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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Smith: The long game

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There are many layers to the seemingly interminable (and mercifully concluded) Georgia senatorial race between incumbent Raphael Warnock and his erstwhile challenger, football legend Herschel Walker. One of the issues that characterized that race was, well, race. Two Black men vied for a Senate seat in a state that denied Black people the right to vote until just a few years before I was born. In normal times, that would be a reason for celebration.

These are not normal times.

Warnock and Walker are proxies for the everlasting battle to address and, eventually, extinguish racism in America. For better and for worse, that battle is often (and too simplistically) distilled into our two main political parties. Paradoxically, the historic nature of this contest was both central to it and lost in the shuffle. Sadly, the vitriol surrounding these two highly accomplished Black men is likely what we’ll remember most.

The illimitable name-calling, the incessant dredging up of past transgressions and the frenzy around keeping the “other” guy out of office have been breathtaking. Walker’s supporters highlighted what they believe to be Warnock’s moral laxity — even as they elided Walker’s hypocrisy. For their part, Warnock’s supporters incessantly hammered on Walker’s obvious lack of qualifications and his inability to present a coherent political platform. In response, Walker relied on his folk hero status; Warnock pitched his willingness to work across the aisle and his commitment to working for those who Jesus called “the least of these.”

I believe that voters’ concerns (or lack thereof) regarding their candidate’s flaws had long been baked in. No one who voted for Walker was swayed by his history of domestic violence or allegations that he paid for former girlfriends’ abortions. Similarly, those who voted for Warnock compartmentalized allegations that he, too, committed domestic violence. A fraction of voters — which perhaps decided the margin of victory — could not bring themselves to vote for either man.

The fact that Sen. Warnock’s victory was razor thin should not have surprised anyone. His supporters are incredulous that so many people (or even one person) would vote for Walker. The same is true for Walker’s supporters when it comes to Warnock. Indeed, a poll from a few years ago suggested that Democrats’ and Republicans’ distaste for each other is akin to the hatred that exists between Palestinians and Israelis.

Importantly, the contest also highlighted the nascent civil war in the Republican Party. While Donald Trump’s stranglehold on his party is loosening somewhat, he still is its main force. Will this latest defeat finally turn him into the GOP’s bête noire? Maybe. Still, even a politically wounded Donald Trump could cause much mayhem for them.

Like most elections these days, from the local school board to the presidency, this was a real-life Rorschach test. We project onto candidates our hopes and our fears, our desires and our concerns, our dreams and our nightmares. I would be lying if I said that I did not want Sen. Warnock to prevail. Clearly, he is more qualified than Herschel Walker in virtually every conceivable way. Still, I am genuinely concerned that each side views the other as completely unacceptable.

It wasn’t always this way. Consider, for example, that reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was a broadly bipartisan act just 16 years ago. It was reconsidered in 2019 with no action taken — and a threatened veto from Donald Trump if it had passed. Even the bipartisan agreement on aid to Ukraine is likely to be tested once the Republican Party assumes control of the House of Representatives next month. Today that “compromise” has increasingly become a toxic concept. Even more importantly, too many Republicans are ready to “burn the whole thing down” figuratively — and literally in some cases.

In the old days (say, 20 years ago), terms like “blood sport” were frequently applied to politics. There were even war analogies. But there was always a bit of tongue-in-cheek character to political theater. Today, the most apt characterizations are much more dire. Terms like “zero-sum” are more accurate. That’s because when Republicans lose to Democrats — or vice versa — it feels to them as though evil has prevailed.

I, for one, am genuinely concerned that each side views the other as completely unacceptable. Some potential solutions, such as ranked choice voting, are beginning to be advanced. We’d better figure something out, and soon. In the long-term, our current state of politics does not portend well for our nation’s future.

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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