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Looking out from number one

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I had drinks a few nights ago with a friend, and about five minutes in I realized that he had become someone very different.

This friend lives in New York, so we only see each other a couple of times a year, when he comes out to the West Coast for business. Usually our drink-fueled conversation centers on arguments about politics -- arguments that get absurdly heated for two people who agree on pretty much everything.

For example, in 2008 he was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton; I voted for Obama. Comes down to it, not a lot of difference there -- certain points of style and symbolism, but it’s not like I backed Obama and he was trying to draft Glenn Beck.

At least not then. But last week, it was a very different person who met me in a bar on Los Angeles' Westside. Now, look, I’ve met more than a few dispirited Clinton backers who think Obama has stumbled in ways their candidate would not have. But my friend? He’s in a whole other zone.

Repealing Bush tax cuts for the rich, he now says, would be a disaster. He angrily noted that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes. I pointed out that those people don't pay "federal payroll taxes," but they pay all kinds of other taxes -- Social Security, Medicare, sales taxes, etc., and that they were too poor to pay the federal payroll tax.

But that was the problem, he said. The poor and working class are being coddled. Health insurance reform, banking regulations, and the extension of unemployment benefits all encouraged blue collar workers to, well, not work.

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I was stunned. I looked for hidden cameras, or the signs of a smile breaking on his face -- anything that would expose this as an elaborate practical joke. But, no -- he was serious. His proof regarding lazy workers: he’s having a very hard time finding a good tailor and a maid to clean a house his just bought.

Where's your top hat, I asked. What about your watch fob and spats? Who are you, I said incredulously, some robber baron wanna-be from the Gilded Age? That guy with the monocle on the Monopoly game box?

No, he said, he had just become a "realist."

But, as always, the truth is much more complicated. In the last year or two, in this terrible downturn, my friend has actualy done pretty well. His business boomed a bit -- and the ideas he supported in 2008 no longer seem like such fine policies. His ties to the struggling middle class have been frayed by the fact that he is, really, no longer one of them.

The term political analysts use to describe why people vote the way they do is "enlightened self-interest." Almost as a gut instinct, you look out for yourself and your family first, but this is mitigated by an understanding that as a society we have to pull together if we want to keep moving forward. In balance, decisions about politics and policy are made.

For my friend, "self-interest" was burning brighter than ever. The "enlightened" part; that was now sitting in the dark. He seemed, in many ways, to represent our polarized politics -- his old self and his new self each at opposite ends of a spectrum that only considers the extremes.

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