Vol. 5 Num 163 Fri. November 05, 2004  

Straight Talk
What's the matter with America?

There is a book out right now called What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank in which the author explores the issue of why it is that so many middle and low-income Americans consistently vote Republican even though to do so is manifestly against their own economic interests.

Franks' explanation is interesting. He suggests that there is such little difference between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues that much of the electorate makes its decisions based largely on social and cultural issues.

The Republicans have proved adept at stoking up cultural anger in middle America against East coast elites, and keep winning elections by basing their appeal on a raft of social issues such as guns and abortion. These social issues resonate with the party faithful and get them to the polls in record numbers, as happened in 2004.

The point is to keep the fires of resentment burning against a liberal East coast elite trying to impose its values on the heartland, so that the heartland cultural conservatives are motivated to turn out in droves on election day to vote against Democrats -- the party which is seen as the embodiment of such elitism.

Frank further suggests that the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this, and that the solution for them is to put forward more populist economic policies that would counteract the appeals to cultural and social issues made by the Republicans.

However, this is where his analysis breaks down, and there is no real support for his contention that if Democrats shifted to the left on economic issues that this would incline culturally conservative voters to give them another look.

In addition, let me suggest that, contrary to Frank's confident assertion, there do exist significant differences between the two parties on economic matters.

The one thing that Frank does not or perhaps cannot mention when he writes about the dominance of the Republican party in the heartland states is that the Republican strategy for victory is predicated on the essential baseness of the electorate in these states.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with voting on cultural and social issues rather than economic ones -- but the question Frank should be asking is what kind of social issues motivate these voters and what does this tell us about them.

And now that President Bush has won re-election by a comfortable margin, the question that I think needs to be asked is not what is wrong with Kansas, but what is wrong with the US as a whole.

There is no way to spin the election outcome positively for the Democrats. The election has been an endorsement of President Bush. Not a resounding mandate perhaps, but convincing enough.

Bush received nearly sixty million votes -- the most in US history -- and the Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate. In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote by half a million, but this year his winning margin was over three and a half million, and he won 51 per cent of the popular vote.

Nor can anyone argue that the US electorate didn't know what it was getting. In 2000, Bush was something of an unknown quantity, but in 2004, everyone knows what kind of a man he is and where he stands on the issues.

So let's look at how and why he won and what a Bush victory says about the American people.

There were a number of key issues in the 2004 elections -- the economy, the president's leadership in the war on terror including the war in Iraq, and social issues such as gay marriage.

In the end, the economy proved to be a wash. Even some states such as Ohio which lost hundreds of thousands of jobs on Bush's watch ended up going for him, and exit polls show that slightly more voters trusted Bush with the economy than Kerry.

In the end it all came down to Bush's leadership in the war on terror including the war in Iraq and the social issues.

Exit polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of voters believed that Bush would do a better job in the war on terror than Kerry.

In fact the exit polls make for alarming reading. This election was not a fluke. President Bush won because quite clearly more Americans agree with his policies and vision than with those of Senator Kerry.

The simple fact is that it didn't bother the electorate that Bush had run a mendacious and underhanded campaign against Kerry. In fact, more people thought that the Kerry campaign had been unfair than the other way around.

It didn't matter to the electorate that Bush had misled the country into war and has since then sensationally mishandled the continuing occupation. It didn't matter to the electorate that the stature of the country outside its borders stands at an all-time low. It didn't matter to the electorate that the invasion of Iraq has made the US far less safe from terror and that Bush has consistently underfunded and politicised homeland security as well.

In fact, a majority of Americans agreed with President Bush that the war on Iraq is an essential front in the war on terror and approved of the decision to go to war.

Bush won because on most of the important issues most of the American people agreed with him and not Kerry.

Nor should one discount the impact of cultural and social issues. This year the big issue was gay marriage. Initiatives to ban gay marriage passed in all eleven of the states in which they were on the ballot, and the issue brought conservative voters to the polls in record numbers. Millions of evangelicals who stayed home in 2000 came out to vote in 2004 based on their opposition to gay marriage and this helps to explain Bush's margin of victory.

In retrospect, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalising gay marriage was one of the turning points in the election. It was this that brought the issue of gay marriage to the forefront of the public mind and mobilised conservative voters to turn out to vote in the numbers they did.

Even though he too opposes gay marriage -- the fact that Senator Kerry is from Massachusetts couldn't have helped him with these voters, who overwhelmingly voted for President Bush.

The exit poll results on questions such as Bush's leadership and Iraq and "moral values" show that the time has come for the Democratic party to stop wringing its hands in despair and wondering what it can do to appeal better to voters in middle America.

If more Americans trust the economy to Bush than to Kerry despite the evidence of the past four years, if more Americans believe that the war in Iraq has made them safer, if more Americans believe that Bush is a steadfast and rock-ribbed leader in the war on terror, if more Americans believe that the most important thing is to deny civil rights to homosexuals, if more Americans believe that the president served more honourably than Kerry in Vietnam -- then the Democrats can't win.

The problem is not with the Democratic party. The problem is with the American people.

After all, this is a people more than 40 percent of whom still think that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 and almost 50 percent of whom think that things are going well for the US in Iraq.

There isn't much you can do about an electorate so deeply mired in delusion and denial.

I have always told my American friends that most people around the world do not dislike America -- only the Republican party and its policies.

Most people around the world are quite capable of distinguishing between the people of a country and their leadership. But in a democracy at some point the people have to take responsibility for the man who is elected by them.

George Bush is clearly the American people's choice for president. Sixty million votes. The most in US history. More than Ronald Reagan ever received. 51 per cent of the popular vote. More than Bill Clinton ever received.

Perhaps the electorate could have been forgiven for 2000. No one knew for sure how bad Bush would be. Plus there is a good argument to be made that he didn't really win in the first place and certainly he lost the popular vote.

But not this time. This time -- much as it pains me to admit -- Bush seems to have won fair and square.

To my American friends -- you are always asking why people don't like Americans. Perhaps this is why.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.