"US Elections: What Happened?"
November 10, 2004
‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ That was the entire message I received by e-mail from a friend in Kolkata the day after the Americans voted for President, and elected George W Bush to a second term.
That’s a tough question, one that commentators and political experts will be pondering endlessly in the coming months. The question is especially tough, given the circumstances in which its quadrennial presidential plebiscite was held. Domestically, the American economy is in the doldrums, unable to reinvigorate itself after a serious recession. Fifteen per cent of all manufacturing jobs disappeared in the years when Bush was in office. For the first time in 75 years, there was no overall job growth during a Presidential term.
Fiscally, a federal budget that was in balance in 2000 when Bush entered the White House climbed to a deficit of $413 billion this year. Trade with other nations was also in severe unbalance, with a current accounts deficit this year of nearly $600 billion, or around 6 per cent of gross domestic product.
Internationally, the USA had started a pre-emptive war on Iraq on the basis of intelligence now acknowledged to be erroneous. The cost of the war was already $200 billion, and rising daily; over 1,000 American soldiers had died, a number that was also rising. There had been over 1,00,000 Iraqi casualties.
With the economy weak, government fiscal policy sowing disaster, and a needless and costly war, why would Americans re-elect their President?
Let’s start with that war. It is a near-truism of American politics that, to cite an adage so often repeated it has almost grown stale, “You don’t change horses mid-stream.” No American President has ever failed to be re-elected during the course of a war, although Lyndon Johnson in 1968, burdened with a war that like Iraq was costly and had no end in sight, chose not to seek re-election.
The current American President, faced with an act of terrorism on 11 September 2001, turned that tragic event into a “war on terrorism”. For that is what Bush always calls it, signaling his deep desire to fight terrorism with every resource the American nation has available. But a war on terrorism has no possible conclusion: there will always be terrorists, or the threat of terrorists, or the possibility of terrorists. (A corollary of the war on terrorism, in political terms, is that you can never change governments, because that would mean changing horses mid-stream.)
Thus, the war on terrorism itself had to be sold to Americans. To do that, Republicans reversed one of the boldest pronouncements made by an American President. In his first inaugural address in 1932, President Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” thus offering a American nation in the midst of economic depression an optimism that is nowhere in evidence today. Quite the contrary. The plan of Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, was to create a deep well of fear in Americans, and to get them to vote on the basis of that fear. When the WTC was attacked and demolished, Rove saw that it might be possible to convince Americans that no American, no community, would any longer be safe. Irrational and evil men from abroad could attack at any moment. No single school or shopping centre was safe. People who had sworn to destroy Americans were liable to rise up anywhere, wreaking destruction and havoc on even the most serene or innocent American neighbourhood.
Bush’s campaign strategy centred on showing that the incumbent President was a leader who could be trusted to command the USA in time of war, and to unmask Kerry as someone less than trustworthy or capable. Bush’s advisors insisted he keep the attention of the electorate focused on the war against terror, since they did not want voters choosing which candidate was better for the economy, or which candidate was attentive to the needs of the working and middle classes.
Thus, as the campaign developed, the constant refrain in Bush’s self-presentation to the nation was that there was a war on, and he was the better leader. Kerry, according to charges made by Bush supporters, was weak and vacillating and without adequate steadfastness. Kerry could not be trusted to lead the USA’s troops in the “war on terror”, even though he had served with distinction in war (wounded, he received a high medal for bravery) , while Bush had served only in domestic military service, in fact dropping out of his unit before his period of service had ended. (A vicious public relations effort late last summer to cast doubt on Kerry’s wound was remarkably successful: for millions of Americans, Kerry’s wound was turned into a badge of dishonour.)
But Rove had a second tactic in hand, not public but subterranean, a strategic move which the Democrats underestimated. He, and Bush, would try to motivate a significant sector of the electorate to go to the polls, and vote, on the basis on certain “moral” issues, chief among them opposition to gay marriage and to abortion. Abortion has long been a major force in American politics: ever since the nation’s Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that a “right of privacy… is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” a woman’s right to abortion has been a galvanising issue in American politics. Women, overall, support the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy; Christian fundamentalists, overall, are bitterly opposed.
Then there were gay rights. When the Supreme Court of Massachusetts decided last November, and clarified bluntly this past February, that the there was not “any constitutionally adequate reason” to deny homosexuals the right to marry, this November’s presidential election was decided. For the swing issue, the issue which carried Bush to victory was undoubtedly the question of homosexual marriage.
First, the figures. About 20 per cent of 2004 voters considered themselves born-again (evangelical) Christians, and 80 per cent of them voted for Bush. More importantly, a very large number of evangelicals – who had not voted in the last election – voted, giving Bush an edge over Kerry.
It had been expected a large turnout would favour the challenger, but figures reveal that despite the largest number of voters in American history, and a 60 per cent voter turnout – the largest since 1986 – it was the increased evangelical turnout that carried the day. One in seven people who voted did not participate in the 2000 election. Some were young, and the young favoured Kerry. But many were evangelicals. As analyst Larry Sabato bluntly put it: “Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because three or four million fundamentalist Christians stayed home. Well, guess what? They turned up in 2004.” Bush, in a surprise to analysts but not to his campaign strategist Rove, gained 1.5 percentage points in the polls for every 10 percentage points that turnout increased.
Exit polls showed that voters cited three central issues as bearing on their vote. One was the economy, the strong suit of Kerry. Another was terrorism, the strong centre of Bush’s campaign. The third was “moral issues”.
“Moral issues” is a coded phrase. In American politics it does not refer, as one might think, to issues of social justice, peace or equality. That one sixth of children in the richest nation in the history of this planet live in poverty, that a destructive war was initiated on the basis of trickery and deception, that racial and gender inequality stubbornly endure: these are not considered “moral issues”.
Rather, in a stunning appropriation of the language of ethics by fundamentalist Christians, “moral issues” refer to certain kinds of religious codes governing private life. Abortion is a moral issue; so is homosexuality; so, often, is the “sanctity” of private property. Rove developed a strategy to mobilise new voters to turn up at the polls and vote for the President’s re-election. Key to that strategy – its very cornerstone – was the issue of homosexual marriage.
The first move in this strategy came last February when President Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “In recent months some activist judges and local officials have made an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage. In Massachusetts, four judges on the highest court have indicated they will order the issuance of marriage licenses to applicants of the same gender… After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence, and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilisation… Activist courts have left the people with one recourse. If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.” Amending the Constitution is a long and difficult process: the amendment was offered not because it would be enacted (it failed to pass the House of Representatives, and never even came up for a vote in the Senate) but to sound a battle cry, a clarion call, to evangelical Christians that what was at stake was “the sanctity of marriage”.
Second, in 11 states Republicans placed an initiative on the ballot which would ban any marriage not between a man and a woman. President Bush won in every one of those states. In most, he would have won without the gay marriage ban, but its presence on the ballot energised conservative voters, and their increased turnout swelled his margin of victory in the popular vote. (In the USA, the President is elected not by direct popular vote, but by the Electoral College, a system which privileges state-by-state voting).
But the key to this election, as all political strategists predicted, were three key states, each very much in play, each with a large number of electoral college votes. It was widely thought – accurately it turned out – that whoever won two of the three would be the USA’s next President.
One was Pennsylvania, where Kerry won on the basis of economic issues. One was Florida, where a very close election in 2000, and the intervention of the US Supreme Court, gave the presidency to Bush. This time Bush won Florida easily. The third was Ohio, a state in the heartland of the USA. Traditionally Republican, Ohio had suffered more job losses under Bush than any other state. Based on that circumstance it, like Pennsylvania, seemed to be winnable by Kerry.
But on the Ohio ballot was a (state) constitutional ban on gay marriage. What happened in Ohio was articulated by the minister of a fundamentalist church in that state, Reverend Tim Oldfield, who said, “Yesterday, the evangelical church rose up and declared what they wanted.”
The evangelical churches in Ohio made sure that their parishioners voted: sermons from pulpits, personal exhortation and massive use of printed flyers in 17,000 Ohio churches urged members to go out and vote for “moral” government – and by extension, for President Bush. According to exit polls, evangelical Christians supported Bush by three to one; if one narrows this down to white evangelicals, the margin was 10 to one. Voters who declared that their most important priority was “moral values” voted for Bush by five to one. As Reverend Oldfield said to a reporter, “When judges in Massachusetts imposed an agenda upon the people and sent a message across the country, I think it woke up a sleeping giant. Years past, people of faith have been uninvolved, but I think this particular issue stirred them”.
It is not that Americans are totally opposed to homosexuality. In fact, a 2003 poll found that 88 per cent believe homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, and a narrow majority believe homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. Why, then, the signal importance of gay marriage to the mobilisation of the electorate in this recent election? Or, put another way, how could Rove build so successfully on the fact that, by nearly two to one, Americans oppose (59 per cent) rather than favour (32 per cent) legalising gay marriage?
The harsh reality is that the American economy is not working well for most Americans. The wealthy are, in fact, getting wealthier, not just in actual dollars but in wealth share. The poor are getting poorer. And the middle class is shrinking: those in the middle class are for the most part are increasingly beleaguered, working ever harder to keep their heads above water.
But the Democratic party has not been able to speak effectively to that circumstance, or to the sense of discomfort and even despair, much of it economic, faced by a large number of Americans. Kerry made an effort, as Democrats at times do, to address certain economic issues, especially job losses. But nationally when Democrats talk about the forces shaping the economic life of the nation and its citizens, they always talk about statistics, and never talk about class.
There is a war going on between the rich and the rest of the USA, and the latter is losing. Democrats refuse to acknowledge this. True, they want to roll back some of the tax advantages bestowed on the wealthy, and they talk about the unemployment rate and the rising number of people who live in poverty. But the Democrats, like the Republicans, get huge campaign contributions from corporate USA. They tread carefully when it comes to rolling back centralised economic power. And they never want to “offend” the wealthy by speaking of the remarkable inequities of wealth and income that characterise the USA today.
Although the Democrats are unable to address class issues, the same is not true for the Republicans. Although they are the party of the wealthy, they have found a way to speak to the middle and working class. They talk about to the discomfort, the alienation, the despair, that working Americans feel. But the language they use purposely elides the economic terms that address the root causes of distress and despair, and instead substitutes on the language of morality. By defining alienation in a discourse on “moral values”, they shift both alienation’s cause and its solution into the ethical realm. Thus, President Bush could at one and the same time offer comfort to those who feel that the USA has gone astray, and provide protection to those who profit from the inequities and dislocations of a skewed economic system.
In the recent election, millions of Americans ignored their class interest: To use the bluntest of terms, they ignored their perilous fiscal condition and their future economic security in order to hold the line against gay marriage.
In the USA’s greatest political novel, Moby-Dick, a mad ship’s captain named Ahab sails the seas in pursuit of a white whale, Moby-Dick, against whom he has a grievance. (Its author, Herman Melville, is not unaware of the folly of trying to wreak retributive justice on the natural world.) The narrator of the novel provides a remarkable assessment of how it can be that Captain Ahab brings such anger and fury to the pursuit of the white whale. The narrator, a sailor called Ishmael, speaks of “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; …all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought – all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled on the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
Karl Rove understands that passage profoundly, and Bush won re-election to the American presidency because of it. All the frustrations of American life – all the striving after material success which founders on an inequitable economic system, all the insecurities of growing old in a callous society, all the ignoring of the needs of the young – were piled on that “hump” of gay marriage. Then Bush said, “Fire away!” and millions of Americans, as if their chests were mortars, burst their hearts’ hot shell upon those who would undermine marriage. The issue of homosexual marriage, in the shrewd Bush calculus, was made to be “all evil, visibly personified.” It became the symbol for what was going wrong in American society: the President harnessed that rage against social malfunction and turned into votes for his candidacy.
The world should not be surprised, though it can certainly be disappointed, by the results of the American election. Bush was not the first candidate, nor will he be the last, to win on the basis of fear and misguided aggression. It is a matter of profound discouragement to almost half the American electorate that a candidate could win using such base appeals: but that is what Bush did, and the 49 per cent of the electorate who voted for Kerry, as well as the world at large, will live with the consequences.
(Huck Gutman teaches at the University of Vermont and was formerly Visiting Fulbright Professor at Calcutta University.)