Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Post-Mortum

I'm going to write as honestly as I can in this post. Since we're in the immediate aftermath of a bitterly fought election, it may come off a bit raw. All I can say is that I hope I've purchased enough moderate credibilty that you can all indulge me for awhile. And since it seems only Republicans read my blog, please no mocking. I'd do the same for you. Here are my thoughts on how this election will impact everybody:

Republicans
Well, my forecast of an impending GOP civil war has been forestalled, at least for now. In the long run, I think my prediction still holds true: The GOP's mismatched coalition simply can't last much longer. But election day victories work wonders for keeping status quo alliances intact.

The real question is how Bush will govern in his second term. Part of me wants to think he'll be a bit more sensible, in part because it would be hard not to, and in part because without the need to win another election, there isn't any reason to keep playing the pander game. But a much greater part of me is pessimistic, since without an impending election to keep him honest, there is nothing pushing Bush to the center. It seems unlikely that Bush would have risked so much in polarizing America by governing from the right, if he would have been content to be a centrist. Furthermore, even more than 2000 or 2002, this election has given Bush a semi-solid mandate to continue his policies. This shouldn't be taken as a vindication of these policies, the relevant morality or advisibility of any given action exists independent of its electoral popularity. But Bush and the Republicans will almost certainly use this election as an excuse to make even more radical changes in our society. This is their right, and I don't contest it. But I don't have to be happy about it either.

Democrats
An unmitigated disaster. We lost key senate races. We lost key house races. We lost the presidency. Right now, Democratic activists are so hung up on the idea of four more years of Bush I think that they haven't even noticed just how bad of a shape we're in. I think the prevailing mood amongst Democrats was that the worst-case scenario for us was that we'd maintain the status quo: IE, Bush would still be president, and the house and senate would stay in approximately the same margins as they were before. But it looks like we're going to be worse all the way around.

Not only that, but this whole election is devastating to Democratic morale. In 2000, we had righteous anger driving us after Florida. We kind of lost a step after 9/11, and got nailed in 2002. But I think everyone thought that the Democratic machine was going to make a roaring return as a relevant player in the political process. We threw everything we had into this election, and we still lost. Whereas we had that drive and determination after 2000, all I see now is despair and hopelessness in the eyes of the Democrats around here. The electoral map is slanted against us, our best turnout efforts failed to win contested races, and in many cases 2004 was our only chance to win these races (does anyone think the Oklahoma Senate spot will be competitive again anytime in the next, oh, 35 years?). This is really, really bad.

Democracy
Here's where I start to descend a bit, I think. First, let me say that for all appearances this election was reasonably fair. Sure, there were scattered reports of random this and that around, but on a whole, it does not look like there will be any Florida repeats. That's a positive by any measure.

I will say that I am extremely disillusioned at the moment. To gather why this is, allow me to share an anecdote. When I was in elementary school, we had elections each year for our school president, VP, secretary, treasurer, and class reps. And every year the principal would get on the intercom and remind us that "we should vote for who we thought would do the best job, not just your friends." And we'd all kind of chuckle, because we knew that everyone just voted for their friends and no one gave the slightest thought to who would do a better job. But I thought, and I think we all thought, that this was because we were kids, and when we were grownup then we would look at the candidates seriously and make decisions based on issues and hard analysis.

Fast forward to 2000. In 2000, I was still a hyperliberal, not the center-leftist I consider myself now. I watched an election race where the biggest issue was that Gore was "too brainy" and Bush was "folksy" and "an average Joe." I was totally in shock. What the hell did "folksiness" have to do with Presidential qualification? Why was being smart considered a disadvantage, of all things? It was like the voters were all 10 years old again. In the first presidential race I followed carefully, I was dismayed to see virtually no attention paid to issues of substance, and hours upon hours of coverage dedicated to Gore's sighing or Bush's malapropisms. Why did I bother to inform myself on the issues, if issues were irrelevant to the process? It just didn't make sense to me.

Moving again to 2004. Towards the end of the election, I formulated a theory that matched my new centrist perspective. I argued to my friends that the majority of Americans weren't polarized archenemies. Rather, we had alot of disillusioned moderates angry that both parties appear to make decisions based solely on political concerns. The particular voting tendancies of these moderates was based around which party better dealt with their "pet issues," but as a whole, they were unhappy campers who wanted to see a third way. In light of this election, I revise that theory to incorporate my thoughts in 2000. The majority of Americans consider themselves moderates, but they aren't concerned with issues. They care about style. They want a candidate who matches their style, who makes them feel good. What did Clinton and Reagan have in common? They both made Americans feel good about themselves again. Now, when things are going well, this is an asset. But in times of trouble, it creates a disturbing catch-22, where incumbants are encouraged to pretend that problems don't exist so that voters feel good about themselves, and stick with status quo. I understand the electoral reasons for this, but the point is its bad for the country. It's dangerous, and while some electioneering may be tolerable when we're just talking about pushing numbers around the budget, when we're fighting a war, when American lives are at stake, its simply not acceptable anymore to subordinate principle to politics.

If I'm a politician gathering lessons from this election (and the last), here's what I learn:
1) Style is 80%, substance 20%
2) The 20% substance should pander only to the base, since they're the only ones paying attention to the issues anyway.

What does this give us? A political system that encourages and rewards personal sliming, politics of demagogery, and substantive extremism. That frightens me. What frightens me more is that I don't see a way to counteract it. It might very well be inherent to democracy. This election saw an unprecedented effort toward the politics of personal destruction, but it also gave voters more resources on which to learn about issues than ever before. From the blogosphere to Factcheck.org, the ability to learn about the world around us and the truth about political issues reached incredible heights. Groups went crazy trying to get out the vote, from ACT to Vote or Die. None this seemed to do anything. There is almost a willful resistance to anything that threatens America's well-entrenched ignorance. And I don't see anyway to stop it.

Before I get jumped on, I'm not denying it's possible to support Bush from a policy standpoint. It certainly is, and I'm sure there are plenty of principled, informed Bush supporters who weighed the facts and decided Bush was their man. All power to them. However, I think that it is indisputable that what put Bush over the top was not an agreement with his policies but an appreciation of his style. Americans want to put on a tough face against terror. We are resolved to win this war, and we want a leader who is an embodiement of that resolve. Noble qualities, for sure. But not substantive differences by any stretch. That's what I mean when I say these elections are decided on style. And no matter how many times Kerry says he's going to be resolved, and determined, when people get it in their heads that he's a weak-kneed flipflopper, they are going to be very reluctant to change that.

In my last post before the election, I made a pledge to support the president, even if I didn't vote for him. That pledge still holds. I wish President Bush the best, and hope he can lead America to a better tommorow. I don't know if there is any way to restore substance to politics. But I do pledge that my little corner of the political world will remain dedicated to intelligent, rational, and objective discussion of the issues, regardless of political origin. That is all I have to offer to America.

8 comments:

N.S.T said...

Schraub-- Let me start off by saying that I admire Kerry(no small feat for me, whatever the second half of the sentence is) for the way in which he handled himself today. While a lesser man(Coughs...Al Gore) would have prolonged this election for days and days, blinded to his own defeat by a lifelong, irrational need to become POTUS(Once again, Al, I'm talking to you), Kerry did the thing that he knew was better for the country, and that shows some serious cojones(did I spell that right?). Second of all, please don't rain on my parade and talk to me about a pending ideological struggle for control of the party. If this election proved anything, it was that the Republicans can unify conflicting and different ideologies into a strong, potent amalgam. Third of all, on the Dems, Hillary Clinton becomes the face of your party, a party which is, as you correctly pointed out, now in shambles, a shadow of its former self. Congrats on completing the post-Clinton collapse. Fourth of all, please don't become the Red sox fans of politics, reveling in and creating an identity as the loser. Fifth of all, I highly doubt that you did any serious, profound thinking about your fifth grade school election. Sixth of all, life's unfair, it's just too fuckin bad, tough. POlitics isn't about merit alone, it's about connecting with the voter. Election results are a reflection of the candidate's ability to win voters over, and of the will of the majority of voters(no discussion of semantics with voters, please, Bush won pop. vote and electoral college, so SHUT UP). Seventh, you should know, from doing and, more importantly, observing others do, student congress that style is always 80% and substance 20%. Your analysis of the election which can be summed up with a clear "Bush is just a better campaigner and he won despite inferior ideas," smacks of the inability to see and assess the other side. In other words, the voters elected Bush, but they were won over by his style, and if there were any justice in the world, and we voted solely on substance and rhetoric, the dems would never lose a fuckin election ever, b/c, supposedly, their ideas are such that if a dem and a republican had equally good style, the dem would always win with better ideas. It doesn't work that way. You're just going to have to accept the fact that people actually find merit(oh the horror!) in ideas that you think bigoted and disgusting. And you're gonna have to accept this fact without dismissing these people as "radical right wingers" or "religious nuts" or "idiots" or "hicks and rednecks." They're americans too, and I resent the blatant contempt that upper-middle class liberal establishment members so easily dismiss these middle-americans. You've lived in bethesda, you've been to our high school(students are, fyi, a great indicator of their parents' views and attitudes), you KNOW what I'm talking about. Eighth of all, and finally, I resent the implication that your last statement makes aout your blog remaining a spot for intelligent discourse. The implication si that, "while a majority of voters seems to have given in to this extremist bastard Bush, I wont succumb to the madness. I'll continue to be a moderate sounding voice for dissent." I resent that sentiment. Respond if you like, though I expect you aren't in the mood. John Kerry RIP, and as the GOP hispanic outreach efforts would put it "Viva Bush."-- NIck tell

David Schraub said...

If you want to defend style over substance, be my guest. We'll just disagree there. In fact, I can tell you don't have any love for substance, since that entire post made zero reference or refutation to any of the analysis I made, substituting personal attacks and unsupported claims instead. I have no clue how you have even the vaguest idea what I thought in 5th grade, but I can assure that the anecdote is entirely accurate (I've certainly SYNTHIZED it a great deal since then, and thought about more, but the thought did happen, and I resent the implication that it didn't). Again, you're perfectly willing to ignore substance, but its at your own peril. America cannot continue on a path of success if we continue to ignore reality. It's a recipe for disaster. And ironically, while I'm willing to admit that one can be Republican for a myriad of logical reasons, you, instead of giving them and engaging me on the playing field of discourse, instead launch into a defense of irrationality and non-informance. This is supposed to convince me how? I'm sorry, but that is just laughable.

Nick, if you don't like my commentary, or think it's the work of yet another Democratic party hack, you're free to read elsewhere. I think I've been pretty good about presenting things as objectively and neutrally as possible, but if you disagree, hey, that's your prerogative. This plenty of room for disagreement in America. I call 'em as I see 'em, and I'd welcome any arguments you have to the contrary. So far, you've given me nothing but assertions and ad homs. Not your finest hour.

Blackraven said...

Hey Schraub,

While I do agree with some of what you are saying (the Democrats really did blow it) I can't agree with your assumption that Americans are more concerned with style than they are substance. Its true that people like others who make them feel good, but John Kerry didn't lose because Bush has better style. He lost due to the fact that more people agreed with Bush's overall value system and past policies. Just look at exit polls. Americans each have their own priorities, however none of the polls showed people voting for a president because he looked better. They did so because they believe in their candidate. Schraub, you are operating under the assumption that the reason Bush won is because of his aura of friendliness. While you may say otherwise, its obvious from your comments about democracy that this is so. If John Kerry had won, you wouldn't be talking about style being the deciding factor in elections, so it can't actually be inherent or even common in the country.

---Benjie

jack said...

I have to say, I also disagree with the claim that Bush won because the electorate values style over substance. Though I'm not sure what you MEAN by style (bush won because of his exceptional delivery?) I think the real reason we lost this thing is the value debate.

What is fascinating is that, despite the fact that Kerry's economic and social policies are infinitely better for the middle class (and polls confirm) the rural poor have begun to be consistent republican supporters. Indeed, this is the same problem the democrats have had with the south since the 60's. According to all the issues that actually impact people's lives the democrats poll better (minus, maybe terrorism). Looking at these facts might make us decide that no one is paying attention to the issues (as you did) but I think something different is happening. We're losing the values debate. If a pro-life, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun democrat ran for president I'd guarentee he/she would win every state in the Union. Those are the only issues that keep the rural vote from going democrat again. That said, the democrats aren't going to regain power in this country until one of three things happens.

1st. The republican party has a disaster: A bribery scandal, a draft, the impending collapse or George Bush is caught on film raping a young boy (and I don't mean in a metaphorical war in Iraq sense)... and it really needs to be him I guess not anyone else as Abu Gharib proved.

2nd. The dems start nominating family values canidates. This is never gonna happen unless some rural movement tries to grab control of the party. The value issues upset to many dems for someone to get nominated without being on the right (left?) side. If this happened I and many others would probably start voting Nader or Badnarik.

3rd. There is a fundemental shift in the way Americans view these issues. This is the option I'm most hopeful about. The majority of Americans under 30 see know problem with homosexual marriage. Thank god the bigotry isn't genetic. The gun issue is more difficult since it actually impacts how people live. But as Dean proved the democrats don't have a huge issue with nominating a canidate who sees guns as a state issue (which I think it is).

The real issue is abortion. I think our only chance is to try and depolarize the issue. Pro-choice advocates need to stop ignoring the ethical implications of abortion. It shouldn't be a political issue but we're not gonna grab the rest of the county but saying abortion is just fine with us.

I think these are the only 3 issues that are keeping us from controling everything. So I suggest all democrats start promoting rational discussion of these issues. No talking points, no witty comments, real honest discussion. We have got to get around this value barrier.

Greg Ihrie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
BG said...

I commend your discourse. Your posts are always well thought out and written (if a little long).

A few thoughts of my own...

Republicans...

The war is a very unifying force for Republicans (and libertarian leaning). Without the war, I don't think we would have done as well as we have. Many in the party (and swing voters) hold ideological positions that threaten to break us apart, but I think that the war caused many to subrograte their pet positions for their position on the war.

That being said, Kerry's downfall was not conveying that he has the resolve to see the war on terrorism through. Rove & company did a pretty good job of defining Kerry rather than Kerry defining himself. (Personally, I think his position on the first Iraq war, Winter Soldier, Meetings in Paris, and lack of a firm position for this Iraq war (until 3 weeks before the election), made it pretty easy for Rove & Co. to set the definition.)

The next elections (2006 & 2008) are going to be uphill battles for Republicans. I think in general, the country likes to split governance between the two parties and when either party holds power for any length of time, this causes the populace to want change.

Democrats...

There is going to be a pretty vicious fight for the soul of the party in the next coming months. The party is going to have to decide if it is in its best interest to differentiate itself by moving further to the left, or risk becoming indistinguishable from the Republican party by capturing the center. A difficult question to answer, indeed.

From an outside observers veiwpoint, the Democratic party seems to be overly dominated with Contrarians. Contrarians are extremely important in any organization as they are valuable in pointing out what is wrong, but too many can cause indecisiveness, lack of direction. In other words, contrarians are not by nature, leaders. Kerry came off too much as a contrarian this election without conveying the sense that he had real alternatives. The "I have a plan" mantra was good for the soundbites, but he didn't flesh it out enough. And too, I thought it sounded too close to Nixon's "I have a plan to get us out of Vietnam", which was ultimately a bust.

Democracy...

The cliche in politics is, perception is reality. Style over substance. Those are the rules of the game and they will never change. The commodity markets are driven by what traders think is going to happen rather than what actually happens. It's the same thing in politics.

What does that mean? It means that it is incumbent on the parties to select candidates that can convey their message in a way that connects with voters.

Do voters want leaders that make them feel good about themselves? Of course they do, that is what leadership is about. It is about motivating. Does it mean that they have to lie about the reality of the world, no, it doesn't. Consider Churchill, he told the English that things were bad, but, he did it in a way that reassured them that they were capable of getting through it. That's leadership. Contrarians can't do this.

I predict the Democratic Party will emerge from this defeat, stronger and more effective in gaining power.

N.S.T said...

Fist of all, my first comment was full of shit. I came off as a raving lunatic. I apologize, and I hope that no one thinks ill of me(wonder how that could happen?...) Anyway, Greg's post is a perfect example of the elitist, upper-class, northeastern thing that gets so many "value-voters" social conservatives and southerners angry. A) All big business isn't conservative. B) How the hell do you explain Dan Rather and the New York Times. C) The only news network that could really claim to have direct ties to "big" business is fox, and by extension, fox News. D) Greg's post is an insult to americans, and very characteristic of the daily mirror headline from today, which went(paraphrased b/c I don't know exact number)"How could 59,000,000 Americans be so dumb?" I rest my case

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jack. The Democratic Party has sound policies in most areas, but they're losing the cultural war. Should Democrats move to the right? I don't think so.
The same situation happened in the 1940's to 60's with the civil rights movement. Democratic leaders risked their political careers to support civil rights legislation. Truman had the southern section of the Democratic Party walk out on him in 1948 when the party formally adopted the civil rights plank, and Democrats suffered losses in Congress when Johnson helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Eventually, the electorate came around to the center socially, and Demcorats were rewarded with increased votes from minorities.
My point is that society itself gets more liberal as time progresses on. Eventually, as Jack pointed out, gay marriage will be a less important issue to voters.
I read an article about two kinds of "defeats" that Democrats face:
One is the 1928 election; Hoover wins in a landslide, but eventually with the Great Depression, the electorate moves away from laisse faire and Republican economics. Democrats stick to their guns.
The other is the 1988 election; Dukakis loses badly, and the Democrats move more to the center by changing their policies, and win in 1992.
I think this is a repeat of the 1960's in terms of the cultural war. Democrats may suffer now, but in the long run, it'll be better.
--Ashwin