Friday, November 05, 2004

People Who Want to Be Led

Aight, like I really know how Bush won. But I'd like to think about it. My mother, who was poll-watching in Miami (as it turns out, in a heavily Cuban and pro-Bush district where no one had complaints), points out that all the discrepancies were in districts with electronic voting machines. Hmmm, no paper trail much? I do think they were a stupid idea in the first place, and I don't doubt they were tampered with in a few districts. (Speaking of tampering, quick story--I went to the polls wearing a "lick bush in '04" T-shirt, which turned out, unbeknownst to me, to be considered electioneering and therefore illegal. No one noticed until I was done voting, and then they simply made me button my jacket, but I still found the whole situation amusing.) But I'm also not willing to attribute it solely to voter/district fraud. It seems too easy, and in some ways fails to acknowledge how close the race has been throughout.

My friend M related to me a portion of a conversation in which her friend told her that the country is divided between people who want to think and people who want to be led (the latter being Bush supporters). At first I was sure that this was unfair and that I disagreed, but now I'm puzzled and want to take it apart. I think I still disagree, but let's go.

I do not, nor can I for my life, understand how anybody voted for Bush thinking he was stronger on defense. I cannot understand how anybody voted for him thinking his choices regarding this war were considered or appropriate. If he is not a war profiteer himself they are certainly his bedfellows--for him, not particularly strange ones--in Iraq, and as to the "war on terror" itself, it is at least as unwinnable as the ostensible "war on drugs." Yes, September 11 was bigger than anything the U.S. has ever encountered before, and on the scale of one-fell-swoop attacks in general it remains pretty huge. (That's for a portion of knee-jerk liberals out there who I know think Americans need to shut up, September 11 wasn't really such a big deal, this kind of thing happens in other countries every day. And Americans do need to shut up about September 11, especially certain presidents, but it was and continues to be an incredibly big deal, and things of that scale do not happen in one fell swoop in other countries every day. Other countries live under constant attack in a way that most of this country does not, and in most ways that is at least as horrific as September 11, but the dramatic one-time effect of September 11 is a huge part of it and does not occur every day anywhere.) And yes, it changed and should have changed the way Americans think about terrorism. But warfare is no longer going to be conventional--it does not abide by the rules set up by Realists or by nations any longer. As horrific as this concept is in some ways, the attempt to win the war on terror is an attempt to go back in time. And therefore ridiculous. This shit has been going on for a long time, and although we as nations and individuals should be working to temper it, fighting a "conventional" war against a process started by people who felt they couldn't be served by conventional war, a process created to subvert conventional war, is counterproductive, dumb, scary and fans the flames. And even if not everybody would analyze it exactly like that, I don't understand how you could fail to see what a spectacular failure the war in Iraq is, and the justified increase in anti-American sentiment it has inspired. (N.b. the distinction between justified anti-American sentiment and justified anti-American terrorist action, something Bush supporters often fail to do.) No, there hasn't been another September 11 since September 11--but there wasn't one before then, either.

(Yes, I do recognize the Cole, the embassy in Kenya, and I don't mean to belittle them by any means. But the fact of an attack taking place on American soil makes a huge difference to most Americans, unfortunately myself included. And the time between the previous attempt on American soil--the WTC bombing in '93--and September 11 was more than four years. In the interim, if the guerrilla attacks in Iraq are not analagous to the Cole and the Kenyan embassy, hell if I know what is.)

So I've cut that out, but terrorism isn't the primary issue for a decent number of American, and particularly Middle American, voters. The primary issue for them is "moral issues." A decent number of voters in the heartland went to Bush simply because of his stance on abortion and gay marriage. Myself I'm a little lost on why the lives of the unborn are of greater value than the lives of American soldiers, but there's a decent number of people who use the argument that American soldiers made a choice and that they're sacrificing themselves for the greater good--the concept of American martyrdom being rooted in the president's evangelical Christianity. But I think it's fair to say that most soldiers serving on either side of the Iraq conflict, unlike, say, most suicide bombers, don't want to die. Okay, responds the single-issue voter, neither do the unborn, and while the war in Iraq will end of its own accord, abortion will not--it's got to be legislated. And given that it's very likely that Rehnquist will die within the first ninety days of Bush's second term, and he's one of the Court's conservative strongholds (Scalia being the other and Thomas being a weakhold; O'Connor and Kennedy can occasionally surprise you), if abortion is your primary issue this is nothing to laugh at. Depending on Bush's nominees and who becomes the next Chief Justice and all that good stuff, Roe v. Wade could well be overturned in the next few years.

But then, you say, isn't it true that those single-issue voters must be willfully ignoring the status belli, and therefore "want to be led"? Well, kids, America's known for wearing blinders when it comes to the non-domestic. It happened under Clinton (Rwanda for fuck's sake), it happened under Bush the elder (who heard of Kuwait before 1991?), it happened under Reagan (seriously? I've only been alive for four presidents? weeeeeird). Despite the newscasters' sensationalism, few and far between are those outside the intelligence community who could have imagined, much less predicted, September 11 or anything of the kind. Next to no one gave a second thought to the Cole or the Kenyan embassy before 2001. For a decent portion of the country, New York City is as foreign as Iraq. You mourn for a little while because the whole country's doing it, but it isn't real, and there's no reason, given the cultural polarization of the U.S., why it ought to be. We're going to have to do a whole lot of paradigm-shifting before that is a fully viable argument.

So the answer to M's friend is, I do believe that those who support Bush based on his defense policies want to be led rather than think. But supporting him based on his domestic policy seems to me a somewhat different matter, given that there are tons of liberals/Democrats/whatever who also vote based purely on domestic policy. I can't claim they aren't thinking; I can only claim they're thinking about very different things than I am, and in very different ways. (Gay marriage I'll hit on another day; this is plenty long already, and I have a cold and need to take a nap.)

Yeah. Somebody please throw me for a loop here.


At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to include by reference my response to your earlier post on BSF, since we are returning to the common theme of investigating how people decide which way to vote. Again, I would claim that on both sides of the political divide, large majorities do not put any real thought into the decision. In this political sense, they do want to be led.

People do not, in general, appreciate being forced to think. There is a feeling that life in modern America is so busy, so filled with tasks and distractions already, that it is altogether an imposition to "unnecessarily" ask that serious consideration be applied to question. We live in a just-tell-me-the-answer-already culture. Any suprise, then, that successful politicians have become adept at devising ready-made answers for their constituents? He who wins elections (and in America, it is generally a "he" anywhere above the school board level) excels at presenting himself and, to a lesser extent, his positions as obvious and sensible responses to the world. A natural consequence is that the incumbent powers will always have a vested interest in shielding the voters from the true complexity of the world, ensuring that they see only simplistic issues requiring knee-jerk responses.

This state of affairs offends the liberal sensibility, of course, since it strongly suggests that having the facts on our side, as we so often do, is unlikely to win us many elections in the near- to medium-term. Long term, of course, we can try to change the culture, but even there success is far from guaranteed. But in the shorter run, are we doomed to wring our hands and complain that we could have sensible and humane leadership if only the populace would sit still for long enough to understand our arguments? Perhaps not; there are plenty of media-savvy activists on our side trying to assemble a liberal message machine to compete with theirs. A descent into propagandism, perhaps, but at least ours will probably confine itself to generally true statements.

So here we are: about 30% of eligible voters sided with Bush because he seemed resolute, or they'd been frightened into believing that electing Kerry would invite the terrorists to dirty-bomb their suburbs, or they believe God hates gays and thus it's morally required to hate those who don't; another rough 30% sided with Kerry because Bush is either a liar or just stupid, because Cheney's either a crook or an evil genius, or just because they're tired of their jobs getting shipped across the Pacific while all the young men in their neighborhood are getting shipped the other direction. And 40% were too disgusted or apathetic to care. On each side, the decision comes down to emotion, impression, stereotype, preference. Almost nobody really thinks about their vote anymore.

Now, I'm sure you'll be quick to notice that we're using somewhat divergent notions of "wanting to be led" versus "wanting to think." I think the sense that you're getting at is more along the lines of, what would I want the people to want who will be under the command of the person I'm going to elect ? Or, what would I like my relationship to the leader to be, if I were to imagine myself in the White House with him? Perhaps one type of voter likes to picture policies coming out of reasoned, passionate debates over facts and goals, while another envisions a paternalistic commander-in-chief issuing decrees based on what his gut tells him is right. But I think this is just another artifact of the warm-fuzzies dynamic of politics. Recall, everybody cringed when Kerry's positions were described as "nuanced" -- even those of us who think that is a good thing could see that you don't run a campaign by telling the voters that it's a complex world out there. They don't want to hear it.



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