Take Refuge in the Big Picture (part 1)

In recent posts, I predicted that Kerry would win and the Democrats would take the Senate. Woops.

Those of us who can't understand how someone could intentionally vote for George W. Bush have a tendency to figure that those who do so are missing a coupla cards outta the ol' deck. That they're folks who, as Maynard says in his Perfect Circle guise, wish to be kept “Safe from pain and truth and choice and other devils…”. No doubt there are people in this category, and unfortunately the Republican political machine has learned how to push their buttons and get them to vote. But I still don't believe there are enough of these people to form a majority.

And even if there are, the correct moral stance will win in the end. Consider the point made by John Nichols in The Nation:

Let's be clear, if the Democratic Party wants to get on the good side of the crowd that always ranks "Moral Values" or some variation on that term as its top issue, that will require adjusting Democratic positions to be more in tune with those of the old Confederacy. (It is notable that every state that fought to defend the institution of slavery in the Civil War voted for Bush, while the vast majority of states that sided in that distant struggle with the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, voted for Kerry.)

Bright Spots

Most of us are probably still trying to figure out how fifty million Americans could be such idiots. Still, any small-d democrat has got to be pleased with the turnout. It's not enough but it's an improvement. And there were some bright spots:

After mounting a campaign in which he proudly proclaimed his opposition to the Patriot Act, his opposition to Bush's war-making and his determination to keep the banner of Wisconsin progressivism flying even in an increasingly conservative age, Feingold was re-elected by a comfortable margin of 55 percent to 44 percent over Republican businessman Tim Michels.

There's also the new generation, currently personified by Barack Obama, who won 70% of the vote and beat Alan Keyes, admittedly not the strongest opponent, by 43 points. I continue to claim that if the Democrats would return to the old FDR-style Democratic principles, they could put together a dominant coalition. I really don't think most people want tax cuts for the rich and endless wars against methodologies. I took Barack to be talking about issues of day-to-day life, such as education and health care. That's what the Democrats used to be about, and it'll sell better than cultural issues. Paging Thomas Frank

Despite what the Bush people are saying, and despite my predictions for the election being dead wrong, I continue to believe that E.J. Dionne is right when he says “Ours is not a right-wing country. An alternative majority is out there, waiting to be born.” (Some folks at the University of Michigan have put together eight interesting maps of the returns, with explanations, which don't seem to show a particularly red country.) He presents some interesting numbers from the election, including this:

...Colorado offers a fascinating laboratory. Kerry lost Colorado by 52 to 47 percent, close to the national margin. But Democrat Ken Salazar won his U.S. Senate race by 51 to 47.

You'll recall, no doubt, that Salazar ran against Pete Coors, so funding and name recognition weren't the issue. And the Democrats won both houses of the Colorado legislature for the first time in 44 years, despite going for Bush for President.

Perhaps the Democrats picked the wrong candidate, or the candidate picked the wrong side of the issues.

The exit polls found that perhaps 10 percent of Al Gore's 2000 voters switched to Bush. Of these, more than eight in 10 thought the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism.

It's hard to explain why the war in Iraq is not part of the war on terrorism if you voted for the war in Iraq, you're strongly in favor of the war on terrorism, and you have a 100% lifetime rating from AIPAC.

And lest you fall for the media line that the country has become obessessed with “moral values”, listen to Frank Rich:

There's only one problem with the storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately calcify into our 24/7 media's conventional wisdom, it is fiction. Everything about the election results - and about American culture itself - confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding, it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of "The Passion of the Christ" should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.

He echoes Thomas Frank's point that the Republicans are “joined at the hip to much of corporate America”, and are therefore much more interested in making profits for Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone than making changes to the cultural landscape.

But it's not only the G.O.P.'s fealty to its financial backers that is predictive of how little cultural bang the "values" voters will get for their Bush-Cheney votes. At 78 percent, the nonvalues voters have far more votes than they do, and both parties will cater to that overwhelming majority's blue tastes first and last. Their mandate is clear: The same poll that clocked "moral values" partisans at 22 percent of the electorate found that nearly three times as many Americans approve of some form of legal status for gay couples, whether civil unions (35 percent) or marriage (27 percent). Do the math and you'll find that the poll also shows that for all the G.O.P.'s efforts to court Jews, the total number of Jewish Republican voters in 2004, while up from 2000, was still some 200,000 less than the number of gay Republican voters.

Continuing Issues

Thus, in the spirit of the popular outpouring of advice from armchair generals, I offer my personal critique: that people need a real choice. Despite the huge turnout, only slightly more than half the eligible voters cast a ballot; “Declined to state a preference” beat Bush. These are the people we on the left should be pursuing.

In recent years Democrats seem to have become reluctant to increase the voter pool in some of the ways European nations, and a few blue states here, use; and there's no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats on the issue of third parties. This year the Democrats spent a lot of energy, and according to some estimates about $20 million, trying to prevent people from voting for Nader. In the end, my bet is that the old-time Democratic ideals would be better served by spending that time and money attempting to educate Americans about the real economic issues. (And why do they think that preventing me from voting for my candidate would inspire me to vote for theirs?)

My claim is that the Democrats have blinded themselves to the obvious way of generating a majority. Instead of attempting to bring in the near-half that didn't vote, they went for that tiny sliver between Kerry and Bush. They got a majority, but not the overwhelming majority Kerry would have needed, given the small size of the sliver. If they'd managed to pull a quarter of the people who didn't vote, the entire sliver between Kerry and Bush would not have mattered.

The argument might be made that this strategy's been available for some time, and the party has never adopted it. There must be something wrong with it.

My response would be that the party hasn't attempted to bring in the non-voters because to do so would generate momentum toward a populist upsurge. There were times in the past when the Democratic party would have welcomed such a development, but these days they've essentially been bought off by the same sorts of people, PACs, corporations, and so on—for about a quarter of the money—that fund the Republicans.

The most important lesson I learned from Thomas Frank's immensely popular What's the Matter With Kansas? (Nader's apparently a fan) was that the Democrats, having agreed to the removal of economic issues from the table, are left to argue for what mid-westerners in the US might see as a postmodern lifestyle, including such concepts as diversity and an end to complete reliance on traditional values. People who don't want to be confronted with choices, like many of the people in the small town I grew up in, won't find this a persuasive argument; they prefer reliable rules and power structures to considering the options themselves. These are folks who are comfortable saying things like, If you start to question the Bible's view of history, then where will the questions end?, thinking this closes the matter. For some of them the bible is the Wall Street Journal, but people (present company excepted) often seem to be herd animals, so afraid of the unknown that they'll follow someone who tells them obviously ridiculous stories if he seems confidant enough. Of course, you and I are not like that.

But even the coal-mining communities a few miles from my hometown, where neophobia is universal, have in the past been roused by self-interest. Getting the shaft (little coal-mining joke there) has been the lot of most mining communities, but when the unions came to eastern Kentucky, that lot improved somewhat. They realized that capital was taking it easy and raking in the profits, while work was being taxed in a thousand ways and kept from advancing. And they realized that action as a group was their only real weapon.

As Frank Rich puts it:

...the values voters the Democrats must pander to are people like Cary and Tara Leslie, archetypal Ohio evangelical "Bush votes come to life" apotheosized by The Washington Post right after Election Day. The Leslies swear by "moral absolutes," support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and mostly watch Fox News. Mr. Leslie has also watched his income drop from $55,000 to $35,000 since 2001, forcing himself, his wife and his three young children into the ranks of what he calls the "working poor." Maybe by 2008 some Democrat will figure out how to persuade him that it might be a higher moral value to worry about the future of his own family than some gay family he hasn't even met.

Part 2 begins with “So Now What the Hell Do We Do?”. Until then, here's some articles I found helpful in dealing with my disappointment.

Howard Zinn is always inspiring: “The Optimism of Uncertainty”

Michael Kinsley amusingly hits it on the nose: “Am I Blue?”

Gary Wills, author of such books as Nixon Agonistes, has a somewhat darker vision: “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out”

And finally here's Haaretz with an unusual take on the real problems: “The Re-Election of Israel's Enemy”

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