When I was writing my father’s obituary at this time a year ago, I told a friend that I was concerned about not including anything about my dad’s lifelong relationship with politics.
Politics was such a part of who he was – volunteer, contributor, lover of arcana, amateur analyst, teller of jokes and indefatigable debater – that I worried I had done his memory a disservice.
It was the special link between him and me. It was how we talked about everything. Our unending discussions about politics gave way to economics and history, religion and philosophy. All the strands of what it was to be a man were wound together in that one cord. It was our place to begin when we couldn’t or wouldn’t say what was truly on our hearts.
Omitting it felt like I had hidden something wonderful, something that, as my job would indicate, means the world to me. And when we are sad and when we don’t know what to do, we pour ourselves into small things and fret even over the wording of a few lines in a small-town newspaper.
It didn’t fit, though. Politics, after all, are an ugly thing and certainly to my father, a dreadful necessity: the means by which man’s basic impulses can be directed and restrained so that the stuff of real life can flourish.
Putting his politics next to his wife of five decades or his nine grandchildren was too crass and too divisive for a gentle man who drew to him people of all beliefs. I considered saying only that he wore a Barry Goldwater pin when he went to vote in the recent election, but even that was too much.
My friend, gently counseling with me on this point, observed that at the time of his passing, my father was a coal executive, a West Virginian, a resident of a county that Mitt Romney had carried by 22 points the month before, an evangelical Christian and a gun owner.
“I don’t think anyone will wonder who he voted for,” my friend rightly, wryly observed.
It’s true. I don’t believe OFA ever started a “Coal Salesmen for Obama” affinity group. John Newman Stirewalt wasn’t who they were looking for, and anyone who spent more than 10 minutes around him during that interminable campaign knew the feeling was more than mutual.
It took me a year to see it, but that was exactly what was nagging at me. His views were foregone conclusions, stipulated conditions of demography which could be taken for granted. The politics of a man who spent every Saturday morning for decades in uproarious argument with his dearest friend, the liberal Peace Corp volunteer and artist, was a matter of no political interest. He devoted himself to understanding the events and policies behind the politics, but politics needed no understanding of him. He was just another reliable vote. Prefigured.
Having made my living prefiguring American voters, it’s something I know well. Fox News wouldn’t spend much money polling the place where I grew up. It’s prefigured too. As much as in San Francisco or Brooklyn, the view from 30,000 feet tells us most of what we need to know to predict elections. The same view is also enough to win elections. Campaigns and politicians assume 94 percent of the outcome and then fight like hell over the last 6 percent.
In this era of slap-chop politics, more and more money is spent bludgeoning fewer and fewer persuadable voters. Americans have been micro-targeted into political oblivion.
The demographic view wouldn’t have told a campaign that my father was a 1992 Perot voter or how his views had evolved on the death penalty as his faith had matured. They didn’t know what his libertarian streak told him about government regulations of marriage or how the Iraq war had changed his thoughts on interventionism. He was no one to entice or persuade, ignored by one side and pumped constantly for contributions by the other.
This is all understandable as a part of elections, which depend so much on the getting and spending of money. But it is a dangerous thing as it bleeds into governing.
The sharp-eyed metrics of elections have turned into obtuse governance. If a huge chunk of the country – say, 47 percent – cannot be persuaded, then what is the point of trying to persuade it? Lazy pragmatism suggests that the thing for a leader to do is eke out a narrow electoral coalition and then ram through as much of his or her agenda as possible.
This is a graceless way to lead and one that invites governance by reprisal in the same style that plagues lesser nations. But it is also a false economy for its practitioners.
The current failure of imagination has left the nation trapped between a health law it does not want and increasingly fears and antidotes that sound nearly as frightening. A failure of imagination and a lack of willingness have left the electorate dangling over the pit.
And as we saw in the president today, his task in dragging, dragging, dragging his law into place is a joyless one. Upon first taking office, when asked to explain why he could ignore his rivals’ plans, Obama said, “I won.” But he did not look like a victor Tuesday. He looked like an undertaker laying to rest the last of the unifying promise he once held.
This is not a plea for arbitrary moderation, that false idol of the Beltway mandarins, but just a lament.
Political professionals have turned their business into the science of ignoring voters; of turning down the background noise and focusing on those that matter. But as we see today, the kinds of leaders that approach produces are not equal to the task of governing a nation as richly complex, big-hearted and surprising as ours, this nation of John Newman Stirewalts.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.