The fog lifts

The lot of a political centrist is sometimes not a happy one. Lately I’ve been suffering pangs of angst and self-doubt. After joining the anti-Howard and anti-Bush camps for the recent elections and jinxing both of them, I couldn’t help wondering whether I might be suffering a deeply disturbing mid-life lurch to the left.

Fortunately, reading the current musings of my left-leaning co-bloggers Don Arthur (here and here) and Mark Bahnisch (here and here), not to mention Christopher Sheil (here), has set my mind at rest. My sceptical centrist instincts remain intact. I can’t for the life of me see why anyone would want to resort to Marx or Weber or even Thomas Frank to explain John Kerry’s defeat in the US presidential election (not that I’ve yet read either of Frank’s books, but I’ve never let ignorance stand in the way of a good rant).

Why is it self-evidently against the “class interests” of the conservative poor to vote Republican, even if we define class interest in narrowly economic terms? Is it self-delusion by definition to do so? Might not such voters perfectly rationally accept the neoliberals’ argument that a maximally free market economy with a small government will ultimately be best for everyone? Lefties tend to regard neoliberalism as self-evidently spurious, but that doesn’t mean either that their judgment is necessarily correct or that anyone who disagrees is a deluded fool.

Of course, the problem with that argument is that the Bush administration are anything but purist neoliberals, but equally Kerry is anything but a social democrat in any recognisable sense. So why assume conclusively that the poor who voted for Bush were pig-ignorant, deluded class traitors?

Moreover, why must we look at self-interest in purely class-based, or even Weberian terms, anyway? Mightn’t a member of the conservative poor legitimately conclude that the moral and social policies of the Republicans, not to mention Bush’s stance on national security and the War Against Terror, coincided more closely with their wider self-interest than the Democrats’ prescriptions? Such an electoral judgment doesn’t necessarily imply stupidity any more than does the decision of a wealthy ‘limousine liberal’ to vote Democrat, arguably against her narrow economic ‘class interest’, because she believes that their marginally more egalitarian and inclusive policies will make for a more just and congenial society that will benefit everyone in the long run.

Mark Bahnisch partly concedes that point in one of his comments. So, in a back-handed sense, does Tim Dunlop in this post. However, Tim then seemingly proceeds to assume conclusively that a relatively poor commission-based rental car agent who voted Republican, despite his income being almost halved in the wake of September 11, was (a) deluded and (b) voting against class interest by doing so. But why is that necessarily true? Mightn’t he quite rationally have concluded that President Al Gore wouldn’t have prevented September 11 from happening, and might well have handled subsequent events in a less resolute manner? And that John Kerry would be even worse? And why should he think that his economic prospects would have been better under the Democrats?

But the central reason why I think resort to Marx or Weber or Frank is both misguided and unnecessary (apart from a healthy scepticism about the first two at least) is that I suspect that the main reason the majority of people, including the poor, voted for Bush rather than Kerry was quite a simple one. Kerry was just a shithouse candidate. He is a wooden, boring, uninspiring, unconvincing orator, who completely lacked the common touch or any real ability to communicate with voters. That flawed political genius southern conservative/democrat/populist Bill Clinton managed to win and then retain the Presidency in circumstances no less hostile than the current ones.

Kerry also had a Senate voting record sufficiently inconsistent on national security issues to lend a touch of verisimilitude to Bush’s weak, irresolute “flip-flopper” characterisation of him. Again you have to wonder why the Democrats picked such a candidate.

But the real clincher is: why would any sane political party endorse as its Presidential candidate a man with a long record as an anti-war activist, at a time when America is at war and Americans are still feeling fearful and vulnerable in the wake of September 11? What did they expect would happen? I was critical of the unprincipled activities of GOP front groups like Swift Boat Veterans, but the fact is politics is an amoral, ruthlessly pragmatic business. If you’ve got a glass jaw and you lead with your chin, you shouldn’t be surprised when you wind up unconscious on the canvas.

In fact, the more I think about it the more I reckon it was a miracle the Democrat vote held up as well as it did, given how poor a candidate Kerry was. It rather suggests that Bush really was unpopular because of his dubious economic stewardship and botching of the Iraq involvement, but still won because enough people were forced to conclude that Kerry was potentially worse and a bad risk in dangerous times.

I think I’ll leave the left-wing political theorising to those who think it says something useful, and stick with my “Presidential Election for Dummies” explanation. For my money it was the Democratic Party powerbrokers who picked Kerry who were the dummies, not the good ol’ boys of the South and Mid West who voted for Bush. They voted for what they saw as the better of a bad choice, and I’m not at all sure they were wrong.

That isn’t to deny that the pervasive neocon story about out-of-touch, condescending liberal elites who are contemptuous of the values of ordinary Americans, is mostly cynical bullshit (not least because the Straussian theories underlying the neocon project are even more contemptuous, condescending and elitist, and deliberately dishonest to boot). But it’s powerful bullshit, because it contains enough germs of truth to render it persuasive to many, as this review of Frank’s new book What’s the Matter With Kansas? by blogger Josh Chafetz (via Scott Wickstein) argues persuasively. If the Democrats expect to win in 2008, they’ll need a better story and a much better candidate, unless Iraq and the economy both keep turning sour for Bush.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, fair enough, but Weber was a liberal and a supporter of parliamentary democracy so he’d probably fit your definition of a centrist.

Yes, John Kerry may not have been the best candidate (though it’s very hard to pick any of the Demo primary field as a better one – and to clarify my position further, I’m not one of those who regard voters as having been “duped” and I’ve indicated a lot of scepticism about the notion of “real interests” or “material interests” and political strategies based on them. Rather, I’ve consistently argued that the Left needs to engage with voters at all levels – including with their concerns about values and culture. That has to be a two way conversation, btw, in my view.

The use of theory in analysing election results, for me, is that it helps us to understand some of the underlying trends and their historical context. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a pragmatic analysis based on the campaign and the candidates. It’s just that the Democrats and Labor have proved hopeless at coming up with anything useful based on that time and time again. So I want to dig a bit deeper. I’m sure you’d agree that having a competitive party system responsive to voters’ concerns is a good thing, and that’s one thing I’d like to see coming from the revitalisation of the opposition parties in Oz and the States, as well as my own political interest in their revival.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

As you’ve linked to my post Ken, re:

So why assume conclusively that the poor who voted for Bush were pig-ignorant, deluded class traitors?

As I commented yesterday to Mark B (a comment on which he agreed, as above):

I think any analysis that calculates an economic class interest here and a politics that ‘should’ follow there, and explains why this is not so by reference to some form of ‘false consciousness’, is likely to be bestowing the enormous condescension of theory.

Some strawman baiting, methinks.

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Ken,

FWIW I think your analysis is closer to the mark than the “class-traitors let us down” hypothesis. Kerry scored some points on unemployment and “offshoring”, but didn’t provide a convincing argument as to why Joe Soap was going to be better off under the Democrats.

The “values thing” also seems to have been very important: when a plumber already has two SUVs in the garage and his’n’hers jacuzzis, maybe the issue of gay marriage IS more important to him than the minimum wage.

I think you’re a little harsh on the Democrats for picking Kerry, however. The alternatives that I remember were:

Edwards – untried Southerner with insufficient gravitas;
Clark – one-dimensional former general wrong-sided by the Iraq war;
Dean – foaming-at-the-mouth angry dude.

Try picking a charismatic centrist with a credible plan for the economy AND Iraq from that lot.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

You’ve certainly got a point about the dearth of obviously better candidates than Kerry among the Democrat contenders. I tend to think with the benefit of hindsight that Edwards would have done a bit better, but his showing in the primaries rather suggested otherwise.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken – I think Edwards’ main handicap would have been that he was not experienced enough (first term Senator) – Cheney made that charge against him in the Veep debate with some effect.

Spiros
Spiros
2022 years ago

It wasn’t the Democratic power brokers who chose Kerry. It was the Democrat voters in the primaries. Presumably his lack of charisma didn’t bother them, but maybe after the Gore experience they didn’t set the bar too high.

I think the nomination is Edwards’ for the taking in 2008. He’ll have another 4 years in the Senate to build his gravitas. Someone has to win those southern votes, and it isn’t going to be Hilary Clinton.

As for the working class voters voting against their economic interests, I think the point is that those interests were trumped by other concerns like national security and the broader cultural agenda.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

Ken, I agree with your essential position. It is quite pointless to over analyse these recent election results. The reasons behind the recent victories for the right are simple. They have to be. If the reasoning was complex then they wouldn’t have won.

I agree that general appeal of the candidate is an important factor. I’ve been saying elsewhere , and I’ll say it again that an appeal to the baser human instinct of veangeance is perhaps also part of it – and thus the attraction of the ‘tough on whatever’ candidate.

I think though that the discussions about class are relevent to the extent that they explain why the ‘liberal-left’ attitudes were so successfully derided, and made to look weak and namby pamby.

In the end it comes down to which candidate is going to be strong and kick arse on the things that matter to you.

As far as I’m concerned. The left will get nowhere until it can clearly identify the arses that its going to kick.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Spiros, Edwards won’t have another four years in the Senate – he was up for re-election this year but gave up his seat (which was then lost to the Republicans) in order to contest the vice-presidency.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

It wasn’t the Democratic power brokers who chose Kerry. It was the Democrat voters in the primaries.

True in a technical sense. But GW Bush was initially sought out and encouraged to run by GOP powerbrokers, and I assume Democrat movers and shakers behave similarly. Why weren’t they out there identifying talented potential candidates and pushing them to run? Or were they, and Kerry et al is all they managed to find?

Next theory please
Next theory please
2022 years ago

Who are some of the biggest Democrat movers and shakers, and why were there no other candidates? Two Questions. One answer. Two words.

The Clintons.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Ken,
You say: “Why is it self-evidently against the ‘class interests’ of the conservative poor to vote Republican, even if we define class interest in narrowly economic terms?… the problem with that argument is that the Bush administration are anything but purist neoliberals, but equally Kerry is anything but a social democrat in any recognisable sense.”

What you say about Bush and Kerry is right. They agree on many issues. Bush spends too much of taxpayers’ money to be a Cato-style libertarian and Kerry was hardly suggesting that the US emulate Sweden.

I guess the real mystery is why a Democratic candidate can’t succeed by offering a moderately social democratic package that gives lowish income people access to health care, gets their kids through college, and protects their incomes if they happen to lose their jobs in an economic downturn.

If you look at international league tables of well being (health outcomes etc) the US does poorly for a country with such a high per capita GDP. It’s reasonable to think that its patchy welfare state has something to do with this.

It’s not just about money – many Americans could be healthier and better educated if their government pitched in a bit more on their behalf. So why don’t they vote for change?

Jennifer Hochschild tries to answer the question in ‘What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice.’

Spiros
Spiros
2022 years ago

NTP, if the Clintons ensured a dud candidate to keep the field clear for Hillary in ’08, it has backfired on them. After this year, there is no way the Democrats will choose another northeasterner next time.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Four years is a long time in politics.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

I don’t thing anyone is saying that Marxian analysis predicts that workers or the downtrodden should vote Democrat. Both parties represent the interests of the same big corporations who fund them. Neither party has the ability or the inclination to promote the interests of labour over capital. As Ken says, no-one regards Kerry as any kind of social democrat.

In the absence of substantial difference in economic policy, the team with the best marketing strategy won. As an American friend just wrote in an email, ‘the Republicans are now the party of the people, beer drinking, god fearing, car racing xenophobic multitude with income per capita lower than that of the Demos…and the Republicans have sworn to do anything to help them from school prayer to gay bashing to ignoring a string of deficits as far as the eye can see. These people, especially but not only in the south, demand protectionism and eye for an eye in the middle east (actually head for head)and they came out to support their man last Tuesday.’

More than likely the Weberian concept of status groups would be quite useful for making sense of this, but I don’t know enough about it. Where class analysis, Marxian or otherwise, comes in is in explaining why the apparently democratic system produces such limited choice. The key is corporate control of the mainstream parties and the mass media.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Tim then seemingly proceeds to assume conclusively that a relatively poor commission-based rental car agent who voted Republican, despite his income being almost halved in the wake of September 11, was (a) deluded and (b) voting against class interest by doing so.

What can I say? Tim does no such thing, a point you acknowledge by quoting the previous part of the post. That is, when I specifically rule out that option, that doesn’t count. But when I ‘seem’ to rule in the other option, then that does. Some way to argue you’ve got there!

Anyway, I’ve got a couple of posts up on this and probably one more to come. None of them pretend to be conclusive and none of them are critical of people voting their values. I would, though, be very critical of those who allow ‘values’ to default to GOP policy positions.

So I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about what I’ve concluded about the outcome. I actually suspect there is a state/federal thing going on that no-one is picking up, particuarly those relying on the Frank version of events. My only other point at this stage would be that the god vote did and does matter and people shouldn’t shy away from it as some are now starting to do. The further point is that that isn’t the only explanation, which was why I linked to the Sibler piece.

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Ken, i have a suspicion the majority of Dems knew they were caught between a rock & a hard place…the interest rates were low, housing development booming…& steadying from the previous gallop”

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

On the choice of Kerry, the primaries were even further compressed this time by the DNC for “unity” reasons and so the chosen candidate could get a longer go at Bush. That meant that two states chose the candidate, New Hampshire and Iowa. So Kerry is the choice of registered democrats in two states.

As to the class based divisions, there is an urban/rural divide as to which political party appeals to what area. The suburbs also seem to be pretty purple.

This page;

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/

has some interesting cartograms, especially this one;

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/cartcolorslarge.png

which is adjusted for population.

Another possibility, rather than class, which hasnt been discussed is political alienation. It is quote possible that those in the red states, feel less alienated and better represented by federal government.

The Red states do receive more federal dollars than the blue states (the blue states are net givers). They also tend to be for the 2nd Amendment. The Republicans funnel welfare to the mid-west and have constant NRA endorsement.

It is possible that the red states think a Republican President and Congress does the best job at looking out for their interests. Whether domestically, economically, morally or aspirationally.

I have lived in Blue and Red states in the US. I am currently in a Red state. The cultural and class differences arent that great. What little division there is, is being propogated by politicians with a divide and rule agenda.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

Many of the harshest criticisms of how “foolish” some voters were, will be seen for what they are only when the critics learn how to develop a degree of genuine empathy with those they condemn. Ironically, often it’s the contemptuous regard of such critics which strengthens the “foolish” ones’ commitment to ‘the forces of darkness.’
I always considered SOME of the insights of writers like Marx and Dr Spock useful. But I never understood why so many who deemed their words ‘Holy Writ’, drove those they openly dispised into the enemy camp — without knowing what they were doing.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken, an afterthough on the contention that:

Kerry was just a shithouse candidate.

The problem with the central casting theory of politics is that it risks tautology. If the result had been reversed, who the hell would have thought a dumb-cluck, prat-boy, bible-bashing, service-dodging, lying, uninspiring, unconvincing orator, whose loss would have demonstrated he lacked the common touch or any real ability to communicate with voters could have possibly won? Bush also had a shocking record in foreign affairs and the domestic economy … etc, etc, etc … write the rest yourself and then compare it with the winner, who would now suddenly be a well-spoken, intelligent, grown-up, whose victory had demonstrated his ability to cut-through with voters etc etc etc blah blah.

I don’t think Kerry was a great candidate, but if he’d won he automatically would have been … in just the same way that almost every single Australian state Labor leader was a terminal loser, before they won and automatically became massively popular and highly skilled sub-national statesmen to boot. While obviously some candidates are better than others, between the poles lie gigantic buckets of unprovable unendingly discretionary personality assessments, always ready to climb up on the back of whatever the outcome happens to be.

With three points and a state or two in it, the difference was not much, and perhaps the outcome was as chancy as a coin toss, or a personality trait here and there. On the other hand, perhaps there are major shifts occurring beneath the surface, and we are seeing the beginnning of a difference that will soon grow to something really substantial and undeniably difficult to recover from if it is not identified properly.

In sum, I think it’s rather brave to pretend to understand the causes of what is, on even the clearest of occasions, a notoriously difficult phenomenon to read, and am inclined to keep all possibilites open at this stage – from personalites through to shifting class alignments … and on to vote-fixing … and the weather on the day.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Chris

You have a point about characterisations formed with hindsight. But I think it also obscures an important point in what I said. Kerry’s woodenness undeniably has a partician, detached, policy wonk flavour that tends not to appeal to ordinary voters (think Kevin Rudd in an Australian context). Those criticisms were being made about him from quite early in his candidacy. Bush’s inarticulateness, by contrast, has a reassuringly folksy, “aw shucks” quality that disengaged voters find appealing. In Bush’s case that quality seems to have been quite self-consciously cultivated (because his background is just as patrician as Kerry’s). It’s a bit like John Howard’s self-conscious little man ordinariness, which has also been very electorally successsful with the “battlers” and for the same reason.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I can’t remember when but there was a very good Atlantic Monthly article which also popped up in the Friday Fin a while back on Bush and Kerry’s form in debates. Apparently when Bush was running for Governor against Ann Richards in 94, he was quite articulate. There may be a parallel with Joh – who was notoriously advised in 1971 by his media adviser (forget his name – he ended up in gaol) to speak unintelligbly – it will frustrate the journos and enrage the educated middle classes – but appeal to the folks.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I can’t remember when but there was a very good Atlantic Monthly article which also popped up in the Friday Fin a while back on Bush and Kerry’s form in debates. Apparently when Bush was running for Governor against Ann Richards in 94, he was quite articulate. There may be a parallel with Joh – who was notoriously advised in 1971 by his media adviser (forget his name – he ended up in gaol) to speak unintelligbly – it will frustrate the journos and enrage the educated middle classes – but appeal to the folks.

trackback
2022 years ago

Zizek on Frank & populism

I have just come across this forum run by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. It rightly says that: “Australian culture is notable for the lack of intellectual engagement in issues of social and political importance in any prominent way. Th…