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.