WHY BUSH REALLY WON
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The learned scribes and pundits who portray President George W. Bush as ignorant, irresponsible and reckless somehow have managed to miss the salient point - that is the reason Americans elected him. These unstatesmanlike qualities are considered virtues by certain voter, and that has been the least understood phenomenon of the last election.
Columns and analyses by the hundreds have piled up alongside the fever dreams of the disappointed Democratic Party activists. Every single one I have read seems to miss the point. Ivy League educated columnists and angry Bush-haters have been obsessing on the religious moralism of "red state" voters. They have all fallen for a well constructed line that is the ultimate non sequitur.
To state my argument directly, it was the fear, sadism and quiet viciousness of people who had suffered the mass murder of their fellow countrymen that explains President Bush's advantage. This may sound a little cantankerous as a working hypothesis, but it fits the facts at least as well as any other.
Consider the Abu Ghraib scandal. It's hard to imagine worse damage to the American image, particularly in Iraq, since we are ostensibly trying to make it over in our own image. Add to that the record of Guantanamo, where the Constitution was said not to apply. On top of that, the open secret that we have been shipping prisoners to overseas dictatorships so that they can be tortured should be included. Any or all of these should have been held against the Bush presidency. Apparently they were not.
Somehow these unpleasant facts didn't stop millions of voters from supporting the president. The major media have been floundering in trying to come up with an explanation. The explanation they have settled on, loosely paraphrased, is that religious southerners belong to some other species.
Just like the people who think that only New Hampshire residents are competent to select presidential candidates, the editorial class misses the larger view. We need to think back to how we felt right after the September 11 attacks. We can try to remember the more extreme views that were being expressed by our fellow citizens at the time. They talked over drinks with their friends and called into radio shows expressing lurid fantasies about how they would like to punish Bin Laden and his army.
We ought to understand that many people have not gotten over those feelings. They don't think it's right to get over them.
There are lots of people who still fear the terrorist threat, want revenge, and don't particularly care how it is extracted. They are more in fear that the U.S. will refrain from taking action than they are in fear that the action we take will be viewed negatively by foreign countries. There is no disputing the fact that many people feel this way. It has been the staple of right wing commentary, at least at the talk-radio level, since shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
It is the political corollaries that have not been fully considered. The psychology of the post-Sept. 11 era matters. One element that never comes up in all those electoral analyses is the concept of suppressed guilt and a bothersome feeling of personal responsibility. These turn out to be important.
In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, Americans were angry in a way that most of us have not experienced before. A foreign enemy had managed to do massive damage within our own borders. We can remember comments made by Americans who lived far from New York, but took the attacks as a personal affront and even as a personal loss. It was a frustrating time for many people. Bursting with rage, they lacked a specific target like the Empire of Japan had provided in 1941. Not only wounded but insulted, they demanded that our country take action.
By 2004, even for the most vengeful among us, there had to be a certain ambivalence. You could recognize it in their blustery tone and elevated volume. There must have been a need to suppress the normal guilt feelings that come from demanding the unjustifiable - the bombings, shootings and torture of civilians. After all, we are talking about the very same voters who told pollsters that "moral values" were important to them. There is a certain inner contradiction inherent in demanding the bloodiest forms of revenge and simultaneously trying to believe in the redeeming power of divine forgiveness.
And there you have it. A significant class of the American electorate demanded rough justice, not just victory, but blood and guts catharsis. But many of them were, at the same time, ambivalent about it due to their religious training and moral upbringing.
Why would this be so important in the 2004 election?
Consider the candidates' differences. Sen. John F. Kerry had the better record in terms of military participation. He had commanded troops in battle and better fit the economic and social views of the voters. He presented himself as a man ready and able to step into the role of conquerer.
There was one problem though. He had also testified against the very thing - war crimes - that some moral values voters apparently wanted most. The voters didn't generally admit out loud that they wanted Viet Nam era excesses perpetrated on the new enemy, but the President surrogates somehow figured out that this was Sen. Kerry's worst electoral weakness.
What of President Bush? Here was a guy who had the most measly of military records, had obviously bungled prior to the September 11 attacks, and had lied his head off. He lied in a way that was positively Nixonian in scope and grandeur. Most of all, he never took the blame for anything and never assigned blame. His subordinates carried out morally reprehensible acts, signed off on dirty work of the ugliest sort, and let President Bush stay above it all. He didn't admit to wrongdoing and never suggested that our country carried any responsibility, much less guilt, for anything it did subsequent to the September 11 attacks.
He was the perfect candidate for the morally ambivalent.
Here was a guy who would do all the nasty things we desired, but "don't ask, don't tell" was the mantra for torture. The President offered a magical formula. We could have our revenge but not suffer the guilt and responsibility that it entails. He would do the dirty work and never tell us. Kerry couldn't be trusted to do the dirty work, and even if he did it, a Democratic administration couldn't be trusted to keep it quietly buried.
This is admittedly a thesis that suggests a particular sort of voter psychology. One might call it the sublimated sadism hypothesis. It is offered by a non-psychologist in this post-Freudian era, but I would argue that it fits the facts better than the other nonsense theories that are being floated as explanations for the otherwise unexplainable. The "moral values" explanation paints red state voters as somehow too goody-goody to vote intelligently. It treats them as intellectual slaves to a suffocating religious dictatorship. It fails to explain the voters' choice to elect the more cruel, violent administration.
Right now, liberal-oriented political clubs and Internet-mediated organizations are continuing their fight against the Republican agenda by holding public forums and Internet discussions. They talk about how to snare the antiabortion voter or the southern Protestant. They despair over the fact that their own moral values were rejected by the other side's moral values.
It is painful to watch.
I suggest that they are barking up the wrong tree. The red state voters may have told pollsters that they were voting for moral values, but in reality they were voting for amoral values. None of them quite admitted it, but that is what they did. They had the chance to vote for a Bible-toting incumbent who managed to communicate by the wink and the nod that he would be immoral on their behalf, and they took him up on it. It was the best of all possible worlds for voters with those needs.
For the other side, it is crucial that an accurate diagnosis be made of why the Democratic Party has managed to lose once again. All the excuses going around currently lead back to the same electoral defeat because they misstate the real issues.
Political analysts figured out that President Bush somehow made voters feel more secure about terrorism, but they never managed to explain why. They were not realistic enough, or perhaps honest enough, to get to the bloody heart of the matter.