At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan delivered an inflammatory speech now known as “the culture war speech.” He said,
“My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
There is so much about these few lines that is worth comment, it is tricky for me to pick one thing, but I will try to do so. What I have been working to express about my concerns about elections to many friends and to political candidates in recent years is that we must get beyond winning elections to improve the lives of people in the US. Buchanan was not the first to use the term culture war and he is only one in a long line of politicians who have equated winning elections with progress on issues. While I don’t by any stretch of the imagination want to suggest that the executive and legislative branches are unimportant in social change, I assert that they are not the exclusive ways that change can and does happen. Still, the conflation of elections and social change is so widely believed that it seems impossible to address.
This past summer I approached a current candidate for national office, offering him and his aid my time and talent for the next year. A week later I got a stock email from that same aid with a request for a second donation. In the past two years I have talked to the parents of two other state politicians and pointed out that, while I admire their sons’ voting records, I found their interpersonal skills lacking. These guys do not know the basics of working a room to garner support on issues. Instead of meeting and talking with people, they look over their heads to see who else is in the room, someone perhaps with deeper pockets. Right now I am trying to think back to the last time I heard a candidate say to me, “I hope I can count on your vote.” Herb Kohl, maybe? Instead, I am asked for my support, meaning my money. Four times in as many elections I have offered to host candidate gatherings in my home to talk issues and, except for one local village candidate, no one has accepted. I have also wasted hours on trying to convince candidate’s campaign offices to print yard signs. As someone who has mounted successful social marketing campaigns, I know some things about their value.
The same lack of responsiveness has been true for my state party office. There I have worked to get them to consider doing something besides sending electronic messages requesting donations of $3. Besides the ask itself, the emails contain almost no content. When I have raised these points, officials argue that I have no idea how well these emails work. I countered, “Neither do you beside what the vendor of the email service tells you.” Comparing one method to no method is not science. It is nonsense. I know I am not alone in despising email requests for funds because it is the end of the month, the funding period, or a reporting deadline.
Buchanan’s rallying cry has worked as well, perhaps better, among Democrats as it has among Republicans. Our votes, like our Facebook likes, have become a statement about some vague belief premises. We act like we are voting on behalf of the “soul of America.” Let’s be clear, America has no soul. But it does have people, including Black and Brown people — people in the global majority, by the way — women, children, and poor and working class people. These people’s lives as a whole are going all that well in large part because of greed. For eight of the last 23 years there has been a Republican in the White House. For eight of the last 29 years there has been a Republican in Wisconsin’s Governor’s Mansion. I would argue that we have not seen any real improvements in the importance of greed in policy decisions in the state or nation despite who is in office.
Our slavish attention to winning elections instead of winning on actual issues is hurting real people right now. I am not insensitive to the clarification of my right to be married or to file joint tax returns. I kind of like the notion that someone in Washington state would need to make a wedding cake if I ordered one from their shop. One-quarter of a million children in my state live in poverty, however. Buying cake will not fix that. Neither have elections.
Do not suppose for a moment that I will not vote. I have never missed an election and do not plan to start. I am just not going to expect the results to affect greed.