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:
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.
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.
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.