Red State Blues

The values of Red America are ascendant: fear, intolerance and an insistence on imposing a pinched notion of morality on everybody else

| November 11, 2004
When the history of the 2004 presidential campaign is written, I suspect a piece of fundamentalist agitprop that got little attention at the time it was sent out will loom large. In September, the Republican National Committee mailed a flier to prospective voters in West Virginia and Arkansas warning them what would happen if “liberals” were to win the election. A picture of a Bible was labeled BANNED. And beneath a photograph of a man placing a wedding ring on another man’s hand was the word ALLOWED.

Both states went for George W. Bush on Election Day. And no, it’s not likely that visions of burning Bibles and marrying gays were decisive in keeping either state in the red column. But the Republican mailing—hateful, false, toying with the fears of ignorant, intolerant people—certainly didn’t hurt the Bush re-election effort. The real importance of the flier, though, wasn’t whether it swung a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand votes. Rather, it was as the perfect symbol of Bush’s invisible campaign. Of how he and Karl Rove succeeded in tapping into the primitive religious uprising that’s sweeping over this country and used it to snuff out the hopes and dreams of those who believe in—whose lives depend on—an inclusive, diverse society.

It’s now Wednesday morning, the proverbial day after. John Kerry trailed Bush by more than 3.5 million votes— seven times the margin by which Al Gore defeated Bush in the 2000 popular vote. And Kerry lost Ohio, the Florida of 2004 and his sole hope of capturing the presidency, by about 140,000 votes. Bush has won. And by capturing more than 51 percent of the popular vote, he has become the first presidential candidate since his father (in 1988) to win an outright majority—a feat that eluded Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996.

Gay marriage was on the ballot in 11 states Tuesday, including Ohio. In all 11, people overwhelmingly voted to make sure that their gay and lesbian neighbors cannot enjoy the same rights they have. Obviously Rove’s oft-stated plan to energize the four million evangelical voters who stayed home in 2000 worked brilliantly. Earlier this week, in Slate, Chris Suellentrop wrote that Rove’s pitch to the religious right would fail because it had “inflamed the Democratic base,” which would more than offset any Republican gains. Suellentrop’s theory was logical and appealing. It was also wrong.

No sooner had Ohio fallen early Wednesday morning than NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw began badgering retired Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell about why his party had so alienated cultural conservatives. Mitchell, without answering the question directly, acknowledged the problem and said that many on the religious right were “voting in a manner that’s contrary to their economic interests.” But Brokaw—whose pending retirement can’t come quickly enough—wanted more, telling Mitchell that evangelicals often feel as though “they’re mocked by the Democrats” and “belittled for their values.” I have nothing in my notes to indicate that Mitchell responded. Maybe I was just too disgusted to write anything down. In real life, Brokaw is both liberal and worldly. Why did he feel the need to pander so?

On CNN, David Gergen, a former top-level aide to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, approached this cultural divide from an entirely different perspective: from that of blue-state liberals who can’t believe what happened this week. “There’s going to be a sense of alienation, a lot of isolation from the majority,” Gergen said. He even went so far as to observe that many liberals are going to find themselves wondering “what kind of a country” they’re living in.

Nowhere is that sense of isolation, of alienation, going to be felt more keenly than in Massachusetts, Kerry’s home and the bluest of blue states. We live, after all, in the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, protected by the state constitution. It is a state that both Bushes bitterly mocked in their successful presidential campaigns, with George W. sneering that Kerry was a “Massachusetts liberal.” It’s possible, of course, to make too much of this: 37 percent of Massachusetts voters cast their ballots against Kerry on Tuesday, just as 34 percent of Texas voters opposed Bush. There are plenty of red voters in blue states and blue in red. But for Massachusetts’ urban, educated class—the folks who work in medicine, higher education or technology, live in or near the city, and value diversity—what happened on Election Day was a terrible blow not just to their hopes for a Kerry victory, but to their very idea of what it means to be an American.

Reality check

The first instance of an angry Democrat blaming Kerry for his loss may have come Tuesday, before the polls had even closed. The New Republic posted on its Web site an essay by Joseph Finder that argued: “If Kerry loses the election, his failure to speak honestly and strongly about Bush’s pre-9/11 failures will likely go down as his most significant mistake.” (I have no idea if Finder is a Democrat, but he sounds like one; more to the point, TNR is a Democratic publication that endorsed Kerry.)

The problem with Finder’s criticism, though, is that it’s so pre-11/2, so—well, reality-based. I’m not sure that any external issues mattered in Bush’s election Tuesday night. That’s because we have entered a new era, one described in chilling detail several weeks ago by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine. Suskind described a chewing-out he once received from a “senior adviser to Bush” after he’d written something for Esquire that the White House didn’t like. Suskind wrote: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’”

Now, Suskind’s piece wasn’t so much about empire as it was about Bush’s embrace of messianic Christianity, a sort of created reality that informs much of his decision-making, one that leads him to separate the world into simplistic categories of good and evil and to believe, always, that he is on the side of good, and of God. It’s a nice thought—but if you’re George W. Bush, how do you know whether you’re really on God’s side? Trouble is, he acts as though his religion leads him to believe he’s always right. And there’s little doubt that his most ardent supporters feel the same way. Consider the war in Iraq, which was—or at least should have been—the overarching issue in this campaign. It is as clear as any politically charged fact can be that Bush exaggerated, relied on dubious intelligence and lied in order to come up with a pretext for the war — that is, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had provided a base of operations for Al Qaeda. None of this, as we have known for many months, was even remotely true. More than 1,100 American soldiers, and perhaps as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, have paid for this tragic folly with their lives, and there is no hope that we can be extricated from the Iraq quagmire anytime soon. Yet even though this may prove to be an even more grotesque foreign-policy blunder than Vietnam, Bush’s most enthusiastic followers seem not to care. Polls show that a majority of Bush supporters actually believe that we have found WMD in Iraq, and that Saddam even had some nebulous involvement in 9/11. Thus we have Bush creating his own reality—a faith-based war for which tens of thousands of human beings have paid in actual blood. And those of us in the reality-based community are left to look on in horror.

After what happened Tuesday, I’m reluctant to cite exit polls, but cite them I must, since I have no other, uh, reality-based standard on which to rely. So: According to exit polls conducted by NBC News, 21 percent of voters on Tuesday said “moral values” were the most important issue to them. (Why aren’t they ever asked if “hate and the opportunity to discriminate” were what brought them to the polls?) Believe it or not, that was higher than the percentage of voters who cited either the economy or terrorism as the most important issue. Of those who identified “moral values” as their key issue, 78 percent said they had voted for Bush. Fully one in five voters was a self-described evangelical Christian.

If Boston—along with New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles—is one of the capitals of Blue America, the NBC exit polls describe the very definition of Red America: bigoted, intolerant, fearful of the unknown, ever ready to impose its own version of morality on everyone else. Let me admit right here that I’m struggling—much of what I’ve written about Red Americans this morning strikes me as intolerant of them. As a devoted secularist with a number of religious friends, I certainly don’t want to come off as though I’m denigrating religion itself. But the essence of liberalism is that religion must exist in its own sphere, and though it needn’t be private, it has no business poking its nose under other people’s tents. If you’re opposed to abortion, then don’t have one. If you think homosexuality is a sin, then don’t have sex with someone of the same gender. Now, this all makes perfect sense to me. The trouble is, tolerance is perhaps the most vital component of a liberal value system, and it’s at the heart of what makes Blue America what it is. And Red America values neither tolerance nor liberalism. Not to sound too arrogant, but I don’t think we would have any trouble living with them—it’s they who have trouble living with us.

And now they’ve won.

Watching it unravel

As painful as the triumph of Red America was, the way it unfolded only made things worse. The exit polls dribbling out Tuesday afternoon on the Internet and in phone conversations made it sound as though it was going to be all Kerry. I met The Nation’s Washington editor, David Corn, for coffee near Copley Square, where preparations were under way for what most people seemed sure would be a raucous celebration. Corn told me that his main priority had been not to get stuck attending the Bush-victory party. But since it was looking awfully good for Kerry, he said he kind of regretted not having stayed in Washington so that he could enjoy watching the Bushies lose.

At 5 p.m. it got even better. John Zogby, a prominent pollster who called the last two presidential elections with admirable precision, released numbers predicting that Kerry would beat Bush in the Electoral College by a margin of 311 to 213. As the numbers started to trickle in, I arrived at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism to attend a discussion of how the media covered the campaign, convinced that Kerry was going to win. By the time I left, a couple of hours later, the picture had changed considerably.

What went wrong? In a nation of nearly 300 million people, the three-and-a-half million votes separating Bush and Kerry really don’t amount to all that much. It would appear that the biggest share of the blame goes to younger voters, who supposedly were going to turn out in record numbers but who instead stayed home. According to exit polls, turnout among the youngest group of voters was 17 percent, exactly the same as four years ago. It was really rather amazing. From Howard Dean’s youth-driven campaign to projects such as P. Diddy’s “Citizen Change,” from delightfully crude anti-Bush songs such as “Ignorant Son of an Asshole” to more-polished efforts by the likes of Public Enemy and Eminem, from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, an unprecedented amount of attention has been lavished on young people in the hopes of getting them to participate in self-government. After all that, nothing changed.

The media, too, must share some of the blame. Though they managed to avoid repeating the virtual wilding to which they subjected Al Gore four years ago, the mainstream media never quite figured out how to deal with the Bush campaign and its supporters, who often relied on outright lying to smear Kerry and make him unacceptable to voters. At one end of the spectrum, there were the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who took advantage of cable and talk radio’s endless need for provocative guests and limited fact-checking in order to throw mud at Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War. At the other end, you had Bush himself falsely claiming that Kerry is the most liberal member of the Senate and that his health-care plan would amount to a takeover by big government.

As Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, recently put it (his memo was quoted in the New Yorker), “Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his effort to win.” By contrast, Halperin continued, the Bush campaign was seeking “to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions. We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.” Halperin’s memo was an incisive critique of the media’s reliance on the phony old model of objectivity, and of how skillful the Bush campaign was at exploiting the media’s demand for stories in which one side accuses the other of something, and the other side responds—the truth of the original accusation be damned.

But these are all reality-based critiques, aren’t they? In the end, I don’t think any of them mattered. Contrary to the assertions of all those reluctant Kerry supporters—heirs to reluctant Gore, Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale and Carter supporters—Kerry was a good candidate, a smart, serious, thoughtful senator with deep experience in foreign policy whose war-hero past, though certainly over-emphasized, was an enormous asset. He cleaned Bush’s clock in three nationally televised debates. He campaigned tirelessly. His only real shortcomings were his poor communications skills and a long Senate voting record that a disingenuous opponent could mine to come up with an endless array of seeming contradictions and inconsistencies.

Yet that’s not why Kerry lost. Rather, he lost because he is the epitome of Blue America. And Red America is on the rise.

From bad to worse

Think of what we’re facing for the next few years. Since the Supreme Court reached its outrageous Bush v. Gore decision in December 2000, Blue America has basked in the righteous knowledge that Bush was an unelected president who had not only lost the popular vote, but who probably would have lost the electoral vote had the recount not been halted. This has given us enormous moral authority, at least among ourselves. Now Bush has—God help us—a mandate.

Moreover, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, has lost to his Republican challenger, John Thune. Two of the new Republican senators-elect, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, are said to be even more extreme on reproductive choice and other cultural issues than are most current Republican senators. The country’s 24-year lurch to the right, begun when Ronald Reagan was elected president, continues unabated.

At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, not long after I began writing this piece, Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, grabbed a microphone in Copley Square and vowed not to concede until the last vote in Ohio had been counted. “It’s been a long night, but we’ve waited four years for this victory,” Edwards told the crowd, according to press accounts. “We can wait one more night. John Kerry and I made a promise—that in this election, every vote would count and every vote would be counted.” Brave words. But they weren’t enough.

For those of us who live in Blue America—not just geographically, but in the idea of America that it embodies—this is a sad and dark week. The forces of reaction masquerading as morality are ascendant. Four more years. Four more years of war, of global warming, of trampling on our civil liberties, of secrecy, of threats to women’s rights, of more tax cuts for the rich and bigger deficits for the rest of us, of right-wing court appointments, of continued inequality for lesbians and gay men. Every day now there are fewer leaves on the trees than there were the day before. And it’s starting to get damn cold.

This article was originally published in the Boston Phoenix. Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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