Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Apocolypse Now

Immediately after the election, I wrote a dismal post-mortum in which I expressed pessimism towards any hope of creating an informed, issue-oriented electorate. Americans are too apathetic about the issues, they're too easily swayed by style and showbiz, they care too much about "character" and too little about content. I claimed that:
"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."

In such a world, I argued, there is little incentive for substantive discussion of issues and alot of incentive for demagoguery and slime attacks. And I was profoundly disheartened.

Then, with a little time to calm down, I stepped off the brink and said there was room for optimism. My dormant idealism came back, and I argued that while perhaps America has lost its way, it has not lost its heart. Eventually, the United States will remember its commitment to justice, tolerance, and equality, and will reject the poisonous division that has been foisted upon us by the peddlers of spite and partisanship.

Now, an article in The New Republic by Christopher Hayes has cast me back into gloom and doom mode.

Hayes spent time in Wisconsin talking to swing voters, and based on his experiences he came up with some--admittedly anecdotal--conclusions about the mind of the undecideds. And what he had to say was profoundly disheartening.
"A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists:...[A]mong undecided voters, I encountered a consistent and surprising isolationism--an isolationism that September 11 was supposed to have made obsolete everywhere but the left and right fringes of the political spectrum. Voters I spoke to were concerned about the Iraq war and about securing American interests, but they seemed entirely unmoved by the argument--accepted, in some form or another, by just about everyone in Washington--that the security of the United States is dependent on the freedom and well-being of the rest of the world.

In fact, there was a disturbing trend among undecided voters--as well as some Kerry supporters--towards an opposition to the Iraq war based largely on the ugliest of rationales. I had one conversation with an undecided, sixtyish, white voter whose wife was voting for Kerry. When I mentioned the "mess in Iraq" he lit up. "We should have gone through Iraq like shit through tinfoil," he said, leaning hard on the railing of his porch. As I tried to make sense of the mental image this evoked, he continued: "I mean we should have dominated the place; that's the only thing these people understand. ... Teaching democracy to Arabs is like teaching the alphabet to rats."...

That may have been the most explicit articulation I heard of this mindset--but it wasn't an isolated incident. A few days later, someone told me that he wished we could put Saddam back in power because he "knew how to rule these people." While Bush's rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy played well with blue-state liberal hawks and red-state Christian conservatives who are inclined towards a missionary view of world affairs, it seemed to fall flat among the undecided voters I spoke with. This was not merely the view of the odd kook; it was a common theme I heard from all different kinds of undecided voters. Clearly the Kerry campaign had focus groups or polling that supported this, hence its candidate's frequent--and wince-inducing--America-first rhetoric about opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in the United States.

The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush: Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the president's undoing. But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better. Yeah, but what's Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naive. C'mon, they'd say, you don't really think that's going to work, do you?
Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues: Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps--though I'll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics--maybe, I thought, "issue" is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they're being quizzed on a topic they haven't studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

To cite one example: I had a conversation with an undecided truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman's car after having worked a week straight. He didn't think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. "There's too many lawsuits these days," he told me. I was set to have to rebut a "tort reform" argument, but it never came. Even though there was a ready-made connection between what was happening in his life and a campaign issue, he never made the leap. I asked him about the company he worked for and whether it would cover his legal expenses; he said he didn't think so. I asked him if he was unionized and he said no. "The last job was unionized," he said. "They would have covered my expenses." I tried to steer him towards a political discussion about how Kerry would stand up for workers' rights and protect unions, but it never got anywhere. He didn't seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided.

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.

As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again."

My whole--my only--basis for optimism in America is a abiding belief that Americans both want to do the right thing and care enough to do the right thing. By all accounts, I think the former is true. In Oklahoma, for example, one of the reddest of the red states, an entire community banded together in order to protect a gay teenager who was faced with picketing, harassment, and intimidation by a radical anti-gay christian sect. They don't accept that homosexuality is moral. They voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and they hope the teenager will change his ways. But when faced--head on--with such unmitigated hate, with slogans such as "Fags Are Worthy of Death," they knew, deep in their hearts, that this was wrong. And they unified as one, and with a strong voice repudiated those whose ideology is based on fear and loathing. When Americans see the effects of injustice with their own eyes, when its impacting their friends, family, or neighbors, there is no people on earth who will unite faster and shout louder for justice. The problem is for the vast majority of Americans who never have to deal with these issues head on. If they cared enough to even glance at the issues, they might see that there are wrongs to be righted, battle yet to be won. But they don't care, and they can't be motivated. And as long as America sees the world this way, the Republican tactic of minimizing issues while maximizing fear will continue to win elections.

1 comment:

N.S.T said...

My my, could this be another variation on the impicit message of somany liberal pundits these days: "we lost because there are too many dumb people voting these days"? Besides, who quantifies "dumbness" anyway? That's the great thing about America everyone, your right to vote isn't subject to any strings. You have freedom of thought. NO ONE can make you vote one way, and, quite frankly, when one votes, they cannot give a wrong answer. Or so it should be-- Nick Tell