by Patrick Lewin
from Signs of the Times No. 16 - Jan 2005

How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?

U.S. ELECTION DISASTER

The Daily Mirror's front page comment, over a picture of President Bush, was followed next day by Brian Reade's blistering column, 'God Help America':

'America deservedly got a lawless cowboy to lead them further into carnage and isolation and the unreserved contempt of most of the rest of the world. The Yellow Rogue of Texas.'

Even The Economist, albeit 'with a heavy heart', endorsed Kerry. In a poll of 34,330 people in 35 countries, published in the New York Review of Books on November 4, only in Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland did a majority prefer Bush. A TIME/CNN poll found that '82% of those surveyed in Britain, France and Germany expect worldwide respect for the U.S. - now at an all-time low - to stay the same or get worse over the next four years; only 11% think it will improve.' (Time , November 22).

Not that the extraordinarily lengthy and expensive electoral process with all its opportunities for fraud and patronage offers voters in a plutocracy much of a choice. 'Elections are a contest between two millionaires and we get to dump one of them, which is a victory of sorts.'

It's all on the Internet: the 55 million Americans seeking citizenship in Canada, many 'sobbing uncontrollably'; the redrawn map, with the United States of Canada above Jesus-land; H.L. Mencken's curmudgeonly observation in the Baltimore Sun: 'In small areas, before small electorates, a first rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre - the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.'

America does nothing by halves. She nurtures or attracts the best academic brains, wins most of the Nobel Prizes, puts men on the moon; she's also as insular and as wacky as they come: when grandfather dies, a child's fears are allayed by his ghost being sold on eBay. Given its large population, there are probably more intelligent, well-educated, warm-hearted people of cosmopolitan outlook in America than anywhere else on earth, but they are still a minority. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln - to us a liberal, to present-day Republicans a moderate - only won in 1860 because two Democrats stood against him, splitting their vote between north and south. After the Civil War, Southern Democrats could no longer own slaves but they remain to this day very conservative. Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, believed as he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that he was signing away the South for fifty years.

Since Theodore Roosevelt, the other great liberal Republican president, split the Republican party in 1912, it is increasingly the Democratic party that is Lincoln's liberal heir, too liberal now for many of its traditional supporters. Nine of the last fourteen elections have been won by the Republicans, beginning with Eisenhower in 1952, who could have won regardless of party ('His smile was his philosophy'). What has also changed politically, since Johnson's landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, is that most southern Democrats have become Republican. Both parties, if they seek to attract votes from the moderate centre, risk a challenger from the flank splitting their vote. Ross Perot took 18.86% when Bush 41 lost to Clinton by 5.55%, Nader 2.74% when Gore lost to Bush 43.

This time Nader was down to 0.34%. The Democratic vote increased by 6.6 million to 57,592,000 (48.16%; it was 48.38% in 2000), but Bush's soared by 10.429 million to 60,884,000 (50.91%; 47.87% in 2000). The statistics on how these numbers break down are disputed but the impact of 'the Christian Wrong', and of some Catholic bishops, seems to have been less than expected. While regular churchgoers made up 42% of those who voted and almost four in five evangelicals opted for Bush, it is said that in percentage terms Bush's share of the pie was only one point up on 2000. Perhaps anger over the Lewinsky affair had cooled.

Who conjured up those winning millions? The Prince of Darkness was Karl Rove. Superbly professional, clinically amoral, marshalling a '50-state' army, knowing exactly how to target each group and undermine the enemy, to Bush he was 'the Architect'; to those he ran rings round, Machiavelli or Goebbels. Kerry won all but a handful of the cities; Bush the affluent suburbs, the exurbs or exurbia (Shangri-La with plumbing), and the rural communities. Bill Clinton's immediate comment was: 'We lost because we were seen as two-dimensional aliens. If you let people [think] your party doesn't believe in faith or family, doesn't believe in work and freedom - that's our fault.' Supported by an effective conservative media machine - Fox News, talk-radio, the Washington Times - Bush kept it simple, staying on message. We're in a war; Kerry's a flip-flopper, a liberal [dirty word], not to be trusted; you know where I stand. Most of those he addressed didn't read the more nuanced and informative New York Times or Washington Post.

A Democrat, back from canvassing in a swing state, gave vent to his frustration: 'Why. the Democratic convention in BOSTON? Why didn't we have it in the Cow Palace in Mudsock, Ohio, reinforcing the truth that WE are the party of the little guy, and not a bunch of condescending "Northeast liberal elites"? less than a week before the vote, 3 days in a row had Kerry babbling about stem cell research. Stem cell research is great, but it's SO ARCANE to the millions who've lost jobs. ' Too patrician, not comfortable parading his religious convictions, overplaying his Vietnam credentials, Kerry failed the 'who would you rather invite into your home?' test, and on the stump was seldom inspiring. The odds anyway were stacked against him: 'No modern president running unopposed in his party's primaries and caucuses has ever lost in November' (Kevin Phillips) - and it wasn't enough for Kerry to be an A.B.B. (Anybody But Bush) candidate: he never made it clear to the uncommitted what he was for. So America, at war, narrowly decided not to changes horses in midstream. The current is turbulent: the commander-in-chief may take a bath.

It wasn't only the neocons, determined that superpower America should go it alone if necessary, or a weak President, initially paralysed by 9/11 and then, moved inwardly, communing daily with Almighty Gut, who displayed arrogance. That The Guardian's misbegotten attempt to influence voters cost Kerry Ohio and the election sounds far-fetched; December's Prospect provides the figures. Michael Moore's documentaries and best-selling books also encouraged illiberalism and a disregard for all criticism, however sober and even from Republicans. Many in Red America, as intelligent, sensitive and decent as any, are well aware and resentful of Blue intellectual snobbery. Contempt invites counter-contempt and is no way to change anyone's mind. Colin Powell's words apply at home as abroad: 'The best way to deal with your enemies is to make them your friends.'

Contempt also keeps us from learning. If we listened carefully to both sides, we should have come across several distortions by the left of the neocon agenda. It was never 'all about oil'. The interview with Paul Wolfowitz in December's Prospect deserves a respectful reading. Curious how the 'isolationists' see it as the destiny of the free and the brave to liberate the Iraqis from an unspeakable dictatorship.

The question remains. Knowing what we do about the Administration and its record in the last four years - Powell among the honourable exceptions - and about George W. himself and the Bush family, how could so much hard fact have been disregarded or treated as no worse than what all politicians get up to? The overwhelming reason, I believe, lies in human psychology: once our characters and opinions are formed, we do not easily change. In part this is sensible, even admirable, but its downside is our capacity for misplaced loyalty. 'My country [or party], right or wrong,' requires Carl Schurz's addition: 'if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right!' How many troubled Republicans asked themselves a difficult question: Can America and the world afford 'four more years'? Eisenhower's son John did, explaining publicly why he was voting for Kerry.

If Iraq in the short-term does become a functioning democracy, and that leads on to the transformation of the Middle East, a viable Palestinian state, Israel back within her own borders but her right to exist accepted, and freedom for thoughtful Muslim reformers to address the faithful without being martyred, then history's verdict on Bush 43 may be surprisingly favourable. If not, we'll all get shorn. The silver lining is that his fate will serve as one more dreadful example of how easily 'all we like sheep' can go astray.

As for Mencken's prophecy, published in 1920, not a few feel it was fulfilled the same year by the election of Warren Harding (Republican) with a then record percentage (60.30%) of the popular vote. One of the worst presidents, he died in office.

Who remembers his opponent now, but Cox's running mate for vice-president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he won four in a row.


Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.