Stupid People III: Voting While Stupid

Up until this point, I have chosen not to post any essays that are purely political in nature. I have two good reasons for this: first, that there are countless other sources of political coverage on the web, many of which are written by people much smarter and more well-informed than me; and second, I needed to put some distance between myself and the election to moderate my passions. On November 3, I was spitting nails. I don’t think I could have strung two sentences together.

The end result of the election of 2004 is a nation bitterly divided. Not just divided, but polarized along class lines. The blue states (young, liberal, intellectual) versus the red states, the people of which are best described by quoting the Waco Kid from Blazing Saddles: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. They’re people of the land, the common clay of the New West. You know – morons.”

All kidding aside, there is a very serious growing consensus of opinion amongst us hand-wringing Democrats that the divide in this country is indeed along lines of intelligence – that the educated, intellectual young liberals are forced to share the country with the Great Unwashed, who, in turn, regard us as uppity, immoral elitists, and who turned out against us in great numbers to demonstrate their moral superiority.

The argument is very seductive, and indeed, I’m sure there is some truth in it. And for those of us who consider ourselves intellectuals, it’s cynically satisfying to conclude that the nation is collapsing under the weight of its own stupidity.

The problem with generalizations of this sort, of course, is that sooner or later they touch us on an individual level. It’s easy to dismiss throngs of people I don’t know personally as a bunch of morons. But that doesn’t help me reconcile the fact that some of my friends and members of my own family – people I love and respect – voted for Bush.

I know these people. They are not stupid. How is it possible that we, exposed to the same sources of information, can come to diametrically opposite, irreconcilable differences of opinion?

There is no shortage of genuinely stupid people in this country, and they participated in this election in great numbers, basing their voting decisions on ignorance, misinformation, and outright bigotry. However, even on my most cynical day, I refuse to believe that stupid people comprise anything close to a majority of the population. Furthermore, we had our share of uninformed voters on the Democratic side as well. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile myself to the notion that stupid people won the election for Bush.

So, in the final analysis, what is it that would cause otherwise decent people to ignore the overwhelming evidence and re-elect a president whose motives and agenda are so clearly damaging to our country’s well-being?

The post-election polls gave us our answer. Bush voters overwhelmingly cited “moral values” as the single most important campaign issue.

The problem with “moral values” is that it’s an issue that is open to interpretation. It means different things to different people. Republicans have been able to portray themselves as the party of “moral values” by hammering on emotional hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, controversial issues that spark a lot of debate and inspire heated responses from people who consider themselves arbiters of morality. Such issues help to polarize us further because many people find these issues uncomfortable and would just as soon not deal with them at all.

I have moral values too. I hate seeing hundreds and hundreds of our kids dying in a country that was no threat to us, their sacrifice greedily exploited for the benefit of those in power, and the politically-connected companies who enrich themselves at their expense. It offends me to see that the people truly responsible for 9/11 have not been brought to justice because it’s not a top priority of our nation’s leadership. It offends me to see one President impeached for lying about his personal life, but then to have another President lie about the reason for starting a war, and be rewarded with a “mandate” because of his supposed “moral values.”

As I’ve said before, liberals and conservatives both have morals. A significant difference is that liberals tend to agonize over their moral judgments. We are not quick to tell others how to live their lives. We reexamine and reevaluate our positions frequently based on what we learn, and yes, we change our minds from time to time. Refusal to change course does not constitute moral superiority, especially when you are heading straight for a cliff.

Certainty in the “correctness” of one’s moral judgments inevitably leads to an insular self-righteousness and naiveté that is easily exploited by people who seek wealth, power, and control. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason George W. Bush won the election.

9/11 demonstrated our vulnerability as a nation. It was a wake-up call in many ways. And the simple yet disturbing truth is that there is no way we can guarantee that it will never happen again, even if we keep Cat Stevens out of the country indefinitely. People who can’t cope with this fear use morality as a crutch. After all, if they are right and we are wrong, then God is clearly on their side and all their actions are justifiable. They don’t have to agonize over their positions. Self-examination can lead to doubts, gray areas, messy decisions. With God on your side, you have clarity of purpose and can rest secure.

And they have elected a leader cast in their own image.

There are a lot of people in this world who use God to justify their actions. On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four passenger airliners and murdered thousands of innocent people in acts of unspeakable violence, believing all the while that God was on their side.

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