Friday, November 12, 2004

Changing the Electorate

Blaming a “stupid electorate” for giving a small electoral majority to BushCheney does not seem to me to be a very good way to reach out to any of these voters. If for no other reason, challenging their intelligence will not make them more likely to listen to what progressives have to say. How anyone can choose the reckless chaos of BushCheney is beyond my comprehension but more voters did that rather than vote for John Kerry. The margin was close–Kerry’s effort was clearly better than “dreadful” as some critics contend–but the fact that BushCheney’s radicalism merits more than a fringe vote is disturbing.

That success is based on money, marketing, organization, discipline and fear. Over the years Republican’s have used the ample resources of the large corporations and super-wealthy individuals to fund think tanks, promote policies and positions, and win elections. Republicans have been blessed with good timing–the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9-11 attacks–and gild their policies with the aura of success and patriotism. Terrorism provides a convenient way to terrorize the electorate into suspending their reasoning. They have also been blessed with a compliant, sometimes subservient, media, large portions of which are concentrated in the hands of friends and supporters. Bombarded with focused images and ideas from this disinformation machine, voters can easily conclude that the BushCheney radicalism is what America needs.

Many voters who believe BushCheney’s distortions and lies are victims of cognitive dissonance, where reality clashes with their deeply held belief in America and its leaders. BushCheney failed to prevent the 9-11 attacks, America into an unnecessary war that they were not prepared to win, abandoned any pretense of fiscal responsibility in order to give tax breaks to their wealthy supporters, and attacked cherished civil liberties–all actions that have been clearly harmful to this nation. Yet voters cannot reconcile these disasters with their faith in America; they choose to believe that somehow BushCheney are acting in the national interest. That is the only explanation for their choice. They’re not stupid. They are blinded by their faith. I lost that faith in America long ago, in Vietnam and in years since. I guess it will take more war for this generation (and many in my own generation who weren’t paying attention during Vietnam) to learn how our leaders can prostitute American ideals and the terrible consequences that result.

Reducing that cognitive dissonance would have been easier if Kerry had articulated a clear alternative to BushCheney on Iraq and on protecting America. His logic on the war was plausible and reasonable but incomprehensible to the average voter and an easy target for deadly parody. Howard Dean offered a much better choice on the war. Too many voters thought Kerry was a fake. I know from his record that he is not a fake–his Vietnam service and anti-war activity were very real and his commitment to this nation is genuine–but that passion and commitment were rarely evident during the campaign. Instead, I often found myself wincing at what I saw. When he addressed an NAACP dinner last summer, Kerry looked and sounded like a parody of someone running for office. The hunting outfit and praise for NASCAR seemed like hollow pandering. Constantly vowing to “kill” Bin Laden sounded like fake macho.

Kerry was an easy target for ridicule and parody. BushCheney came close to “Dukakising” him, that is, ridiculing his accomplishments, denigrating his competence and making him a laughingstock. All that was missing was the tank photograph. To his credit, Kerry fought his way out of that pigeon hole. He did superbly in the three debates (although his constant refrain,”I have a plan.” began to sound trite by round three) but it was insufficient to overcome BushCheney’s media blitz and their better organized get out the vote efforts.

So I don’t think the 59 million who voted for BushCheney are stupid or ignorant. Not all of them anyway. They looked at the information (often erroneous and distorted) and the two flawed men offering themselves for the office and made a logical, however misguided it seems to me. The Democratic Party and progressive community need to sharpen our differences with BushCheney, to articulate a coherent program of social and economic justice and demonstrate to voters how it provides greater security–national, economic and social–for America in the 21st Century.

If the electorate is really as stupid as some of us claim, we don’t have a chance. They will never listen or understand what we are saying. I guess I still have enough faith in Americans (if not our government) to believe we have a chance. I worked hard to do that in 2004. I’m ready to continue.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Playing a Difficult Hand

The 2004 presidential election was almost as much of a tie game as the last one. True, this time BushCheney eked us instead of the other way round but overall, their margin is no big deal. (If these were poll results, they would be a statistical dead heat.) Those of us mourning yet another defeat should remember that. Almost as many Americans voted against BushCheney as voted for them. What these voters need are strong voices to represent them. With a majority of popular and electoral votes and solid majorities in Congress, BushCheney has earned the right to pursue its agenda but they have not earned the right for complete acquiescence. I have no doubt that BushCheney will push hard for their view of radical reform. I expect Democrats and other progressives to push equally hard for social justice in the process.

The next two years leading to the mid term Congressional elections will be a defining time for America’s progressives and those who speak for us. During BushCheney’s first term, Democrats co-operated and supported them on numerous issues only to find themselves targeted for defeat the following year. This time Democrats must stand firmly for social and economic justice. BushCheney fooled us throughout their first term, pledging openness and co-operation when they needed help and shutting the minority out whenever they could get away with it. In the new Congress, they won’t need Democratic help too often but the Senate minority is positioned to stop BushCheney’s most egregious excesses. They’ve little to lose and much to gain.

By this I do not mean reflexive opposition. At a minimum, outright rejectionism is ineffective and self defeating. BushCheney will make every attempt to smear opponents as unreasonable partisans. Better to base opposition on ideas and principles. American progressives and the Democratic Party have a long tradition of serving this nation. Much of what is humane and reasonable in American life came from these traditions: child labor laws, minimum wages, workplace safety, social security, medical care, environmental protection. These values are important to the vast majority of Americans and should be at the forefront of our opposition to BushCheney. Using ideas and principles to articulate our objections to their policies will have the added benefit of actually requiring our community to take a stand and define ourselves in our own terms.

Definition is the key. Kerry never defined himself well. BushCheney did that for him, much to his disadvantage. America’s progressives cannot continue to allow BushCheney’s distortions and misinformation to define us or the candidates who represent us. Nor can we tailor our beliefs in pursuit of popular acceptance. Instead, the progressive community needs to say clearly what we stand for and show the American people why our vision of social and economic justice warrants their support. We may risk rejection but we will be real, we will be credible

This election shows that progressives can organize almost as well as BushCheney. Remember that the 2004 presidential election was supposed to be a financial blowout with the Democrats barely able to compete in fund raising. As it turned out, we blunted the BushCheney’s financial advantage and remained competitive throughout the entire campaign. We built networks that turned out voters. These are real achievements and I look forward to building on them.

But in the near term, progressives must respond to the BushCheney “mandate” that will start more wars, reduce government service, create more regressive taxation, reduce civil liberties (except firearms) and degrade the environment. American progressives and the Democratic minority need to speak out against those assaults. One of the people I expect to see speaking out is John Kerry. He certainly earned the right to offer his views and knowledge on national issues. I would hope that he uses that opportunity. He has four years remaining in the Senate, knows the process well and has a strong reputation for working hard and knowledgeably on a wide range of issues. With more than 55 million votes behind him, John Kerry still has a hand to play.

And maybe now that he does not have to worry about election, he will speak out more clearly on important issues. John Kerry gave some voice, inconsistent and feeble, to progressive aspirations. But he did not offer a real choice on the War on Iraq. Nor did he ever learn how to present himself effectively as a strong candidate. Kerry only occasionally demonstrated his knowledge and strength, most notably in the debates. Even with all of his reported shortcomings as a candidate, exacerbated and echoed by the Republican Disinformation Machine, Kerry still garnered nearly half of the votes cast. Now he is back on familiar turf, the Senate, and an excellent position from which to represent the 55 million Americans who voted for him. I hope to see more of the intrepid commander and thoughtful critic that John Kerry was when he first served this nation. No time could be more appropriate.