A friend has a post-election analysis: “I’m disgusted and fed up with the working class in this country. They sold out their own self interest for the right to yell ‘faggot’ out of their pick-ups.” She’s got a point. About half of the American electorate has once again distinguished itself by preferring snake oil to vitamins—not the first time this has happened historically, not even the first time in my lifetime, but it’s always disheartening to see this self-destructive behavior in action.
They did it for Ronald Reagan, at a time when the designated evils were long hair and marijuana. Now many of the small towns of rural America are plagued with methamphetamine and crack, and hair as a guide to values has morphed so many times it doesn’t matter anymore, but the suckers have just shifted to buying a new brand of snake oil, “defense of marriage.” The pollers haven’t finished telling us exactly who voted for what and why, but the media (per the small number of NPR minutes I’ve been able to stomach since the election) is already hot on the trail of “moral values” as the decider in this election.
Nancy Pelosi isn’t fooled. Marc Sandalow (a bright fellow who went to kindergarten in the Midwest with one of my daughters) quotes her in Thursday’s Chronicle: “The Republicans did not have an election about jobs, health care, education, environment, national security; they had an election about wedge issues in our country, and you know what they are…This was not a referendum on privatizing Social Security.”
When moral values are reduced to telling the gay guys down the street that they may not promise at City Hall to love and take care of each other, we’re in Parodyville, or perhaps Disneyland. Religious leaders, real religious leaders, if there still are any, have a lot to answer for in this election. A special circle of hell will be reserved for the Catholic bishops who chose in this election to ignore real evils—the thousands of deaths of living human beings in Iraq, this country’s devotion to capital punishment, nearly unique in the modern world, and some of their own clergy’s fascination with abusive sexual exploitation of children—in favor of denouncing gay marriage. Low-church Protestants, the bible-thumpers of yore, have been transmogrified into “evangelical Christians” by the media, but they’re still the fools Sinclair Lewis nailed in Elmer Gantry 75 years ago. His description of Elmer would fit any of the two-bit preachers who are being interviewed today crowing over the Bush victory: “He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.” Even many Jewish leaders (from whom, sorry, I might have expected better) have been AWOL in surprising numbers from the battle over reducing moral values to nothing but sexual mores.
Does anyone out there even remember “Sabbath observance”? That was a “moral issue”, for a good part of the country for more than half of the twentieth century. As recently as the early 1970s, everything was required by law to stop on Sundays in much of the country: in Massachusetts, in Michigan and in Mississippi. More from Elmer Gantry: “The Maker of the universe with stars a hundred thousand light-years apart was interested, furious, and very personal about it if a small boy played baseball on Sunday afternoon.” Now, however, the preachers at the drive-in churches would never, never suggest that Wal-mart should shut down for the Sabbath. The supposedly moral questions have a way of shifting with the political winds.
And one more quote from Elmer Gantry: “He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously.” That’s Dubya, and he’s damned good at it. I rarely watch television, so when I finally happened to catch Bush and Kerry side by side a couple of weeks ago, outside of the debates, I was worried. Bush was pink, perky and pontifical; Kerry was grey, lugubrious and moved his arms like a robot.
I know, image questions like this shouldn’t matter, but they do. My old friend George Lakoff got it half-right when he urged Democrats to re-frame the issues in this election using language which would resonate with the electorate. They picked up on his advice, and Kerry started using loaded words like “strength” more often. But in retrospect his campaign attempt to portray himself as a warrior just looked silly a lot of the time. Kerry in battle fatigues carrying a hunting rifle was uncomfortably reminiscent of Michael Dukakis in a tank.
Those of us on the progressive left, whatever that might mean these days, played our part in the drama like good soldiers, though we had our doubts from the beginning. We contributed our brains to designing elaborate web systems for optimizing the campaign, our bodies to get-out-the-vote drives in Nevada and Florida and Oregon and Ohio, and our money to the Democratic National Committee and America Coming Together. It doesn’t seem to have made a whole lot of difference, because the good grey candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council was never able to get the attention of the electorate with his cautious middle-of-the-road positions.
Jim Hightower has often been quoted as saying that there’s not much in the middle of the road except yellow lines and dead armadillos, and the timid centrism of the DLC has now given us two successive armadillo tickets. Would’a, could’a, should’a, but what if Kerry had launched his campaign by saying vigorously, “I was wrong about Iraq, but now I’ve changed my mind?”
Kerry was fooled about Vietnam, though he later repented. He was fooled again on Iraq, and he never fully repented. How about, just for variety, a Democratic candidate who catches on early to what’s going on and is not timid about saying so? It’s entirely possible that Howard Dean might have won this election if he hadn’t been sandbagged by the DLC and its media allies. Me-too Democrats fighting for the middle of the road will just continue to be blindsided by the hard right’s shifting compass of phony “moral values.”
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Some nuggets of good news from the hustings: an environmentalist self-starter, Green Gayle McLaughlin, spent less than $11,000 and won a seat on the Richmond council with a platform of protecting Point Molate. The most conservative Santa Cruz councilmembers were defeated. There were more write-in votes for a Democratic self-starter in San Diego than regular votes for both of the ballot candidates, two sleazy Republicans running against each other in a non-partisan mayoral election, and she might even win.