The most depressing aspect of election season is not, as is the common misconception, voter apathy. It’s also not the coddled college kids who think Condoleezza Rice is a daytime talk show host. It’s not the smear campaigns or the “debates,” the ignorant masses or the syrupy speeches. It’s not even the George Carlins of the world, the brilliant people who’ve been known use their charisma and humor and wit to convince other intelligent people that voting doesn’t matter.
While any of the above might be enough to knock my faith in humanity down a notch or two, what really gets me down this time of year is the way human beings get lost in the process, the way candidates who don’t spew their sponsoring political parties’ jargon to the letter have the carpet of credibility yanked out from under them by friend and foe alike.
Consider the fate of Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who had the gall to opine honestly about abortion. To Granholm’s left is a Democratic party that officially equates being opposed to abortion – even if only in theory – with being anti-woman, anti-progressive, anti-rape victim, pro-poverty, elitist scum. To her right is a Church whose official position is that abortion equals murder, period. To be in favor of legal abortion, then – even if only in the most severe and devastating circumstances – is to be anti-life, pro-slaughter-of-innocent-babies and quite literally damned.
Naturally, there is a greater variety of opinions on both sides than the rhetoric suggests, including Catholics who think abortion should be legal, Democrats who think it shouldn’t be and everything in between, but neither set of leadership seems particularly interested in hearing out dissenters from within; the retort of choice on both sides usually involves indignant policy makers sticking their fingers in their ears and humming loudly.
Surrounded by ferocious, ballot-wielding ideologues in what promised to be a tight race, Granholm did what few others in similar predicaments have the courage to do: She set her jaw, shrugged her shoulders and (gasp) told us what she really thought. In a September interview with the Detroit Free Press, Granholm identified herself as a Catholic morally opposed to abortion, but said she wouldn’t “second guess the medical and personal and moral and religious decisions of others.”
Granholm’s flagrant display of individual thought garnered fiery criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Everyone freaked out. “Fence-sitter!” they cried. “Slimeball! Manipulative wench! Vacillating villainess!” Could such a person exist? Was it possible to think abortion was wrong and still fight for its legality? To be a good Catholic and not speak out against the practice across the board? To be a good Democrat and not conceive of abortion solely in terms of a woman and her body and her privacy? The conclusion many critics reached was “No.”
If Granholm was, as many claimed, simply trying to pacify as many people as possible, then she failed miserably. The abortion debate, like most hot-button political issues, is structured such that there are two and only two acceptable positions; nobody who falls anywhere in between can hope to get either side’s vote. Take one step to the left or to the right and you’re done for. You’re brainwashed by an antiquated religious belief or you have no soul.
As a politician, Granholm had to know that. Her decision to publicize a more complex view of abortion than is generally allowed politicians wasn’t hypocritical; it was heroic. Revolutionary. Imagine what would happen if this caught on: politicians expressing opinions that differed from the standard pre-packaged, party-line fare and fully prepared to suffer the consequences. They would have to think carefully about issues rather than consult the Party X Handbook Cliff’s Notes for the correct summary and analysis just minutes before speaking.
My head is not buried so deeply in the clouds that I think Granholm’s minor departure from traditional liberalism will actually open the floodgates, freeing millions of would-be independent thinkers, but I hope that on this extremely important (Sorry, Mr. Carlin – I respect you, I really do) election day, voters will shut their ears to pundits and open their minds. I hope no voter seeks to elect the best Catholic or the best Democrat, the best Republican or the best saxophone player simply because he or she is an ideal member of that group.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.