Looney Tunes

When I was six, my parents gave me my first political gift: a Dri-Fit shirt that read “RUN AGAINST BUSH.”

Get it?

A running shirt. That said Run Against Bush. Haha. 

Unfortunately, I never received an explanation of why we were ~running against Bush~ except for “Iraq”, since I guess you can’t explain tax policy, the Powell Doctrine, the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, a shoddy response to Hurricane Katrina, or Abu Ghraib to your six-year old child. So they just kind of relied on a broad “our president is kind of a bumblefuck routine” and left it at that. My brother got a matching shirt too, wore it until it no longer covered his stomach – which, mind you, was years after the 2004 election. Couldn’t let go, I guess. 

Last year, I came home from my first semester at college to a Christmas gathering where my sixteen-year-old brother informed me me, “You’re a Republican.” I asked why, of course, confused and vaguely insulted. He explained that it was because I don’t stand in outright opposition to military intervention, or because I think that it can sometimes be justified, or whatever. It was a garbled explanation. I later discovered that my brother had undergone some sort of communist awakening and was being given Marxist theory for Christmas that year. Evidently, my center-left views were no longer acceptable in his new worldview, though I never quite got a clear explanation as to why from him.

Moments like these make me hold my tongue when I’m home, at school, talking to friends. My family can feel like a bit of an echo chamber, and I’ve given up on pushing back against it. My dad leaves MSNBC on even when he’s not in the house. I went to a Unitarian Universalist church growing up, where the creed is essentially tolerance for everything. Earlier this summer, I discovered an Obamacare t-shirt lying around the house. We are the smug liberals from Durham, the most tolerant city in the United States. And damn, do we know it. We love it all, especially in the moments for righteous indignation or moral superiority. The reactions to Supreme Court decisions (my mother relishes calling the court SCOTUS – thinks it evokes the ‘ickiness’ of the Roberts court), or smugly chuckling as Jon Stewart reveals more of the hypocrisies of the G.O.P. – these moments give my family and the Democrats I grew up around great pleasure.

Several weeks ago, Jon Stewart retired from the Daily Show. My mother is heartbroken. That, combined with the end of the Colbert Report, may be too much for her. In the wake of Stewart’s final show, the New York Times (the Bible for any good old liberal) published an article - one of many that has surfaced since Stewart announced his retirement – that criticizes Stewart for being an echo chamber similar to the ones he and Colbert ridiculed. Yet, the article did more than that–it called into question the liberal biases that may explain the note I wrote to my fourth grade enemy after the 2004 election, explaining why she and George W. Bush “sucked”. Eloquent. 

“Liberals turn out to be just as prone to their own forms of intolerance, ignorance, and bias. But the beliefs are comforting to many. They give their bearers a sense of intellectual and even moral superiority. And they affect behavior. They inform the condescension and self-righteousness with which liberals often treat conservatives.” (Gerard Alexander, “Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness)

My Internet friends mostly displayed confusion and indignation in response to this article. Liberals? Biased? The charge seemed to contradict the label ‘liberal’ and all the comfort that came with it. I couldn’t stop hearing friends and family, their response to moments in politics in the past years playing over and over again in my head, like some sort of smug, Fox News soundtrack to explain just how bad the left is. My family’s response to the debates was evidence enough.

I want Donald Trump to provoke a catfight among them. It would be sad if it were a tame political discussion that just brought attention to Republicans’ ideas. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but probably a real fear. Luckily, the G.O.P. is perfectly capable of getting in fights without the help of Mr. Trump.

Nice makeup, Megyn. Do you have to be blonde to be on Fox News? Evidently, the policy attacks were no longer satisfying my fellow listeners (Answer the question, you stupid fuck) and we had entered the twilight zone of wild ad hominem attacks: Scott Walker? Oh, I HATE him and his stupid rat face (Fair, Scott Walker does kind of have a rat face). On Rand Paul – He’s such a nerd! And a dentist!

After a while, I think they just gave up: This shit is unbelievably scary. I should never listen to Republicans. This is depressing, after Ben Carson on torture, which was, to be fair, rather depressing, but still not as quite scary as his God-backed tithe tax plan. They’re just assholes – a despondent response to the discussion of Iran. Oh god. This is so unfair – upon Megyn Kelly’s pronouncement that social issues were up next.

The problem is, this kind of reaction isn’t just confined to the liberal response to conservatives, though it is particularly outlandish in those instances. When my family talks to other liberals about conservatives or about more conservative viewpoints, they try to impose a strict logic on the situation to make sense of it all – as though they could never understand why someone would vote Republican, when their own moral sensibilities were outraged by the very thought. My mother, in fact, has asked a friend of mine with Republican parents how they react when the candidates are ‘such idiots’–how they can rationalize the leaders of the party being total morons. A friend of mine shouted at me last week because I support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. Knowing what to expect if I engaged with him in a substantive policy debate (dismissal of my ideas and a rousing defense of the socialist state), I told him I thought Hillary had a better chance of winning. The response? Oh, I get why you like Hillary. You’re voting in North Carolina. That makes sense. I’m proud of you. Here’s the problem: this kind of ultra-left viewpoint dismisses the realities of our political system. No matter how much you may want to rewrite the constitution or demolish the government, short of some mass uprising, these are the rules of the game we’re going to be stuck with. A two party system. A mixed, capitalist-leaning economy. Advantages for the wealthy. Oppressive racism and sexism and homophobia and hatred. You can’t erase these problems overnight, but you can’t give up on working in the system to create legal reform as you continue efforts outside of it to change perceptions and raise consciousness.

Discourse in this country isn’t fueled by condescension and assurance of correctness and moral superiority, but willingness on both sides to come to the table and respect the ideas of people you might not necessarily agree with. So perhaps Rush Limbaugh and his likes are offensive, sexist, misogynistic, condescending to the poor. But liberals have problems too. A 2014 study at Stanford University found that “hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race” (Iyengar and Westwood). This means that Republicans hold negative assumptions about Democrats, and vice versa. The hostility, the study finds, is increasing in recent years. As a liberal, the way I see forward isn’t throwing my hands up in exasperation and refusing to negotiate. That’s impossible: you cannot win if you cannot find ways to work together. Obama learned that in the beginning of his presidency, and politicians like Senators Olympia Snowe and Evan Bayh (among others) have issued repeated warnings about the danger of partisanship, polarization, and gridlock.

On some level, in states like North Carolina, in states across the country, and the Senate and House, it can’t always be about voting according to ideology. It’s about voting with your head. Even if Durham is tolerant and liberal and I’ve been composting and recycling since I could walk, I still live in a swing state. I could just reject the ideas of Republicans as stupid; dismiss fiscal conservatives and social liberals as being ideologically inconsistent. Or I could engage: figure out compromises, a way forward, a way around the partisan divides. It’s harder to dismiss people if you don’t make them into a caricature of all the things you fear about the other side of the aisle. 

My little brother is going to college soon. He’s grown up a lot since he informed me that I had magically become a Republican. Instead of following me north to college, he’s going to Davidson, in part because he felt like his choices there were more likely to be liberal echo chambers. Like me, he likes to argue. My hope for him is that he remembers that the conservatives and centrists around him are people too, engages with them respectfully on the merit of their ideas rather than on the looney tunes that he’s received for so long. I’m hoping a Run Against ¡Jeb! shirt won’t be on his Christmas list this year, but if it is, I’m looking forward to buying it for him knowing that he’ll understand a little bit more about the issues and the people on the other side of the aisle.