George Bush barely defeated John Kerry in the Electoral College, but he won the popular vote by a sizeable margin of 4 million across the country. Republicans increased their majority in Congress, while voters in 11 states voted to ban gay marriage. And California’s referendum against “three strikes” sentencing laws also went down to defeat.
Republicans–and social conservatives–swept the 2004 election, despite the extreme polarization of the nation’s population.
No one can blame Ralph Nader this time around. Nader’s half-million or so votes had no influence on the outcome of this election. The Democrats made sure of that, devoting months of effort to keep Nader’s name off ballots in populous states across the country.
Who is to blame, then? Unfortunately, the first conclusions coming from the Anybody But Bush left appear to have quickly shifted blame to the U.S. population itself.
For example, Justin Podur’s article, “The Morning After,” posted on ZNet, argues:
[I]t is time to admit something. The greatest divide in the world today is not between the U.S. elite and its people, or the U.S. elite and the people of the world. It is between the U.S. people and the rest of the world. The first time around, George W. Bush was not elected. When the United States planted cluster bombs all over Afghanistan, disrupted the aid effort there, killed thousands of people and occupied the country, it could be interpreted as the actions of a rogue group who had stolen the elections and used terrorism as a pretext to wage war. When the United States invaded Iraq, killing 100,000 at the latest count, it could be argued that no one had really asked the American people about it, and that the American people had been lied to. When the United States kidnapped Haiti’s president and installed a paramilitary dictatorship, it could be argued that these were the actions of an unelected group with contempt for democracy.
With this election, all of those actions have been retroactively justified by the majority of the American people.
Many people will be influenced by these arguments because Bush’s margin of victory was so much larger than anyone predicted. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, for example, argued on Nov. 3, “Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values. Consider the four G’s: God, guns, gays and grizzlies.”
It is true that the conservative and Republican vote was higher than in 2000. The 55 percent voter turnout (higher than the 51 percent turnout in 2000, but not nearly as high as the 60 percent predicted) had been widely predicted to help push Kerry to victory. Instead, many new voters, mobilized by Republicans, went for Bush. Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky–which went Republican–did set record turnouts. Meanwhile, the student-aged population signed up by Democrats stayed home in roughly the same large proportions as in 2000. So much for benefits of Michael Moore and Bruce Springsteen stumping for Kerry.
Bush also won substantial votes from the rapidly withering traditional base of the Democratic Party. Here are some initial statistics (based on CNN exit polls, and therefore subject to change) that give some idea of the breakdown of the Democrats’ traditional base:
— 23 percent of gays voted for Bush.
— 36 percent of union members voted for Bush (as did 40 percent of those with union members in their households).
— Of those earning $15,000-$30,000, 42 percent voted for Bush.
— 11 percent of Blacks voted for Bush.
— 44 percent of Latinos voted for Bush.
Much of the ABB left will scornfully conclude that Americans got what they deserved–four more years of George Bush. Many in the mainstream of the Democratic Party will conclude that the Democrats have to move further to the right to appeal to the conservative majority in the U.S. After the election, Kristof argues, “[T]he Democratic Party’s first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland.”
The self-fulfilling prophesy of lesser evilism
Both of these conclusions rest on the assumption that most Americans are incurably conservative–and that the U.S. left is doomed to remain a tiny minority in a sea of conservatism for the foreseeable future. On this basis, the left backed Kerry in 2004 as the most “electable” Democrat.
The entire supposition of lesser evilism, of course, is that the best we in the U.S. can hope for is the election of a slightly better version of the Republican candidate. The logic of lesser evilism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when no left wing party ever gets built to challenge the two-party system.
The 2004 election exposed the reverse logic employed by the ABB left–when Kerry’s “electability” (that is, his similarity to Bush) failed to get him elected. That is how, in a country where a majority of the population views the Iraq war as a mistake, the man who led the country into that war on false pretenses managed to eke out a victory.
Using the same strategy as Gore and Clinton before him, Kerry abandoned the Democratic Party’s traditional base to appeal to swing (i.e., white middle-class) voters. That meant that Kerry allowed Bush to define the framework of the debate, which in this case was terrorism. Kerry did not even pay lip service to the labor movement, while distancing himself as far as possible on abortion rights and opposing gay marriage outright. His opposition to the Iraq war was so conditional, contradictory and confusing–since he was a pro-war candidate–that he squandered the enormous opportunity to congeal the massive antiwar sentiment into a coherent electoral opposition.
The Republicans’ strategy, in contrast, revolved around strengthening its Christian conservative voting base. When Bush proposed a ban on gay marriage last year, it was part of a calculated strategy to give a sense of immediacy to socially conservative voters in this election. Bush never veered from focusing on his voting base. In fact, Republicans launched referendums banning gay marriage in 11 states in order to get social conservatives to the polls–who would then cast a vote for Bush.
Thus, during the final weeks of the campaign, while Bush was busy shoring up his base, Kerry was busy appealing to the tiny fraction of swing voters trying to decide whether to support Bush or Kerry. Whereas even Gore managed to sound somewhat populist during the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, Kerry made no effort to do so.
Time to reassess
Because of Kerry’s campaign strategy, the Bush agenda determined the political parameters of the campaign. That is, Bush’s right-wing agenda faced no coherent opposition–instead, it received a fainter echo from pro-war neo-liberal John Kerry.
If the ABB left is looking for anyone to blame for Bush’s victory, it should take a long hard look at itself–and its own unconditional surrender to a candidate as right wing as Kerry. Instead of pressuring Kerry from the left, the ABB left devoted most of its energy attacking Ralph Nader and those who tried to build a genuine left alternative to the Democrats.
In addition, campaigning for Kerry required the antiwar, women’s, gay and labor movements to abandon any meaningful struggle. This was not only because they devoted their time, money and energy to campaigning for Kerry, but because struggle would have required criticism of Kerry’s own pro-war and other backward positions. The torture at Abu Ghraib, which should have led to angry mass demonstrations of antiwar activists, barely elicited a peep from the antiwar movement–or John Kerry.
Thus, this election was conducted without an opposition to the Republican status quo, allowing the mainstream political debate to continue on Bush’s terms–that is, on a right-wing basis. For example, the debate over gay marriage was not between two sides, one supporting it and one opposed, but between two candidates who both opposed it. And these parameters framed the gay marriage debate for the mass of the U.S. population.
Mass consciousness, however, is not a permanent, but ever-changing, state of mind. When there is a strong and vocal left, and movements arise based upon struggle, mass consciousness changes. That is certainly the lesson of the 1960s and early ’70s, when the left grew, and mass consciousness also shifted to the left–with wide margins in support of abortion rights and civil rights.
Moreover, consciousness is uneven within the population as a whole. Only a minority of voting-age Americans actually voted for Bush or against gay marriage on November 2–since more than 45 percent of voting-age Americans stayed home. And even within individual people’s heads, consciousness is mixed and often contradictory–the only way to explain the large number of gays, for example, who voted for Bush.
Voting is the lowest form of political expression, especially in the United States, dominated by two corporate parties. This was even more so in 2004, when the left’s overwhelming capitulation to Kerry denied most people the opportunity to even hear a left viewpoint.
What we can conclude from the 2004 election results is this: a left-wing opposition is desperately needed in the U.S. so that the mass of the population, which is exploited and oppressed by the system, has a means of political expression. Unfortunately, this election was a real setback in this respect.
The broad left collapsed as an opposition, and mainstream politics shifted rightward in this election, for all of the reasons stated above.
But that doesn’t mean that consciousness will not shift the other way–and probably far more rapidly than most people think. We can expect Bush, with his new “mandate” from the popular vote, to go on the offensive. But like Newt Gingrich a decade ago, Bush will face opposition. If he decides to re-launch a federal ban on gay marriage, he will anger the majority of people who continue to oppose discrimination against lesbians and gays. If he tries to outlaw abortion, he will ignite a women’s movement. If he launches an offensive on Falluja, which is highly likely in the very near future, he will anger millions of people opposed to the war.
In most respects, this election provided a mere distraction from the very real crises facing the majority of Americans in the here and now: the ongoing war, lack of health care, low-income jobs and massive budget cuts. These crises are not going away without a fight from below.
But if we are to avoid repeating this depressing scenario each election cycle, the left must finally take a long hard look at itself–and accept responsibility for and accept responsibility for its own role in re-electing Bush in its zeal to support the lesser evil.
SHARON SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker.