Election Post Mortem
Sifting through innumerable election post mortems can be a confusing process. Every pundit and political insider has his/her pet, and sometimes pat, explanation for why Bush defeated Kerry. I read the varied takes of Herbert, Kristof, Brooks, Krugman, Friedman, Safire, and Dowd on the Times’ op-ed pages: anti-Bush columns and editorials online from the London Guardian and the apoplectic Labor tabloid the Mirror; Hendrik Hertzberg’s balanced, well-wrought post- election essay in The New Yorker; and, countless other pieces by lesser known journalists and Party political advisers - mostly liberals but conservatives as well.
Some of the pieces are cogent, others specious, but just about every one of them seems to know why the election unfolded the way it did. Some hold Kerry responsible for running a mistake-ridden, slow-to-react campaign, and being incapable of connecting emotionally with Middle America. They blame Kerry for lacking the informal style, affability, and directness of a master campaigner like Bush - a man clearly more at ease pressing the flesh and garnering votes than governing. Others put much less emphasis on campaign mechanics or the personality of the candidate, and debate whether it was terrorism, “values”, or wartime insecurity that gave President Bush his 3 percent win over Kerry. Still others, who are outside the mainstream media, attack Kerry for not being a Dean or someone more radical, and for being incapable of providing a stirring alternative vision to Bush’s during the campaign. They suggest that he should have called for our withdrawal from Iraq, and stopped using the military metaphors and rhetoric that reinforced his anti-terrorist, macho credentials. And conspiracy-oriented Internet bloggers and some alternative radio programs have suggested that voter fraud and rigged or malfunctioning voting machines in Ohio have given the Republicans, yet again, a tainted victory. (Even if such charges of vote theft and rigging are erroneous, there is clearly a need for more transparent and uniform voting procedures.)
I myself continue to struggle to make sense of all these disparate, often contradictory, analyses, and to get a handle on why Kerry was defeated. In the end, I am convinced that there simply is no one reason for Kerry’s loss and, for example, the initial assertion (that I confess I too believed), that the key to Bush’s victory was his support of “moral values,” was overstated. But saying that the significance of “moral values” was exaggerated, does not mean that the issue didn’t play a substantial role in Bush’s triumph. Such people are apparently willing, as a friend said, to “sell their pottage for a mess of souls.” The political attitudes of this religious/moralistic constituency surely have to be more clearly understood, if there is any possibility for the Democrats to find a way of reaching them.
One recent, trenchantly written book that deals with this evangelical backlash is Thomas Frank’s What's the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Heart of America." In the book Frank returns to his home state to explore why a once agrarian populist state where the villains were the robber baron railroads, had evolved into a right wing red state. His main point is that though Kansas is a “state spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatisation, and laissez-faire,” its working and lower-middle class votes for a Party of corporate interests whose policies fleece them (e.g., the destruction of the family farm and the triumph of agribusiness through deregulation).Frank goes on to analyse what has brought this backlash about. He sees it as a cultural revolt that began with the anti-abortion movement in Kansas, at the beginning of the 90s - a movement of the ostensibly “humble,” anti-intellectual, and “real” people that viewed its enemy as the liberal, cosmopolitan elite represented by candidates like Gore and Kerry. From my perspective, the backlash’s roots have their origins in the sixties ‘cultural revolution that transformed the nature of gender roles, family, marriage, and sexual morality. And in a mass media that markets sex all the time. The evangelicals are frightened by it all, and especially by their kid’s attraction to the seductions of mass culture. As a result, for these Middle American voters who want to turn back the clock, culture outweighs economics. But paradoxically, in Frank’s words, “they may talk Christ, but walk corporate.” It’s a movement that may never succeed in ending abortion, but supports the abolition of estate taxes, and other giveaways to the wealthy and the corporations.
The Republicans’ demagoguery has succeeded in turning the economic resentment of these underpaid and overworked Kansans into cultural rage. And it’s been accompanied by many evangelicals believing in the sacredness of the free market. As Frank writes, “push them off the land, and the next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics.”
How to reach this constituency politically is what the Democratic Party must assiduously work at in the next few years. Frank feels a direct economic class appeal may be able in some cases to break apart the unholy Republican coalition between business interests and evangelicals. But the Democrats need the right candidate - a folksy charismatic one, who can talk the talk but, at the same time, doesn’t blur and compromise his differences with the Republicans on “moral values” - clearly a difficult feat.
Still, if I wanted to be sanguine, I would say that the contradictions inherent in the Republican coalition would ultimately lead to its breaking down. For instance, many corporate Republicans may find it hard to embrace anti-abortion, prayer in the schools, and other pieces of an emboldened Christian Right’s agenda.
Political self-interest, however, has led to many stranger bedfellows, and the evangelicals, at this moment, are in the driver’s seat. They will demand the appointment of a right wing Supreme Court Chief Justice and the outlawing of gay marriage. And, given the election results, the Republican corporate wing (power meaning far more to them than principle) will probably try to accommodate them.