The sociological discovery that just about everyone is connected by no more than six degrees of separation led to a Broadway play, a movie and the Hollywood game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to link the ubiquitous Bacon to people he was in movies with who were in movies with other people and on back to Bogart and Bette Davis and God knows who else. The Six Degrees idea has even been given sorta-scientific validity by Microsoft.
The paradigm applies to politics as well. And almost all of us who take part in political campaigns are quite adept at playing our own “Six Degrees” games.
Here’s how it works: Presidential candidates are seeking your vote and the votes of millions of other people. Almost by definition, those millions of other people are not like you; in fact, you would rather die than invite some of them to a dinner party. Their mores and morals and accents and shopping habits and favorite TV shows and pets are alien to you. Your love of Obama or McCain or Dennis Kucinich may be the only thing you have in common.
We all “know” this, and historically it’s always been true; FDR, for example, built a huge coalition that included hardshell Southern segregationists and blacks who were desperate for government help. Right now, for example, the Obama ranks contain many highly religious people along with passionate atheists. These secularists know that Obama has been a member of a Christian church for twenty years. The McCain camp contains just as many disparate and contradictory elements.
But in order to stay positive about our candidate, we don’t dwell on our uneasy feelings about fellow coalitionists. We take the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend” viewpoint. In other words, we turn our attention away from the two or three degrees that separate us from people we otherwise dislike.
Here’s the other part of the game: While repressing awareness of our hero’s links to unsavory types, we heavily stress the other side’s connections to these types.
If you oppose Obama, you probably see his one- or two-degree separation from Rev. Wright and former terrorist Bill Ayres as a completely legitimate matter that needs more attention. If you oppose Sarah Palin, you’d like to see a five-part New York Times series on just whatever is the deal with her and/or her husband’s connections to this Alaskan Independence party which apparently has done some secessionist muttering in the past.
My guess is that not many people see a crying need for both. If you love Obama, you just know that, ultimately, he’s a great guy who would never sip the poisoned cup of extremism, and this Ayres stuff was decades ago, and, yeah, Rev. Wright can be caustic, but you have to understand the context of the black church and its role in the community, so why don’t these haters stop these absurd attacks?
If you love Palin, you just know she’s a fine American who would never join any effort to secede from the greatest country on earth, and anyway it was her husband who was involved with these people, and anyway most of them are okay except of course there’s always a weird fringe in any group, and you have to understand the context of Alaska’s independent culture, so why don’t these haters stop these absurd attacks?
Keep the Six Degrees game in mind as we thunder down the home stretch of this campaign. You’ll be surprised how much of it boils down to pointing out with merciless clarity the other guy’s seedy connections while fuzzing and forgetting our own.