The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.
What still seems most startling to me about the Republican victory is the strange fact that a majority of the American electorate was somehow induced to vote against its own economic interests. This is quite a feat. Bruce Reed points out that of 28 states with lowest per capita income levels, Bush carried 26. The percentage of the population that Bush’s economic policies favor is minuscule. Why, despite an economic climate of stagnant wages, job loss, and an increasing income gap between rich and poor, does the middle class not vote its pocketbook?
The old left had a term for this kind of thing: “false consciousness,” which meant the tendency to identify with the boss instead of your own class interests, or the way in which capitalism turns reality upside down to make it seem like the rich got that way through luck or skill instead of by sheer exploitation. These days, with millionaire faux populism as the political lingua franca, you’d get laughed out of town as an elitist for using such a hoary phrase. Instead we’re treated to a lot of pseudo-explanatory language about “character” or “values,” which supposedly accounts for the phenomenon of voters ignoring their own interests. Worse, liberal pundits are jumping on the bandwagon, too, hammering Kerry for not denouncing Janet Jackson’s exposed breast or for having plans instead of “vision.”
OK, so what exactly is this elusive all-important quality that Kerry supposedly failed to display? In a “Mood of the Electorate” piece last Thursday, the New York Times queried voters on this question, since so many said that character mattered more to them than the war or the economy. The story’s closing paragraph featured a quote from Gene Hadley, a 79-year old Bush supporter from Ohio:
People say George Bush is a cowboy. Well, what’s a cowboy but a guy in a white hat, getting things done for the downtrodden? People say he shoots quick. Well, listen, sometimes you have to do that, you have to be decisive. Kerry never projected that.
At the risk of sounding like one of those elitist urban Democrats who fails to understand the heartland: Wait a second, Mr. Hadley—what on earth has George Bush done for the downtrodden? What did cowboys do for the downtrodden? Perhaps Hadley was thinking of Robin Hood, whom our president also hardly resembles. At least by “shooting quick,” we can assume what’s meant is the war in Iraq, although that turned out to be a disaster of unprecedented proportion.
So how exactly are Democrats supposed to capture Mr. Hadley’s vote, if what counts as “character” is an incoherent stew of old movies, frontier mythology, and political misinformation? They can’t, which is why the Democrats lost this election a long time before the 2004 campaign even began.
Here’s an interesting little factoid that I share at the risk of sounding, once more, elitist. (Sorry.) The United States ranks 14th out of 15 industrialized countries in per capita education spending. If we have an electorate incapable of thinking rationally about its own interests, who confuse politicians with old movie heroes, don’t know much about history, and lap up the administration’s lies about Iraq even after they’ve been repeatedly exposed as lies by the media, this might have something to do with never having been educated in the fundamental skills of critical thinking. (Note that Bush’s much touted No Child Left Behind initiative, favoring rote learning and standardized testing, is the formula for an even more intellectually pacified and credulous electorate.)
But corporate America doesn’t require an educated or critical citizenry. Quite the contrary. What it requires is a passive work force narrowly trained to perform specific occupations for decreasing wages, who will then overconsume lavishly in their leisure hours. It all works out rather well: Job dissatisfaction is placated by an endless succession of consumer crap (creating new jobs—though probably overseas—making more crap); intellectual boredom is assuaged by a steady diet of media crap (thanks to media deregulation); and any remaining critical stirrings are mollified by supersize portions of tasteless crappy food (thanks to an unregulated food industry). The result: a stupefied, overstuffed citizenry glued to pricey entertainment centers, whose national hobby is ridiculing Europeans for wanting shorter work weeks, resisting American imports, and denouncing the disastrous American policy in Iraq.
The political culture of a country doesn’t only take place in voting booths. It’s lodged in this network of intersecting social institutions and practices—education, media, religion, workplace dignity (or lack of it), even the kind of food we eat. And at every instance, Democrats have ceded the territory or never fought for it in the first place. Into this mix add the brand of superstitious and authoritarian religiosity now dominating American life. When it comes to religion, once again, the old left had a few interesting things to say. Someone, I’m a little hesitant to say who at the moment, once called religion the “opiate of the masses.” In other words, a painkiller, and an indispensable one, given the degree to which social conditions force a population to live the impoverished lives that make these kinds of substitutes for meaning and fulfillment necessary.
Then let’s add high unemployment and rampant job insecurity—useful techniques for stifling social demands and crippling whatever opposition a viable labor movement would provide. Stir in a climate of terror, which this administration has been particularly adept at milking. It’s not just that voting for social progress becomes less likely under such circumstances, it’s that even basic social demands start to seem threatening. The fact that a majority of the country has come to accept the persistence of vast social inequities in the face of unprecedented wealth doesn’t make these conditions any less reprehensible.
It’s not that Kerry didn’t have a clear message—his message was clear enough. The Democratic defeat was a direct result of the party’s ongoing unwillingness to contest the direction that national political culture has taken in an era of unregulated corporate triumphalism—and too bad for them, it’s a direction that obviously resonates far more with a Republican than a Democratic agenda.
But what seems most tragic about the 2004 election is that apparently the more you take away from people—economic security, civil liberties, a semblance of political honesty from their politicians—the less they think they deserve. Which is exactly what the Republican Party offers. If Democrats lost the election by trying to offer more, the problem they’re faced with now is understanding their own contributing role in fostering an electoral psychology that would reject the offer.