Ira Chernus on the Electoral Fear Factor

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Looking back on election 2004, it’s possible to see John Kerry’s loss as a kind of modest electoral near-miracle — if, that is, you think (as I do) that the Democratic Party has only a minimal reality. Who can doubt that the Republicans really are a party — with all the usual divisions as well as cobbled-together constituencies with contradictory needs, desires, and agendas. Once upon a time, back in the 1940s, when the Republicans looked to be an out-of-power junior party for the foreseeable future, that might have been a good description of the lumpy New Deal Democrats. But today, what exactly is the Democratic Party? Jostling at the top in Washington are a crew of uninspiring prospective leaders, advisers, and second-rate spinmeisters connected to potential piles of money and focused on what “image” the party should project to have a hope in hell of winning future elections; under them is an old party system ever so slowly buckling and, like the industries whose workers once buoyed the Democrats in the Midwest, hollowing out.

The near-miracle, when you think about it, is that a massive, mobilizing, extended burst of anti-Bush (and, I suspect, largely antiwar) energy — all those not-quite-Democratic-Party 527s, all those eager young (and not so young) volunteers heading, often for the first time in their lives, into “swing states,” all that inspired door-to-door and cell-phone-to-landline energy, all those small-scale donations that flooded in — all of that just about lifted a moribund party and its largely moribund candidate over the top against an incumbent president in “time of war.”

And whatever you do, as Ira Chernus, always a level-headed analyst, suggests below, don’t underestimate the impact being in that “time of war” had on the electorate. We already know, as Chernus indicates, that most of the post-election discussion of “the values vote” has largely been a load of hooey. As recent polls have shown, for instance, compared to the 2000 election the President gained more new votes this time among those who “seldom or never attend church” than among those who attend regularly.

War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Well, strictly speaking, not absolutely nothing. The President and his men concocted a witch’s brew of war and terror that hit hard at voting patterns. I first ran into it on the floor of the Republican convention last August, where delegates offered up, quite separately and individually but as if with a single voice, a set of war fears and convictions that would drive the Bush campaign like a stake into the heart of America. At the time, the belief system the delegates described sounded to me something like this:

“Theirs is a text in which there is, generally, a single ‘them.’ ‘They’ hit us. We struck back. Iraq was ‘theirs.’ The choices, such as they are, are simple and obvious. They would sound familiar indeed to those who remember the Vietnam era, when Lyndon Johnson, for instance, claimed that if we didn’t fight the communists in Vietnam, we’d be doing so on West coast beaches. Today, once again, it’s just a question of our soil or theirs, and theirs — Iraq (Iran, Syria, or North Korea) — is clearly preferable.”

I felt the raw power of this tale on the convention floor, but couldn’t quite bring myself to accept that it would carry the day against all the evidence just then pouring in. Once various leaps of faith were made, however, that mantra — it’s better to fight “them” on foreign soil rather than in the streets of [fill in your city] — proved the most powerful of tunes. At least as powerful as “Hail to the Chief.” And it’s still being played for all its worth as our Iraq adventure spins ever downhill. Here’s part of a speech by the President visiting the Marines at Camp Pendleton just the other day:

“Our success in Iraq will make America safer for us and for future generations. As one Marine sergeant put it, ‘I never want my children to experience what we saw in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.’ He said, ‘If we can eliminate the threat on foreign soil, I would rather do it there than have it come home to us.’ That’s why we’re on the offensive today in Fallujah and Mosul, Ramadi and north Babil. We’re getting after the terrorists. We’re disrupting their plans. We’re holding the state sponsors of terror equally responsible for terrorist acts. We’re working to prevent outlaw regimes from gaining weapons of mass murder and providing them to terrorists. We’ll stay at these efforts with patience and resolve, and will we prevail.”

As Chernus suggests, the President managed to offer a wartime story of surpassing clarity (forget the issue of accuracy) — and to present himself as its warrior prince. As it happened, John (“reporting for duty”) Kerry, a genuine warrior, represented the wrong war, a war of surpassing murkiness, the one Americans had been running from for decades, the one that plunged the country deep into every moral grey zone imaginable. Unlike the screen wars that our President grew up on and came to represent, Kerry’s war — and the Swift Boat ads that stood in for it — seemed like a kind of moral depravity. As it happened, in the state of denial which was red-statehood, play-war and the play-warriors were so much more appealing than the grim, real, unnerving thing itself. And even the other day at Camp Pendleton, our President was still playing away, togged out as he was like a GI Joe doll in a specially embroidered, sand-colored Marine tanker jacket specially stitched with the inscription: “George W. Bush, Commander in Chief,” the presidential seal, and the American flag.

Then, to my mind at least, there was the imperial vote that will appear in no opinion polls because the necessary questions will never be asked. But how many Americans voted for George Bush because, no matter how economically pressed or out of control their lives, they still felt there was something real and substantial to be lost if we didn’t send our troops into the distant reaches of the Earth, or if in some way “there” did somehow become “here”? How many identified their own interests, or those of their children, with the empire (even if not thought of as such); how many simply identified, as happens in all imperial lands, with power and privilege, even when they had little of either? What did John Kerry have to offer when it came to any of this?

And here was the remarkable thing: If you remember, the Republicans spent many tens of millions of dollars on a preemptive spring advertising blitz against Kerry, which seemed at the time not terribly successful. Of all their charges then, only one, just one little charge stuck — but that, it turned out, was plenty. And it was enough in part because it stuck in the most dangerous place of all; not so much in the minds of the voting public (though it did), but in the minds of John Kerry and his advisers. He was, the Bush administration said, a “flip-flopper.” (I can still hear the Republican delegates in Madison Square Garden chanting with such gusto — by then they knew they had a marvelously good thing — “Flip flop, flip flop!”)

If Karl Rove & Co. convinced no one else, they succeeded in convincing Kerry — money well spent — and for much of the rest of the campaign he tried desperately, almost single-mindedly, never to flip or flop on anything. And so at a crucial moment, rather than flip or flop, he simply collapsed and handed the game ball over to the President. In perhaps the most egregious misstep of his campaign, challenged by George Bush on whether he would still support the war in Iraq “knowing what we know now” (about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction), the Senator stated that, even knowing what he now knew, he would not have changed his vote on the war resolution. (“Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.”) And so, at a critical moment, he sidelined himself on the crucial issue of the war in Iraq.

Here we are then at the dismal beginning of Bush Watch (the sequel), wondering what exactly you do when you have a semi-dead political party and a desperate need for something new to be born (but your country’s history offers you not a single example since the 1850s of such a successful political birthing). With that in mind, consider the post-election thoughts of Ira Chernus, who back in September wrote Presidential Fiction, a prescient election-season piece on the power of the tale Bush was telling Americans. His is the first of a modest series of pieces on the election and our political past, present, and future, the rest of which will appear in the first months of 2005. Tom

Voting Their Fears
National Insecurity Key to Bush Victory

By Ira Chernus

Only 535 people get to vote for president of the United States: the electors. On Monday, they did their job. When their votes are tallied, George W. Bush will be announced as the winner. On November 2, the other 122 million of us just gave an advisory opinion. But what advice, exactly, did the rest of us get from that half or more of the electorate who voted for the President, even though he had tanked the economy and led us into war based on lies?

On Election Day, before the counting was done, the media chorus was already singing out the official answer: values. The voters’ advice is to take us back to that ol’ time morality. All those abortion-hating, gay-bashing, “moral values” conservatives gave George W. his victory.

The only problem is that it’s not quite true.

The news told us ad nauseam that 22% of the voters chose “moral values” as their number one issue. But the real news is that this is a historically low number. It was 35% in 2000 and 40% in 1996. In the exit polls, when asked what one quality they wanted most in a president, only 8% chose “religious faith.” Among those who called themselves “heavy churchgoers,” Bush did no better in ’04 than in ’00. What about the states that passed gay-marriage bans, often cited as crucial for the Bush win? They gave Bush 57.9% of their votes; the other states, totaled, gave him only 50.9% — a 7 point margin for Bush. But four years ago, Bush’s share in these same states was 7.3 points higher than in the other states.

In a Pew poll taken just a few days after the election, voters were asked to choose from a list of factors that influenced their votes. 27%, chose moral values; 22% chose Iraq. But when they were asked to name their most urgent issue (with no list to choose from), 27% named Iraq and only 9% moral values.

When a post-election New York Times-CBS News poll asked: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country?” — only 5% chose either moral values or abortion. Only 8% said yes to: “Should government officials try to use the political system to turn their religious beliefs into law?” Eighty-five percent said no. (Ten years ago, 23% had answered yes to the same question.) “Which worries you more, public officials who don’t pay enough attention to religion and religious leaders, or public officials who are too close to religion and religious leaders?” Thirty-five percent worried about not enough attention to religion; 51% worried about leaders paying too much attention.

And here’s another little anomaly to take into consideration: Bush voters are more liberal than the media would have us believe. Nearly half of them worry most about public officials who are too close to religion. In the exit polls, about 22% of them favor gay marriage and 52% would legalize gay or lesbian civil unions. 25% of Bush voters want no restriction on a woman’s right to choose; another 38% think abortion should be legal in most cases.

The often-quoted statistic about “moral values” begs the question of how voters interpreted those key words in post-election polls. In a Zogby poll, 68% of self-identified “liberals” said that “faith and/or morals” were important in deciding their vote (14 points higher than “moderates”). When voters were asked to identify the single greatest moral crisis facing America, one-third selected “materialism and greed” and 31% chose poverty, while the combined total for abortion and same-sex marriage was only 28%. In the Pew poll, only about 40% of those who said “moral values” influenced their vote named gay marriage or abortion as their highest concern. Pew pollster Andrew Kohut summed it up: “We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq.”

The Terror Vote

The economy and Iraq were indeed named by many voters as the most critical issues in this election. But that hardly explains Bush’s success. Those should have been his weak spots. Kerry counted on strong support from middle-income voters, who saw jobs disappearing all around them and little real wage growth for those who kept their jobs. Yet the Bush vote in the $30,000 to $75,000 bracket was no lower than his overall vote, perhaps even a tad higher. Those folks were not voting their economic self-interest.

What about Iraq? In the Zogby poll, 42% of voters saw the war in Iraq as the most pressing moral issue affecting their choice for president — almost twice as many as those citing abortion and same-sex marriage. Even among self-identified conservatives, 32% saw the Iraq war as the moral issue that most influenced their vote, while only 21% named abortion and 19% same-sex marriage.

But Iraq meant different things to different people. And here, if anywhere, lies the key to understanding the election. In polls taken during the campaign season (collated by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes), 72% of Bush voters said Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program to develop them up to the March, 2003 invasion; only 26% of Kerry voters held that mistaken view. 75% of Bush voters believed Saddam Hussein’s government had a close connection with Al Qaeda; only 30% of Kerry voters believed that error.

On election day, the exit polls asked: “Is the war in Iraq part of the war on terrorism?” The 54% who said “yes” went for Bush by a margin of 4 to 1. The 43% who said “no” went for Kerry by 9 to 1. The 19% of voters who named terrorism as their highest concern broke for Bush by 86% to 14%. (That’s 8 points better than Bush did among voters who put “moral values” first.) Ninety percent of Bush voters said things are going well in Iraq. Those who named Iraq rather than terrorism as their highest priority broke 3 to 1 for Kerry. Eighty-two percent of Kerry voters said things are going badly in Iraq.

Bush supporters saw Iraq (armed with WMD) and terrorism as a single problem being well managed by the President. (Exactly the same number who saw Iraq as part of the war on terrorism also believed the U.S. to be safer now than four years ago.) Kerry supporters separated the two wars and saw Iraq as spinning out of control.

When you add up the numbers, Bush’s slim electoral margin didn’t come from moral-values voters. It came from people who worried first and foremost about terrorism. They supported the Iraq war because they saw both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the current Iraqi resistance as part of the global terrorist threat. And they believed Bush to be the only candidate who could handle that threat. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it: “Without the fading but still potent aura of 9/11, when the nation was ready to rally around any leader, [Bush] wouldn’t have won at all.”

University of Virginia political scientist Paul Freedman noted the strong correlation between views on terrorism and voter choice. Those who said they trusted only Bush to handle terrorism voted nearly 100% for him. Those who trusted only Kerry gave 97% of their votes to him. In a state-by-state analysis comparing the Bush vote in ’00 and ’04, Freedman found that it was the jump in the number of voters who cared about terrorism, not moral values, that made the difference.

The post-election Times-CBS poll told the same story. It asked for the two most important issues in deciding how people voted. Factors relating to war, terrorism, and national security were named more than twice as often as moral and religious issues. Asked to name the most important problem facing this country, 36% identified issues relating to war and terrorism; only 4% chose “moral values” and 1% abortion. Asked, “How much confidence do you have that George W. Bush will make the right decisions when it comes to protecting the country from terrorist attack?”, 73% said they had “a lot or some” confidence — roughly the same level of confidence that voters had expressed throughout the campaign. In poll after poll, Bush’s support fell below 50% on every issue except his ability to deal with the “war on terrorism.”

Summarizing its own poll, the Times concluded that “the outcome of the election reflected a determination by Americans that they trusted Mr. Bush more to protect them against future terrorist attacks rather than any kind of broad affirmation of his policies.” Democratic political analyst Stanley Greenberg agreed: “The No. 1 reason for voting (or considering voting) for Bush [was] response to 9/11.” It was the terror threat, so cleverly wielded by the Bush administration, that gave the President a slim increase over his vote in the 2000 election. If there had been no 9/11, no perceived ongoing terrorist threat, no widespread belief that Iraq equals terrorism,
it seems quite likely that John Kerry would be choosing his cabinet now.

That’s not to say the “values-vote” story is completely wrong. There are indeed millions of Christian social conservatives out there who do fear God and sin above all else. They voted for Bush because they think of him as one of them. But there are many millions more, professing all sorts of religion or none at all, who fear terrorism above all. They voted for Bush because they were convinced that he would do the right thing in fighting the terrorist threat. Stanley Greenberg and James Carville got it right: “The president was able to keep the election centered on safety (the terrorist threat) and values, rather than on Iraq and the stagnant economy. Bush asked people to vote their beliefs and feelings, rather than to judge his performance or ideas for the future.”

Desperate for Moral Certainty

Perhaps the mainstream media generally overlooked this point because their story line has to be simple enough to compress into a headline or a soundbite. In the rush to find a single decisive factor, they forgot that no election hinges on a single political group or issue. A candidate wins by mobilizing a network of voters tied together in all sorts of complex ways. The best candidates don’t just find that network. They create it. On this one point, Bush must be given high marks. His campaign skillfully spun a web, not of political opinion, but of beliefs and feelings.

He had been doing it since September 11, 2001. From the moment he declared war on terrorists, Bush preached a powerful official story: 9/11 proves that evil really exists. We know it’s out there and we know it’s pure evil, because it attacked the pure innocents (that’s us) for no good reason. Who can now doubt the chasm separating good and evil? Who can now doubt that the only way to deal with evil is to destroy it before it destroys us?

For conservatives, this proved the silver lining in the dark tragedy. For years they had been terrified by postmodern relativism, the idea that good and evil are nothing but subjective ideas we make up in our heads. That was the real terror they felt they were fighting — long before 9/11. And they had good reason to fear that it was a losing battle. The “war on terrorism” gave them a new code word for their crusade against moral terror, a new banner to fight under, and new hope that they might somehow win in the end.

After 9/11, good old moral certainty was back — or so it seemed. Conservatives could once again insist that there was only one moral code in our world, as eternally true as 2 + 2 = 4. When Bush’s people raised the specter of the brutal dictator Saddam wielding weapons of mass destruction, who could doubt that it was our sacred duty to go to war against such absolute evil?

Or so it seemed — before those disturbing shades of moral gray started creeping back into the mainstream picture frame, just as the electoral campaign heated up. The President, sworn to fight for purity and goodness, had sent us to war for reasons that turned out to be false. Was he intentionally lying, or just deceived by faulty intelligence? Who could know for sure? The vice-president’s corporation was making huge profits by overcharging us for its services in Iraq. Was Cheney pulling the strings on the public purse for his private profit, or was he as clueless as he claimed? Decent American kids were sadistically brutalizing prisoners. Were they just a few “bad apples,” or was the military system rotten? Corporations with close ties to Bush & Co. were getting caught with their scandal-ridden pants down nearly every day. Were they just a few bad apples, or was our economic system rotten? The whole world seemed to oppose the war. Were they seeing things more clearly, or just jealous of our power?

In the presidential debates, John Kerry tried to play on the doubt that lay at the heart of such growing questions. When he said: “You can be certain and be wrong,” his supporters cheered the pungent soundbite. But the blow glanced off Bush like a pebble off an elephant. Bush just kept playing his winning card: the fear of moral relativism. The moral terrors of social conservatives and the fears of Muslim terrorism converged in the desire to have a leader embodying moral certainty. (“Marriage is between a man and a woman.” “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”) And all with the undoubted blessing of the God who will “continue to bless America” (as Bush always puts it), because “God is never neutral.”

Bush had no need to tout conservative economic, social, and moral positions directly. All he had to do was paint Kerry as a wavering “flip-flopper,” unfit to lead at a time when nothing but rock-solid firmness and certainty could protect a nation under siege. This put Kerry on the defensive, forcing him to respond to these charges every day, leaving him little time to put forward his own proactive agenda. Every Kerry retort just confirmed that the election was a referendum on the virtues of strength, firmness, certainty, absolute moral dualism.

Bush effectively presented himself as a man of moral absolutes, who knew evil when he saw it and had an unwavering determination to destroy it. Throw in a generous dose of America’s millennial mission to bring freedom to the world, and he had an unbeatable recipe. Voters could step into the booth and cast their vote for unwavering moral standards and predictable continuity with the past. They could vote against the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world offering too many choices and no fixed rules. They could vote against a world that seems, like many of their lives, to be spinning out of control.

That’s why, as Bill Clinton (the savviest Democrat of them all) once told his party, the American people would rather have a leader who is strong and wrong than weak and right. Well, not all the American people. Just enough to elect a president. John Kerry, despite his long conversations with Clinton, never learned that lesson. So we all learned it, the hardest way.

What’s an Opposition to Do?

How could this have been avoided? Linguistics professor George Lakoff suggests that the Democrats, and all those who stand opposed to the Bush regime, should counter the GOP’s “strict father” values with an appeal to “nurturing mother” values. In this election, though, Lakoff’s approach probably would not have helped. Bush won because so many voters wanted that strict father, a man who could take charge and enforce the rules without compromise. A nurturing candidate, who encourages sensitive, independent choice-making, will have a tough time getting elected in today’s USA.

If the anti-Bush forces want to compete for the role of strict father and win, they will have to find some new evils that frighten and outrage enough voters to put them over the top. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it back in the 1930s by attacking the “economic royalists” — the wealthy few who owned most of the nation’s assets — as well as the Nazis. But he had the unique advantage of a decade-long depression and an electoral system that didn’t require nearly as much cash as today. Now, Democrats can hardly build their hopes for success on attacking the corporate hand that feeds them (unless they assure our modern “royalists” that their campaign rhetoric will never be translated into real policy).

Perhaps, though, the opposition should admit that it can never outdo the Republicans in the “strict father” game. Perhaps we just have to accept this reactionary trend as an inevitable backlash against long-term changes that are equally inevitable. We are moving toward a world where people hold strong moral values but recognize them as choices and respect the right of others to make different choices. The old-fashioned world of black-and-white moral certainty is doomed. It’s just taking a very long time passing. Think how long it took for feudalism, or monarchy, or state religions, or slavery to disappear. Think how many people suffered in the process, both those who were oppressed by these lingering institutions and those who couldn’t bear to see them go. Maybe that’s what we all must suffer through now. Maybe the best we can do is ward off the most outrageous excesses, buffer the pain, and try our best to understand what’s going on.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea (Orbis). You can e-mail him at [email protected]

Copyright C2004 Ira Chernus