November 05, 2004

Singular fixations

On election night, I wondered about whether Democrats would quickly turn on Senator John Kerry if he failed to win the election.

The morning after, pundits and would-be pundits around the world, and especially in the U.S., began searching for answers. What had gone wrong? How could George W. Bush possibly have won? How could John Kerry possibly have lost? What's wrong with the Democratic Party? What's wrong with the Republican Party? What's wrong with the Red States? What's wrong with the Blue States? What's wrong with America?

Some people did turn on Kerry, while others have rushed to defend him. In the course of my own readings, my eye was caught by this William Saletan article: Simple but effective - Why you keep losing to this idiot.

Because I'm supposed to be leaving Ottawa within the next couple of hours, sans laptop, I'll have to keep this brief. I found the article strangely (and no doubt unintentionally) ironic. On the one hand, it definitely captures something unmistakeably true about Bush's success (more on that at a later date.) But Saletan's argument, through its own simplicity, makes you realize this: it's not just Bush fans who are seeking simplicity.

The Internet has been littered, the past few days, with people seeking a simple answer to the complex question of why George W. Bush was re-elected as President. Diagnoses and prescriptions for a cure abound -- both searching desperately for a reason - for the reason.

Clearly it's because John Kerry didn't show emotion. Or because Karl Rove is a genius. Or because of the Christian right. Or because the people voted on values. Or because the Kerry campaign spent too long on his Vietnam credentials. Or because the Democrats haven't got religion. Or because of Gavin Newsome and the gay marriage wedge issue. Or because of the incumbency factor. Or because he was a war-time President. Or because of Janet Jackson's breast.

And clearly the Demoratic Party should therefore react by moving to the left. Or to the right. Or it should get comfortable talking about God. Or it should go back to its roots. Or it should pick a different kind of candidate. Or it should focus more on the South. Or it should give up entirely on the South. Or it should close ranks again around the President. Or it should keep up the good fight.

While I'm exaggerating to make the point (although somebody did actually cite the Janet Jackson incident in building their case), the point is there to be made. Many of the same people who accuse Bush of thinking simply about world affairs are guilty of thinking very simply about this election and U.S. politics. Simple accounts of the dividing lines in America. Simple accounts of what it means to be American or to be from a particular state or region in America. Simple ascriptions of massively complex outcomes to the work of individuals (the increasingly mythical Karl Rove). Simple x-step plans for putting the Democrats back in control.

Monday morning quarterbacking is alive and well. And many of President Bush's critics have it right: the world is not a simple place. Problem is, neither is America.

Considered together, many of these explanations and recommendations form an important part of an accurate big picture. Standing alone, however, each does a disservice to a complex country and its complex people.

More on this later ... for now, I'm off to commune all-too-briefly with nature.

UPDATE: In response to Mike Hoye ("Saletan is a fucking idiot", etc.), I would have to agree that Saletan's John Edwards fixation is a little bit bizarre. And indeed, as I was trying to point out, this isn't about any one person. Still, the compelling part of Saletan's observation is this: one of the things that the Bush cohort generally did well over the the past four years is to keep its messages simple. This often allowed them to control the agenda in the public -- an exercise in political "follow the bouncing ball," if you will. I don't want the Democrats to dumb down their message or cater to the religious right either, but there's a difference between a dumbed-down message and a simple message.

In response to George, there's a lot to chew on there. First off, atheism. As an atheist myself, I don't want to suggest that there's nothing to this, but I don't think that this approach would win any elections any time soon (incidentally, take a look at and Moreover, I don't think this election broke down over science vs. non-science. Receptiveness to science-based arguments is a good thing (although "science-based arguments" is a fraught term, of course), but this election wasn't fought over global warming or urban sprawl. Nor do you need to be a scientist to understand the nature of urban sprawl. All this is not to say that science didn't play a role in any of the election issues (witness stem-cell research), but I just don't think this necessarily presents a clear path to victory for the left.

As for education, you're never going to catch me arguing against more education -- particularly if there is evidence that it is in dire need. But with respect to the election, the scene is, once again, a little complicated. According to exit polls, the only education brackets in which Kerry bested Bush were "no high school degree" and "postgrad study" -- for a total of 20% of voters (see CNN). The remaining 80% of voters (high school degree, some college, and college graduate) were skewed for Bush. That doesn't mean that more education wouldn't, in fact, help the Democrats more than it would help the Republicans. But it does chip away at the argument that anybody with a brain would have voted for Kerry. Which comes back to what I was saying initially. Most mainstream media analyses of this election and of what ails America are vast oversimplifications (or at least focus on a narrow dimension of the situation). That's not to say that we should surrender to some form of infinite relativism when it comes to making observations about the current state of affairs. I just think the "if only we could do x effectively, we would surely win next time!" line of argumentation is proving to be dangerously naive.

For what it's worth, though, if you're talking about where to invest, I would wager to say that there are areas where you could get more election bang for your buck than pure education. Without having given it too much thought, but with the above note re: the exit polls as a pseudo-foundation, I would say that education might actually prove to be a pretty indirect and expensive path from dollars to votes (there are obviously other good reasons to invest more in education -- these could mitigate the cost, depending on what you're after). Hmmm. U.S. expenditures (public and private) on education are about $750 billion (see the National Center for Education Statistics). The two campaigns spent between $600 and $700 million on what turned out to be 110,000,000 voters. If I'm reading the NCES site correctly, about $9,000 is spent per pupil per year (on average) for public primary and secondary school (more data: states spend on average more than $1,500 per capita -- full population -- on education). By my calculation, the Bush and Kerry campaigns together spent about $5-7/vote (total election spending -- 527s, etc. -- was higher, of course, but it's still vaguely intriguing napkin math).

Posted by anatole at November 5, 2004 04:59 PM

"Do what they did. Give Edwards a job that will position him to run for president again in a couple of years. Clear the field of Hillary Clinton and any other well-meaning liberal who can't connect with people outside those islands of blue on your electoral map."

Saletan is a fucking idiot; the only reason this isn't blazingly obvious is that he's hidden it behind some big words and patronizing phraseology. This is not about the man, on either side. It's about the ideas; specifically, bigotry and domestic policy. The republicans win by dumbing their message down and catering to the religious right, so the democrats should therefore dumb their message down and cater to the religious right? Fuck that noise.

Posted by: Mike Hoye at November 6, 2004 04:10 PM

I voted for Nader. Since I'm in NYC, you don't need to call me a spoiler :). Anyway, my thoughts following the election have been along these lines:

1) We need to preach atheism. We need organized bodies who go out and actively encourage atheism, actively pick apart the edifice of organized religion. These probably already exist, I just don't know what they are. I remember at Princeton somebody tried to found a "Free Thinkers" society, as an alternative to the many Christian groups on campus. At the time I thought that was a pretty cheesy idea, but now I think it's the best way. The fog of religion blinds people to our very method of arguing. Until they are receptive to science-based arguments, I don't see how they'll buy into issues like global warming, urban sprawl, and so on.

2) I can't help thinking that if we took all the money the Dems spent on the election and dedicated it to educating (I mean, through hiring more teachers, etc.) the more insular parts of the US, the net result in ten years' time would be progressive voting.

So I agree, I think, with the sentiment both of you are expressing, which is that rather than try to dumb the message down, the Dems (or some other, far more respectable, leftish party of the future) should make people smarter.

Perhaps another good strategy, given the complexity and specificity of all these issues, would be for the Dems to focus on local races, on putting Democrat governors in every state and proving to America that the ideas of the left work by implementing them at the scale of states.

But I'm tired and dumb.

Posted by: George at November 7, 2004 12:53 AM