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November 4, 2004

the election: assessment and aftermath

1) The election from a civic perspective

Viewed from a nonpartisan, little-ďdĒ 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 Bushís, but also Kerryís) didnít 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 hugeóbetter 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 thatís 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 didnít notice racist or racially divisive rhetoric. I may have missed itóin 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 doesnít 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 thatís 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 whoís at fault and how to proceed. Hereís my advice:

No excuses. The Republicans didnít outspend the Democrats by much. They werenít bailed out by the Electoral College or voting irregularities. They didnít win because Democrats stayed home. In fact, they didnít get many lucky breaks at all. Conceivably, the news media helped them a bit, but overall the reporting was damagingónot 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.

Donít root against America. Itís going to be very tempting to hope for defeat in Iraq and serious economic problems, such as a balance-of-payment crisis. But itís 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 ďpositioningĒ isnít 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 1:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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