Thursday, November 04, 2004I spent all of yesterday in a state of shock. I was not alone. I truly believed that John Kerry was going to be elected President, and quite comfortably. When the exit polls came out and the lines at the voting booths were long, I was exhilarated, which made the result all the worse. I feel as if someone has died. I feel I have been betrayed by my fellow citizens, that I am an exile in my own country. I do not believe that I am alone in those feelings.
I was wrong in my prediction of a Bush defeat, obviously. Why was I wrong? Why did Kerry lose? Well let me first begin saying why we did not lose. We did not run the wrong candidate- John Kerry did better than any other potential nominee would have done. He unified the party, dismantled Bush in the debates, ran an aggressive campaign, and had a compelling biography. Kerry is a man of dignity and integrity. He was our nominee because he was the best candidate and the best potential President. We should not feel any shame for our choice. We did the right thing.
We also did not lose because we didn't work hard enough. God knows that is true. People who had never been involved in politics before committed themselves to this campaign. We actually outraised and outspent the Republicans, something no one thought was possible. We buried our differences and moved into the campaign with confidence and discipline. We did virtually everything right.
So why did Bush win anyway, with such a manifestly failed term as President? A failed war, a declining economy, scandal, embarrassing debate performances, shouldn't those have been enough? I certainly thought so, particularly given the net negative ratings on Bush's re-election and the direction of the country. But there were compensating factors I did not take sufficiently into account.
The first such factor is the importance of the war mentality. Voters do not throw out Presidents in the middle of a war, apparently no matter how incompetently it is managed. The War of 1812 did not defeat Madison, the Civil War did not defeat Lincoln, Vietnam did not defeat Nixon. I don't know if this is admirable tenacity or foolish pigheadedness.
9/11 got Bush re-elected and nothing else. After that event, voters were afraid. In their fear they wanted a strong leader to protect them, so they projected those characteristics onto the man they had. He was terribly unsuited to the role and has consistently bungled, but they invested him with those characteristics anyway. Bush and his strategists skillfully maintained that climate of fear in order to consolidate their political position. That fear got them re-elected. Hobbes knew that personal security trumped every other value- equality, liberty, community, whatever. It is the essential prerequisite. By encouraging fear, Bush, like all aspiring dictators, was able to appeal to the herding instinct in the human psyche. It gave him his victory.
The second key factor is cultural wedge issues. As many writers have noted in the last two days, many working-class voters supported Bush despite their poor economic circumstances. Democrats have made some rhetorical progress in these areas, but the Republicans have continued to split the Democratic electoral coalition with appeals to symbolic issues: gays, guns, abortion, etc. We all knew that these issues were a danger. As liberals, we all believed that class trumps everything else. We forgot that Weber noted that class is about more than just income- it is also related to social position and ethnic and religious identities.
Both of these factors are likely to persist. The War of Terror is going to remain with us- there is no state to defeat, and the Bush Administration's policies are worsening fundamentalist terrorism rather than curtailing it. And the wedge issues will continue to exist. We must recognize that neither of these objective circumstances is likely to change. We are going to have to figure out how to deal with both. Until we do so, we will continue to lose.