Saturday, November 27, 2004

Election Blues, Part I

Below please find a letter from my old friend Steve Usselman to his daughter Karen, who attends the University of Georgia. Steve teaches US history at Georgia Tech (his 2003 Cambridge book, Regulating Railroad Innovation, won the Ellis Hawley prize of the Organization of American Historians), and is better equipped than most of us to think through the recent debacle. So I thought we'd start our election "coverage" with this bracing letter.

I'm less depressed than most of my academic and building trades friends because the Left continues to win on the cultural issues--for confirmation of this seemingly anomalous but clearly measurable victory, see Frank Rich's columns of the last three weeks in the Arts ection of the Sunday NYT. Even Nicholas Kristof, who cited the dreaded Thomas Frank the morning after, acknowledged in his column that the liberals had been able to neutralize the abortion issue. Almost everything I've read since then also suggests that the valence of "moral values" in voters' decisions was much less important than the post-election teeth gnashing among liberal leftists would indicate. In fact, Rich points out in tomorrow's column that a larger percentage of voters cited this dubious category in 1996 and 2000.

Here's the letter.

Hi, Karen. Well, that sure was a bummer. I stayed up until 3:30 (trying to hold on long enough to make sure Bush didn't win Wisconsin; if he had, he might have been able to win without Ohio), then was up again at 6:30 listening to NPR.

So, once again I find myself trying to get some perspective on the morning after. Four years ago this meant going back to 1892 and 1916 to find coalitions of states that mapped almost precisely to 2000, except with the parties completely inverted. This time what most immediately interested me was 1988 and the Bush I - Michael Dukakis election. (You can find these maps yourself at collections/stats/elections/maps/). I wanted to know two things: was the popular vote against Dukakis in the South so overwhelming as that against Kerry, and how did Dukakis do in the electoral tally? It turns out Dukakis got 40% or less in much of the South, too. He did not do quite as poorly as Kerry, but then, the South was not so dominated by Republicans back then and the Republicans did not go to such lengths to mobilize the conservative Christian vote. (This mobilization is the new wrinkle that Rove has introduced in American politics. It is the most disturbing thing about yesterday's results, though it remains to be seen whether this will work when the incumbent cannot so easily wrap himself in God and country. We won't be listening to God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch of every postseason baseball game four years from now. At least I hope not.)

The crucial point is this: the South just hates Boston Democrats, and this accounts for much of the shift in the total popular vote from 2000. (Rove again was clever to take the latest liberal social issue coming out of Massachusetts -- gay marriage -- and use it to score huge points against the local boy on the national scene. Rove apprenticed with Lee Atwater, who ran Bush I's campaign, which featured the infamous "Willie Horton" ad, a racist number that drew attention to a Massachusetts prison release program -- another sign of misguided Northern urban liberal softness and excessive tolerance toward others, at least in the eyes of many conservatives, esp. those in rural areas.)

As for the matter of how many states Dukakis won, you will see from the maps that in fact Kerry did much, much better. Unlike Kerry, Dukakis could not hold CA or Illinois or Michigan or Pennsylvania or Maryland and Delaware or northern New England. In New Economy areas with high levels of education and tolerance, then, the Democrats continue to gain in strength over the Reagan years. Bush II is NOT leading a Reagan resurgence in these areas.

That's my key message: Bush II is NOT leading a Reagan resurgence.

That's my basic take on the election. I have some other small bites. One is my growing concern that the American Catholic Church is becoming aligned with fundamentalists, at least in some quarters. Catholics were once a core component of a class-based alliance that looked for the federal government to redistribute economic power (e.g., by supporting unions). Reagan loosened that alliance by questioning whether government was really working for the economic interests of Catholics; now Rove has discovered that some hot-button social issues might mobilize Catholics toward the conservative coalition. Some American bishops are willing to aid in this -- to a greater extent, interestingly, than are their colleagues in Rome.

Another small thing: Kerry did terribly among older voters. I think this reflects Bush's success in taking social security out of play (by signing the drug benefit and running up the deficit) and focusing on security issues. To some extent, this is an echo from 9/11. Old people are susceptible to fear tactics. The prime fear has typically been a perceived threat to a critical government benefit; now it is a perceived vulnerability to attack. Something of the same thing is happening with women; fear of attack is trumping fear of a loss of economic security for children and loss of control over one's body (and the bodies of one's daughters). This, too, is an echo of 9/11.

Finally, looking to the other end of the age spectrum, is the curious fact that young people, despite all the hoopla, did not participate in the election. Mom says she heard on NPR that only 1 in 10 Americans ages 18-24 voted. Any ideas on why this is so? In part, I think it reflects what you have experienced in Young Dems: the people on the campuses who are engaged in politics are really interested in it as a profession; they are not engaged by ideas but by tactics. The overwhelming emphasis on tactics in the last two campaigns has only made this worse. But I also think politics is dominated right now by a culture war that goes back to the 1960s and Vietnam. Both sides are battling to touch key symbols that speak to an enduring cultural divide within the baby boom generation (and, to some degree, its parent's generation as well). My sense is that your generation just cannot comprehend what's going on. Which brings me to what I REALLY want to know: what do YOU think? What WOULD make politics relevant to your generation? As someone who plans to spend many more years teaching young people, I desperately need to get a better grasp on this. Please help.