So there’s been a lot of back-and-forth shot trading between the Romney and Obama camps lately. Some of it is hilarious. (“Romney strapped a dog to a car!” “Well Obama ate one!” “Romney’s grandfather was a polygamist!” “Well so was Obama’s father!“)
The right wing seems to think these parallels are especially embarrassing to Obama. Their theory seems to be that this negates the charges against Romney while leaving the Obama team with egg on its face. I’m not sure they really understand what game they’re playing.
First of all, the parallels aren’t really in Romney’s favor. Eating dog is accepted behavior in some societies, including the one Obama was living in at the time, and anyway he was a kid. Making your family pet do a 300-mile wingwalker act while ignoring the fact that it’s shitting itself in fear is not accepted American behavior, and Romney made a considered decision to do this as an adult and pet owner. And of course we treat pets differently from the way we treat food animals; I’m sure Romney eats cows, but it would be odd if he tied one to his car, and it’s odd that he doesn’t understand that. The polygamy thing is another case in point: it’s legal in Muslim societies, and was made explicitly illegal in America. Maybe that’s good, or maybe it’s bad, but the comparison only points out the fact that Obama’s dad was a product of a foreign culture which Obama has repudiated, while Romney’s family deliberately broke with their own religion on the major doctrinal point that made that religion a part of the American mainstream, and left America in order to evade US law and pursue a fringe branch of a minority religion that continued to embrace a practice that was abhorrent to Americans. (In his defense, Romney’s father rejected that line and came back to the US, and Romney himself has always been a “mainstream” Mormon. So Romney and Obama can both claim that they themselves were not involved in their forebears’ practices.) In both cases, Romney himself, or his family, deliberately undertook a practice that makes Americans queasy (in one instance fleeing the country to do so), while Obama was simply exposed in his youth to practices that were not out of the mainstream for their culture, and which he has never continued as an adult.
But the real question is not whose cultural ancestry or pet-keeping practices are weirder. The question is what role does this play in the campaign, or, for those of you with consciences, what role should it?
The obvious implication is that these historical anecdotes are embarrassing to the extent that they reveal bad behavior: that whoever’s polygamist past is worst is thereby at a disadvantage. Thus, the political role of these stories is to serve as “dirt” on their respective subjects, and the purpose of raising them in the campaign is to dirty the reputation of the opposing candidate. That’s how the right wing is playing this: “maybe Romney makes his dog ride coach, but at least he didn’t eat it!” But that’s not how this really works.
First of all, few voters are going to change their minds about either candidate after hearing these stories. To the extent that they do, the dynamic works against Romney because people have been hearing “scary Muslim” stories about Obama for 5 years now and still don’t care. But more importantly, these kinds of stories can only work on the kind of people on whom these kinds of stories work. That is, the “Obama the scary Muslim” stories work on people who are bigoted against Muslims, while “Romney the weirdo Mormon” stories work on people who are bigoted against Mormons (or just leery of Romney because they think he’s different from them). The thing is, these people all come from the same part of the political spectrum.
The people who hate Muslims are the same kind of people, and mostly the same people, who hate Mormons. None of those people are voting for Obama anyway. The anti-Muslim bigots would vote for Romney, until they remember that he’s Mormon and find themselves caught in a bind between two forms of their own bigotry. Which is the whole point: reminding people that Romney is Mormon doesn’t affect Obama voters or swing voters; it affects GOP voters (mostly evangelicals) who can’t swallow a Mormon even if he’s also a right-winger from their own party. (And reminding people that Obama is a Muslim also doesn’t affect Obama voters, because they’re not bigots and he’s not a Muslim anyway.) So the longer these kinds of clashes go on, the more it antagonizes the GOP base and leaves the Democratic base chortling with schadenfreude. The purpose of the cultural anecdotes is not to prove that one candidate or another has bad character; it’s simply to remind people – meaning GOP base bigots – that Romney’s a weirdo Mormon, to allow them to make their own decisions whether or not to take that into account (knowing that they will, because they’re Republican bigots and that’s what they do).
So the next question is: is that any way for a mature and responsible political party to behave? We can grant that that’s kind of a counterfactual in the American case, and we can even grant that it would be preferable not to have political elections determined by such concerns. But still . . . I’d argue that the answer is “yes”. Given the dynamics that drive the parties, this kind of wink-and-nod shit-stirring is not only appropriate but arguably contributes to a better and more mature campaign environment.
Figure it this way: the Republican party not only thrives on, not only promotes and manipulates, but exists largely for and because of racial and religious resentments that they deliberately stoke and take advantage of. Some of those resentments are anti-Mormon. Now they’re stuck with a Mormon candidate – a really, really Mormon candidate who explicitly rejects the separation of church and state. The religious bigotry that the GOP openly courts and deliberately escalates now comes full circle into their own base – the evangelical resentment and paranoia they’ve been pandering to for decades includes as its target the formerly negligible group from which they have now chosen their own presidential candidate. Every reminder of Mitt’s Mormonic tendencies inflames the rejectionist inclination of the religious right that makes up a significant fraction of the GOP base. But the delicious thing about this is that it’s a problem entirely of their own making.
This issue could have been avoided completely if the GOP had not embraced bigotry and religious extremism. If they didn’t have religious bigots in their base, noting the religious beliefs of their candidate wouldn’t have an effect on the electoral race. And it still wouldn’t if they simply repudiated religious bigotry now. But repudiating religious bigotry, and their bigot base, would mean sacrificing about half of their own voters, almost all of their elected officials, and the party’s stance on almost everything from birth control to abortion to women’s rights to defense, the budget, and even the environment. So they’re not going to do that. They’re going to take their lumps in the presidential race, however bad it gets, but be very careful not to confront or criticize the elements of their own base who are threatening their own candidate with criticism or simply by staying home on election day – because the GOP fully intends to keep milking religious bigotry for every possible cause for the foreseeable future. (Of course, they’re never nominating a Mormon again.) But this situation does at least highlight the degree to which religious extremism has been built into GOP DNA.
I expect (though I wish I could be surer) that Romney will lose the election, and I’m certain that whatever happens he will come out with significantly lower evangelical support than otherwise expected. To the extent to which the Democrats can encourage evangelicals to vote their own (twisted) religious consciences – which is to say reject their own candidate because he’s not a mainstream Christian – that’s good for the country, both by helping elect a better candidate and by raising the price to the GOP of their own divisiveness and bigotry. Is this itself a form of pandering to bigotry? Well, it’s allowing the religious right to pander to its own bigotry. Again, they could completely avoid the cost to their own political party of acting out of bigotry by simply not acting out of bigotry. Letting bad people hurt themselves has got to be preferable to letting them hurt innocent people, especially when they can easily avoid hurting themselves just by changing their own ways.
The other thing to note is that, unlike most of the stuff about Obama, all the stuff about Romney is simply true. He has not been slandered, but he constantly complains that he has when people simply make factual statements about his religious identity (or other obvious truths: his wife, who spouts off her opinions about the problems of working women, has in fact never worked outside the home a day in her life; the Obamacare plan is in fact modeled directly on Romney’s own healthcare plan for Massachusetts). Romney’s a Mormon. Mormon, Mormon, Mormon. It’s true. The only people who care are evangelicals who are convinced Mormons are going to hell, and can’t bring themselves to vote for one – all of whom happen to be GOP voters, and in some cases party officials. They’ve got a Mormon candidate. A Mormon, Mormon, Mormon. They’ve got to decide whether their political desires will override their religious prejudices – a problem that wouldn’t exist at all if they simply weren’t prejudiced. But they are. And their candidate’s a Mormon, Mormon, Mormony, Mormon. Whether this conflict convinces some of them to be more open-minded, or convinces a lot of them to let their candidate lose to indulge their personal prejudices, that’s a win for America.
Mormon, Mormon, Mormon.