US election 2004 : moving on to the duplex society?

Nov 4th, 2004 | By | Category: USA Today

The most authentic comic relief for the losing side on the long evening of November 2, 2004 came with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show – starting at 10 PM EST to 7 PM PST, and all points in between. The deepest humour arrived just towards the end of the one-hour program, from the suitably French-surnamed Stephen Colbert (pronounced “Coal-bear”).

By this point the grim news from the ongoing televised tally of the vote was already clear enough, especially for the assorted clever and alert people who produce and consume the Daily Show. Colbert, acting as Stewart’s sidekick at the main fake-news desk, had an almost concluding comment on the main impact of the evening: “United we stand, divided we fall,’ Jon? In New York we call that a duplex.”

A few hours later, in the early morning of November 3, the Kerry-Edwards team made what seemed a parallel point, when it refused to concede defeat until all the ballots in Ohio had been properly counted. It apparently wanted to show that, even as they were losing this one particular battle, Democrats had at last found the steely resolve to hang in for the longer struggle, that their opponents had just so effectively claimed they lacked.

By noon on November 3, John Kerry himself was ready to acknowledge the undeniable larger reality. Whatever the ultimate electoral college tally proved to be, the Bush-Cheney team had won a small but big enough and quite clear majority of the national popular vote.

By all the accepted rules of the game, the sovereign people of the American democracy had spoken. Their unambiguous message was four more years for the Bush-Cheney Republicans (and in the legislative as well as the executive branch). Without a shred of doubt, George W. Bush had done considerably better in 2004 than he did in 2000.

Yet it is equally clear that the Bush-Cheney team has won no decisive long-term mandate for its declared brand of political and economic “transformation” in the USA. As even the 2004 red and blue map of the 50 States of the Union took shape once again, its most striking feature was just how divided Stephen Colbert’s early 21st century American duplex remains.

Even by the early morning of November 3, there were ostensibly broad-minded Republicans urging the need for George W. Bush to reach out to the very large numbers still living in the Democratic lower unit, in a new ecumenical spirit of national unity.

John Kerry’s own gracious concession speech at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston, early in the afternoon of November 3, made certain gentle nods in this direction. But John Edwards’ introductory remarks on the same occasion had already more clearly introduced the perhaps truer new liberal-democratic theme of “this fight has just begun” and “the battle rages on.” Kerry’s concession speech made its own characteristically more subtle bows in this direction too. (As in “what we started in this campaign will not end here” and “America always moves forward.”)

So the Daily Show‘s almost concluding comments may continue to echo the loudest in the minds of  its constituents.

It could be that the most patriotic thing the supporters of Kerry-Edwards can do over the next four years will be to very resolutely stay in their own part of the duplex – and just continue to encourage their neighbours to move downstairs, where the real next wave of democracy in America is (hopefully) at last starting to take shape.

What end of geography?

It is still too early to start dissecting all the numbers exhaustively. But it does remain clear that whoever said globalization means the end of geography has overlooked something of deep enough consequence in the new American homeland itself.

The now famous red-and-blue map (perhaps most revealingly viewed in the electoral vote form, as published, e.g., by the New York Times), continues to present two more or less opposing and certainly intriguing collections of political, economic, and social geography in the USA today.

To start with, the entire Pacific coast of the great republic, from Mexico to Canada, once again fell into the blue Democratic column in 2004. California (54.6% for Kerry – in the current most populous State of the Union, with slightly more people than all of Canada), Washington (52.4%), and Oregon (52.1%) all gave somewhat better than bare majorities of their votes to the blue Democrats. (And somewhat better than the red Bush Republicans’ 51.1% of the national popular vote.) Out in the Pacific itself, Hawaii (54.0%) rounded out this part of the picture, despite a last-minute visit from Dick Cheney, wearing a lei.

On the more northerly Atlantic coast back east, Kerry’s Democrats similarly won majorities of the vote in every state from Canada to the border between Maryland and Virginia (or, broadly speaking, the old Mason-Dixon line between the North and the South) – with percentages varying from as little as 50.3% in New Hampshire and 52.7% in New Jersey, to as much as 57.8% in New York and 62.1% in Massachusetts.

Then there is a final more northerly Midwest-Great Lakes swath of blue Democratic states – including such places as Pennsylvania (only 50.8% for Kerry in 2004), Michigan (51.2%), Minnesota (51.2%), and Illinois (55.0%).

Everything in between these two quite demographically weighty blobs of blue – the one in the far West and the other in the Northeast and North-central parts of the country – fell to the red Bush Republicans in 2004, to an even greater extent than in 2000. The Republicans especially finally won the two wavering and more populous states of Ohio (51.0%) and Florida (52.2%), and, from one point of view, that is what finally gave them the election.

Viewed on an ordinary territorial map of the USA, the more numerous red Republican states of the middle American interior and the old confederacy of the South take up considerably more raw geography than the states of the far Western and Northeastern/North-central blue Democratic regions. But the red and blue zones become more or less equal in size when viewed on a map that scales the states to their populations, as reflected in electoral votes for president.

Yet in 2004 it is also true that the Republicans won considerably stronger majorities in quite a few of their more numerous red states than the Democrats managed in their blue ones.

The Republicans won 60% or more of the vote in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Kansas, Alaska, Texas (nowadays the second most populous State of the Union), and Indiana. The Democrats only managed a similar feat in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. (And this no doubt helps account for the greater share of the national popular vote that George W. Bush won his second time around.)

How the red and blue states look on an ordinary territorial map similarly points to another human geographical cleavage, stressed not too long ago by David Brooks, the kinder and gentler conservative commentator currently employed by the New York Times (as well as the Newshour on PBS). To some significant enough extent, the red Republican states involve comparatively small numbers of people in rather large geographic spaces. The blue democratic states tend to involve much larger numbers of people in smaller geographic spaces.

It is logical enough that, apart from anything else, people living in such different geographies will develop different points of view, based on the different daily realities they each must face. On its grossest and no doubt somewhat misleading expression, this kind of thought can lead to talk about a clash between Republican rural (and suburban and exurban) America and Democratic urban (and another kind of suburban) America – not entirely unlike the 19th century clash between the blue North and the (this time) grey South, in the apallingly bloody Civil War, during the first half of the 1860s.

But the whole river of course finally runs much deeper than this. (And there is of course not going to be any kind of civil war in the USA today. That actual military part of the struggle will remain more or less safely in Iraq, for a while longer at least.)

The conservative journey back to the future

The biggest question about the 2004 US election is of course just how the Bush-Cheney Republicans, with so much real-world testimony going against them, still actually managed to win at least 51% of the national popular vote. Here the most obvious continuing explanation of 9/11 in 2001 may finally prove a comparatively small part of a bigger picture, going all the way back to the 1960s (and no doubt still further as well, in some very deep accounts).

During the last quarter of the 20th century the USA – and perhaps even all of what Winston Churchill called the English-speaking peoples in the 1950s – stumbled upon new and increasingly challenging times of very big change, in a rising new multicultural global village that the USA itself was also doing a great deal to inspire.

The 1960s first introduced the new challenges. But they just grew more and more challenging as the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s wore on. They do seem to have come to a climax of sorts in the heady new microelectronic Internet age that crystallized in the 1990s – dramatically punctuated politically by the two Islamist terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, in 1993 and then, much more devastatingly, in 2001.

However you exactly arrange the big picture, the zealous new religious-based, back-to-the-future, mindlessly free-market, and more than a little militaristic conservatism that George W. Bush has now entrenched in the White House, for four more years, is just an ultimate backward-looking reaction to all the big challenges of the past quarter-century, and more.

It flows from powerful and understandable fears that the USA can only retreat into the myths of its past, as it struggles to deal with an alarming new future, that has been coming for several decades and has now arrived in spades at last.

As has already been quietly recognized even in the US mass media, on November 2, 2004 the Bush-Cheney Republicans finally managed to win a small popular majority of the present and still much turned-off (and tuned-out) American democracy, by spreading a hyperbolic fear of the future – that only tough modern replicas of the rugged heroes of the legendary Anglo-American frontier can handle.

The message resonates especially well in the 10 states of the more or less middle American interior where George W. Bush received his greatest shares of the popular vote in 2004: Utah (the Mormon state), Wyoming (Dick Cheney’s state), Idaho, Nebraska (home of Johnny Carson), Oklahoma (remember the Broadway musical of the 1940s, where everything was up to date in Kansas City?), North Dakota, Alabama, Kansas, Alaska (where the old frontier is still actually alive, even though it also seems to be contemplating decriminalizing marijuana), and of course Texas (remember the Alamo, where Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston died for you, just like in the John Wayne movie?).

One thing John Kerry seemed to be trying to remind us, in his gracious and characteristically over-subtle concession speech at the equally historic Faneuil Hall, was that all this really is just a naive and over-romantic retreat into the mythical past. It is itself finally out of keeping with the truest American recipe for success. “America always moves forward,” as Kerry said, and that is finally why “what we started in this campaign will not end here.”

Even so, what the 2004 US election has also shown quite clearly enough is that no one – and certainly not John Kerry’s Democrats – as yet truly understands just what a forward-looking  practical response to the undoubtedly great challenges that currently face democracy in America might look like in real life. That is what the sovereign people, who in their ultimate collective wisdom gave a slight nod to George W. Bush, in spite of all the clear marks against him, were finally saying – to all of us who still believe in an America that continues to grow and develop, and make real progress in the history of human freedom, for all the people everywhere.

When such TV pundits as CNN’s Jeff Greenfield almost instantly declared that the Democrats now had to sit down and figure out just what it was they were all about, they did put a deft finger on one key early consequence of November 2, 2004. The Economist in the UK had already hinted at this message, when it posed the ultimate choice in the election as one between Bush “the incompetent” and Kerry “the incoherent.”

For the Bush-Cheney team everything can be made right again if – in both the world at large and inside the USA itself – the clock can be boldly turned back to the tried and true virtues of the way it was when, say, Warren G. Harding won the election of 1920 (with 61% of the national popular vote).

In 2004 the message Kerry did convey quite effectively was that, apart from anything else, in the real world of the early 21st century it is just not going to be as simple or as easy as this. That was good enough for somewhat better than 48% of the national popular vote. But to win the election, even as narrowly as the red Republicans did, the Democrats needed some more coherent practical vision of just what moving forward on all the great challenges of the early 21st century might entail, down on the ground where the great majority of all of us live. And some stronger and stiffer version of such a vision is no doubt what the Democrats have to start working on now.

Meanwhile, what seems equally clear is that, over the immediate future, there are going to be recurrent pressures for Democrats to fall in with a second Bush administration’s assorted ill-considered schemes for so-called compassionate conservative political and economic transformation of the USA. There will be fresh appeals for a wider national unity, still needed to meet all the great challenges of a troubling future – including a war in Iraq that will no doubt continue to fester for some time yet.

If those who continue to have faith in the historic liberal democratic values of the great American experiment give in to these pressures, they never will figure out just what a forward-looking practical response to the undoubtedly great challenges that currently face democracy in America might look like in real life.

At the same time, if it eventually does come, any decisive political triumph of the new fear-mongering and backward-looking conservative transformation will indeed be a sad day for the future of the USA. George W. Bush is the voice of an America in decline, that thinks it can only survive the present by retreating aggressively into the myths of the past. If you still do believe in the best traditions of Jeffersonian democracy, or whatever else you want to call the political heights of the American heritage, the route to the  future that the Bush-Cheney team is charting can only run downhill. (Which of course may not really matter, if you seriously do think that the biblical Armageddon will soon be at hand in any case.)

So some part of the USA today almost desperately needs to start thinking much more practically about just what it will take to start moving forward again.

It is a very big job, that will require continuing endless hard work by many hands, as both Kerry and Edwards were apparently trying to remind their supporters on November 3. It will also no doubt require greater courage and faith in fundamental free and democratic principles – and a greater surge of down-on-the-ground organizational energy and skill, and much, much better mass communication everywhere – than the democratic left in perhaps any part of the so-called developed first world has shown for a generation or more.

Those of us on the northern border who continue to wish the Kerry-Edwards team of 2004 the very best can perhaps only pray that all Stephen Colbert’s fans in the great republic will be taking his advice about staying in their own part of the early 21st century American duplex to heart. The biggest issue now is not democracy in Iraq, whatever that may ever realistically come to mean. It actually does seem to be the future of democracy in America itself. Here’s hoping John Edwards was right, when he said “the battle rages on.”



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