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November 04, 2004

the election: assessment and aftermath

1) The election from a civic perspective

Viewed from a nonpartisan, little-“d” democratic perspective, this election had good points and bad ones. On the negative side, the candidates failed to discuss many of the most important issues facing the nation, from Guantanamo to urban poverty. Many of their proposals (especially Bush’s, but also Kerry’s) didn’t add up, so the public was asked to choose between two platforms that could not possibly be implemented as advertised. There were many negative, personal, and utterly irrelevant claims and messages.

On the bright side, the turnout was huge—better than any year since 1968. To get all those people to vote, the parties mobilized a huge number of volunteers at the grassroots level. There is a lot of latent political energy in that pool of people. The parties are going to be accountable to them and to the much larger base of donors who now fund politics. These activists may be more ideological and polarized than average Americans, but I think that’s OK. They are participating in democracy. (And the logic of the median-voter theorem will exert pressure on the parties to move to the center).

Furthermore, I didn’t notice racist or racially divisive rhetoric. I may have missed it—in which case, please tell me. However, I think Republicans mobilized conservative whites not by appealing to racist motives but by stressing social issues on which many African Americans also hold conservative values. This doesn’t mean that our political leaders have suddenly become enlightened about race or that the second Bush administration will be good for African Americans. It does mean that society has become relatively less racist, to the extent that it now pays to court Black voters rather than use racist rhetoric to drive up white turnout. And that’s a good sign.

2) The election from a progressive perspective

From a progressive perspective, the election was a disaster. An incumbent with a truly weak record and low approval ratings won the popular vote by a healthy margin. I did not predict the outcome; I thought it would be close and Kerry had better odds of winning. However, I have been worried since last winter that Democrats were not interested in developing a positive agenda, consisting of a set of policy proposals united by a broad philosophy of some kind. Instead, they seemed content to attack George Bush. If John Kerry had been elected president, he would have been the first progressive president in American history to have won simply because the previous incumbent messed up. No one would have known what he stood for.

Very soon, an angry debate will begin as segments of the Democratic Party and progressive organizations fight about who’s at fault and how to proceed. Here’s my advice:

No excuses. The Republicans didn’t outspend the Democrats by much. They weren’t bailed out by the Electoral College or voting irregularities. They didn’t win because Democrats stayed home. In fact, they didn’t get many lucky breaks at all. Conceivably, the news media helped them a bit, but overall the reporting was damaging—not deliberately biased against the Republicans, but full of embarrassing and troubling stories about the administration and its policies. So the Republicans won by putting forward a more appealing package of candidates and policies than the Democrats did. The only way for Democrats to win in '06 and '08 is to improve their package, starting with policies.

Don’t root against America. It’s going to be very tempting to hope for defeat in Iraq and serious economic problems, such as a balance-of-payment crisis. But it’s wrong to hope for the country to suffer, and people can smell that hope from far away. Besides, Democrats need to win by articulating a positive vision. If they count on Bush to fail, they will not have the discipline to develop an agenda of their own.

Ideological “positioning” isn’t the issue. Moderates will say that Democrats need to move to the right to pick up middle-of-the-road voters. Liberals will say that the Party needs to move left to provide a clearer alternative. Sometimes, this debate is useful. Not this time. Neither moderates nor liberals have compelling lists of great policy ideas that hang together coherently. What we need are good proposals; we can then combine the liberal ones with the moderate ones, or choose among them on an issue-by-issue basis.

Posted by peterlevine at November 4, 2004 01:44 PM


From a civic (or more specifically, a deliberative democratic) perspective, I am despondent.

Everyone knows that campaigns have ghettoized the vote geographically. But they've managed to do it on issues as well. If you think Iraq, the Economy, Health Care are important, than you are 80% likely to vote for Kerry. If you think security or "Moral Values" are most important, than you are 85% likely to vote for Bush.

There is no engagement, clash or attempt to reply to those who disagree with you or figure out how those issues may be linked. Rove specifically went out to disprove the median voter theorem - he literally believes that it is unimportant to represent or even listen to voters who disagree with the President's views and agenda. And he's virtually waging war on the media, causing Jay Rosen to worry that we're heading towards an opposition press.

What's worse is, according to the Pew research, citizens think this was a well-conducted election. Probably that's because, with the help of the campaigns, they were most exposed with messages that they agreed with.

And the sad thing is there is nothing to hold either team, the Democrats or Republicans, accountable. Sure, there are strategic and tactical mistakes by the Dems that helped Bush win. But there are going to be a lot of folks who are going to takeaway the Rove lesson: draw your own battle lines and give no quarter to your enemy. And why should any of the Bolshevik's care what the Menshivik's think anyway? How can we make it in both parties' self-interest to address citizens and the opposition with respect?

- Mike

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at November 5, 2004 01:20 PM

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