Now that the most expensive House race in U.S. history has ended—with Republicans managing to retain the seat, despite $25 million and the enthusiasm of Hollywood stars—we can attain a degree of reflective distance. One particular moment in the campaign of the Democrat, Jon Ossoff, shows the extent to which liberalism still misconstrues the cultural climate of vast regions of the country.
It happened in an ironic way. In an interview with CNN back in April, the reporter asked him, “Is it true that you cannot vote for yourself?” Ossoff doesn’t actually reside in the district that he aimed to represent, a fact opening him to charges of outsider-ness and insincerity. Ossoff felt the pressure and gave a circumlocutory reply.
After a pause, he said that he grew up in the district and “in this community.” He doesn’t live there presently, he explained, because:
I have been living with Alicia, my girlfriend of twelve years, down by Emory University, where she is a full-time medical student. As soon as she concludes her medical training, I will be back into the district where I grew up, but I want to support her and her career and do right by her.
Clearly, Mr. Ossoff wanted to demonstrate his fidelity to his girlfriend, which, he supposed, would counterbalance his embarrassing absence from the actual district. He didn’t realize he had blundered into another embarrassment, until the CNN reporter replied: “So when are you going to marry her?”
It’s a natural question, but Mr. Ossoff wasn’t ready for it. It didn’t occur to him that their twelve-year relationship, much of it in cohabitation and all of it without marriage, might be a minus, not a plus.
He stumbled through some more canned liberal language about “supporting her career,” but the cluelessness stood out most. It’s a common condition in Mr. Ossoff’s world. Many upwardly-mobile liberal couples just can’t understand what’s the big deal about marriage. I’ve known many of them (and was one myself long ago). They are responsible, hard-working, law-abiding people, and they believe in working partnerships. Why go through a religious ceremony to sanctify it? They can do that by themselves.
The rest of America isn’t quite as eager to dispense with the wedding ceremony, however. Ossoff must have realized his mistake, because a few weeks later he popped the question and she said “Yes.” The proposal received ample press coverage well before the final vote.
But let’s not treat his actions too cynically. And let’s not overdo the necessity of sincerity. If it takes social pressure for individuals in America today to do the right thing, let’s congratulate them when they proceed with it, even though their motivation may be external.
Liberalism maintains that behavior must originate from within; freedom consists in the capacity to satisfy individual needs and desires. But the damaging results of that definition of liberty are everywhere around us, forcing any open-minded person to acknowledge the value of social constraints, especially those derived from religious doctrine. A healthy society constrains the demands of the heart and the body with the commands of God and reason. This will always involve conflict and compromise. To require that resulting behaviors be ever sincere and straightforward is to press human beings toward a purity that belies their fallen nature. In the Ossoff case, from what I can see, a metaphorical shotgun marriage looks like the right outcome, a fulfillment of the commitment the candidate has shown to his girlfriend for so long.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.