Absolutes and ambiguities
Carlton M. Caves
2000 December 3

This short piece was originally an e-mail I sent to Ellen Goodman in response to a column of hers that ran in the Albuquerque Journal.

Dear Ms. Goodman,

I enjoyed your column on the people of the absolute and the people of ambiguity, which ran in the Albuquerque Journal on December 2. The polling data you cite is similar to data I saw in a column in the San Francisco Chronicle (forget who wrote it) when I was in the Bay Area over Thanksgiving.

It is a puzzle why Republicans, especially the far right wing, are so bitter and angry about this election and about a lot of other stuff, too. The reasonable view on all elections is that it's very hard to get results that are reliable to, say, better than a tenth of a percent. This is especially true in Florida because of the high rejection rate for the punch-card ballots used in much of the state. When elections are decided by several percentage points, it doesn't matter that a few tenths of a percent of the ballots are rejected by the machine counters, but when the margin is as close as the Florida vote, the sensible course is to get the best count possible by abandoning the machines and examining the ballots by hand. If everybody had agreed on this course, say, on November 12, recounting the whole state could have been completed in less than two weeks, and we would now have a reasonably reliable, if still somewhat uncertain count. Why didn't this happen? Because G.W. and his advisors decided on day one that they would likely lose a hand recount, so they adopted a strategy of delay and obstruction and, in typical right-wing fashion, demonization of everybody involved in the hand counting.

Given the lock the Republicans have on government in Florida, the right's ruckus about the cruel injustice of a hand recount is a bit like a bunch of foxes who, as they ransack a hen house, complain bitterly about how the hens object to being eaten and about a dog that barks feebly once an hour to alert the farmer.

I used to think it wasn't worth worrying about why the right is so angry---who cares if they destroy their lives in pointless anger?---but given the sharp regional differences in this election, I'm worried enough that I think we ought to try to figure out why.

Here's my theory of today. The right wing is basically nativist and exclusionary. G.W.'s attempt to make the Republican party more broad based, welcome though it is, is only a thin veneer on the white middle and upper class core of the party. The right's religion is that if you have the right values---they've got them, and they don't hesitate to tell you exactly what they are---you will be rewarded materially and economically in this world, and if you don't have the right values, then you will be punished in this world. This naive belief, rooted in fundamentalist Protestantism, is quite different from the Catholic belief, which holds that evil often trumps good in this world, but that accounts will be settled in the next, and from the Jewish view, which also does not deny that evil often defeats good, but which regards doing good and fighting evil as its own reward.

Most right wingers have done very well over the last ten to twenty years. So they're not angry because they haven't done well. They're angry because all those others, who don't share the right values, have done just as well, even better. Indeed, it's the prosperous urban areas, whose values are suspect, that have done the best. It must be especially galling to look at the electoral map and find that the most prosperous states---Massachusetts, New York, polyglot California---went for Gore by handsome margins. For the people of the absolute, this dissonance is hard to take. It doesn't lead them to question their own belief structure; that's out of the question. It leads instead to an inchoate anger against all those who don't share their beliefs; after all, those others must be cheating to be doing so well.

I was working on this theory when I went to a birthday party last Friday night in my heavily Republican neighborhood at the foot of the Sandia Moutains. A neighbor, who plans to move to Colorado Springs, was saying how much she would miss New Mexico, but that she knew there would be more opportunities for her children in Colorado. I asked her why she thought our state wasn't doing so well economically, and she replied, "Isn't it obvious? Look at the election. New Mexico is like the hole in a doughnut." I felt like asking her how California manages to stumble along economically, but asking such a question to a person of the absolute just isn't productive.

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