Post-Election Advice, from a Liberal to the GOP

Obviously, I’m violating my no-politics rule here. But since we only have a Presidential Election once every four years, and I need to get this off my chest, I’m granting myself a waiver.

This election season has been long, expensive, and emotionally draining. As someone who leans left on the political scale, I have to admit, I’m pleased with the results. We re-elected Obama. Pretty much all the social conservatives who shared their views on rape were soundly defeated. Marriage equality, having gone 0-for-32 in previous elections, went 4-for-4, including in my own state of Washington.

To any conservatives who happen to be reading this, I’m not posting to gloat. The issues are too important to treat the way you would a college football game, rooting for one team or another and trumpeting over the folks who you “beat.” The governance of three hundred million people is at stake, and it’s in everybody’s interest to have at least two parties, motivated by different philosophies, working together to overcome the challenges we face.

The GOP is already trying to come to terms with this loss, figuring out what happened and how to avoid it in the future. With that in mind, here’s a few tips from this side. (Not that I think Karl Rove will ever actually read this or anything.) Believe me when I say this is honest advice, offered in good faith, from one American to another.

Appealing to minorities: A lot of GOP pundits seem to think that inviting Marco Rubio to give a speech at the RNC counts as Latino outreach. Or inviting Condoleeza Rice counts as outreach to African-Americans (and women).

Let me give you a tip: it’s not the color of your spokespeople that matter; it’s your policies. If Tom Tancredo and Kris Kobach are setting policy behind the scenes, it doesn’t matter if Marco Rubio’s your face. Minorities, like most people, aren’t stupid. They vote primarily based on policy, not skin color, especially here in the 21st century. And when you suggest otherwise, you’re just adding insult to injury.

You want to improve your appeal to minorities? It’s not enough to find a member of said minority group to be your face. You have to listen to them, too, and pursue policies that broadly appeal to them.

Appealing to women: I can’t count the number of times a Romney surrogate got on TV and belitted issues related to the so-called “War on Women” as “small”, “distracting,” or “shiny objects.” Regardless of whether or you agree that there actually is a War on Women, the fact is there were millions of women (and millions of sympathetic men) who were very much worried about women’s access to pre-natal health care, birth control, and reproductive rights. Belittling the issues they care about is not a good way to get their vote. If you honestly think your approach is better, then by all means, have that argument. Being argumentative is far better than being dismissive– at least the former shows you care.

Also, the note on minorities applies here, too. You can’t just nominate women and expect other women to automatically vote for them; policies matter.

Don’t blame Chris Christie. If Hurricane Sandy had struck when an election wasn’t going on, then nothing Chris Christie did would have so much as raised an eyebrow. He did what we expect of competent government officials: put aside politics and focused on the important task at hand.

Two major crises erupted in the final months of the campaign: Hurricane Sandy, and the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Here’s the thing: Americans like it when our leaders transcend politics during crises, as Chris Christie and Barack Obama did. It’s how Democrats and Republicans reacted after 9/11, after all: they put aside politics (at least for a little while) and sang God Bless America on the steps of Congress. It’s how Reagan responded to Carter’s failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran.

Mitt Romney steadfastly stayed political. He had a political statement out about the Middle East unrest even before the actual Benghazi attack, and after Sandy, he co-opted a political rally for a cheap photo op. Imagine if he had, say, taken a day’s worth of advertising dollars and donated it to the Red Cross… or made some sort, any sort, of actually meaningful gesture. He’d have fared much better. He’d have looked like a President, not just a Presidential Candidate.

Over and over again, Americans have shown that we like our leaders to transcend politics in times of crisis, to show that even though we disagree, we’re still all Americans, and we support each other. It’s what happened after 9/11; it’s what didn’t happen after the Benghazi attack or after Hurricane Sandy. And that’s not Chris Christie’s fault.

Liberals Aren’t Just Looking For Handouts. Over and over, conservative pundits insist that liberals, and democratic voters, are just people looking for government handouts, people who see government as “Santa Claus,” as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly put it. Um, no, that’s not it at all. I’m a white male middle-class voter with a good job who’s never been in debt or gotten any meaningful sort of government assistance in any way (except for, like every other American pupil, a free grade school education). If that situation continues for the rest of my life, I’m fine with that (okay, I would like to see some of the money I’ve put into Social Security and Medicare back at some point, but that’s money I paid into the system, not a handout).

I admit, I vote out of compassion, and empathy. As I said in my pre-Election Day post, I see government as a tool for addressing society-wide problems, including poverty and health care. I believe that we as a society have a vested in ensuring that children don’t go hungry, and that they get health care and a good education. I believe we have a vested interest in keeping our air, water, and soil clean; in keeping our bridges, roads and airports in good condition; in funding scientific research for the sake of improved medicine, technology, and quality of life.

You may not agree with me, and that’s fine. But don’t belittle me as wanting “government handouts” because I see government as a useful tool for addressing society-wide problems. If you can honestly examine why I vote the way I do, then you’ll do much better against me. In the words of Sun Tzu, Know thy enemy.

Don’t blame the media. There is a whole industry, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh to the right-wing blogosphere, that has made a very successful business out of telling conservatives what they want to hear. And while we all like to be told we’re right, and to have our beliefs validated, this election took it to an extreme. Many conservatives who were genuinely expecting a Romney landslide were surprised and shocked when Nate Silver and the mainstream polls turned out to be correct after all. Reality burst the bubble of conservative punditry, and rather than take a step back and self-reflect, many conservatives are now mad at the media. To me, this argument sounds like:

Person A: Two plus two equals three.
Person B: Two plus two equals four.
They look it up, it turns out Person B is right
Person A: It’s all your fault for not agreeing with me!

Um, no… that’s not how reality works.

If you think the media is really liberal, consider the response to the first debate. It was virtually unanimous, even among liberal pundits, that Romney won. Now consider the other debates, particularly the Town Hall debate. The general consensus, among everyone but the conservative pundits, was that Obama won. In every case where Mitt Romney performed poorly, the conservatives tried to spin the facts to match the reality they wanted. Liberals spin, too, but (as in the first debate) they were generally faster to acknowledge reality as well.

Look, there’s definitely a place for spinning, and putting the best light possible on the facts. Everyone does it. But spinning the facts should not be a total replacement for self-reflection. After the first debate, liberals engaged in a lot (possibly an excessive amount) of self-reflection. Conservatives never did, and by and large, they aren’t doing it now.

After this loss, I see a lot of finger pointing at others: the media; Chris Christie; greedy liberals who just want a government handout. It’s all spinning, none of it’s self-reflection. But when you’re belittling and dismissive of the things people care about– be it immigration reform, health care, access to birth control, gay rights– you’re never going to win their votes.

Final Summary: You want people to vote for you? Listen to them, don’t just dismiss them. You’ll do much better if you try to convince them that your approach is a superior way to address their concerns, rather than telling them that their concerns are invalid, or that they’re stupid or greedy for placing importance on them.

This is a video of my neighborhood in Seattle Tuesday night, celebrating marriage equality and the re-election of America’s first African-American president. You may not agree with it, but this is our country, and I am mighty damn proud of it, both now and always. Political tides come and go, and there will probably be elections in the future where you’re dancing in the street and I’m crying into my beer. But America will go on, and if we treat each other with respect, if we work together honestly, to solve our problems, we will be so much better off for it.

When it comes to America, whether your side lost or won, it’s no reason to stop believing.


Aisha’s Story

In the eleven months I’ve posted to this blog, I’ve thus far managed to avoid political topics. But now I’m going to tread the line, because while the topic is definitely political, I feel like this should really be a humanitarian issue first.

On the cover of TIME Magazine’s August 9th issue is a picture of an 18-year-old Afghan girl named Aisha. She was treated like a slave by her husband and his family, and suffered horrible abuse and beatings at their hands. Last year, she ran away… and soon after, the Taliban came knocking on her door, demanding that she be punished for doing so.

The judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved by her story of abuse so severe that she feared for her life. Perhaps he didn’t even let her speak, but regardless, he certainly didn’t care. So while her brother-in-law held her down, her husband took a knife and proceeded to cut off her ears and nose.

Now her face is on the cover of TIME, and Aisha has become a pawn for both sides in the ongoing debate about the war.
-The pro-war camp claims that this illustrates why we need to stay in Afghanistan and continue combating religious extremism.
-The anti-war camp claims that this illustrates how little has changed despite almost 10 years of American soldiers fighting and dying half a world away.

To me, the TIME magazine cover drives home a different point: if we had wanted to win the war on terror, we should have focused on helping people like Aisha in the first place.

The breed of religious extremism which led to Aisha’s mutilation is the exact same breed which led to airplanes being flown into buildings on 9/11. But we don’t see it. Maybe it’s because Aisha is just a poor woman from Afghanistan. Maybe it’s that she isn’t one of us. But even when confronted with her picture, we tell ourselves it’s not our job to protect her– we’re over there to protect Americans. Afghan women have suffered for generations. They suffered before we got there, and they’ll still be suffering after we leave. It’s not the jobs of American soldiers to solve her problem. We’re here to fight terrorism.

But terrorism is an idea, not a person, and all the weapons in the world won’t kill it. To combat terrorism, you have to combat the conditions that allow it to thrive: you have to combat the hate, the ignorance, and the extremism in which it takes root. And if we had engaged the local population, if we had treated them like human beings worthy of our help, instead of treating them as inconvenient obstacles on our way to hunt down Osama bin Laden, I believe we would be much further along in alleviating the causes of both suffering like Aisha’s, as well as the suffering which came to our shores on 9/11.

We should have focused much more on helping the Afghans build schools, medical clinics, and improved water systems. Above all, by far, the schools. We should have focused on educating children, especially girls, who form the backbone of families, and who will be largely responsible for raising the next generation of Afghans.

To make a long story short: we should have built less predator drones, and more classrooms.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times’ most recent column explains it thus:

Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism. And the trade-offs are staggering: For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect.

CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, has overseen the building of 145 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and operates dozens more in tents or rented buildings — and he says that not one has been destroyed by the Taliban either.

Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them. And my hunch is that CARE and Mr. Mortenson are doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.

It seems to me like Greg Mortenson (link) is one of the few people who’s figured out how to win the war on terrorism: by engaging with the people. And his schools are not seen as instruments of foreign oppression, because they are built and owned by the local community, and because all the schools are built with the blessing of the local elders. Mortenson’s model works, and that’s because at its root it’s about treating people with respect, not dehumanizing them in the name of war or conquest, as is so often done.

Whenever we’re fighting a war, we always dehumanize the other side. Even in a war where we’re ostensibly trying to help the local people, there’s still a tendency to pull back, to not treat them as entirely human, especially amongst those of us who view the war from afar. That’s why the only statistic we hear with any regularity is the number of American soldiers dead, as if it’s the only true measure of the war’s cost. The number of civilians killed is less important, almost an afterthought, especially to the pro-war camp. And the number of children who get to go to school, or the number of people with access to medical care, or clean water, or simply the opportunity to build better lives, does not even enter it to it.

I’ve said in previous blog entries that one of my favorite things about stories is that they help us relate to people who aren’t like us, and help us empathize with people who we might otherwise ignore. Aisha is a great example of this. I find myself interested in her personal story, and the causes of it, and what we can learn from it. I don’t want to lose track of it in the rush to just spin her story as propaganda for one side or the other– but of course that’s what happened amongst the political commentators, both left and right.

It’s unfortunate. We may dehumanize the other side in war, but in the war on terror, “the other side” is mostly just the people we should have been helping from the beginning.