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Hearting Huckabee: A Story of Woe

Election 2008 is bound to be somewhat of a disappointment, regardless of the possible outcome. This isn’t meant as an insult toward the candidates, many of whom are interesting people, but toward our so-called democratic process in general.

Let’s see here: The two-party system stifles diversity of thought in one of the most diverse countries in the world. The Electoral College is undemocratic and an insult to every single one of my fellow American citizens. And the soundbite-driven media provides us with a 24-hour sideshow circus wherein deep, provocative issues such as “OMIGOD Hillary showed cleavage” are somberly discussed. Despite some much-needed new blood (*cough* Obama *cough*), this is still a popularity contest in a dingy school lunchroom, not an election.

If I were to pick one element of Popularity Contest 2008 that, above all else, makes me want to despair, it would be former Arkansas governor and Iowa Caucus golden boy Mike Huckabee.

I know, I know, you’re all waiting for the standard screed of “OMIGOD he’s a religious nut-job, burn him!” Yet, I believe things to be more complicated than that. For me, Mike Huckabee represents the ultimate flaw in the way that political identity is shaped in America: the false dichotomy between religion and secularism, the immaturity of the discourse on what it means to be an American politician in the first place.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I do, in fact, heart Huckabee, or would like to heart him, as the case may be. I am a woman protective of my right to choose an abortion, a liberal Christian bewildered by conservative Protestantism, and an immigrant horrified by the dehumanizing language used against illegals, and yet I find this particular presidential candidate to be weirdly likeable. Huckabee was not propelled into politics as the result of being born into a wealthy family. He’s a gifted, charismatic speaker. He is straightforward; he eschews all slickness. He isn’t self-aggrandizing (*cough* Giuliani *cough*), and he strikes me as a genuinely intelligent human being.

It is my belief that the Huckabees of America, talented individuals from comparatively humble backgrounds, are crippled by a simplistic political system that substitutes televangelism (the love-child of Cotton Mather and big media) for faith, and infantilizes officials and electorate alike. Huckabee has stated that his initial involvement in politics stemmed directly from his opposition to abortion. Why? Probably because his community was encouraged to mobilize around an issue whose very nuances make it impossible to effectively discuss it in a group setting without first turning it into a kind of grim joke, an orgy of splattered-fetus imagery that does not begin to address modern anxieties over gender, ethics, and autonomy.

Abortion, and other topics of discussion, have become meaningless rallying points in a society where one’s political identity is shaped by a clutch of buzzwords. “Abortion!” We shout. “Economy! Iraq! Israel! Gay Marriage!” – hardly ever stopping to consider what these words really mean to us.

As Americans of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, we worry about radical Islam (with good reason, because it is first and foremost a threat to moderate Islam, a much-needed ally), but somehow manage to ignore the fact that we lose millions of folks to peddlers of Old Testament Lite. For many of my fellow liberals, these individuals are “crazies,” “wingers,” and “godbags.” To me, they are first and foremost tragic figures, indicative of our failures as a society. In the 21st Century, in the richest nation in the world, we have created a set of entirely arbitrary ideological divisions that prevent us from enacting any meaningful change to the way we live and the way we interact with each other and the rest of the world. It’s a stupid tug-of-war between Democrat and Republican, “godbag” and “godless,” Chuck Norris and the rest of the universe – and it’s costing us everything.

It is not my wish to patronize Mike Huckabee. I have simply read up on his stances regarding various political issue, and found them not only wanting, but puzzling, considering what I perceive to be his obvious intelligence. And wherein in the years before, I have been tempted to shrug off such puzzlement with a simple “this is a conservative, what can you expect?” – I have since begun to question my response.

The truth is, if we had a diversified political party system that meant anything, Mike Huckabee would be interacting with GLBTQ rights activists, various feminists, various atheists, and other potential opponents on a regular basis. This wouldn’t mean that Huckabee would have to give up his principles – but that he would be counter-weighed and challenged, and be allowed to counter-weigh and challenge in return, all in a setting that required actual interaction.

If, in our society, we were allowed to talk to each other, instead of at each other, we could begin to reach important deals on our quietly rotting economy, embarrassing foreign policy, and so on. And we would focus less on defining each other with brutal stereotypes – “redneck,” “baby-killer,” “welfare queen” – because real pluralism would encourage us to face each other. It is a whole lot harder to stereotype the person you closely work with, in government and beyond, as opposed to some nebulous Other somewhere. The rigid, artificial divide of Republican vs. Democrat, however, ensures that we continue to engage each other rather superficially.

I admire Mike Huckabee’s drive. I admire his tenacity, humility, and sense of humour. I admire what appears to be his genuine commitment to his faith. I admire his clever, streamlined campaign. I can’t say the same about the shallow two-party system and the evangelical theatrics that have influenced his politics.

What remains of my tattered hope is reserved for Obama, though I fear that in our country, prejudice runs too deep for him to win. Ditto for Clinton. My heart would be a trifle (or, actually, more than a trifle) thawed by the sight of the first black or female candidate taking office, but we’ve miles to go before we sleep yet.

10 thoughts on “Hearting Huckabee: A Story of Woe

  1. An excellent political commentary on the deficiencies of the American system. The American system has sadly become a mockery of democracy instead of being its true beacon. You have captured that in an excellent way. I hope you will now get invited to Meet The Press …. You are so much better than most of the parrot-like pundits of that program and so many others on American TV. If Obama beats Hillary in New Hampshire, I will look to you to make sense of it all …

  2. Speaking as a conservative but secular Republican in the Deep South, I would like to respond very briefly (I hope) to your points, starting regressively from your last point about prejudice against Obama and Hillary Clinton.

    Whatever prejudice against Obama and Hillary Clinton exists, even in the Deep South, is far outweighed by the catastrophic failures of the current Bush administration. The almost unrelieved record of failure of George W. Bush has guaranteed that no Republican will be elected President in 2008, not even McCain. In particular, Bush’s born-again malignant narcissicism has, for the time being, discredited any extreme religionist (like Huckabee) who is running for President. Huckabee, like Bush, is an extreme narcissist (i.e., evangelical) with no legal training (again like Bush), and by now even conservative mainstream voters can see Huckabee as George Bush redux. So Huckabee won’t elected, and neither will any other Republican, despite any prejudice against blacks or women.

    Your larger point, second from the end, is that political pluralism would force now-tribalized groups to talk to each other. But I don’t think your point addresses the fact that, even outside politics, currently, American social and economic “tribes” don’t feel that they need to negotiate with each other to gain what they want from the larger society. The American domestic economy is now currently a service-based economy that is polarized between less-educated, lower-paid labor echelons and and more highly-educated, higher paid echelons (doctor, lawyers, etc.). The cultural separating line is formal education. Higher-paid work in a service economy requires considerable formal education, and in American the more highly-educated (in formal terms) feel little empathy for those with little formal education (and vice versa). Each group thus negotiates only on the basis of pragmatic self-interest, and the group with more practical leverage (the higher labor echelons) sees nothing to gain from legislatively granting the lower echelons more leverage by encouraging unionization. That’s why Wal-Mart has succeeded in its sometimes illegal union-busting activities without causing any kind of nationwide uproar.

    If these disparate economic groups formed their own political parties, their different political parties would have scant motivation to compromise. That’s why most Americans are so complacent about the two-party system. The system is obviously undemocratic, but it actually meets the needs of a labor force that is already severely economically polarized. Economic and racial polarization in politics also provides a congenial enviroment for political extremists, now mostly in the GOP, who are tolerated by more moderate elements because extremists provide moderates with a cover for not compromising on economic issues.

    Finally, since, in the U.S., campaigning for Federal office requires huge sums of money, lobbyists have gained extraordinary influence in Washington, and only highly-paid workers, who are also shareholders, through corporations, can afford to maintain the most effective lobbyists. Until Congress legislatively limits the cost of campaigning, plural politics wouldn’t change that.

    My response is already overlong, so I’ll end it here. I don’t share your empathy for Huckabee. To me, he’s simply another narcissistic crook from the Christian Right whose ignorance of and probably indifference to the realities of both foreign policy and taxation reminds me too much of George W. Bush. If Huckabee is the Republican candidate (which he probably won’t be), I’ll be thrilled if Obama or Clinton win, and probably so will most other Republicans.

  3. James, I think (or, at the very least, I hope) that a change in the way we elect our leaders and exercise our democratic rights would be a catalyst for addressing such wide-reaching problems as education (Huckabee went to conservative Christian schools, for example – nothing wrong with that in theory, but look at what it did in practice).

    I appreciate your comments, as always.

  4. Hmm, it seems to me like stale arguments and moderate compromise *i.e. lack of real debate* seems like a direct by-product of the proper functioning of American democracy, which is both frustrating and a relief.

    Also, no way is Huckabee going to get the Republican nod. I think the Iowa caucus used his 15 minutes…but that’s just me.

    Anyways, my comment is a by-product of The West Wing binge I’m on. Hooray for TV on DVD.

  5. it was intellectually honest of you to confess your affiliation at the end, ’cause the post was very obamanic from the beginning.

    mind what you wish for, as in pluralism. it is not with pluralism that america got where it is, while it is with pluralism that our puny european nations (especially the one where i grew up, italy) got stuck in the mud

    sorry for the simplemindedness of the comment: it’s a tribute to the simplemindedness of american politics

  6. Natalia,

    Thanks for articulating exactly why I find myself oddly drawn to Huckabee, of the Repub field. Yes, he’s a fundamentalist Christian, but he’s genuine, likeable, and runs a clean, no smears campaign. It’s been a good thing having him in the race, and I would prefer him to Guiliani or Romney if we had to have an elephant in 08.

    It’s actually quite fascinating – this compassionate conservatism he’s selling. I’d be more likely to buy it if we hadn’t seen where the same folksiness got the USA in 2000.

  7. I imagine that if things keep going the way they do – the EU will be a superpower alongside the U.S., China, et al.

  8. I agree with the author’s sentiments regarding Huckabee. Huckabee can get down with Leno while playing bass guitar and he evinces a sense of empathy, both qualities not unlike that other politician from Hope, AK. He is one of the few Republican politicians to actually “get it,” much like Obama, by compreheding the sentiments of Americans. Other Republican candidates seem to be campaigning on promises of continuity with the Bush years but with Huckabee this is not entirely the case (note his recent foreign policy statements). Aside from his exceptional character and personality, there do remain certain questions regarding his policy ideas such as the flat tax and his continuing support for the war. (Full disclosure aside, I support Ron Paul, the least historically-challenged candidate of them all, a candidate who advocates a return to a more Constitutionally-oriented style of government.)

    In contrast with the author, while I find certain things about America’s political system and future lamentable, I disagree with the analysis of a party system that stifles diversity of thought. First one should note that both major parties are grand coalitions encompassing diverse ideas. Remember, the Democratic party embraces politicians ranging on the scale from Mike Gravel to the now-independent Joe Lieberman. For Republicans, the scale spans from centrists like Chuck Hagel to the numerous far-right figures at the fore of the party. I would say that our two-party system in Congress resembles the coalition systems of European parliaments more than one might expect. It is hard to toe a party line when the line is not easily drawn given the amount of diversity within the parties.

    As for the electoral college electing the executive, this is perhaps not the most democratic means of doing so. But understanding the electoral college requires some appreciation of American history and the importance of federalism in balancing the powers of states. Over one half of Americans live within fifty miles of the coasts, a much greater percentage live in cities. Were it not for the electoral college system, politicians would campaign primarily in the large urban centers of the east and west coasts while forgetting that large swath of states in between New York City and Los Angeles. The electoral college might be seen as some vestigial relic of a time when people wore powdered wigs, but it does serve some role in making smaller states assert their interests in electing the executive of the federal government. But perhaps this is not the proper way to go, and we ought to switch over to a purer form of democratic elections. How about American-idol style call-ins?

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