Part of the promise of the Obama campaign from the beginning has always been that he can somehow bring the culture wars to a close. There’s reason to believe in this promise: if there’s a single American who’s lived a life that more fully straddled the culture war divide than Barack Obama, I can’t name him or her. But the problem with being a peacemaker is that you can’t unilaterally end conflict if your opponents want to continue waging war. This is the way I put it in my profile of Obama’s chief adviser David Axelrod:
But consensus is a tricky business…as interested as you might be in unity, your enemies get a vote, too.
With Palin’s speech at the RNC, we’ve now entered the culture war phase of the election. And I’m a bit disconcerted about how effective the provocation has been in getting those on the left to wage culture war right back. Hard to blame them: the other side really did start it. They insulted community organizers and pretty much anyone that lives in a big city. It’s offensive stuff. But a few too many liberals I know have been throwing around the phrase “these people” in describing the right, a phrase that’s one of the most toxic in the English language. And I’ve been forwarded this obviously phony and patently absurd email which purports to list the books Sarah Palin wanted banned from the local library. (She did, I should note, actually inquire about how she could get books banned.)
But waging culture war back is not the answer. First it’s morally dubious, and allows us to stew in our own and stereotypes and self-righteousness. Empathy is a precondition of progress, that goes for our ideological enemies. But it’s also just not winning politics. It’s rigged in their favor. They’ve been waging this since Nixon and win more times than they lose. That will change some day in the near future, but right now, people need to channel their energy and angst and frustration into action, whether that’s volunteering or giving money, and not sniping.
UPDATE: Some readers in comments seem to think I’m urging a kind of high-road, Mr Nice Guy, positive approach to the campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth! Politics is about conflict, it’s about attacking and fighting and that’s all well and good. The left and the Obama campaign and everyone else should be attacking McCain/Palin/Bush/GOP for their extremist agenda, for their reckless and insane foreign policy, for their extension of the Bush economic policy in every single way, for their lying and fraudulence and feckless kow-towing to the right-wing of the party. I’m just saying don’t attack them on the culture war turf: like, for instance, Sarah Palin goes to a church where people speak in tongues! But by God, by all means: attack.