It Rings Hollow

I was duped.

Up until yesterday, I thought the 2004 Presidential election was about the important things. The war. Terrorism. The Economy. Jobs. Healthcare.

I was wrong.


The 2004 election was about values (as expertly described by Terry in the discussion about morality yesterday). What’s more, this election has always been about values. This election wasn’t lost by the left on Tuesday, or in October, or even this year. It was lost four years ago, when the Bush Administration’s strategy for re-election was set. This strategy has been brilliantly executed since then, and I’m horrified in the realization that we were part of the tactics.

Karl Rove’s re-election strategy for Bush was, from the outset, to mobilize the “base” of fundamental conservatives who (somewhat suprisingly) did not turn out in droves in the 2000 election — perhaps dissuaded by eleventh-hour revelations about Bush’s drunk-driving conviction. Although we knew about this strategy, I think we missed some of the tactics, which in retrospect seem perfectly clear. To mobilize the base, values have to be the primary issue, which means that there can be no sacrifices from the electorate to the war in Iraq or the war on Terror before the election — meaning that the bill gets added to the ballooning deficit rather than paid by a war tax. Government involvement in faith-based initiatives is necessary, so that the campaign can use church lists to drive evangelicals to the polls. Policies of opposing stem cell research, the elimination of funding for pregnancy-prevention programs overseas, and the widespread attack on science all served to fire up the base. And the masterstroke was the support for the Federal Marriage Amendment (which Bush was against before he supported it — almost certainly at Rove’s behest). The FMA had no chance of succeeding as legislation, of course, but it sure did serve to fire up the base. With hindsight, it almost seems likely that the failure of the FMA was the objective, not a setback to the Bush campaign. With the failure of the FMA came successful state-level constitutional amendments in 11 states, all either traditional Red states or swing states like Ohio. These amendments attracted fundamentalists to the polls in droves, with devastating effect for Kerry in Ohio.

Think about that for a moment. An entire swathe of policy, from social issues, to the war, to taxation, to the deficit, may have been adopted not because they were best choices for Americans, but because they were cynical tactics in a ploy for re-election. Cheney recently claimed that Kerry would say anything to get elected. But as President, it seems that Bush would do anything to get re-elected. And as President, with the power to set policy in alignment with the strategy to mobilize the base, Bush had a powerful advantage that Kerry was unable to overcome.

The absolute cynicism of this incenses me, but worst of all, I feel used. Activists on the left were part of the Rove strategy, and we played along exactly as we were meant to do. It horrifies me that was part of Rove’s strategy. Its effect was probably small in comparison to Gavin Newsom marrying gay couples in San Francisco, or Andrew Sullivan’s blog, or 30 minutes of Fox News at any hour of the day, but the possibility that we could have contributed to Bush’s re-election in any way horrifies me to the core.

But most of all, I’m afraid. I’m afraid because this strategy succeeded. Despite massive turnout drives on the left, we still lost. And that means there are more of them than there are of us. I couldn’t really understand the emotions I felt yesterday — the closest thing I could compare it to was grief. But then I realised it was shock — shock that fully 50% of the people in this country hate me and hate who I am. Suddenly, I felt like I no longer belonged.

That’s what I’m afraid of: them. Today’s Op-Ed piece in the NYT today, The Day The Enlightenment Went Out, captures it perfectly: there are more people in this country that believe in the Virgin Birth than believe in Darwinian evolution. (Thanks, Rachel, for pointing that article out.) And I have a real fear that things can only get worse in that regard. As the article points out, “it is often observed that enemies come to resemble each other”. I am truly afraid that with the rise of fundamentalism over the next 4 years that this country is going to become more like Iran than like any country I would want to live in.

In his victory speech yesterday, Bush said this:

So today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one Constitution, and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America.

But the promise rings hollow. By invoking the Constitution, in which Bush sought to enshrine bigotry and hatred with the FMA, he belies his true intentions. After the 2000 election, Bush promised to be a uniter while embarking on a specific strategy to divide the nation for the purpose of his own re-election, so why should I believe him now? The only hope I have is the very fact that this time around, he’s not seeking re-election. Perhaps the best strategy for the Republicans is to move back to the centre to broaden support. It’s certainly the only strategy that offers any hope to the other half of us.

Yesterday, I was terrified that I was going have to leave this country with Jay and lose almost everything else I loved: my home, my urban family, the city and the mountains I love so much. I didn’t know whether I had a choice — not because Jay would insist (he wouldn’t, and he hasn’t), but because I wasn’t sure if I could live in a country that doesn’t want me. Last night I told Jay that I don’t want to leave, and he asked me what it would take, how much worse it could get, before I would go. I said I didn’t know. But now I think I can answer in the negative at least — I know what would keep me here. I’ve decided to hold onto that small sliver of hope that the second Bush term will see a move back to the centre for the Republican party. That the next Supreme Court appointment will not be a fundamentalist determined to overturn Roe v Wade. That foreign policy will more towards cooperation and conciliation, not hostility. That environmental, health and educational policies will again follow science and not doctrine. It’s a small hope I know — as I mentioned on election night, divisiveness is the convergent strategy in modern politics — but I’m going to hold on to it for now.

But if it doesn’t pan out, and Bush moves even further to the right, I just don’t know what I’ll do.

4 thoughts on “It Rings Hollow”

  1. The potential future ex-pats of America salute you and understand your struggle. While I stare I my EU residency permit, I think about the things I love about Seattle and about America. This was supposed to be the Year of the Big Move for my Euro-Husband but the message from the US is clear: we Americans don’t give one good god damn for the opinions of the rest of the world. How can I ask J. to leave Europe and come to THIS? But in addition to that, how can I bear to leave all I have here behind? Where’s the line? God help me, I don’t know.

  2. David, I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, and while I agree with your conclusion that all of this was part of Rove’s strategy, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s as much a referendum on gay rights as it feels right now. I think they successfully used it as a wedge issue (or sliver issue, I think someone called it on CNN the other night) to ensure the victory and get the crazies out to vote, but I think the vast majority of people voting for Bush were thinking as much about abortion, the fact that Bush wears his religion on his sleeve like so much pigeon shit, and the successful strategy of painting Kerry as a flip-flopper, where so many people see unquestioned resolve as a matter of strength. I’m not willing to accept, at this point, that “values” is necessarily as targeted as it feels. People bought Bush’s lies that Kerry was an ultra-liberal without even knowing much about Kerry’s positions on most issues (and from where I sit, I’m squinting over my right shoulder to see him on the political spectrum). I think the Swift Boat veterans ads also successfully helped paint Kerry as a man with questionable values. Bush may have used his Daddy’s connections to get out of real military service, and subsequent connections to erase the proof that he skipped out on his guard service, but Kerry’s camp didn’t spend an equal amount of energy (or the same finesse) in impugning Bush’s character.

    Does that mean that we should feel ok about this election? Hell no. It still sucks, and I’m worried about what will happen. But I think the right-wing Christian fanatics are getting more credit for numbers than is probably appropriate. I’m still working from the assumption that a huge portion of those Bush voters were looking at those other issues and calling them “values” issues.

    What happened in the statewide initiatives is distressing. Really distressing, but I also think that it was probably a part of Rove’s strategy to bring those issues onto the ballots wehre there were always going to be more right wing than left-wing voters coming out anyway, and he could inflate the impact of those issues by bringing out even more of the right-wing nutjobs to get those passed.

    Again, I’m not saying there’s not work to be done, but today I’m not feeling hopeless. I think the voters are largely uninformed, unwilling to think for themselves or take the time to understand the implications of their electoral choices, but I do believe it’s still only a small (albeit rabid and vocal) minority who are about hate. And we’re always going to have them, just like we’re always going to have religious freakshows who believe men own their wives, who are anti-semitic, anti-muslim, or generally xenophobic. But I think it might also be playing into Rove’s strategy to overestimate the number and power of the extremists on the right. They were just very successfully used to make his point and try to scare the rest of us into doing nothing.

  3. I stumbled upon this article in the LA Times this morning….

    Jonathan Chait
    Those Who Voted for Bush May Be In for a Big Surprise
    * Concerns closer to his heart could trump all that talk about values.

    Dear rural/exurban Christian conservative voters: Congratulations on your election victory. By going to the polls in unprecedented numbers Tuesday, you overwhelmed an enormous Democratic turnout and returned President Bush to office, along with a number of very conservative senators. Now Bush is preparing to repay your efforts by moving immediately on your highest priorities: a flat tax and privatizing Social Security.

    Oh, wait. You didn’t particularly hanker for those things, did you? The election is so far in the past now that it has receded into a hazy memory. But as I recall, you voted for Bush because of his position on one issue — he opposes gay marriage — and on the general principle that he is a godly man who shares your values. Now Bush has decided, conveniently enough, that those values are identical to those of his wealthy financiers. (Go to any meeting of the Club for Growth, a group of affluent, libertarian-leaning Bush backers who mostly live in Washington and New York City. I’m sure you’ll find them, like victorious Okla-homophobe Sen. Tom Coburn, deeply concerned about rampant high school lesbianism in the Sooner State.)

    Bush is claiming the election as a mandate. There are, however, a couple of ways to interpret that. The conventional meaning is that a candidate gained office by promising to do a certain thing. Ronald Reagan in 1980 had a mandate to cut taxes and bolster the military. Bill Clinton in 1992 had a mandate to raise taxes on the rich, expand healthcare, reform welfare. Those were the central promises of the two campaigns.

    Bush uses the word somewhat differently. As he told reporters Thursday, “I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it.”

    What that means is that all you small-town folk voted for him not to pursue an agenda but just because he embodies family values. That gives him political power that he can use for purposes utterly unrelated to the source of his popularity. Sure, Bush mentioned some of these purposes in the campaign. But the references tended to be perfunctory and in code. Start with taxes.

    Though Bush talks about tax “simplification,” he doesn’t seriously believe it. He has littered the tax code with complicated new provisions, including a ludicrous corporate tax bill stuffed with special provisions for sausage producers, foreign dog-race gamblers and the like. Simplification really means making the tax code flatter — i.e. less progressive. He doesn’t care about making taxes simpler; he just wants rich people to pay a smaller share of them. There’s little evidence to suggest small-town Ohioans flocked to the polls so they could have a portion of George Soros’ tax burden shifted onto themselves.

    On Social Security, Bush was just as evasive. Here, again, the tiny minority of people who closely follow this understood his code words. He wants to divert Social Security taxes into private accounts. Because those taxes pay for the benefits of current retirees, his plan would require cutting benefits or driving the national debt even higher.

    Bush, of course, went to great pains to distance himself from these unpleasant facts. In 2001, he appointed a commission that proposed three plans to partly privatize Social Security, but he declined to embrace the panel’s findings. A few weeks before the election, a New York Times Magazine story reported that Bush told GOP donors he planned to push privatization after the election. John Kerry’s campaign circulated a nonpartisan study showing what the benefit cuts in one of the commission’s plans would entail. Bush’s spokesman dismissed the charge that he favored privatization or benefit-cutting as a “false, baseless attack.”

    Here’s what Bush said Thursday: “I had asked [Daniel Patrick Moynihan], prior to his passing, to chair a committee of notable Americans to come up with some ideas on Social Security, and they did so. And it’s a good place for members of Congress to start.”

    Got that? Last week, if you had described Bush as advocating the commission’s plans, he would have denounced you for promoting a hysterical lie. Now they are at the top of the list of things he’s saying he was elected specifically to enact.

    Meanwhile, what about opposing gay marriage, the one mandate Bush might legitimately claim? Earlier this year, Bush barely lifted a finger in support of a constitutional amendment banning it. (Compare this to the furious arm-twisting he performs to get moderates to back his tax cuts.) If he has a mandate to do anything, it’s to bring up the amendment again. However, he’s said nothing about doing so, and nobody expects him to.

    No surprise there — it’s hardly in the Republican Party’s interest. If gay marriage is banned everywhere, what’s going to bring all those heartland conservatives to the polls next time?

    If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at

  4. I have tried for the last couple days to avoid all things ‘election’. I need time to grieve and compute. I am not use which is bothering more these days: the outcome or the constant emails that have plagued my email box. What amazes me is all the maps, comments and other visuals that have made the rest of the country (primarily the South, my homeland) look like idiots. We have to remember that half of the ‘other’ people did not vote for Bush and are just as upset as we are. All this down-talking, name calling and bigotry is the same thing that we have been accusing the republicans of doing for so long, now we are falling into their trap and doing the same….does it make us any better then they are?
    As for the voting on the state wide marriage act amendments: what the polls show are the thoughts behind the voting. To many Americans the word ‘marriage’ is a very religious thing and a lot of people want to preserve all things religious. That does not mean that 50% of Americans hate us! The majority of people, I think, voted with good intentions with bad information.
    Its time that we stop crying in our milk and figure out what we need to do to change minds in America. I am not ready to leave, although that was my first reaction. I am happy to live here, my families are here. This is where I as born. I am not ready to let some jack-ass from Texas and his cronies run me out of my country! This is exactly what they want. And yes, they probably did use us to get what they wanted, and yes, I am sure that they are hoping that we all DO leave.
    What they don’t expect is that we can band together, we can figure out a ‘constructive’ way to educate (which I am not sure how we do that). We do everything in our power to change this country, that is what America has been founded on…we do everything that we can, and if that fails…then we fight harder!
    It’s going to take a LOT to make me leave the place I love, the people I LOVE and all that it entails!!
    Maybe all of this is a good thing, the thing that will unite people instead of pulling people apart!
    I can only hope right now, it’s the best I can do!

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