion dollars in cash that they are not deploying in fresh business ventures, and that’s not because of anything that happened four years ago.  But a neighbor asked instead, “at some point, it becomes his fault for failing to move the economy.  If it’s not after 3 1/2 years, when is it?” She started to say another four years would tell, but bit her tongue in mid-sentence – realizing perhaps how silly that sounded.

The conversation inevitably turned to how terrible Bush was, which struck a few of us as tedious: “Why are we discussing Bush yet again?” My contribution at this part of the discussion was to predict that history will be considerably kinder to Bush than it appears now.  This observation did not meet with general assent.

After a few desultory turns in the conversation, Linda turned – courageously, given the circumstances – to this, something she said more than once: “I just don’t see how anyone can be a Republican.” “Why not?” we asked.  And here’s where I cursed the fact that between the academics, the news media, the television and movie folk on both coasts, there is nearly unanimous portrayal of Republican attitudes:

“They’re just so selfish and uncaring,” she said, “and they are so close-minded.”

We remonstrated: “What about us?  Do you think we are selfish and uncaring?”

“Well, I don’t know all of you, but you don’t seem to be.”

This sort of thing drives me nuts – the evidence of one’s own eyes and ears is inconsequential in the face of the broader reality:  being a Republican is not something a normal person would want to do.  I channeled a little Arthur C. Brooks, observing that “the fact is that conservatives contribute substantially more of their own money to charities than liberals do.  That’s hardly selfish.”

To which Linda replied: “What difference does that make?”

“It means liberals like to be generous with other people’s money!”  That was probably unfair, I’ll admit, but no less unfair than being viewed as a knuckle-dragging troglodyte merely because of my party affiliation.

The subject eventually changed, and Linda was at the end gracious enough to allow that she had made some Republican friends.  We parted with air kisses and all was fine. But her comment nettled me, and it didn’t take long – do you do this too? – before I thought of several witticisms that had failed to come to me on time.

“Tell me, Linda, when your children ask for cookie after cookie because they are still hungry, do you indulge them?  Or do you say no, because you don’t want them to get fat and rot their teeth?  Because if you say no, then as a parent, you’re a Republican!”

Or this:  “Democrats are supposed to be the tolerant, open-minded ones.  How is it, then, that if you’re opposed to gay marriage you’re dismissed as a homophobe?  What about those who sincerely believe that it would be bad for society?  Do you have to have the right opinions before you qualify for liberals’ tolerance?”

Or:  “Have Republicans ever drummed a previous Vice Presidential candidate out of the party for having the wrong views?  Tolerant and open-minded Democrats did that to Joe Lieberman for having the nerve to agree with George Bush on the Iraq war, and he was subjected to vicious anti-Semitic slurs in the process.”

Or perhaps this: “Democrats seem to see racism in everything Republicans say, but it was Republicans who put an African-American on the Supreme Court, and two blacks served Bush as Secretary of State.   This spring a black man was a pretty serious contender for the nomination to be President; and nobody – not anybody – tried to disqualify him for his race.  So where are the racists?”

And finally:  “If you can’t imagine being a Republican, doesn’t that by definition make you the close-minded one?”

I know, these are futile mental games.  It always frustrates me when the zinger comes to me ten minutes too late.  But it frustrates me even more when people feel like they can so off-handedly caricature an entire class of people; it is identical to the prejudice that liberals so proudly proclaim themselves free from when it comes to minorities.

And Linda was not unique in her inability to understand how someone could bring him or herself to espouse conservative views.  I have heard similar sentiments related by friends on both coasts.

It’s the reason I started writing this blog.  As long as half the country thinks the other half is irredeemably ruled by greed and ignorance, our politics will never heal.  Regardless of whether we agree, we must respect that our views arise from genuine beliefs about how best to promote the promise of this great nation.

Actually, I applaud Linda’s courage in talking politics in the midst of strangers.  We should do it more, those of us who take it seriously.  Who knows, we might actually change some minds.

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