One thing we can say for certain at this point, after the grieving, the anger, is that the country is still bitterly divided.
We saw two turnouts and Two Nations last night. Both sides of the chasm saw a major turnout of its voting base. Karl Rove talked about creating a permanent Republican majority. But the truth is, he has a divide-and-rule strategy. And the electoral college amplifies the rural, socially conservative vote. (Twenty percent of voters considered “moral values”–eleven states had anti-gay marriage ballots–more important than the economy or Iraq in this election.)
Perhaps more astonishing than the polling on the murky issue of morality (why aren’t poverty and unjust war considered immoral?) are the figures reported in the New York Times: “Voters who cited honesty as the most important quality in a candidate broke 2 to 1 in Mr. Bush’s favor…” The most mendacious Administration in American history won the honesty vote?
Progressives, who were on the defensive two years ago, added millions of new voters as well, and tapped a new energy and activism that will last far beyond November 2nd. The extremism and incompetence of this rightwing cabal has sharpened our focus to a razor’s edge.
But for me, one of the fundamental questions about this campaign has been whether you could defeat a terrible but clear incumbent without a substantive policy alternative, and this time at least we couldn’t. Kerry offered intelligence, a return to fiscal discipline, a bulwark against a rightwing court, and a health plan that few understood. He failed to use the moral message of “Two Americas” to erode Bush’s edge. He mounted a late challenge to Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq– but he also talked about “staying the course.” That wasn’t enough of a coherent positive, populist or moral message to complement the impressive mechanics. We’ve got to build a politics of conviction, of passion and substance. It’s there but it needs to be built and fought for. And the lesser lessons, if that’s the big one, are:
1) People really are confused and manipulated (we have a mainstream media that continues to focus on irrelevant stories–Swift Boat, Rathergate and all the rest–abrogating its responsibility to focus on what’s important and significant; and too much of it keeps giving head instead of keeping its head.) This makes an expansion of the progressive media echo chamber all the more important; And,
2) Neoliberalism is broken beyond repair and people need to be offered a real alternative not just despair at this point. This is truly a non-violent Civil War between those who think government is basically screwed up and that they’re on their own, and those who believe….what exactly? We’ve got to be much clearer on the latter.
But this morning, we woke to a country at war with itself–as well as Al Qaeda. As America fights Islamic fundamentalism abroad, progressives are re-fighting the Enlightenment here at home. (The two new Senators from Oklahoma and South Carolina are leaders of our homegrown Taliban.)
This is war at a very deep level about how this country will proceed and this war isn’t over, it’s just renewed.
In that spirit, on Election Day, a friend sent some words by John Dos Passos, from his great trilogy USA. He said these lines, from the part where Dos Passos narrates the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, stuck in his head in these last weeks as we faced the possibility of Bush winning this election:
“America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the power plants
they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
all right we are two nations.”
The American Right understands we are two nations, and cares less about healing than about holding power. A Bush wins forces us to understand, in a very deep way, what that means for us and for the values and institutions we care about. Not that they are wrong, or rejected or weighed down by “identity politics” or some other rationale for surrender. But that they are in desperate danger and we need to start thinking along the lines of how to resist, delay, deflect, oppose and ultimately defeat the assault on our freedoms. As progressives, we will need to marshal at least as much dedication, purpose, strategic focus and tactical ruthlessness, and The Nation is one of the few places that will have earned the trust of over 40 percent of the American people who were against Bush and all his works from the beginning.
And we should be thinking about the indispensable work of resistance. We need to identify legislative and administrative choke points where Bush’s initiatives can be blocked, and make clear to both legislators and their constituents that the days of go-along in the interest of non-partisan comity have to stop.
We need to give a clear sense of priorities and red-lines so that people aren’t fatigued by constantly being asked to protest–and we need to identify and work for some early victories, at both the local and national (and international) levels…BECAUSE we all need to remember, and remind ourselves, and everyone else that there are two Nations–not Bush’s America and some dissenters–especially since I’d be willing to bet that numerically there are more of us.
In the end, this election is about what kind of people we are, what kind of country we’ll be. Half of the electorate dissents from Bushism. The election still represents an expression of the strength of opposition to the radical and reckless course Bush has followed, despite the ugly campaign.
Unlike 1972, when Democrats were wiped out everywhere–in 2004 there is an emerging progressive infrastructure capable of standing and fighting. Progressives should build on those structures put in place in this last cycle and redouble their commitment to economic justice, peace and environmental movements that can make real change.
In the streets of New York on August 29th on the eve of the Republican National Convention and in precincts across America these past few months, millions of people stood up for democracy. This is the heart and soul of this country and it will be the heart and soul of the defense of our rights and liberties in the months to come.