Monday, November 08, 2004


Everyone seems to be talking about values in some combination of the following statements:
  • "Values are what won the election for Bush."
  • "The Democratic Party could do themselves well to express their ideas in terms of values."
  • "Red and Blue states have totally disjoint values systems."
And so on.David Brooks strangely disagrees with the first statement and agrees with the third:
This year, the official story is that throngs of homophobic, Red America values-voters surged to the polls to put George Bush over the top.

This theory certainly flatters liberals, and it is certainly wrong.

He does make a good point. Despite all the hype, the share of evangelicals in this election was the same as in 2000, just like the youth vote. So it was not the evangelical vote that pushed Bush over the top. Even if it were, this share is likely not large. If the figure of 5,000,000 that has been tossed around is accurate, this is only about 4% of the electorate. Brooks claims instead that it was a triumph of conservative policies:
He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror.

The fact is that if you think we are safer now, you probably voted for Bush. If you think we are less safe, you probably voted for Kerry. That's policy, not fundamentalism. The upsurge in voters was an upsurge of people with conservative policy views, whether they are religious or not.

I guess that Brooks would rather present the Red state voters, not as morally impassioned guardians of tradition, but as totally ignorant. Is it possible for anyone who has observed the war in Iraq and the economy over the last four years to draw the conclusion that the President has done a good job? Well, no. Bob Herbert confirms this view:
I think a case could be made that ignorance played at least as big a role in the election's outcome as values. A recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that nearly 70 percent of President Bush's supporters believe the U.S. has come up with "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda. A third of the president's supporters believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. And more than a third believe that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S.-led invasion.

This is scary. How do you make a rational political pitch to people who have put that part of their brain on hold? No wonder Bush won.

In the same survey half of Bush voters believed their candidate supported the Kyoto accords and the International Criminal Court. So, no, David Brooks, this election is not an affirmation of conservative policy. If anything, it is an affirmation of liberal policy!Tim Burke offers a different explanation, that Red state voters don't particularly care if their leader is up to the job:
A lot of us who voted for Kerry are astonished that the simple competence issue didnĂ­t carry the day by itself. What I have realized is that seeking competency and a respect for institutional process are cultural values that are parochially confined to educated elites. They're part of the everyday ethics of our work, part of our habitus. But this is not what some other social constituencies are looking for in a leader.
But the Bush administration has also been deceptive. Is this a cultural value? They have been arrogant and brash. Is this too a cultural value? I think we need to give the Red state voters much more credit than they have been getting. Growing up in an (almost) Red state (Wisconsin), I've interacted with people who would later vote for George Bush (yes, it's true.) They don't value incompetence or deception, in fact much the opposite is true. Although there are markedly different attitudes towards the value of "book-smarts" vs. "street-smarts" there is no broad anti-competence consensus. Traditional values haven't changed in some radical way.

But what are we left with to explain the election results? What do you do when the voting population is not informed about your or your opponent's positions? Well, for starters you campaign in the South. Bill Clinton did not win Arkansas, Florida, Georgia (in '92), Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia by completely ignoring them. It does not pay to marginalize Southern states as if they were some other culture separate from your own, as John Kerry did repeatedly (i.e. his comments to the effect of "They value religion down in the South" and "We in the Democratic Party welcome those of faith.") Second, you have to run an effective campaign. The Kerry campaign was a disaster. They let (indeed, invited) the focus shift to the Swift Boat "controversy" and by the time Kerry made his move in the debates it was too late. Third, the only Democrats to win the Presidency in the post-Civil Rights era have been moderates from the South. Thinking that John Kerry, reminiscent of Michael Dukakis (yay, Swarthmore) was a good general election candidate was a serious error. Lastly, Kerry essentially ran on raising taxes. Didn't he consult Walter Mondale? Even if it was only on incomes above $200,000, and it may have been good policy, it was not good politics. As Bill Clinton writes in his autobiography, to have good government requires both good policy and good politics.

Despite all these errors the Democrats still came away with 48% of the popular vote. That is not an uncrossable chasm. I believe that all it requires is an alert campaign, a focus on the South, not as a separate entity, but as an integrated national strategy, a candidate who is moderate (but not conservative like Joe Lieberman), and the combination of good politics and good policy. These things aren't impossible to accomplish.

Right now the Republicans have the populist high ground. But trying to balance a populist social policy and a very unpopulist economic policy cannot last forever.


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