What New Hampshire Voters Really Said

What a kerfuffle!

The press anoints Obama in Iowa, then gets caught smirking by the re-ascendance of Queen Hillary in New Hampshire. Is the press getting its come-upance?

That’s the story if you watch John Stewart lampooning Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs and any network besides Comedy Central.

That’s also how Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal article “Thomas E. Obama" sees it, invoking the flawed announcement of Dewey’s supposed defeat of Truman:

Here’s a simple explanation for what happened in New Hampshire. In the 96 hours between Thursday’s victory by Barack Obama in Iowa and Tuesday morning, enough election output poured over voters to fill the entire Truman-Dewey campaign of 1948. This thunder said: Barack Obama is the party nominee, a new era has dawned on American politics and the election is now about "change." Like Dewey, he can’t lose. New Hampshirites did what normal people do. They pushed back.

Lesson learned: In elections yet to come in the Internet Age, it will be the habit of the media to overdo it. As is their wont, the voters will undo it.

But the “voters revolt” theme has one big flaw: the polls blew only the Democratic primary—they nailed the GOP results. Did only Democrats revolt?

What about New Hampshire residents’ preferred view—their streak of stubborn independence (“we’re not gonna let a bunch of corn farmers tell us how to think”)? But that requires us to believe that all voters lied to the pollsters. Like most conspiracy theories, this one overstates humans’ ability to organize.

Let’s throw three other factors into the hopper.

One is race.

And if your nose just crinkled in a scowl at the above line, then you must go read a most thoughtful article by Shelby Steele (in Time magazine, of all places) called The Identity Card.

It deftly explains why white and black America alike are ensnared by wishes and denials about race—and how Obama is a lightning rod for all who hope we have transcended it. A good example could be seen on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC News roundtable Sunday: George introduced the race hypothesis, then instantly led the rush to distance himself from the idea—closely followed by everyone on his roundtable but Claire Shipman.

I don’t know how race may have affected the vote—I’m just suspicious of the rush to deny its relevance. Race is, simply, omnipresent in America. The wishful rush to deny it is understandable, but suspicious of itself.

The second factor is Hillary’s “crying.” Maureen Dowd, Gloria Steinem, the Republicans—everyone piled on immediately, staking out positions on gender, emotion, power, class.

And everyone’s theory probably differed a bit from your own, personal, immediate reaction. Instantly, the pundits were telling you what to think about something very personal—not just a vote, but a feeling—and how it explained you politically.

Now add the third factor—what I’ll call the Personal Heisenberg Principle. In physics, at a subatomic level, the act of measuring something can actually affect the measurement itself. At a human level—the same.

It’s one thing to tell me who everyone else is voting for. Annoying? Maybe. But it’s not particularly personal.

But mix in the personal. Throw in race and gender; tell people how they should feel about each.

Tell them publicly, statistically, with rhetorical flourish, from the anchorman’s desk, hours before going to the polls, that their innermost psyches are predictable, categorizable, and easy to segment int politically predefined categories. All the while claiming it’s about “change” and “experience.”

It’s one thing to tell me I’m going to vote like people in another state. It’s another to claim to objectively predict my innermost feelings, unclear even to myself, about some of the more complex issues in society today—like race and gender.

Which, of course, were only on display in the Democratic primary.

I know it’d irk me. I’d go and vote for—for—well, the opposite of whatever they told me I was going to vote for. Just to piss ‘em off.

When you pretend to know me, and you don’t—I don’t trust you.

Take that—all y’all. That’s what the voters were saying.

At least, I think so.

Americans, Travel and Rushing to Judgment

I travel internationally; less than some, more than many. These last three weeks I’ve been in three countries (the third visit for one, 10th and 20-something-th for the others).

Travel is good for everyone, I think, but especially for Americans. All right, OK—for me.

(On Monday I’ll have a tongue-in-cheek self-diagnostic test: find out just how American you really are!).

I know a few who love foreign travel. They assume that people are fundamentally the same, and delight in finding the superficial differences, the spices that make the human stew an infinitely varied source of nourishment.

I admire the hell out of them. Because unlike them, my first reptilian-brain instinct is to go to fear-based judgment. An all-too American response, I think. All right, OK—maybe it’s just me.

Here’s what I’m re-discovering on this trip:

• Judgment feeds on fear.
• Fear feasts on ignorance.
• Ignorance fades when one can hear others—in their terms.
• Our ability to influence depends on our willingness to be influenced.
• Our similarities far outweigh our differences.
• Our behavior in groups mirrors our behavior as individuals.

My personal road to growth has been exposure to others. For me as an American, the benefit of international travel is enormous. Yet only something like 20% of us have a passport. Absurdly few of us speak another language—usually poorly at that.

But what’s the link between individuals and groups? Does the road to corporate trustworthiness go through the individual?

Some see trust issues mainly as group issues. I’m more inclined to see groups as aggregations of individuals. Let’s assume and explore—at the risk of touching on politics—the latter.

Marriage-researcher John Gottman says marriages work best when we are vulnerable to and influenceable by our mates. They’re worst when we judge, shut down, and insist on changing the other.

Might nations be the same? Mark Twain says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

If Gottman’s observation extends to group behavior, then exposure to the world influences us. And, thereby, gives us influence.

Consider foreign student exchange programs, and how deeply they promote understanding. We could afford to spend $10,000 per head to send 500,000 Americans abroad to be influenced, and the same amount to bring 500,000 influenceable foreigners here—all for the cost of about two months’ spending on the Iraq war. With, arguably, better results. In any case, we could use a bit more of that perspective.

One of our presidential candidates said, “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” It is no accident that this candidate “has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian.” (Hint: it’s not Giuliani). We could use a bit of that kind of perspective too.

Peter Jennings—famously traveled—said, “Whenever I see a coin, I’ve learned to turn it over to see the other side.” We need a bit more of that view, I think.

My suggestions for travel in a new country or city:

  1. First, go walking. A lot. For hours. With no goal but to experience.
  2. Invest a few hours in the national historical museum.
  3. Find a local restaurant without using the concierge or guidebook.
  4. Be curious, not judgmental.

We need a bit of that too. Well, I do anyway.