November 19, 2004

Damage Survey

There are two kinds of skepticism that have emerged about the claim that “moral values” or the cultural and social character of much of small-town, rural, “red-state” America played a significant role in this election.

The first comes primarily from people who opposed Bush who have looked again at the post-election data and concluded that the differential between 2000 and 2004 was not a result of more voters who were committed to Bush for religious or moral reasons. I think they’re right: there weren’t any more such voters in this election. But the data also suggests that there were just as many as in 2000, that they composed a significant plurality of the Republican vote. That’s just in the Presidential race. In Congressional races, it’s even clearer: this constituency is in the driver’s seat. From the perspective of the opposition to Bush, this changes nothing about my conclusion that the Democrats will either have to blunt the edge of the “moral values” constituency’s commitment to the Republicans or appeal more decisively to that portion of Bush voters whose commitment to the President had little or nothing to do with moral values.

What I hear many mainstream liberals saying is that they don’t see any need to appeal to the religious constituency because there are other possible winning electoral strategies. Fine. I noted one of those alternatives myself (the "soft libertarian" road) in “The Road to Victory”, and even noted that it's my own preference.

That being said, one of my consistent arguments, not just now, but for the lifespan of this weblog, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with a political strategy that treats a sizeable plurality of the national population as immaterial. If 25% of the voting population shares certain strong religious or cultural commitments, then that is a social fact that demands respect and dialogue from all other major constituencies and factions. Social justice in such a case requires that we think about some reconfiguration of the American social contract that allows for some new equilibrium between those different constituencies, some stable covenant or understanding. The alternative is the kind of scorched-earth attempt to capture the state and civil society and impose a bitterly resented transformative program, an effort that I have consistently criticized regardless of who might be pursuing it.

The government can guarantee the foundational rights of all individuals, but efforts to push past that, to work to make the government produce within individual consciousness and practice an idealized commitment to social justice, a principled belief in egalitarianism, “traditional family values”, or any other specific political ideology, is a tremendous error. So liberals should take no comfort if they parse the data and come to the conclusion that religious and cultural conservatives were no more important to President Bush’s victory than in 2000. That merely defers a philosophical sea change that has to come to both Republicans and Democrats, a new wisdom about the costs of unrestrained quests for governmental hegemony over minority constituencies.

The other group I have heard from about the moral-values constituency are Bush voters who bitterly and angrily resent the implication by me and others that their motives for voting for Bush have anything to do with religion or morality. Most crucially here, libertarian voters and voters for whom Bush’s foreign policy are appealing object strongly. They feel my characterizations exclude them, demean the rationality and seriousness of their own convictions, and factually misidentify the reasons why Bush won.

As I noted in my November 18th entry, there’s a valid complaint here, in that I didn’t directly address the views of this group in my bitter attack on Bush voters in general. In part, that’s because I’ve done so at length over the past two years. If you’re a reader of this weblog, you’ll know my reasons for thinking that the Iraq War has been an enormous mistake, and I hope you also know that in making that case, I have taken those who feel otherwise with the utmost seriousness—far more so than I have taken many of the extreme critics of intervention or the “war on terror”.

I’ve been conceding the validity and importance of some of your observations and underlying arguments for years, and on the general question of terrorism, to the point of even sharing many of your beliefs. If I didn’t repeat myself on these questions in the days after the election, it’s partly out of fear of boring people with the repetition of arguments, and partly because there is little point to recapitulating those arguments in any event. It’s done. You won. This is not where the forward motion of political conversation will lie. The President has his war on his terms, and thus so do you. You know why I think that is and will be a catastrophe. Now we wait for the future and see who was right. There is no forward project of persuasion for me because the policy-making apparatus within the Administration is utterly impervious to the opinions of anyone outside of it on the question of the war, and because those who might have been persuaded to vote against Bush on this issue either did or did not.

To some extent, however, these Bush voters commit the sin they accuse me of committing, namely, of conflating their own vote for Bush with the totality of the vote for Bush. Post-election data shows that security-minded voters and libertarians were an important plurality within the Bush vote, but not the only one. I cannot help but feel that the stridency with which some of these voters deny any connection whatsoever to the “moral values” vote is about avoiding another of the consequences of their own actions in this election. You may not want to acknowledge that your vote strengthens the President in areas other than his foreign policy or on issues important to libertarians on the right. As one reader put it to me, "The gay marriage thing is just pandering to his base, I assume nothing will come of it." Whistling past the graveyard. You are part of a coalition, and all parts of that coalition are live and powerful within the Administration and the Congress. Judging from Senator Specter’s troubles at the moment, very live. You cannot escape it: you may not have voted for religious or moral reasons, but your vote has a meaning in those terms. For libertarians in particular, I think that should be tremendously worrisome. As I understand and value libertarian ideas, much of the content of the current Republican agenda seems to be to actively contradict some of the core principles of libertarian politics. Not just on civil liberties and privacy issues, but on the size and character of government. I remain a bit baffled by libertarian indifference to these facts: it seems to me to be born out a historic antipathy to the Democratic Party which makes some sense, but is also bordering on the irrational at times.


Radley Balko suggests that I and a few other weblog writers are Johnny-come-lately federalists or libertarians who are pursuing this remedy out of pure self-interest.

On some level, yes! Of course we are. But isn’t that the point of libertarian ideals or federalism? Enlightened self-interest and the defense of one’s own communities and values against unreasonable intrusion? Balko is wondering why this principle didn’t occur to many liberals until it was their ox being gored. Simple hypocrisy and the headiness of political power in the past is one explanation. However, there’s a much more complicated one rooted in the long and messy history of 19th Century liberalism and its 20th Century manifestations that is a bit more sympathetic to all parties involved, including contemporary conservatives. (Because of course I might wonder why many conservatives are now indifferent to cries for federalism or devolution when fifteen years ago they made such calls the sacred writ of their political campaigns…)

I will also exempt myself from the charge of being a carpetbagging libertarian, and as long as I’m at it, give a dispensation to Belle Waring, as well. I've thought in this space for two years about the virtues and importance of 19th Century liberal conceptions of rights, the state, and the individual (as have Belle and John Holbo in their neck of the woods). In fact, the reappraisal of the individual in historical change in modern Africa is the driving idea behind my current scholarly manuscript as well, and has been since I first proposed the project in 1997. This election may have lent a particular strength and even desperation to my convictions, but this is not a case of throwing ballast overboard out of panic. I believe that strongly libertarian ideologies (the kind found in the Libertarian Party) overly fetishize the state and ignore all other concentrations of social power in institutions, particularly in businesses. But what I’ve lately been calling “soft libertarianism” is more or less my own operating political credo and can be found throughout my writings in various venues in the past six years.

I’ve laid a basic obligation on everyone in the past, what I’ve called “the ethnographic two-step”, or in a more recent piece, the need to negotiate with sensitivity and creativity the antagonism between an interventionist commitment to universal human rights on one hand and the autonomy and authenticity of particular human communities and cultures on the other. If it’s “cultural imperialism” to intervene in customary practices like clitorendectomy in non-Western societies, then it is equally wrong to dictate to religious Americans that their beliefs about life, conception and the moral status of abortion are invalid. Both are interventions. If it is possible for an outsider to critique the status of women in Muslim societies and want to do something about it, then it is possible for an outsider to make valid critical observations about the meanings and motivations behind “creation science”. There is no hatchet that neatly separates the preferences of the right from the left on these questions. As I’ve said before, we are all interventionists now—but we should also recognize that the barrier to interventions should be high and the space for individual, community and cultural autonomy very expansive. We are all called upon to bear witness, to criticize and appreciate the choices of others—but most of the time, only to bear witness, not to force an unwilling transformation on the object of our gaze. The tricky ground in-between is where we all ought to be, where our witness can lead to attempts to persuade, to convert, to cajole, to hope. Dialogue transforms everyone involved in it. There is almost no other way, in fact, to transform another in a manner that the other accepts and embraces.


Those who have complained to me (or complained in general) of the invective directed at those who support Bush because of his foreign policy in general or the Iraq War in particular, I can only offer a limited apology for occasional over the top bile.

There are quite a few rational people who see Bush as marginally better than Kerry on these issues and who cast their vote hesitantly, reluctantly, for Bush because of it. Such people may be plentiful in the electorate but uncommon within the public sphere, whether weblog writers or otherwise. In general, if you write or speak in public for the Iraq War or Bush foreign policy, you’re for it all the way, with very few expressed doubts or concerns, and with a tremendous amount of contempt and disregard for the views of critics.

To make the case that Kerry would have been worse on foreign policy requires ignoring or dismissing Kerry’s actual statements about his policy intentions during the campaign. It requires projecting forward a negative view of his consistency as a policy-maker based on a superficial talking point that he “flip-flops”. Folks, I want to remind you of candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 election, who harshly criticized Al Gore for believing that the United States should be involved in nation-building exercises abroad. Much of what Bush did in his first term was unanticipated by his campaign rhetoric or his record as a politician, in fact. The negative view of Kerry’s likely foreign policy record just seems to come out of the ether. When it was intensely specific—I talked at length with one person whose vote was cast entirely on his belief that Kerry would prove unable to handle the challenge of Iran—then the projection of Bush’s supposedly superior capacity generally became hopelessly vague. Bush voters with these views could tell me exactly what they thought Kerry would do wrong on Iran or North Korea, but couldn’t tell me exactly what they thought George Bush would do right. Or worse yet, as with one correspondent, had a flabbergastingly untrue view of what Bush had already done in these case. (This person thought that Bush had already effectively dissuaded North Korea from developing nuclear weapons or exporting dangerous military technology to other states.)

Almost the worst thing that’s been said to me in email recently was said along these lines by an old friend, someone for whom I have enormous respect, whose intellect and honesty is prodigious. He shrugged and said indifferently that it’s all guesswork anyway. That a guess about Kerry’s likely actions is as good as a guess about Bush’s. That’s sophistry, a blatant case of bogus even-handedness. We have an enormous amount of evidence about what Bush is likely to do based on what he has already done, and I think an enormous weight of that evidence demonstrates that his execution and possibly even conception of foreign policy has been a catastrophe. To demonstrate that Kerry would be even worse takes not just an indifferent bit of guesswork, but a serious, sustained, evidence-rich argument. It is an extraordinary assertion, not a casual one.

In general, I do not apologize for saying that quite a few of those who voted for Bush because of a belief that the Iraq War is the right thing are either very dumb or are blatantly unprincipled (or deviously instinctive) rationalizers. There are people who have played fair, had honest debates, confessed their doubts, sought a middle ground, respected evidence and asked for respect in turn. They’re unusual in the public sphere, if not in everyday life. Most of the proponents for the war have ignored inconvenient data and information, have created special-case rules for evidence that exhibit enormous confirmation bias, and have changed the fundamental premises of their argument for the war faster than the fashion industry changes hemlines. They’ve refused to make testable predictions about the intent of policies, or ignored those that they did make. They’ve changed the subject, diverted attention, and in some cases, simply lied. Do these criticisms not apply to you? I hope they do not. If they do not, then feel no pain at their utterance, and know that I look forward to continuing a fair conversation on shared grounds. If they do apply to you, I don’t expect you to admit it, and I do not apologize for speaking plainly about it.


My observation that “competency” is a cultural value that appears limited to blue-state educated elites seems to have really pissed a lot of people off. Let me restate it as clearly as I can, while also stressing that I offer it somewhat lightly.

The first proposition here is that in some communities and some circumstances, people may for very principled and wholly rational reasons believe that the worst problems they perceive in their own lives cannot be addressed by superior policy initiatives made by better-trained expert politicians, and therefore not particularly trust or value a politician who presents himself in these terms. Frankly, that’s the way I think about some issues. I mistrust anyone who claims that particularly expert, competent or skilled political leadership will provide a better way to deal with some of the fundamental issues behind underdevelopment in parts of Africa or Latin America. I don’t think there’s a better technocratic policy that can be made by more competent experts within the World Bank or by G-7 political leaders, because the problems are vested outside the domains those institutions can reach, at a deeper level of history and consciousness. I mistrust anyone who thinks in a number of domains that expert judgement is superior to “the wisdom of crowds”. I don’t think I’m alone in these beliefs. In some cases, I think whole communities share this skepticism, this belief that what ails them cannot be cured by a politician who is smarter, more educated, more informed or more skilled in his use of the bureaucracy.

The second thing is that what I mean by “competency” in this argument is a bit more specific. What I really mean is “technocratic competency”, which I think is a very specific social formation whose professional norms and appeal really are rooted among educated elites. There’s a generic kind of competency that most of us value in various ways, but technocratic competency is a specific expression of professionalized culture. Now mind you, professionals are both Republicans and Democrats, and this may be where some of the criticism is coming from. Yes, I know, some of you voted for Bush and yet you are also professionals who value technocratic competency. Ok, feel free to ignore this observation, then. On the whole, just being the better technocrat is clearly not a winning proposition, for whatever reason. I think I have a pretty good working explanation for that.


Quite a few readers and other bloggers object to my self-pitying aside that it is disturbing to wake up and feel that a large constituency of Americans hate you. Some object in a more gloating, tit-for-tat, kind of way, e.g., “How does it feel, buddy? You liberals have been doing this to us for years.” This I think is a pretty legitimate comment, actually, and one I’m trying desperate to get anti-Bush people to see, that there is some karmic payback here.

Others assure me that it’s not true, that I and many others are being the anti-Sally Field (“you hate me, you really hate me”). The correspondent who said, “Nobody hates you, you elitist faggot” didn’t exactly reassure me on this point, but I grant you that Adam Yoshida notwithstanding, “hate” is the wrong word here for emotions towards blue-staters. It’s too associated, in a drama-queen manner, with the real history of gravely serious things like racial hatred. “Sustained impersonal dislike” and “casual stereotyping with an undercurrent of malice” are closer to the mark. I think those who actively deny that there’s some real teeth here aren’t paying enough attention, though. The divisions are real, sustained, and for many on both sides, increasingly emotionally intense. More than anything else, I’m fearful of the consequences of such division, and have long been warning people favoring Bush that this is yet another of the problems for which I think he is significantly responsible.


Other emails have objected very strongly to my very loose, impressionistic comments on “red-state America”. What can I say, with David Brooks on the loose, it’s the fashionable sport of the moment, these sweeping shorthands and generalizations. For all that I might criticize Brooks, I would say that there is some value in them, and more, I’d say we as a culture have been making such characterizations for a very long time. Elsewhere I’ve mentioned images of urban and rural, modern and traditional, in Bugs Bunny cartoons, but that only scratches the surface. These kinds of characterizations are practically the lifeblood of 20th Century American popular culture, from country music to sitcoms.

Thoughtful readers and commentators have noted all the things that are wrong about my characterizations. I’d note, as I did in “The Road to Victory”, that the reasons why people stay in small towns and rural areas are diverse, and some of them highly positive and affirmative. But if we’re trying to explain the source of some kinds of animus towards cities and cosmopolitans and Hollywood and so on, it’s probably more useful to explore the negative logics for that decision.

Some respondents simply said it wasn’t true that most people have left and a few have stayed. This however is not in dispute. The simple fact of the matter is that over the course of the 20th Century, particularly in the last forty years, many rural regions of the United States have depopulated. In some places, the drain of people is enormous, in some places, very little. There are communities and regions which I think culturally identify as “red-state” which have grown: Texas and other parts of the South in particular. But even there a lot of the growth is around the cities, not in small-towns, though the latest US Census suggests that there are increasing numbers of growing small cities which are semi-rural or isolated in their relation to the region around them. You may find it uncomfortable, or you may resent any attempt to offer general explanations for it, but the fact is that rural and small-town America has withered and shrunk in the last century.

Many comments also observed that there are enormous differences in the cultural and social character of small towns and rural communities in different parts of the United States. I think this is really true. In some ways, the portrait I offered of communities which are resentfully trapped in decline and which also reject a certain kind of aggressive striving for economic growth or individual wealth most fits some of the rural Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, particularly upstate New York and central Pennsylvania.

Some people also advised me, with varying degrees of rudeness, to travel a bit more across this country and get to know small towns for what they are. I humbly accept the charge, but I’d remind people of something from my original essay, which is that my father and many of his friends were people who completed the movement from small towns to big cities. Many of them, I might add parenthetically, are Republicans or independents in their political preferences. For those who have lived in small towns their whole lives, I’d caution them to remember that they may know as little of the other end of the migratory process which their communities have been involved in as they claim blue-staters know about their social world. There was an interesting story in the New York Times a short while ago about an apparent blip in the last census that showed 4,000 people moving from an upstate New York county to the Bronx. The number appears to be wrong, though no one is sure why, but the reporter interviewed some of the upstaters about whether they knew anyone who had left. They mostly hadn’t, but it was equally clear that they would be fundamentally incurious about the motivations, beliefs or feelings of anyone who did make that decision. Maybe we all need a rebirth of curiosity about the authenticities that others inhabit.


Which leads me to the image of Fort Sumter that I conjured up. I’m a bit unnerved by the readers who took it really, really literally and began to conjure up battlefields and territorial maps. I received a note from one enthusiast of the idea that included a five-point plan for declaring the territorial independence of major urban areas.

The image comes to me as a literal reflection of just how divided we are, of just how much work we have ahead of us, and a dire warning of the consequences of that division for everyone. For better or worse—and I think it has been and hopefully can continue to be for better—we are one nation. Nobody’s leaving. We will have to work it out as best we can. But we can fail to do that, and fall into a social conflict so deep that there is no way back to our shared national aspirations. My greatest fear, and my direst warning to Bush voters before the election, is that we may already be in just that deep. I hope not.

In this I remind those who stand with the victors this year that great power brings great responsibility. The fact that you can rule without consultation or consideration of a very large minority really does raise the danger of a tyranny, precisely that tyranny that De Toqueville so famously warned Americans against. That’s what tyranny is: ruling for yourself, without consideration for the general consent of the governed, with a ruthless celebration of your own power. That’s why we have a Constitution, why we have laws, why the American democracy has been until now blessed with a certain saving grace and abiding genius. We have always understood and properly feared what power without constraint can do, and sought to enmesh our leaders in a web tying them to small communities and the entire nation, individuals and groups, freedoms and responsibilities.

Bush voters, the buck stops at your desk. You’re in charge, collectively, and your representative is in charge of the reins of government. You can bitch and moan all you like, sometimes justifiably, about the sins of the other side, about Michael Moore and bad liberal blogs and so on. The fact is that in some crucial sense, none of that matters now. I charged you collectively with responsibility for what happens next, good or bad, because you are responsible. I blamed you, harshly, and I’m sorry if that offends you. Make it a positive charge rather than a negative accusation. You are responsible, and so you must be better than your perception of those you oppose. If you want to live up to the decision you have made, then you have to respect evidence more than they, you have to be bound by facts more than they, you have to be more gracious and tolerant than they, you have to reach out more than they, you have to concede more than they. Don't come whining that little Jonny hit you first: you just became the grown-up in the room, so act like it. You have the power now: you cannot hide behind a cloak of marginality, you cannot complain about liberal media and liberal Hollywood and liberal professors. Nothing is keeping you down. You are the Man now, no longer an underdog in any sense. If you do not hate and you do not preach divisiveness and you have the interests of all at heart, if you do not aspire to dominate your fellow countrymen and if you pursue a particular foreign policy in the tempered, justifiable, rational belief that it will produce better results, now is when you must prove it.

Swarthmore College is no longer officially a Quaker institution, but it’s still marked by Quaker ideals. I sometimes find the consensualism that comes from those ideals annoying: it can interfere with decisive, bold or difficult decisions, it can produce a kind of muddled policy that has a little of every person’s private agenda in it. It makes for long meetings. But there’s a real wisdom in it, too, something that makes a community stronger and more cohesive. If we were to hold a vote on a policy and the vote was razor-thin, we’d probably send the policy back for further consideration, taking the sharpness of the division as a sign that whatever good might come of the policy, there would be a greater harm in the imposition of that policy on almost half the community. Once in a while, that’s a recipe for failing to act at a critical juncture, but the vast majority of the time, it’s sound both as a practical and a philosophical commitment. We could use a little of the same wisdom on a bigger stage right now.