Archive article from The Socialist Issue 369
How Could Bush Win?
Democrats’ Failure Shows Need for New Party
Tens of millions are deeply dismayed at the victory of George W. Bush and the Republicans, and are asking, "How could Bush have won?"
Philip Locker, Socialist Alternative in the USA, sister party of the Socialist Party
After all, Bush blatantly lied about dragging us into the catastrophe in Iraq, he is the only president since Hoover in the 1930s to preside over a net loss in jobs, and his first term was plagued by falling living standards and corporate scandals. Polls show the majority of people think the country is heading in the wrong direction and that the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting. They also disapprove of the job Bush is doing and oppose his tax cuts for the rich.
It seems as if John Kerry snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
The election was a shattering defeat for the Democratic Party. Not only did the Democratic Party lose the popular vote to Bush by 3%, but they also lost seats in the Senate and House. Kerry’s appeal was so weak, the Democrats lost ground among their core constituencies. Only 53% of Latinos voted for Kerry, down from Gore’s 62% in 2000 and Clinton’s 72% in 1996. Kerry’s share of the female vote was 51%, down from Gore’s 54%. The Democrats even managed to lose their share of African-American and union members’ votes, both by 3%.
While voters were unhappy with Bush, Kerry’s Bush-lite pro-war, corporate strategy failed to give voters any real reason to vote for Kerry. For example, in Ohio 62% of voters said the economy was "not good," but when asked who they’d trust with the economy, they split evenly between Bush and Kerry; nationally, Bush was even favored by 2%.
On Iraq, left-wing columnist Doug Ireland pointed out that "history will record that John Kerry lost the election on the day he voted [for] Bush's war on Iraq. He was hobbled throughout the campaign by this vote, which shackled him to a me-too posture that included endlessly repeated pledges to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq and ‘win’ the occupation. Kerry could not, therefore, develop and present a full-blown critique of Bush on Iraq, nor offer a genuine alternative to him on it. The non-existent Kerry ‘plan’ (based on the hubris that he could con foreign allies into sending their troops to bleed and die for the U.S. crimes at Abu Ghraib) wasn't bought by the voters."
Ireland continues, "Bush won by making the link between Iraq and the war on terrorism – the Big Lie which Kerry could not effectively counter, because he'd bought into it at the beginning. And it was on that endlessly hammered lie that Bush won the country on the Iraq issue – the exit polls Tuesday night showed that voters thought the Iraq war was part of the war on terror by 52-44%" (Zmag.org, 11/3/04).
While the race was extremely intense, it was still fundamentally a battle between two corporate-controlled parties. The interests of workers and ordinary people were once again shut out, as the leaders of labor, women’s, civil rights, and anti-war groups continued their failed policy of supporting the Democratic Party, this year under the guise of "Anybody but Bush." Only Ralph Nader’s anti-war, pro-worker campaign, which was only able to reach a minority, gave voice to the needs of ordinary people and pointed to the need for a left-wing political alternative to break Corporate America’s straightjacket on U.S. political life.
Kerry, while touching on some crucial social issues, tried to compete with Bush in defending conservative, "traditional" values. If Kerry had been elected, he would have carried out a capitalist program similar to Bush’s of continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq and attacks on the working class on behalf of his corporate masters. On the basis of this status quo, a decisive majority of the better-paid and middle-income strata of white male workers in suburban and rural communities found Bush a more reassuring candidate.
However, Bush was only able to eek out a 51% victory by mobilizing millions of new evangelical Christian voters. On the basis of overtly religious appeals, Bush posed as the upholder of the "traditional American way of life" by opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights and employing coded racism and sexism. In this regard, the Republicans’ 11 state ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage, which passed by overwhelming margins, was key in energizing the Christian right.
Many of these voters were working-class, even poor, who were hit by the economic downturn under Bush. But lacking any mass left-wing or working-class alternative to channel their anger against big business, the right wing of the Republican Party was able to divert their anger by blaming society’s problems on a breakdown of "traditional values" and the family caused by gay marriage and abortion.
This appeal to "religious values" and nationalism resonated with a layer of people who are desperate for stability, order, and security in a rapidly changing, uncertain world. Religion can act as salve to the wounds inflected by a harsh, brutal society – a "soul in a soulless world."
Bush also based his deeply reactionary strategy on wrapping himself in the flag and playing on the fears, insecurities, and confusion of key sections of the electorate through lies and ruthless exploitation of 9/11.
However, this support is based on very unstable foundations and will be shaken by major events in the next period, particularly a new economic recession and a deepening of the crisis in Iraq.
Voter Turnout Decisive
Bush’s strategy succeeded in energizing his right-wing religious base to turn out to vote on a larger scale than in 2000. While there was also a growth in new Democratic voters, the Republican get-out-the-vote effort was more successful.
This completely disproves the "theory" of media pundits and over-paid campaign consultants that, in order to win elections, candidates need to cater to conservative swing voters by running a moderate, centrist campaign. Bush was able to win by running a right-wing campaign, whereas Kerry’s "me-too" strategy of shunning his "base" and reaching out to the right was incapable of sufficiently arousing enough workers and oppressed people to vote for him.
While voter turnout was up (57% from 54%), 43% of eligible voters still did not vote. This 43% is disproportionately poor people, people of color, and young people –groups that largely vote for Democrats. As Ralph Nader noted, "The re-election of George Bush would not have occurred had the Democrats stood up for the needs of the American people. Tens of millions of Americans have been left out of the political process because their needs are being ignored."
One commentator put it, "If Kerry wants black people to wait in line for four hours to vote for him, he needs to promise them more than additional cops to harass their neighborhoods" (dissidentvoice.org, 11/5/04).
To defeat Bush, which was entirely possible, it would have been necessary to advance a bold working-class alternative rather than pander to Bush’s right-wing agenda. An example of the possibility of winning support by appealing to workers’ interests, even in Republican "red states," were the ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Florida and Nevada which passed overwhelmingly (with 72% of the vote in Florida), even though both Florida and Nevada went to Bush, and the Republican Party strongly opposed the initiatives.
Campaigning to unionize Wal-Mart to demand a living wage and healthcare for its one million employees would gain tremendous support throughout the many conservative towns where Wal-Mart has stores, much less the other 46 million workers stuck at Wal-Mart type wages throughout the country.
The Democrats’ failure to advance a clear alternative to Bush, however, was not an accidental mistake or simply a personal weakness of John Kerry. It stems directly from the political character of the Democratic Party itself – a party bought and owned by Corporate America and committed to defending its profit system at home and abroad.
While Kerry did at times sharply attack Bush and raise some populist themes, it was limited to the sphere of rhetoric and lacked credibility, particularly given the Democratic Party’s long history of broken promises. When Kerry attempted to attack Bush on Iraq, he was never able to effectively answer Bush’s simple reply that Kerry had voted for the war and kept changing his position on it. It was just as hard to take seriously Kerry’s attempts to appeal to workers’ economic interests when it was coming from an out-of-touch billionaire who was calling for tax cuts for corporations and had voted for NAFTA, the WTO, and Clinton’s dismantling of Welfare.
This allowed Bush to relentlessly attack Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper who is willing to say anything to get elected, effectively exploiting the two-faced, cowardly nature of the Democratic Party. The flip-flopping, half-heartedness, and incoherence is the inevitable byproduct of the contradictions of a party which claims to speak for working people while in reality serving the interests of the brutal, exploitative ruling class.
This election showed yet again how futile it is to rely on the Democrats as a political vehicle for fighting the right wing. The key to resisting Bush is to mobilize the power of the working class, women, people of color, and the anti-war movement, which the Democrats are utterly opposed to. It is long overdue that the anti-war movement and working people break from this capitalist party and begin to build our own political party.
Has the Country Swung to the Right?
Many of the "Anybody but Bush" left-wing supporters of Kerry have argued that the Republicans’ election victory is evidence, not of Kerry’s failed strategy, but of the right wing, conservative outlook of the majority of the country.
For example, Katha Pollitt’s article "Mourn" in The Nation, reasons, "Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, "safety" through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches, and a my-way-or-the-highway President."
However, this argument gives a highly distorted, over-simplified picture of what happened on November 2.
Only 29% of the eligible electorate voted for Bush (51% of the 57% who voted). This is hardly a public mandate for Bush’s agenda.
This does not take into account the millions of Kerry votes that were possibly lost due to poor machinery (overwhelmingly in poor communities of color) and Republican voter suppression efforts, as investigative journalist Greg Palast has reported (TomPaine.com, 11/4/04). On top of this, there is the legal exclusion of ex-felons, immigrants without citizenship even though they work and pay taxes.
Bush’s victory must also be viewed in light of the right-wing media and the standard manipulation of the public in any capitalist election, which was backed up in this race with an unprecedented $4 billion spent by both campaigns to deceive voters.
In reality, the country is more polarized than at any time in 30 years, with almost half the electorate fiercely opposed to a wartime president. With only another 1.5% of the vote, Kerry would have won the election – and the left would not be agonizing about the pro-Bush electorate.
In 1972, when right-wing Republican Richard Nixon was reelected to a second term with a crushing 61% of the vote, many on the left were similarly devastated and falsely concluded that it demonstrated a right-wing shift in consciousness. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. was forced out of Vietnam, and Nixon was driven out of office by the Watergate scandal and a growing popular revolt.
This example illustrates the basic Marxist view that elections are only a distorted snapshot of the public mood at any one time. This mood is not set in stone and can change rapidly under the impact of major events.
This is not to deny that Bush’s tactics succeeded in mobilizing reactionary, right-wing sentiments through employing lies and appealing to the political disorientation, religious prejudice, racism, and sexism of a minority of voters (though well-organized and influential) in more rural, conservative areas.
A key factor present in this equation was the effects of 9/11. While the nationalistic, pro-war sentiments Bush whipped up after 9/11 have been steadily falling the past three years, they are still present in the consciousness of large sections of the country. Added to this mix is the potency of appeals for national unity behind a firm leader in the midst of a war.
On the other hand, consciousness is always mixed with various contradictory ideas present in people’s minds at the same time. In this election under the impact of the shock of 9/11, Bush was able to exploit people’s fears about security and terrorism to override the concerns and anger of a decisive section of the population about key social issues (such as jobs, healthcare, and education) on which clear majorities oppose him.
But it was the weakness of John Kerry’s right-wing, pro-war strategy that allowed Bush’s tactics to succeed to the extent that they did. Kerry consistently legitimized Bush’s agenda by supporting many of his key policies, such as "No Child Left Behind," corporate tax cuts, and the Patriot Act.
Because of Kerry’s policies and strategy, the race was on Bush’s right-wing terms, and Bush’s agenda faced no serious opposition. Just the opposite – Kerry continually echoed Bush and attempted to out-Bush Bush, which de-energized Kerry’s base and played into Bush’s hands.
Kerry supported the Iraq war, claiming he would wage it more effectively, tried to out-hawk Bush on Iran, promised to "hunt down and kill the terrorists," and employed racist rhetoric such as when he complained that "we now have people from the Middle East… coming across the border."
This gave little reason to wavering voters to break with Bush, and instead fed into the logic: "Why change horses in mid-stream? We might as well stick with a strong, determined leader at a time of war, rather than an inconsistent flip-flopper."
When Bush attacked gay marriage, voters did not hear any real opposition from Kerry and the Democratic Party, who instead tried to prove they too believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman. However, this rotten, unprincipled tactic did not end up helping the Democrats. Conservative voters who turned out to ban gay marriage in state ballot initiatives voted for Bush, the candidate they saw as the "real deal."
"Anybody but Bush"
Even worse, by tying itself to Kerry, the "Anybody but Bush" left failed to build any serious movement to answer the bigoted anti-gay marriage amendments because any meaningful struggle would mean criticizing Kerry and diverting resources away from Kerry’s campaign.
But how else will LGBT rights be won, if not by a determined mass struggle? Only a bold movement for LGBT rights, that seeks to link up with all workers and oppressed people, can answer the homophobic poison spewed by the religious right and strengthen support for gay marriage. Even if we do not win right away, at least we can begin to build our forces and establish a tradition of fighting for equal rights.
The civil rights movement started out as a minority, but by organizing mass protests, it was able to change public opinion and the balance of forces in society. The same was true in the fight for women’s abortion rights in the 1960s and early ’70s. Should the pioneers of these movements not have taken a stand by beginning to build a movement against racism and sexism even when they held minority viewpoints?
The 2004 election should leave no doubt that the Democratic Party is hopelessly unwilling to take such a stand and fight as a minority, just as they went along with Bush after 9/11 in stampeding the country into a "war on terrorism."
Bush Will Face Massive Opposition
Bush clearly sees his reelection as a mandate, a green light, to implement even more brutal right-wing policies. Bush officials are planning a massive assault on the working class, such as a partially privatizing Social Security, tax "reform" (i.e. making the tax system radically more regressive through a flat tax or replacing income tax with a national sales tax), limiting medical liability, nominating right-wing Supreme Court justices who could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, pushing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, further attacking civil liberties, and renewing efforts to open oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
However, the idea that the political conditions are ripe for Bush to easily carry out such extreme policies is as far-fetched as were the fantasies about the invasion of Iraq being a "cakewalk."
In reality, Bush faces an utter disaster in Iraq, and he has no viable strategy to deal with this growing crisis. U.S. casualties will continue to mount along with the Iraqi resistance, which will detonate a gigantic anti-war movement in the U.S., shaking the country to its foundations, possibly on the scale of the Vietnam anti-war movement.
The U.S. economy is also in crisis, mired by an unsustainable current account deficit, an inflated stock market, a housing bubble, a falling dollar, huge debt and massive overcapacity. The full effects of this crisis have been temporarily postponed, but a new downturn is likely in the next few years. A new recession will cause serious economic suffering for millions of workers and middle class people, dramatically undercutting Bush’s public support.
As Bush plunges ahead with attacks on workers and democratic rights, he will overreach, provoking massive opposition. Bush’s first term triggered huge protests, radicalization, and a polarization of society. Bush’s second term is likely to be even more tumultuous. Temporarily, there will be an ebb in struggle due to the widespread demoralization and despondency among activists at Bush’s re-election, who mistakenly pinned their hopes on Kerry. But on the basis of events, new larger struggles will develop.
The extremely polarized presidential election exposed the mounting tensions building up in U.S. society, but it did not in any way resolve these deep contradictions.
Bush’s re-election adds a new, destabilizing factor to this already explosive mix.
The underlying social and class issues, which were overridden by security concerns and "moral values" in the 2004 election, will erupt as the economy heads into a downturn, the Iraqi quagmire intensifies, and Bush aggressively moves to carry out brutal attacks on the working class.