If you listen to the pundits on television and radio, you might justifiably buy into one of the several “conventional wisdoms” about our country. The Fox News-ers among us are pretty well convinced that the vast, vast majority of the country is very conservative, and it’s only a liberally elite media that pretends otherwise—that same media that somehow managed to get Obama elected through fraud and deception. The MSNBC-ers (smaller in number, no doubt, but quickly becoming just as vocal) would instead have us believing in a 99% majority who are all for a more liberal America…a much more liberal America. The truth, however, is neither of these things. Most of the country, it turns out, fits the mold of moderately conservative, a place from which careful, thoughtful change comes in a logical, rational, fact-based package that remains remarkably free of sound-bite-driven hyperbole.
But if that’s the truth, why are there so few moderates getting elected to Congress?
Barbara Olschner, a self-proclaimed moderate Republican, found out that it isn’t at all easy to get elected in these polarized times, and she details her experiences in an insightful and amusing memoir, The Reluctant Republican: My Fight for the Moderate Majority (from University Press of Florida, and available here).
The party in power often loses seats in off-year election cycles, and In Florida’s predominately Democratic 2nd District, incumbent Dem Allen Boyd is deemed vulnerable. A slew of characters quickly enters the race, one of them being the author, Barbara Olschner, a former attorney and second-tier tennis pro who loves a bit of competition, but insists on logic, reason, and facts—and naively assumes that the voters care about those things, too. Olschner, however, soon discovers that the way to endear oneself to the electorate is not to be thoughtful, factual, or reasonable, but instead to intentionally pull as many emotional triggers as possible. Here she describes the first time she heard Steve Southerland (a local undertaker, Tea Partier and eventual winner of both the primary and the general election). First noting his easy manner and ability to work a room, she goes on to comment that she was “completely unprepared when he began to speak.”
“Have you had enough?” He was using the wireless microphone—unnecessary in a room that small—and his words echoed off the walls. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “My family, all twenty-three members, has had enough! We have had enough.”
Wow, I thought to myself. That’s a big family. Was he Mormon?
“I’ve had enough!” He began to raise his voice. “My wife has had enough!” He tugged at his belt. “My four daughters have had enough.”
It was clear—even so early in the game—that Olschner would be fighting a wave, one where continued energy relied exclusively on whipping up people for all of the wrong reasons.
The book effectively covers several debates (which often serve as the set pieces for Olschner’s own ruminations on the process), and in each one things seem to continually move away from rationality and closer to a Marcel Duchamp set piece, inexplicable interesting yet at the same time maddening. She watches, incredulously, as each of her four opponents quickly falls into lock-step, echoing the same far-right bellowings that Southerland uses so effectively, ones that eliminate any opportunity to talk about real issues. An excellent example comes with Olschner’s attempt to discuss the impact that localized drilling could have on the district’s beautiful panhandle shoreline (this was before the BP spill). She argues from a strongly economic point of view, suggesting that allowing close-to-shore drilling would be very risky to the district's growth (even pointing out that the rigs would be visible from shore, and what vacationer would want to see that?), yet she quickly finds herself under attack for not spouting the “drill, baby, drill” party line. There is no room for someone like her, someone who takes the time to understand questions and to give actual answers. The only thing the District 2 primary voters seem to care about is finding a candidate who is as strongly against them (and we all know who they are) as it is possible to be, and that translates into aping the far-right talking points, and nothing—absolutely nothing— more.
On the campaign trail I said: “If we are serious about the direction of this country, and solving problems, we cannot be satisfied to just elect any Republican…” It is easy to see now that the antigovernment, anti-establishment movement fueled by the Tea Party meant that only ideologically pure conservatives were wanted, and for that, one is as good as another.”
Her discomfort grows as the race plods forward. At times she considers leaving the party to run as an independent, or perhaps just dropping out of the race altogether. Good friends keep her fighting, people who remind her that “We don’t need people to quit when the party screws up…. We need real people to…tell the truth and make us all play better.” Still, Olschner’s shares her near-palpable frustration, one that I, as reader, feel right along with her:
I did not know when I began this race that I would have to choose between trying to win and telling the truth. I could not star in this political circus because I lacked the character traits that would allow me to say anything to win. As a result, I was going to lose, and I knew it.
But she does stay in the race right up until the clichéd bitter end; she comes in fifth—out of five candidates—though she at least wins her home county.
The book is often sadly amusing, largely because Olschner effectively balances her carefully wrought prose with the absurdity of many of the situations in which she finds herself. An early-season meeting with Pete Sessions, Chairman of the RNCC, is particularly telling, especially in the way that the seasoned political pro manipulates Olschner both into signing the Norquist pledge against new taxes, and into a photo op that Sessions wants and which she is unprepared for.
One of the most compelling things about the book is that, despite knowing the outcome, Olschner keeps us turning the pages. The book works primarily because it’s about her more than it is about the experience; we know she’s going to lose (and, early on, so does she), but with that loss comes a sense of clarity and of balance:
The strong views of the Republican Party are more about culture than policy or politics, and this culture lends itself to electing candidates based more on an ideological litmust test than on who is the best and the brightest.
She goes on to deplore that litmus test, that need for ideological purity, suggesting that the “truth is closer to the middle than to any extreme.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I’m glad to hear another voice—especially one as enjoyable and intelligent as Olschner’s—share that unconventional wisdom, that what the loudest voices tell us we should want in our candidates is most assuredly not what we need.