Thursday, April 27, 2006

One Moral for the story of the Bush-Kerry election?

Here is an analysis --maybe more a meditation--on the 2004 Presidential Election, written a couple of months after it took place, and circulated then among some friends. Regrettably, I think that the issues it raises of the readiness of the American public and electorate to exercise world leadership remain very real.

January 1, 2005

Notes on the Presidential election

This is written from the point of view of an American social democrat who wants the U.S. to lead toward peace and sustainable economic growth worldwide, while prospering at home and moving substantially toward more equal and social income distribution. It is a common, rationalist orientation, generally expressed by the NYTimes, for example. Centrist in Europe or Canada, it is center-left in the U.S.

1. The November election--the vindication of George Bush and his policies and the defeat of John Kerry-- was a big setback, a very large and major negative development for the country as a whole, and for the world. We should hope that major bad consequences can be escaped, but damages on many scales of time and magnitude, are made much more likely by Bush’s victory, and its nationalist, emotional, and even militarist underpinnings. We shouldn’t try to explain away or sugarcoat the reality many of us feel in the pit of our stomachs that this is a very bad outcome.

2. Two questions obviously arise, “why did it happen?” and “what is to be done now?” Although instant pundits have leaped on both of them, usually with bromides, neither is an easy question.

3. But before getting to them, what, exactly, happened? We had a well-announced public contest between the two poles in a politically polarized situation, an extensive and ritualized process. The prize was a national thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on the record of the Bush administration of the past four years, and the award of the coming four years of the Presidency, an extraordinarily symbolic and potent office according to both our constitution and our modern mass culture. The contest itself received full national media focus and attention over many months as it was taking place, and certainly at its climax. This event was in no way on the margin; it was central. That still leaves many questions about what the outcome meant.

4. There are many ways of describing the two poles—Red vs Blue, retro vs metro, traditional vs modern, right vs left, religious vs. secular, Republican vs. Democrat, central vs. coastal, rural/suburban vs urban, Lincoln Town Car/hunting vs Volvo/yoga, hawk vs. dove, conservative vs moderate, and so forth.

5. One of the factors which constructed the event, is our system of “first-past-the-gate” electoral contests. With British origins, and like another British-rooted institution, adversarial judicial proceedings, the system of choosing a single winner from a field or a pair of candidates is so deeply embedded in our political system and political culture as to become invisible. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best system for national decision-making at a national single-constituency level, that is to say, the Presidential level. It also may be particularly weak at giving true and usable results in what amount to tied elections, and more broadly, it may not be the best system for intensely polarized situations. The common technical alternative to it is some form of proportional representation, which of course has many forms, each with drawbacks of its own. A practical amelioration is for a narrowly elected political leader to “govern from the center,” rather than carry out the political program of his pole, but President Bush clearly did not follow this in his first term.

6. Louis Menand, a professor and New Yorker staff member (who recently published the great book, The Metaphysical Club on nineteeth century America) wrote a good think piece in the issue of December 6th, based on an analytical conference held at Stanford on November 9th. The burden of Menand’s article was that the early touted factors such as “moral values,” did not bring anything really new or decisive to this election. Rather, like the “conservatism of the country,” they are permanent and rather static parts of the situation. Menand then concentrates on the analysis offered at Stanford by Gary Langer, the director of polling at ABC News. (I looked back over the proceedings of the Stanford conference, which are available, including video, at Langer was indeed the star of the show.) Here is the pith of the Menand piece:

“Why did President Bush win this election?” Gary Langer, the director of polling at ABC News, said at the Stanford Conference? “I would suggest that the answer can be expressed in a single phrase: 9/11.” No one there disagreed. “Fifty four percent of voters on Election Day said that the country was safer now than it was before September 11, 2001,” Langer pointed out. “And perhaps, I would suggest more important, forty nine percent of voters said that they trusted only President Bush to handle terrorism, eighteen percent more than said they trusted only John Kerry.” He went on, “Among those who trust only Bush to handle terrorism, ninety seven percent, quite logically, voted for him. Now right there, if forty nine percent of Americans trust only Bush to handle terrorism, and ninety seven percent of them voted for him, those are forty eight of his total fifty one percentage points in this election. Throw in a few more votes on ancillary issues….” and that’s all there is to it. “Langer thinks that a key statistic is the change in the votes of married women. Gore won the women’s vote by eleven percent; Kerry won by only three percent, and he lost most of those votes among married women. Bush got forty-nine percent of the votes of married women in 2000; he got fifty-five percent this year. And when you ask married women whom they trust to keep the country safe from terrorists, fifty-three percent say “only Bush.”

Menand a little later concludes that the country did not move to the right. Rather, “the issue that seems to have permitted an incumbent with an unimpressive approval rating to survive reelection was not an ideological one. The country did not change radically in the past four years. Circumstances did.”

8. But I think that an ideological movement did take place, and it was to the right, in a conservative, traditionalist direction. It was not spontaneous or autonomous on the part of the population, but was a response to the circumstances that Menand and Langer stress, the very sharp and particular event of being attacked on 9/11 within the national territory in a serious way (3,000 dead, 3 billion tons of printers’ ink and television pixels). 9/11 was indeed frightening and threatening, and under that stress, people did indeed retreat to older verities. These were two—go for ancient virtues of perseverence and steadiness, rather than for intelligence or originality, and revert to the ancient rule, certainly if you are powerful, that if you are hit, it is justified, and even necessary to hit back harder. These are not necessarily effective responses in the sense that they manage the real objective problem of jihadist terrorism, but they are the ancient visceral responses, precisely atavistic, and in that sense, deeply conservative. So there is an ideological movement to the right involved here, at a deep level. Objective and perceptive analysis as a problem solving method is new and modern; war, and all the dense and deep mat of emotions associated with it, is old. Ideas of conscious peace-seeking and purposeful creation of cooperation, besides being frustratingly slow and cumbersome, are modern and fuzzy-cheeked historical newcomers—not responses you trust in a pinch, when you feel threatened.

9. There are two points here. The first is that Bush and Rove played to this response, and even in some sense fostered it if they did not create it. They constantly pushed the importance of 9/11, and the naturalness, even the imperative of a forceful, military response to it. The bigger the better. With regard to the domestic public, the problem with the campaign in Afganistan was that it wasn’t big enough, so that Iraq could be added to make clear the point that there was no shortage of U.S. vitality and strength, and this was done. After being hit, if pugnacity doesn’t work at first, just do more of it, or do it longer.

10. Only after the election could we see this as what it may well have been from the beginning within the Administration, or the mind of Karl Rove—going to war as essentially a policy aimed at a domestic audience, a policy of a dramatic, histrionic character, in the tradition of the circus part of “bread and circuses.” To really go to the horse’s mouth for election analysis, Bush himself, as reported by the AP in connection with winning TIME Magazine Man of the Year cover, attributed his victory to foreign policy and the wars he began in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The election was about the use of American influence,” he said. This strategy in reponding to a threat, of pursuing domestic dramatic effect and eventually cashing it in at the polls, is a very different one from seeking an objectively effective and effficient response to the external problem of Islamic jihadism, or even terrorism. Of course, the Bush-Rove response puts virtually no value at all on avoiding or restraining damage to others.

11. For the election this proved an effective strategy, although that itself may only lead us more deeply into Sam Huntington’s Clash of Cultures trap and the waste of our own and others’ blood and treasure in the real situation of Iraq and the Middle East. But the second point is that the domestic American public, which freshly demonstrated that it rules the country under our democratic system, swallowed this logic and set of goals and values--may even have demanded them--and rejected the more rational, measured, and modern response that Kerry and the Democrats would have liked to have made. (The response that Kerry actually made in the heat of the election, was in fact heavily drawn onto the terrain created by the Republicans.) A public whose majority did in fact make this ancient, emotional response cannot be impugned on its home soil--it’s the first rule of post-electoral discourse and sportsmanship that the loser cannot blame the electorate. But it can be questioned whether a country with a predominance of such atavistic, visceral currents in its emotions and actions, and at least one set of political leaders entirely willing to play to these feelings and stimulate them under a political system that incentivizes and rewards that strategy, is qualified to hold the world leadership that we now have. European dismay at what they look at as American primitivism may not be entirely wide of the mark.

12. It is true that we have to feel more than a pang of doubt when these matters are put alongside the question, is this country ready for world leadership? In a way, such leadership has been thrust upon us, and in other ways, our own leaders have aspired to it, have reached out and would like to seize and strengthen it, but internally, our final arbiter is the electorate, and is it (particularly the central geographic sections least exposed to external, world realities) qualified by education, experience, and equilibrium to exercise such leadership? Some cold self-knowledge might suggest that we should back off from notions of power, permanent paramountcy, “New World Order,” pre-emptive military action, and ambitions to democratize others, and retreat somewhat to more modest, conciliar, UN and alliance-based approaches, even pull back to the “impresario” conception of our world centrality practiced by Bill Clinton.

13. But to go back to the election of November 2004. An election like this is a three way conversation or dialogue among the two candidates and the electorate. The latter huge collective participant is understood throughout the proceedings to have the responsibility, like a jury in court, to choose between the candidates and their arguments at the end. In a curious way, all three participants have to uphold the quality (the realism, the relevance, the honesty, the unvenality) of the dialogue. Nowadays, polling is a very honed set of techniques which are used continuously for months ahead of the actual vote. The two candidates calibrate their arguments almost day-by-day to the preliminary responses elicited from the electorate by the polling operations. This may increase the ‘followership’ of the candidates, and give more of a leadership role to the mass electorate, which is obviously very heterogeneous. With that goes an increased responsibility upon the voters to act with attention, information, breadth, respect for the business before them, and a sense of consequence of their actions, aspiring even to serious perceptiveness and wisdom. Many voters do feel these responsibilities, and act conscientiously to fulfil them, but many, perhaps particularly the final independents and undecideds, probably do not, and they proverbially hold the balance. The willingness of many to vote on the personability of candidates, or on narrow interests and affiliations when they know that much broader issues are also simultaneously at stake, and the willingness of many to let their vote be controlled by the amounts of money spent on campaigns, are not encouraging, again when one measures the capacity of our electorate against the seriousness of world leadership and issues of war and peace. Democracy can be failed, with important erosive effects, not only by politicians, but by the third partner in the dialogue, the electorate itself.

14. Against such a background of what I would call an insufficiently informed, reflective and demanding voting public, indeed in large part because of facilitating weaknesses of the electorate, the 2004 election in a deep way became an exercise in pandering. This was certainly led by the Bush/Rove side, but Kerry was forced to play this game, and accepted to do so, more than would have been ideal. If the Iraq war was a “circus,” offered by Bush and the Republicans in response to the public’s agitation and sense of being attacked and challenged by 9/11, then the tax cuts were the “bread” offered almost as a form of bribe to the public. And the American public, or at least a very large portion of it, when empowered in this way by the competition of politicians to court the voters, demanded its full quota of flattery, short term gratification and long term unwisdom. Is this democracy, or is it in some way, subtle but common, a miscarriage of democracy?

14 We certainly have a complex society now, and it may be that we need some new hard scrutiny of where we are going in the very ramified domain of elite and mass relations. In the present situation, after decades of economic and technical advance, very large numbers of people function as members of elites with regard to particular specialized functions, but are members of the mass with regard to general social and governmental matters.

15. This leaves undealt with the second question of para 3, What is to be done now? That will have to be left for later—maybe a similar New Year’s infliction of 2006. The answer has to be somewhere in the world of education—perhaps under the old civic notion of democratic politics as a form of public education.

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