Can Obama (or Anyone) Make America Purple?

What is commonly called “coming together” is a momentary flicker, a media event that viewers peer at briefly before returning to normal. In that regard, the coming together in Tucson looked to be more of the same. But it’s possible to feel a hint of something different. The intensity of emotion surrounding the shootings, the unusual openness of President Obama’s speech, and a vague sense of turning the corner, all these things may indicate that decades of rancor may be shifting. Even the Sarah Palin “blood libel” scuffle seemed not so much to rile tempers as to occasion a shrug of “go away, already” from the country.

Sociologists used to claim that the stark divide between red and blue voters wasn’t as extreme as popular perception says it is. America is more purple than the media gives it credit for being. As evidence, pollsters pointed out that the average respondent isn’t rigidly pro-abortion or anti-abortion, pro-immigration or anti-immigration, and so on. There is wiggle room on the hot button issues of the day. Obama has been playing the long game with this in mind, calling for compromise and across-the-aisle cooperation, no matter how often he gets beaten back. Riding a wave of success at the end of the last Congress, his call for reconciliation in Tucson gathered attention. If he had made the same speech during the hot-headed debate over health care, he probably would have been ignored, with a good deal of backbiting about being weak and letting the Republicans trod all over him.

Getting America back to purple gets more difficult every year. Voters complain about deadlocks in Congress, but they continue to vote in partisan candidates, now more than ever. Every day we are told that the influx of Tea Party congress members has terrified incumbents in both parties, who quake at the prospect that extremists, crazies, and rabble-rousers will be after them next. Compromise won’t satisfy the extremists. Yet unless America goes purple, our huge problems cannot be solved.

What’s needed isn’t compromise but a tipping point. When society looks at itself and says “enough is enough,” intractable problems become solvable — civil rights, Social Security, and Medicare all required a shift in consciousness. So did the end of Communism and bringing down the Berlin Wall. The mechanics of tipping points are not well understood. It takes more than reason; countless votes in Congress and at the ballot box are made out of sheer unreason. During the Bush era commentators were baffled that voters continued to re-elect Republicans who avowedly sided with rich, reactionary elites, not the common man. In essence, voters were electing their own worst enemies.

Good will isn’t enough, because people of ill will are perfectly willing to cheat, lie, and connive. Guilt and shame aren’t enough. The right wing is rife with shameless demagogues, and given a choice, radio listeners flock to the most scurrilous shock jocks. Nor is a sense of community enough, because we are not one people and haven’t been for a very long time; we are a troubled alliance of interest groups, each with its own self-centered agenda.

And yet something is in the air. Maybe we are on the brink, and collectively we feel that pulling back is our only salvation. Crisis creates temporary unity, but the threat of catastrophe works longer and stronger to bring people together. My hope is that the tipping point has arrived, but that is based solely on intuition. A lot more people have their antennas out; that’s what the media are paid to do. We’ll see what they sense in the coming months. For right now, the national debate about red, blue, and purple is taking place at a level of feeling that has two layers: the roiling surface and the deeper, more mysterious level of collective consciousness.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle