What Rob Portman Teaches Republicans if They’re Watching. (But They’re Not.)

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

The web is chuck-full of Americans who have noticed, as you and I did, that Rob Portman’s “acceptance” of gay marriage was as much a sign of godawful narcissism as anything. Funny, we were all thinking, at his age it still took a personal experience to wake him up to the suffering and frustration of many right in front of his eyes for years.

Here’s part of Matt Yglesias’s reaction, for example.

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.

It’s a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people’s thinking. And good for them.

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? …Matt Yglesias,Slate

But we libruls are not alone in standing up against the remarkably durable narcissism of a whole political movement — of a group of people whose political affiliation has come to mark them as moral defectives. They just don’t get it. Well, that’s not true. Some of them do get it. Take this born and bred conservative who was jolted into reality and self-awareness — and wrote about it.

Jeremiah Goulka grew up “rich, white suburb north of Chicago populated by moderate, business-oriented Republicans.” He was born a Republican and he stayed a Republican. Until…

Bush won a lot of us over with his hawkish response to 9/11, but he lost me with the Iraq War. Weren’t we still busy in Afghanistan? I didn’t see the urgency.

By then, I was at the Justice Department, working in an office that handled litigation related to what was officially called the Global War on Terror (or GWOT). My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guantánamo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge. The government’s position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the “procedural” rights found in the Bill of Rights. Sure, habeas corpus had been waived in wartime before, but it seemed to me that waiving it here reduced us to the terrorists’ level. Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them? I refused to work on those cases.

With the Abu Ghraib pictures, my disappointment turned to rage. The America I believed in didn’t torture people.

I couldn’t avoid GWOT work. I was forced to read reams of allegations of torture, sexual abuse, and cover-ups in our war zones to give the White House a heads-up in case any of made it into the news cycle.

I was so mad that I voted for Kerry out of spite. …Goulka,AmericanConservative

What nailed it, turning spite into utter disgust, was Bush’s (non)reaction to Katrina. He went down to New Orleans to help rebuild the city’s justice system and had his eyes opened to reality.

I started to notice a lot more reality. I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about. Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for “driving while black”: these are things that never happen to people in my world. Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people. (Maybe that’s why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)

I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on. It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the “trial tax,” the “poverty tax,” and on and on. Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bêtes noirs), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.

Was it to protect our Republican version of “individual responsibility”? That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. “Bootstrapping” and “equality of opportunity, not outcomes” make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn’t risen into my world simply hadn’t worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed. But I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity. It turns out that it’s more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series. Sure, some people do it, but they’re the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.

The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in. Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal. …Goulka,AmericanConservative

In a sense, you can feel sorry for those who embrace the kind of politics Goulka was leaving behind. They grew up with very little experience of the real world. They grew up coddled by an ethos that protected them from reality. Not what the rest of us would call a genuine education. Not for what one could call “real life.” And certainly not ready for any kind of position in a democratic government. But there they are, clutching their ideology, bringing down a democratic, free nation with naive eagerness and a total absence of empathy.

Matt Yglesias writes: “The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power. Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.”

Mostly right, Matt. But that intellectual and moral perspective should be part of who they are long before they even run for the Senate. And we need to ask why America’s Christian churches (short, I think, of American liberal Catholicism) affirm rather than challenge prejudice.

Cross-Posted from Prairie Weather

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10 Comments

  1. What he teaches Republicans is it’s OK to act in prejudice against people until it’s a member of your own family.

    Not the best lesson IMO.

  2. As I have noted elsewhere, there is lots to criticize Portman about, but at least he had a change of heart, unlike many others in his Party (of his philosophy)who would not only keep on supporting bigoted views and legislation, but also pretty much disown their gay son or daughter.

    Or, worse, those of his own Party and philosophy, who — gay themselves, albeit “closeted” — continued for years pushing, supporting, voting for the most God-awful, anti-gay legislation.

    Yes, there is plenty to demonize Portman about, but there are still too many, bigger demons left in that Party.

    (I know, that still doesn’t make Portman an angel, but…)

  3. Excellent post PW. It gets to the deeper issue of how easy it is for some people to ignore injustice even when it surrounds them.

    It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight

    Exactly. When reality comes knocking at our own door we pay attention, but shouldn’t we also pay attention when it knocks at our neighbors door?

  4. Dorian, point well taken. Portman did take a higher road than countless others in his situation.

  5. What remains to be seen is how his compatriots on the right treat him following his change of heart.

    Chris Christie, who made a big splash at CPAC in Chicago last year, was pointedly uninvited to this year’s shindig because he said nice things about Obama during the aftermath of Sandy.

    Apostates are not welcome in the party of the True Believers, and Portman is dangerously close to apostasy.

  6. Good points DDW. I give Senator Portman a lot of credit for re-examining his position and views unlike someone like fellow conservative Alan Keyes, who disowned and stopped talking to his daughter when she came out years ago.

    Now, if only Senator Portman could learn how to feel empathy for people and situations that don’t directly involve his family members.

  7. Some surprising comments.

    Like DDW, I gave props to Portman elsewhere.

    The quote, “When reality comes knocking at our own door we pay attention…”

    This fits President Obama. A cynic would say that political reality came knocking at his door and he evolved.

    I give credit to Portamn and Obama. Even Cheney. It’s never too late to come correct.

  8. “Now, if only Senator Portman could learn how to feel empathy for people and situations that don’t directly involve his family members.”

    We can only hope that he has learned something from this experience so close to home — for lack of better words.

    I also believe that his ostracizing sure to follow by fellow Republicans, will further help him see “the light.”

    I believe cjjack hit it the nail right on the head: “Apostates are not welcome in the party of the True Believers, and Portman is dangerously close to apostasy.”

  9. To be clear, I don’t consider myself a cynic and I believe Portman and Obama.

    It’s not right for the left or right, or husbands and wives, or fathers and mothers, to ask for change over time from the other side, or friends or family, and then ridicule them when they finally agree. These two guys figured out what many of us already knew.

    It should signal progress. It should fuel the fight.

  10. Well said,KP.

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