I woke up, suffered through the news, and opened my email. This was the first message I read.
“Seriously.. I don’t know who answers you guy’s email, but do you think the coalitions that were working to get Bush out can overcome this shit? I feel fucking hopelessâ€¦ i’ve been working with ACT and SEIU and canvassing and calling and blah blah blah… I can’t believe we have lost to this psychopath again. I know Kerry sucked, but we have nothing… what is left?”
The short answer is, Yes, the coalitions, if they have a mind and heart to do so, can “overcome this shit.” It is true that many people, even when they are united, can be defeated. We should not make believe it isn’t so. But it is also true that many united people can win, and win again, and again. As to “what’s left?” of course the answer is the true left is left, and if we have sufficient mind and heart we can make it grow until real victories are ours. I try to offer some parts of a longer answer below.
First, the U.S. as a whole has not voted for anything by virtue of this election. Around 60% of the eligible electorate voted. This was a considerable increase over the recent past, but was still low by international standards. It means about 30% of the eligible electorate voted for Bush and just under that voted for Kerry. If Kerry had won another percent or two and thereby won the election, it would change almost nothing about the large-scale allegiances of the U.S. population. More people didn’t vote than supported either candidate.
Regarding judging the American populace, even before noting the manipulation of perceptions that accompanies U.S. elections, it does not make sense for us to act as though the country is inhabited by amoral, self seeking vultures because Bush won, especially supposing that we would have been celebrating America’s return to reason and morality had things been marginally different. If you weren’t agonizing the views of your fellow citizens yesterday, and if you wouldn’t be agonizing them had Kerry won Ohio, or had Kerry run with Gephardt as Vice Presidential candidate and won Missouri and Iowa as well as Ohio and the election, then there is not much reason to be agonizing them as is. They are what they have been, needing much improvement but hardly as bad as some people are going to deduce.
On the other hand, had the election gone to Kerry, while it wouldn’t have indicated much about the state of popular consciousness, it would certainly have changed the complexion of the world for some time to come and would probably also have changed the near term activity and affectivity of those who wish to attain a truly better world. Weeping about this very real implication of the re-enthronement of George Bush and his fundamentalist agenda is warranted.
One more contextual point. When Richard Nixon, a despicable thug who was barely more cogent than Bush and who didn’t have nearly as well organized an electoral apparatus, ran for his second term in 1972, he won all but one state. It was an electoral and a popular vote massacre. He was, however, out of office not too long thereafter. The U.S. electorate is no worse overall now than it was then, and it is arguably better in many respects.
That 2005 is similar to 1972 is not reason for cheer. For some of us, people around then and now, it is deadly depressing. I write with tears flowing. But at the same time it reveals that we are not suddenly in some kind of unprecedented dark ages. It indicates that the population has not become fascist in some new and unprecedented way. What it also shows, very sad to say, is that after forty years of struggle we aren’t that far forward, and that fact deserves very serious consideration.
Okay, so what about the people who did vote?
Election Statistics and What They Say
According to CNN’s exit polls, nationally men voted 54% to 45% for Bush and women voted 52% to 47% for Kerry.
White men voted 61% to 38% for Bush, white women 54% to 45%. Non white men voted 68% to 30% for Kerry, non white women 75% to 24%. Kerry won African Americans 9 to 1 but he lost whites 6 to 4.
Kerry won among people aged 18 – 29, but he lost all older age groups. There weren’t enough young voters to offset their elders.
By income, not surprisingly Kerry got fewer votes the wealthier the constituency and Bush got correspondingly more votes the wealthier the constituency. Of the 45% of voters who earn less than $50,000 a year, Kerry won 56% to 43%. (Of course, a big question is, what caused 43% to vote so explicitly against their own material interests?) On the other hand, of the 55% of voters who earn over $50,000 per year, Bush won 55% to 44%. Kerry also won 51% to 48% among the 82% of voters who earn $100,000 or less. But for the 18% who earn above $100,000, Bush won 57% to 41%. If more people went to the polls, which would have meant that more lower income people went to the polls, Kerry would have won the election. Likewise, had voters who earn under $50,000 or under $100,000 for that matter, voted for Kerry proportionate to the real material interests they had, he would have won.
Among union members and their families Kerry won 60% to 40%. He lost 52% to 47% among those who aren’t unionized, but there are way more of the latter. If we had more workers in unions, again Kerry would have won.
Among new voters Kerry won 55% – 45%, but there weren’t enough, new voters, or, if you prefer, this gap was not wide enough, to carry the election for Kerry overall.
In regard to religion, Kerry overwhelmingly won Jews, “Other religions,” and “none” – but Bush won Protestants 58% – 41% and Catholics 51% – 48%. If you attended church weekly you voted for Bush 60% – 40%. If you went only occasionally, you voted for Kerry 53% – 46%. If you never went, you voted for Kerry 65% – 35%. Devout religion has a profoundly reactionary impact in U.S. elections, or at least correlates well with factors that do.
Kerry won gays, lesbians, and bisexuals 77% – 23%, but they were only 4% of all voters. Bush won heterosexuals 52% – 47%. As an aside, purely on intuition I find the 3 to 1 ratio here significant as an indicator. It seems to me that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are probably very attuned to the disaster that Bush could bring upon them and their community. I suspect, therefore, that a 3-1 ratio indicates a constituency that really understands the difference about an issue and feels quite strongly about the matter in question.
Gun owners (who were 41% of all voters) voted for Bush 61% – 37%. Those without guns (who were 59% of all voters) voted for Kerry 58% – 41%. (Notice, gun ownership is supposed to be a very powerful issue and determiner of views, and it is certainly significant, but under 2 – 1).
If you were in the 4% of voters who thought the most important issue was education you voted Kerry 75%. If you were in the 20% who thought the economy and jobs were most important you voted Kerry 80%. If you were in the 8% who thought it was Health care, you voted Kerry 78%. If you were in the 15% of voters who thought Iraq was most important you voted Kerry 75%.
But if you were in the 19% who thought the most important issue was terrorism, you voted Bush 86%. If you were in the 22% who thought “moral values” was most important you voted Bush 79%. If you were in the 5% who thought taxes most important you voted Bush 56%.
Except for taxes, these issue figures, on both sides, are all 3 – 1 or more. It seems from this that voters who cared a lot about an issue actually did know the difference between the candidates regarding each issue and voted in tune, even more so on the right. Bush’s victory, looking at things from this vantage point, was arguably due to so many voters considering terror or “morals” primary.
The 46% of voters who thought the national economy was excellent or good voted for Bush 86% – 13%. The 52% who thought it was not good or poor voted for Kerry 79% – 19%. Both are more than 3 to 1.
The 31% of voters who felt their family was better off financially than four years ago, voted 79% – 20% for Bush. The 28% of voters who thought they were worse off, voted 80% – 19% for Kerry. For the 39% who felt no economic change, Kerry won 50%- 48%. Again clarity about an issue is evident. And, here too, if more people had voted, it would have been more who thought they were worse off, and Kerry would have won.
If you were among the 42% who thought we have become less safe from terrorism in the past four years you voted Kerry 85%. But if you were among the 54% who thought we had become more safe from terrorism over the last four years, you voted Bush 79%. Over 3 -1 for both. Move a few percent in their perception on this issue, and Kerry wins.
The 51% of voters who say they approve having gone to war in Iraq voted 85% – 14% for Bush. The 45% who say they disapprove having gone to war in Iraq voted 87% – 11% for Kerry. Likewise, if you thought (54%) that the Iraq war was part of the war on terrorism, you voted for Bush 80% – 19%. If you thought it wasn’t (43%) you voted for Kerry 88% – 11%. These people seem to me to be voting in accord with their perceptions about reality and their correct views of the candidates, as for those above. Their perceptions about reality are open to question, of course and had more been skeptical of the war, again, Kerry would have won.
The 26% who thought same sex couples should be able to marry voted for Kerry 77% – 22%. The 35% who favored civil union voted Bush 51% – 48%. And the 36% who opposed any legal recognition of gay couples voted 69% – 30% for Bush. Interestingly and a bit surprisingly, results on the reactionary position are not so aggressive as on the progressive one, or so it seems. On the other hand, many Kerry voters obviously voted against gay marriage in the state votes.
The 23% who thought abortion should be always legal voted Kerry 73% – 25%. The 38% who thought it should be mostly legal voted Kerry 61% – 18%. The 26% who thought abortion should be mostly illegal voted Bush 73% – 26%. The 16% who thought it should be always illegal voted Bush 77% – 22%. Better than 3 – 1 clarity here too, it seems.
So – given the data, given our experiences, given our feelings and thoughts, what do we think about the election?
People did seem to largely vote in accord with their priorities. Few could have been tricked into thinking Bush was more anti-war or Kerry was more pro-war or Bush was pro-gay or Bush was more for workers or Kerry was more for the wealthy, and so on, with these poll results. The mistaken notions in voters’ minds were not about the candidates positions so much as they were about the state of the world, or their values.
Story One: Kerry and the Democrats lost because they failed to emphasize Iraq and the economy. Voters who thought those issues mattered most voted strongly for him. Voters who were keyed on terror and fearful of attacks or who were worried about the decay of civilization via gay marriages – which is “moral values”, voted strongly for Bush. There were more of the latter than the former, both across the country and in Ohio, so Bush won. Kerry did not sufficiently move the focus from terror and anti gay attitudes to Iraq and the economy.
Story Two. Kerry and the Democrats ran about as good a campaign as any Democrat could have run. They had massive unprecedented activist support from Hollywood and the music world. They hit hard on their best issues seeking to move debate to those, but to keep their financial support and to ward off massive media assault, they also addressed security. They marshaled a very impressive get out the vote campaign with tens of thousands of volunteers, particularly in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, Bush won the popular vote across the country and the electoral vote too, the latter by winning both Florida and Ohio.
The odd thing is, both these stories are true.
Religion, homophobia, machismo, family values, and fear that floated nationalism above reason and that elevated paranoia above empathy buoyed Bush above sidebar concerns like the demise of civilization, climate, economy, solidarity, and even security. This likely occurred in considerable part because regarding these concerns many people didn’t have any reason to think Kerry was all that much more promising than Bush. Kerry’s supporters got out the vote better than anyone could reasonably have predicted months ago, but the efforts awakened not only Kerry voters, but, in reaction, also brought out additional support for Bush.
The problem isn’t so much that the voters were deceived about the candidates. People who voted seemed to know what the candidates were saying, otherwise the correlations noted above wouldn’t have been so strong. The problem is that the voters were in many cases deceived about the world, or had downright ugly views about it, in some cases. And of course, the problem is, to an even greater degree, that so many people who should have opposed Bush and would have opposed him had they voted, did not vote.
What can we say? I think some things are pretty clear. Oppressed constituencies are not going to embrace their own subordination. There will be struggles around race, gender, and sexuality until the related oppressions are entirely overcome. A left that doesn’t educate and at least depolarize and far better galvanize support around social issues as well as economic and political ones, will not only be hypocritical and unworthy, it will also always have great difficulty winning.
Fear is always a possibility. A left that doesn’t address it head on – morally, ethically, reasonably – by dealing with international relations and U.S. foreign policy including explaining its roots and implications, and thus the roots and implications of terrorism as well, will rarely if ever win. Had the anti-war movement convinced another five percent of the population that the war in Iraq was unconnected to terrorism and was morally wrong, Bush would be out of office.
But there is something more at play. Why didn’t virtually all working people vote for Kerry, and why didn’t many more vote at all? Democrats contend with Republicans for the same source of real support, which is the ruling elites who monopolize money and media visibility. Even if the Democrats had a different inclination – which is rarely if ever the case – this fact limits the scope of their appeals for votes for fear of losing the financial means or media accessibility to make any appeals at all. They can’t talk about the real roots of our problems, even were they aware of them. They can’t talk about real solutions to our problems, even if they were inclined to conceive them. They can only mumble unclearly about wanting to better people’s lives and can only offer half hearted policies for doing so. Otherwise their money dries up. The media annihilates them. Meanwhile, Republicans do whatever they wantâ€¦with plenty of funding, with unlimited media visibility, having no qualms whatsoever.
The upshot is that we need something much more than a better Democratic candidate. We need a new electoral system and a new base of support for new candidates.
But further, even a good candidate with important things to say — a Nader, Cobb, Kucinich, or Sharpton – is barely listened to by American audiences. Why is that?
Our population does have a mental failing of great proportion. It is greater even than its ignorance, which on many counts is profound. It is greater even than its racism, which is often very substantial. And it is greater even than its homophobia and sexism, which are still substantial as well.
This mental malady is that our population believes nothing better than the corporate system we now endure is possible and believes as well that the system we now endure makes most efforts at major reform largely fruitless by either cutting them off before victory or rapidly rolling back any gains they attain shortly after temporarily granting them.
This malady is not so dumb, it turns out. It has causes. To overcome this malady, which is often inaccurately called apathy, requires movements that convey informed hope by communicating how society could be different and how we could attain the changes and why they would then persist. The vision problem is therefore central. To convince significant sectors of the non-voting public to become politically involved, or of the voting public to change their views, will require dealing with it.
I was recently in Greece in part to give talks about the upcoming U.S. election. I had conveyed that there was a good chance Bush would win the election. Talking with a long time Greek activist I was told that things were quite hopeless. Populations were apathetic and it was part of the way people just are. They don’t give a damn. Me first, and that’s the end of it. Despair was in the air. I tried to argue by one route and then by another, but he kept returning to the U.S. How can there be serious progress when your population in such large numbers sits idly by and watches horrendous calamities unfold against others, meanwhile pursuing silly tiny personal gains, if even that? People, this activist felt, will get what they deserve, and it won’t be pretty.
For those still mulling over the current mindset of the U.S. population, fearing that they are uncaring or worse that they are overtly callous, try this thought experiment which I offered others while in Greece.
Imagine that tomorrow God told us all that the just completed presidential election was null and void. A new one is to be held. Bush is running against someone new – let’s say Zeke. Zeke puts forth an uncompromising program including everything a good leftist would want – universal health care, no nukes, drastic moves toward ecological sustainability, not only withdrawal from Iraq but dismantling the empire and implementing international legality, replacing the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO with real internationalism, implementing real affirmative action for gender, race, and class, redistributing wealth downward plus establishing truly just wages, vastly improved conditions and participation, and so on and so forth.
And God says, here is the thing. The election campaign is going to go on for six months. There will be universal discussion and debate of all the issues and facts throughout society – in workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and so on, and I will make sure that everyone understands the true choices at stake. Information will be fully presented, with me, God, verifying truth in advertising at every stage. The election will then be held. And then I, God, will guarantee that the winner will get to successfully implement his or her program in the following four years, until the next election, to be conducted like this one.
How many people would vote in that case? 95%? 100%? 105%
And what would be the result?
It you think Bush would win, okay, you should worry about the underlying psychology and morality of the American people, or, in fact, of all people generally.
But if you think Bush would lose, Bush would suffers ignominious defeat, Bush would be obliterated in a hailstorm of insight and joy over the implementation of truly progressive policies, then you have to develop vision, develop strategy, develop clarity about reality, and fight on, because the obstacle to people participating that we must overcome is not that people don’t care and not that people are callous, or congenitally apathetic, but mostly that people (quite reasonably) doubt the efficacy of participation.
The Way Forward
If, and it is a big if, the energy of Kerry’s supporters including tens of thousands of volunteers can be galvanized on behalf of a broadly progressive agenda resisting Bush, and if the left can find the wherewithal to keep pushing beyond toward new vision and goals as well, then Bush can be roped in. We can have a four year interlude of struggle to avoid calamities and to win some valuable gains as well, followed by a Democrat in the White House, followed by continuing pressure for improvements in people’s lives plus escalated development of a serious anti-capitalist movement.
On the other hand, if we can’t transfer Kerry’s most activist support to tenacious opposition to Bush, the interlude of continuing reaction will last much longer than four more years and the pain and suffering of many constituencies at the hands of U.S. fundamentalism will be that much more savage. And if the left can’t transcend being anti-Bush to offering serious positive alternatives and strategic options, then the wait for real change will also be that much longer.
It is forty years on from when I and many other people of my generation became life-long activists and while the left’s efforts have ensured that nearly everyone now knows at some level that everything is broken – which wasn’t even barely the case in 1965 – still most people are passive, easily manipulated, lacking hope, barely involved, dismissive of politics and activism, hunkered down in virtual isolation, looking for crumbs that might be available, and above all spectators. In other words, what we on the left have been doing has had some impact, of course, but doing the same thing as in the past for another forty years would have barely any. A new left has got to be new where it matters – in having real and compelling shared vision, real and compelling short and mid term goals, and real and compelling shared practice and strategy – indeed, in having long term vision and empowering and engaging strategy at all.
We have to look at it squarely. Bush, without a very active, militant, and effective opposition, could mean overturning Roe v Wade, ending the separation of Church and State, and gutting Social Security and Medicare. It could mean escalated ecological devastation, expanded Patriot Act and repression, even larger gaps between rich and poor, expanded violence in Iraq and beyond, and election reforms to protect all this reaction against democracy.
Elections are not the whole of politics, only a tiny part. The whole is, or should be, mostly the development of consciousness and commitment and the exercising of social pressure. We have to get right back to that. And we have to do it immediately. And we have to do it more wisely than in the past.