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My US Election Web Spats: An Expat's Tale

As Nov. 6 looms, one man's plea for reasonable political discourse in the social media arena.

Sam Eifling 3 Nov 2012TheTyee.ca

Sam Eifling is a journalist based in Vancouver.

Regarding partisan political updates by your friends and family members on Facebook: Does anything, anything at all, make you feel a greater or deeper sadness? -- A Texan's Facebook status update, Oct. 31, 2012

Of all the crimes against intellect and discourse that American politics are committing upon its own people, let us articulate a nasty one: No longer is there such a thing as a winning argument. My countrymen have become a people unsurpassed at tuning one another out. Part of this is survival instinct; you lodge your fingers in your ears as you stand beside an air-raid siren. But part of this is willful dodging. Because no one ever concedes a point, adjusts an attitude or yields an inch; to waver appears weak, confused. So we become a nation of certain dolts, with nothing to learn from one another.

In Vancouver there is no question of where electoral loyalties lie: similar to the way the rest of the world leans. On the way to a friend's house to watch the final U.S. presidential debate, I stopped at a liquor store in Kitsilano to pick up American beer, a token act of patriotism. I settled on a six-pack of Anchor Steam, and while paying told the cashier the occasion for my choice. Turns out she, like the beer, was from San Francisco. She asked whether I'd sent in my absentee ballot. No, I said -- I'd blown the deadline so I'm not voting. With no other discussion of loyalties or intentions, she said, aghast, "If Mitt Romney gets elected it'll be all your fault."

By assuming I wouldn't have voted for Romney, she was playing good odds. My mere presence in Canada requires a passport, and passport holders tend to vote for Democrats. But in the U.S., the conversation is more fraught. Political loyalties are split almost in half. From B.C., I've been talking with friends in the States -- mostly in the South, where I'm from -- about politics. I do my best to keep it classy. It ain't always easy.

What follows is a sample of that oft-mangled American political discourse, in three acts.

Twitter scrapes

Take this exchange I carried out with an acquaintance from Oklahoma (Romney lead there: 30 points) back in August after I tweeted about a ho-hum Washington Post story. During a Romney grocery store visit, he was asked about his possible vice presidential choices. "'Ha, ha, ha, ha,' Romney said. But the candidate did not answer the question," the report read. I labeled this non-exchange "illuminating," which of course it wasn't. My friend replied, via tweet:

"Come on. Just once comment on the Marxist disaster."

I'm embarrassed to say that nowadays I already know which supposed "Marxist disaster" he's referring to: The United States of America, the proletarian utopia that may next week elect a president with a personal fortune in the neighborhood of a quarter-billion dollars.

"Are you referring to 10 straight quarters of climbing corporate profits?" I replied. "Hardly a Bolshevik revolution underway."

Him: "Check again. This time try not to spin. Big picture. And all other evidence, my friend."

"How is the combined value of every public corporation in the United States not 'big picture'?" I tweeted back, figuring that was the kill shot.

Instead, he tweeted, sic: "Can't do it, can you? Just admit that you are bias lib..."

We'd gone from Marxism to its conjoined twin, Liberal Bias. I replied, in a series of tweets: "There are *fantastic* grounds on which to criticize Obama. But a 'Marxist' takeover is Fox/Rush fiction to rally the GOP base. If anything I'm biased toward capitalism. I have retirement accounts. I own stocks. I enjoy purchasing goods and services. A nation as huge, strong and enduring as the U.S. can list slightly leftward and remain firmly right-center. We're there now."

In reply came this semi-coherent volley: "Why don't we ever hear about this? Would be refreshing to learn of striving for independence rather than gov dependence..."

That's an increasingly popular bugbear of American conservatives, the notion that people acquiesce to government control on the way to falling into its strong, soft sleeper hold. "I do depend on a govt to regulate industry, enforce business law and educate citizens (future customers!)," I tweeted back. "All capitalistic!"

The tweets came in reply: "We are now so left that this big ol' ship may sink.. Gov should protect only. Privatize, baby! Simply purchasing goods and services does not get your capitalist membership card punched. It illustrates liberal hypocrisy."

As they say on CNN, I had to leave it there. Mostly because I was beginning to feel my brain liquefy and dribble out my ear canal.

The salon of Facebook

Facebook invites the worst of all public discussions, combining the snippy immediacy of online interaction with the unsettling knowledge that you actually know these people. I've posted news stories that sparked shouting matches between friends who'd have no interaction with one another except through my Facebook page. It gets ugly. So it was with a dash of prophylactic disclosure that two weeks ago I posed a question to my friends, out of genuine curiosity.

At the risk of kicking up a shitstorm: Can anyone explain to me the appeal of a potential Romney/Ryan administration? I totally get it if you're a single-issue voter wanting to see Roe v. Wade overturned or hoping to pay as little in taxes as Romney himself manages. But otherwise, what's the motivation for you or likely Romney voters you know? I must admit I'm astonished he stays near 50 percent in national polls.

I got 44 comments in reply. And somehow, the crazy mostly stayed out.

Friends with degrees in economics, law and business, and living in such corners as Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland, Illinois and North Carolina, all threw in their best estimates, some personal. Here are the points, distilled, for audiences as baffled as I am that Willard Mitt Romney polls above 40 per cent nationally.

On business:

"If you're *that* kind of businessperson, there will be far less new regulations on business (think pollution, financial auditing, etc.) and far less enforcement of the current regulations (think EPA, consumer protections, etc.)."

"Obama's administration has delivered pro-environmental executive orders, as well as funded and staffed the office of consumer protection, and sought to regulate the banks that drove us into the recession. Also, Obama's Department of Labor has investigated Boeing Corp. for moving its manufacturing HQ from Washington state (a pro-labor state, where the workers are union-protected) to South Carolina (which is right-to-work, with almost no union protections)."

On low-information voting:

"I manage social media for the company I work for and a lot of the people that are 'friends' with our company are heavy conservative/Romney-backers. Some of the shit they write makes my jaw drop. They seriously and legitimately believe everyone that gets any sort of gov't assistance refuses to work, is lazy, and that the president is some amalgam of communist/socialist/Muslim that wants to bring America crumbling to its knees. One lady called him 'OBUMMER THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE' and I asked 'Uh, if the president is a Manchurian candidate, who is he assassinating? Himself?'"

On perceived legislative success:

"So many seem to be voting for the president based on legislation. It drives me nuts when either candidate says they are going to do something that they can't because it's an action of congress. 'I'm going to pass a balanced budget.' You're not going to do jack if the house doesn't send you a bill."

On gut feelings:

"There are a lot of people who think Obama's policies are responsible for the country's economic decline, and see him as a capitulationist who would rather soothe America's enemies and buy the votes of the poor and easily manipulated to stay in power instead of making the tough-but-fair choices necessary to again make the USA the unquestioned leader of the world. Few think Romney could actually pull that off, most likely, but they're willing to give him a shot."

On small government:

"Being as I'm libertarian, most things taken out of state hands and put in federal hands. (Not all, most.) I think the Affordable Care Act is overreaching. I wouldn't mind it getting repealed. That might actually be the best thing. I think many of the changes that insurance and such have made would stay intact even if it was repealed. I think many of the mandated modernizations would stay intact if it were repealed. I was opposed to TARP, the bailouts, 'too big to fail' ... but the Republicans helped on more than half of that."

"As a libertarian who is not voting for Romney, I am probably not a good person to speak to this. But here's the unconvincing case I would make to myself: 'Obama is a known disappointment for libertarians in every way. Romney is an unknown.' So, there you go."

Somehow, I left comforted, and with a bit more respect for Romney voters. I could envision someone who wasn't an anti-abortion plutocrat casting an unenthusiastic but rational vote his way. It was also heartening to see some non-partisan thinking at work. "As a generally Republican-thinking woman, Mitt Romney scares the shit out of me," one friend replied. "How he thinks he can promise to close loopholes that *no other president* has managed to deal with, I don't understand."

Crude polls

Here's a quick, crude way to test the party loyalties of your friends. While logged into Facebook, visit Obama's and Romney's respective Facebook pages. Both will display the number of your friends who have "liked" each candidate. Of course in this context "like" is a clumsy term; it may mean nothing more than signing up to view updates from one candidate or the other. But it's a rough poll.

A few days before the election, my friends are running 136 on Obama's side and 15 for Romney: a ratio of 9 to 1 for Obama.

On social media I live in a relative echo chamber. I know it, and it worries me. The United States is dangerously polarized right now; Congressional approval this year cratered at 10 per cent, and not coincidentally, this is the first Congress in which every Democrat has a voting record to the left of every Republican. That is, both parties have purged their moderates. The most sustained pull away from moderation has been on the right -- a huge, transformative political shift that I don't identify with and that few of my friends and relatives identify with.

If the right has become more politically radical, the left has become more dismissively smug. It's not enough to write off half the country as in the thrall of Fox News, Bible-waving bigots or fabulized economic polices that invariably un-tax the rich. (The last point is a seductive aspiration for Americans. If you vote Republican, you're obviously pro-wealth. Which is handy, for how could you ever become wealthy if you vote against it? Ergo: Vote for the rich, feel rich yourself.)

To adapt a line: If you remain divided, the sowers of discord win. Dante shoved them near the bottom of the eighth circle of hell, itself dedicated to fraud, just above treachery. They'll get theirs. In the meantime, we gotta be able to talk to one another.

A few days ago news broke that Romney was continuing to run a series of ads claiming Chrysler is sending American jobs to China as a result of Obama's auto bailouts. He has continued to run these ads despite insistence to the contrary from Chrysler, the United Auto Workers union, the Obama campaign and just about every journalistic enterprise that has bothered to check a fact. Romney's claims look desperate, cynical and small.

But I wondered: Am I missing something? Could Republicans stand by this? I took it to Facebook, again, with a dose of humble wonder. Linking to a story in the Nation "Yes, Romney's a Liar, but This Is Getting Ridiculous" I wrote, "I would love an expected Romney voter to weigh in on this story. I realize the source is an unabashedly left-leaning magazine, but this looks like naked gutter politics on Mitt's part. Feel free to take the discussion private, if you prefer."

A reliably Republican friend of mine was the only one to respond. "Well … mmmmmm. … well …," he wrote. "Obama promised golden retrievers on every porch, a chicken on every plate, and rainbows across our lawns. (I got the golden retriever by the way). But I want my frickin' rainbows and chicken too!"

I wasn't about to let this self-effacement go unrewarded. I asked my friend, a fellow Southerner, if instead of rainbows we could settle for waffles. He counter-offered biscuits. We may have only brokered breakfast, but it felt like consensus.  [Tyee]

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