A Message from Political Research Associates


The presidential election of 2004 will keep political analysts sorting out its real meaning for some time. Many people have focused on trying to figure out why John Kerry lost. More to the point, from PRA's perspective, is how and why did George W. Bush win? We already have seen many interpretations of the exit polls. Most common is the idea that voting patterns indicate a polarized electorate with a major split over moral issues like gay marriage and abortion. Is the electorate really so neatly divided into Red and Blue states as the mainstream media and the pundits tend to portray it? And are these the real issues that drove the election?

As is usually the case, the electorate is more complex than a simple split between two candidates, two parties, two regions, or even two ideologies. The exit poll question about the importance of moral issues in this election, for instance, was fundamentally flawed, not the least because many of the voters who indicated that moral issues were important to them voted for Kerry—conservatives obviously are not the only ones with moral values. More importantly, different people define moral values differently and this nuance was lost in the exit poll questioning. Many people cast their votes for Bush in ways unanticipated by the Kerry campaign. While the White evangelical vote was important to Bush, there was a significant enough shift among Catholics, White married women and moderately religious voters to make a difference in the outcome. According to John Green and Steve Waldman, who analyzed the religious vote for Beliefnet, the Bush campaign targeted and successfully increased the Catholic vote in both Ohio and Florida by margins at least equivalent to Bush's victory in those states.

As we know from personal experience, everyone's views are broader and more complicated than the distilled version of their views represented by a single vote—while Floridians voted for Bush, they also voted to raise the state's minimum wage pegging it to Cost of Living increases. Our nuanced views on complex domestic and foreign policy issues, our affiliations with organizations that matter to us, and a number of other factors based on our multiple identities and allegiances influence our ultimate decisions on who and what we vote for.

We have been hearing a lot about the ability of one side or the other to get out the vote. But elections are not won or lost by political activists alone, no matter how numerous or well organized they may be. Social movements have been the key to mobilizing masses of voters around the issues that matter to them. And the Right has succeeded in building a mass social movement around people's fears of losing the things they see as holding their lives together—traditional values, security of the homeland, religious faith. The Right's mobilizing of resentment has been successful to a significant extent because it relies on entrenched ideologies and systems such as White supremacy and institutional racism. By framing the issues in ways that attract enough people, a coalition of right-wing sectors has demonstrated more than enough support to win a presidency. We must resist positions that blame a group of extremists, radicals or uneducated disaffected rednecks for having stolen the country. Instead we at PRA suggest Bush and the Right won because a mass social movement was skillfully mobilized over the last 30 years to support the ideas they hold and the policies they advocate.

What frames does the Right use? Bush's win benefited from a powerful and continuing backlash against the liberation movements of the '60s and '70s. It was a vote of protest against those movements which challenged many traditional assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation. The civil rights, women's and LGBT movements successfully threatened the power structures that depend on the racism, sexism and homophobia embedded in our society. Strategists on the Right recognized the value of capitalizing on the fears of those who would stand to lose if these movements had their way and manipulated these to move people to support their position. The language of anti-gay marriage referenda, which appeals to fears and not to reason, exemplifies this strategy.

The good news for progressives and liberals is that the coalition of right-wing sectors and the “Bush Democrats” that won Bush another term is a fragile one. The Religious Right will not be satisfied with compromises around reproductive rights and the definition of marriage and will likely make demands that would be hard to satisfy and will not be palatable to moderate Republicans and libertarians. Traditional conservatives who are generally wary of U.S. involvement abroad are skittish about the neoconservative influence in charting Bush's aggressive foreign policy. Limited government advocates are worried about increased deficits and spending, and moderate Republicans and libertarians are nervous about the curtailment of civil liberties through the PATRIOT Act and the general crackdown on dissent. Some in the military are frustrated with what they see as the lack of resources available to them for the war in Iraq, and the overextension of U.S. forces beyond their ability to respond to unexpected challenges in other parts of the world.

The challenge for progressives lies in successfully framing messages (such as universal health care and collective responsibility as moral values) and good old-fashioned organizing beyond getting out the vote efforts, and for liberals to engage in serious soul-searching of their own, which capitalize on and nurture movements for peace, economic and social justice. Progressives and liberals need to win over those union members, members of moderate or mainline religious groups, as well as women, LGBT folk, and people of color lured into voting against their class, race, or gender interests and shift their attention toward their collective power that lies in mass cross-issue movements outside either major political party.

The goal of progressives, we need to remind ourselves frequently, is long-term social transformation and systemic change towards achieving a society that embodies social and economic justice in ideals and in reality. One election cycle, regardless of which party wins, does not determine that outcome.

  • More on the election from PRA
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