Politics Comes from a Different Place

Marilynne+Robinson+Barack+Obama+Honors+National+xTMUPdWV1P_lI feel like there’s more to be said about this, but for now I’m just going to make it as an observation.

This is something I’ve been seeing for some time now.  I’ll meet a person and talk with them.  We get along and approach life compatibly and I’ll think, “I like this person.  We’re both caring and rational, we approach things the same way.  This person must vote the way I vote; they’re just like me.”  And I’ll be dead wrong.  When it comes to politics, their opinions and voting habits can as often be opposite mine as they are aligned. How can that be?

And I’ve concluded over the years that politics just comes from someplace different.  Maybe people don’t make a connection between what they care about in their day-to-day life and the choices they make in the political sphere.  I don’t understand it and have at this point more or less given up trying to understand it or even talk about it with anyone.

So I’m interested to see this in a NYRB piece transcribing a conversation between President Obama and author Marilynne Robinson.  (BTW, elsewhere in the text there’s reference to an essay she wrote not too long ago on the subject of fear.  You can read that here.)

Here’s the conversation snippet that (re)raises the idea for me (emphasis added: boldface for the crucial text and boldface blue for the central expression of it that tripped my recognition):

The President: …Why did you decide to write this book of essays? And why was fear an important topic, and how does it connect to some of the other work that you’ve been doing?

Robinson: Well, the essays are actually lectures. I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book.

The President: So you just kind of mash them all together?

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.
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The President: Well, you told me about a certain attitude that your parents had that was—there was a certain set of homespun values of hard work and honesty and humility. And that sounded really familiar to me when I think about my grandparents who grew up in Kansas.

And that’s part of what I see in your writing. And part of my connection to your books, I think, is an appreciation for—without romanticizing Middle America or small-town America—that sense of homespun virtues. And that comes out in your writing. And it sometimes seems really foreign to popular culture today, which is all about celebrity and being loud and bragging and—

Robinson: I mean, I really think that you have to go very far up in American culture to get beyond the point where people have good values. I mean, you really have that feeling sometimes that honesty is more intrinsic in some person that’s doing very low-level work than it is in perhaps somebody that’s trying to find his way into some sensation—

The President: These big systems where everything is all about flash. But that’s not how your parents saw the world, right? When you said that all they cared about was just you being honest and—

Robinson: Yes, exactly.

The President:—doing your best in some enterprise.

Robinson: In whatever. Exactly.

The President: It’s interesting, because we’re talking in Iowa; people always, I think, were surprised about me connecting with folks in small-town Iowa. And the reason I did was, first of all, I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary. At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name. I seemed young. Sometimes I look at my pictures from then and I say, I can’t believe anybody voted for me because I look like I’m twenty-five.

But I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country.

The issue to me, Marilynne, is not so much that those virtues that you prize and that you care about and that are vital to our democracy aren’t there. They are there in Little League games, and—

Robinson: Emergency rooms.

The President:—emergency rooms, and in school buildings. And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life. And people describe it as the distance between Washington and Main Street. But it’s not just Washington; it’s the way we talk about our politics, our foreign policy, our common endeavors. There’s this gap.

And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics. And some of it has to do with all the filters that stand between ordinary people who are busy and running around trying to look after their kids and do a good job and do all the things that maintain a community, so they don’t have the chance to follow the details of complicated policy debates.

They know they want to take care of somebody who’s sick, and they have a generous impulse. How that gets translated into the latest Medicare budgets [isn’t] always clear. They know they want us to use our power wisely in the world, and that violence often begets violence. But they also know the world is dangerous and it’s very hard to sort out, as you talk about in your essay, fear when violence must be met, and when there are other tools at our disposal to try to create a more peaceful world.

So that, I think, is the challenge. I’m very encouraged when I meet people in their environments. Somehow it gets distilled at the national political level in ways that aren’t always as encouraging.

Robinson: I think one of the things that is true is that many Americans on every side of every issue, they think that the worst thing they can say is the truest thing, you know?

The President: No. Tell me what you mean.

Robinson: Well, for example—I mean, I’m a great admirer of American education. And I’ve traveled—I mean, a lot of my essays, you know, are lectures given in educational settings—universities everywhere. And they’re very impressive. They are very much loved by people who identify with them. You meet faculty and they’re very excited about what they’re doing; students that are very excited, and so on.

And then you step away and you hear all this stuff about how the system is failing and we have to pull it limb from limb, and the rest of it. And you think, have you walked through the door? Have you listened to what people say? Have you taught in a foreign university?

We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization. I don’t think there’s anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.

The President: But that’s part of what makes America wonderful, is we always had this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on. That’s how we ended up going west, that’s how we—“I’m tired of all these people back east; if I go west, there’s going to be my own land and I’m not going to have to put up with this nonsense, and I’m going to start my own thing, and I’ve got my homestead.” …It is true, though, that that restlessness and that dissatisfaction which has helped us go to the moon and create the Internet and build the Transcontinental Railroad and build our land-grant colleges, that those things, born of dissatisfaction, we can very rapidly then take for granted and not tend to and not defend, and not understand how precious these things are.

And this is where conceptions of government can get us in trouble. Whenever I hear people saying that our problems would be solved without government, I always want to tell them you need to go to some other countries where there really is no government, where the roads are never repaired, where nobody has facilitated electricity going everywhere even where it’s not economical, where—

Robinson: The postal system.

The President:—the postal system doesn’t work, or kids don’t have access to basic primary education. That’s the logical conclusion if, in fact, you think that government is the enemy.

And that, too, is a running strain in our democracy. That’s sort of in our DNA. We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.
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