Lost In Babylon

A WaPo piece by Eli Saslow that’s getting a lot of buzz today profiles a Republican activist in Tennessee named Beth Cox who is wandering through the tasks associated with standing down the Romney campaign in her town in something of a fugue state, baffled by the outcome. She represents the ultimate consumer of the endless spin being churned out by conservative gabbers (really since 2009, but accelerating in the month prior to the election) that Mitt could not lose, and that the aberration of an Obama presidency would soon come to a close amidst the humiliation of the media and secular elites and the quieting of rebellious underclass “takers.”

You can read it all yourself; most of us probably know or have known someone like Beth Cox, who among other things symbolizes the ironic benefit conservative causes have derived from the Christian Right’s insistence on the formal submission of women. Women have for a variety of reasons always dominated Republican grass-roots politics, and to the extent that they have been denied a proportionate share of leadership roles in the conservative evangelical churches (Cox’s husband is apparently a Southern Baptist minister) that serve as all-purpose outlets for civic impulses, their presence in political activism is all the more apparent and intense.

What Saslow seems interested in is the highly insulated conservative “bubble” in which Cox lives, where it’s obvious Obama has been an abject failure, that the country is quite literally going to hell in a hand-basket if such misgovernment continues, and not much of anyone thinks otherwise. I gather this is an especially common phenomenon among southern white folks who have little or no interaction with minorities. It’s not just Fox News or talk radio: it’s an environment in which quite literally no one has anything positive to say about Barack Obama (my mother, an Obama voter who lives in an Atlanta suburb, tells me that friends, family members, and even total strangers assume she shares their antipathy to the president because her skin is white). You could argue there’s ultimately no difference between this sort of white identity politics and old-fashioned racism, though I am sure people like Beth Cox would be horrified at the idea (according to Saslow she thinks the GOP is “way too white”).

But if you can stop thinking for a moment about Cox’s particular allegiances and imagine Obama had lost and the subject of Saslow’s article was, say, an Obama organizer in California, it’s an interesting reflection of something rarely discussed in politics: the winner-take-all nature of our elections for executive offices. In presidential elections, the winning coalition more or less runs the country, while the losers have nothing; “coalition governments” don’t exist in the United States other than as occasional aberrations. In times of exceptional polarization like the present, the isolation of grass-roots Republicans from Democrats will be increased, not diminished, by their defeat. Some will retreat from politics; some (as appears to be the case with Cox) will keep on keeping on, perhaps suggesting to her colleagues a different kind of message or leadership; but a lot will just get angrier and more puzzled by the terrible thing that is happening to their country, inflicted by people whose point of view they find both absurd and threatening.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.