The Subjective Political

Republican supporters console one another on election night in Las Vegas. (David Becker/Getty Images via The Guardian)

While virtually everything to be said about the recent presidential election has been said, it may help rein in the unseemly round of Democratic schadenfreude to suggest it wasn’t too long ago they were in the same position as the Republicans: specifically, that they went into the election convinced they would win and were genuinely shocked when they lost.

It’s not popular, and hardly analogous, to compare George W. Bush to Barack Obama, but the hostile partisan reactions to the incumbent were essentially the same. The policies of their first terms were considered so unpopular by the opposition party that they just had to lose, and all right-thinking, reasonable Americans would recognize this and limit him to one term. It was this sense of despair that the majority of Americans didn’t think the same way that really was palpable among Democrats in 2004 and Republicans this year — not just of real hopes dashed but that either they themselves or the American people had been somehow misled.

In the case of George W. Bush, it was about the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama, take your pick: the economy, the debt, immigration, etc. For those partisans opposing the incumbent, they felt that the question was so obvious — the weakness so clear — that any voter would have to side with them and vote him out of office.  But they didn’t.  Why?

Part of that may have something to do with swiftboating and the Rovian notion that most voters are already aware of the weaknesses of the candidates and vote based on some other interest. Certainly much of it has to do with how the campaigns are run, and how much money is involved. A firm Electoral College strategy helps narrow these issues down as well, too.  Iraq had a lot less of an impact in traditionally “red” states, particularly those with large military bases in 2004, for example, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s early dismissal of the GM rescue was death in Ohio this year.

But it also depends on how much Americans really care about these issues.  This leads me to a new exploration of what I haven’t discussed before about what we mean by “political“. When we use the term political, we’re often talking about the subjective, an ineffable balance of value we place on concerns of moral import. Not everything can be as important to us as others, without dismissing everything else.  This is the reason why we give to the charities we choose, volunteer for the organizations we do, and — ultimately — vote for the candidates we vote for. Not every candidate perfectly meets our checklist of priorities, but he or she is more likely to meet most of them, or get close to most of them, and more likely conforms to our values for the rest. Our political judgment thus rests on a subjectivity of value that is more subtle than simply ticking a box (although that’s what voting demands of us).

In this last election, which saw the quantitative methods in evaluating and assessing voter behavior elevated to a very high profile, it’s important to recognize that even these subjective (one is tempted to say analog) values can be captured with increasing digital detail and granularity. Much of this data is in the public domain, but far more — exponentially more — is captured by private firms and the major campaigns. This information is used to gauge and drive voter behavior. I’m not inclined to find that particularly sinister since marketeers derive billions in sales with essentially the same information, and consumers willingly part with this kind of information online through Facebook and with every Amazon purchase.

And it’s important to know that that subjective information is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. No better evidence of that is the fact that the top issue of the 2004 campaign was Iraq, while in 2012 it was the economy.  But, importantly, that’s not to say it necessarily effected the election outcome.

This is a very long and complicated way of saying that that people think differently about different things and hold different values about different things, and feel more strongly about those things than other people do. That’s obvious. But it’s worth repeating.  Because if we didn’t, we’d all be the same, and being different is what makes us human. Specifically to this discussion, we wouldn’t have politics without that difference, and politics is how we mediate those differences. We’ve learned from terrible experience that countries insisting that everyone is or should be the same become apolitical killing fields.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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