Blogs > Liberty and Power > Clarifying the Bush Victory: Understanding a Multi-Pronged Threat

Nov 6, 2004 1:01 pm

Clarifying the Bush Victory: Understanding a Multi-Pronged Threat

Folks, let's clear up a few misconceptions. Here is what I argued the other day in my first post-election analysis,"I Told You So":

I [had] suggested back then [seven months ago] that Bush's fundamentalist religious base would be fortified and that it would play a crucial role in his victory. The President clearly retained that constituency and strengthened its support.

Let's emphasize that key sentence:"...Bush's fundamentalist religious base would be fortified and that it would play a crucial role in his victory." I did not argue before, and I have not argued since, that religious zealotry is the causal factor in Bush's re-election. It was necessary to his victory, but not sufficient. And, in fact, given the complexities of the electorate, there are, without doubt, many factors that led to Bush's re-election, not the least of which is historical precedent. As I argued in my May 2004 article:

Barring any massive attack on the U.S. home front, or an utterly devastating defeat in Iraq, on a par with, say, a Shi’ite and Sunni uprising that slaughters thousands of American troops, his approval rating will most likely remain stable. Even if the foreign policy arena should collapse for Bush, history shows that, in times of war, few Presidents are turned out of office, since the electorate rarely changes horses in mid-apocalypse. ... Other things being equal, voters are not going to choose Kerry, when they’ve already got in Bush a Republican dedicated to all the conventional Democratic planks: an expanding welfare state, budget deficits, and a war abroad. ...But Kerry himself has enormous credibility problems, which I fully expect the Bush campaign to exploit.

So, why did I quote from Garry Wills, if, as my colleague Irfan Khawaja puts it, I'm merely observing that"religion ... played one significant role among others," rather than the crucial role? Simply: Because it is significant.

As I stated in my May 2004"Bush Wins!" article, a prelude to my sequel,"Caught Up in The Rapture":

In any event, there are far more significant cultural forces at work here that, I believe, will virtually assure Bush’s victory. The character of those forces, the impact they are having on mass media, popular culture, and American politics, is [significant]. ... [T]he Christian fundamentalist movement ... is a movement whose hero is George W. Bush, and it is Bush who embodies some of its most troubling tendencies. Troubling or not, if the fundamentalists"get out the vote," Bush’s victory is assured.

So, we can argue all we want over the raw statistics, and over the significance of this or that state among the 50 contests. But there is a claim here that is simply irrefutable in my view: Without the support of his core constituency, Bush loses the election. It was necessary to his victory, but certainly not sufficient. I do not know many (any?) people who are putting all their eggs in one basket on this question, and it would be utterly foolish to make any stronger claim.

Let's retrace our steps. In my recent post,"Declaring War Against Zealotry," I stated the following:

I must say that I was a bit annoyed some months ago when I was routinely criticized by those who supported the President despite their reservations about his religious agenda, because I dared to suggest that he was using religion as a political and cultural weapon for the re-making of the modern world. When I wrote my essay about the alarming growth in evangelical Christianity as a mainstream cultural force, I knew that such growth would have vast political implications. These critics kept telling me that I was"overdoing" it. In my view, the election results yesterday are much too clear to ignore.

Here is the reason for my annoyance: When my"Rapture" essay was published, people said I was exaggerating the growth of the evangelical movement. Such criticisms were beyond the pale, in my view, because they simply did not take into account the central claims of my essay on the cultural mainstreaming of fundamentalism in this country. Here's what I said in the"Rapture" piece:

In 2004, estimates of weekly church attendance vary wildly. Some place the figure at 75 million; others believe that it is nearly double that. Either way, once we adjust the numbers for non-Christian denominations, it is clear that tens of millions of people are committed to some kind of religious observance ...

As an aside, the exit polls suggest that those"once-a-week churchgoers" gave 58% of their vote to Bush, while 41% voted for Kerry. So I don't think it a leap of faith to infer that a sizable number of individuals who claimed"moral values" as an important issue meant religious moral values rather than, say, any secular ethical standard celebrating"man's life qua man."

Here are the more important issues raised by my June 2004 study, and I quote from that study at length (deleting footnotes, which can be found in the original piece):

Throughout American cultural history, there have been many so-called spiritual surges,"Great Awakenings," which had huge political implications. Today, another spiritual surge is taking place. As Walter Kirn puts it, that surge is absorbing pop culture:"Christianity doesn’t compete with pop culture," says Kirn."It is pop culture." In many respects, this new awakening has been a reaction to the secular left’s nihilistic relativism, one that rejects the very possibility of moral certainty."Just as postmodernism in the arts seemed to be winning acceptance from the masses," Kirn writes,"a recycled premodernism has emerged that rejects ambiguity and ambivalence for the old Sunday-morning certainties." The premodernists—who are now characterized as"fundamentalists," though they are a pietist offshoot—have adopted the"populist, media-savvy" techniques of a thoroughly modern age to get the message out.
These fundamentalists genuinely understand the nature of mass marketing. From the sale of"Jesus is My Homeboy" T-shirts to the creation of alternative churches in coffee bars and warehouses to the publication of slick magazines and updated, modern Bible translations, fundamentalists of various stripes have tapped into pop culture and its new technologies to spread the gospel. They have even attracted niche subcultures with such organizations as the Christian Tattoo Association, which includes over 100 member shops. Some Christian bands now embrace punk and goth styles, while others put the Rap in Rapture: yes, there are even rap artists who underlay Christian-themed poetry with phat hip hop beats. While the rest of the music industry has seen a decline since the events of September 11, the Christian music market has had a 13.5% increase­perhaps a reflection of the very search for meaning that such a horrific tragedy has engendered."God is everywhere you look in pop culture these days," observes Carolyn Callahan­—in holiday cards, board games, toys, and periodicals.
Christian merchandising is a $4.2 billion industry, which includes a $100 million video game business. The Christian book market is particularly lucrative: Evangelist Rick Warren has sold 15 million copies of his book, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? There are even Christian diet books that sit alongside Atkins and South Beach manuals: The Maker’s Diet helps you to lose weight by eating just like Jesus. From number one best-selling books such as The Da Vinci Code to"Joan of Arcadia" on television and"Bruce Almighty" on the silver screen, God is Hip and Hot.
A blockbuster film such as"The Passion of the Christ"—which was condemned initially as"anti-Semitic" by some critics—has now grossed nearly $400 million. That figure does not include director Mel Gibson’s cross-promotional merchandising efforts­sales on such items as metal replica crucifixion nails and thorn-adorned necklaces and bracelets. The extremely violent content of the film seems to have inspired some churches to more realistically dramatize the redemption through most precious blood. Some of these dramatizations express forcefully a wrath for the secular"pagan" symbols of the Easter holiday. As the Associated Press reports, in one instance, at an Easter show in Glassport, Pennsylvania, children were traumatized as the actors whipped the Easter bunny and crushed Easter eggs on stage. Performers declared:"There is no Easter Bunny." One 4-year old child cried hysterically, asking his mother"why the bunny was being whipped.""It was very disturbing," said another parent. The youth minister at Glassport Assembly of God said that they were only trying"to convey that Easter is not just about the Easter Bunny. It is about Jesus Christ."
Far more disturbing, however, is the fact that traditionally opposed Protestant pietists and Catholic liturgicals have moved toward a kind of political consolidation. Laurie Goodstein argues that evangelicals and conservative Catholics"have forged an alliance that is reshaping American politics and culture." Both of these groups flocked to see the Gibson film, sensing a common"losing battle against secularism, relativism and a trend that the Christianity Today editorial brands ‘hypermodern individualism.’"
One thing that might prevent full political cooperation between these groups is the fact that many Protestants still view Catholics—who reject the Rapture—as"apostates." Indeed, in the ever-popular Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a Catholic cardinal actually assists the Antichrist.

My article then goes on to discuss the contents of that 12-volume book series, a"pulpy epic" as it has been called,"which has already sold in excess of 60 million copies in the past nine years." (As I remind fans of Ayn Rand in the article, by way of comparison,"Rand’s book sales have been impressive­—probably around 20 million total copies of her collected works and all translations over the past sixty years­—but this figure pales in comparison to the LaHaye-Jenkins series.")

So, in the end, I do agree with Garry Wills's suggestion that this specific cultural tendency is pre-Enlightenment, nay, anti-Enlightenment. I have argued, however, that Wills"overstates his case," but that does not impugn the fact that this evangelical movement is a threat to American liberty. And while it may not have guaranteed a Bush victory, Bush could never have won without the support of this constituency. Period."The Architect" Karl Rove understood this, and worked very hard to solidify that evangelical base for Bush. He succeeded. Bush won.

Now, I don't think we should reject as trivial the observation"that religious people like Bush," as Irfan puts it. I also don't believe that we are even talking about"the country as a whole ... devolving into some anti-Enlightenment abyss." But the evidence I present in my article (from which I quoted above) documents a trend that cannot be ignored. This is not a pro-reason, this-worldly cultural movement. It is a growing religious movement that has learned to use savvy modern mass marketing techniques. And it has crucially important political ramifications.

I'd like to make one more, somewhat tangential point, in response to Irfan's claim of"little difference" between Reagan and Bush Jr. I recognize completely that Reagan was among the first to tap into the evangelical movement. But there is a key difference. Reagan tried to build a coalition of evangelicals, fiscal conservatives (so-called"supply-siders"), and"libertarian" conservatives. He was also an inspiring speaker (not a self-confessed"mangler" of the English language for sure) who more often than not used libertarian rhetoric, even if his policies were less-than-libertarian.

As I say in my"Rapture" essay:

George W. Bush, however, has virtually dropped Reagan’s libertarian rhetoric, while embracing a far more pronounced pietistic ideology. ... The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the"God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky’s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists—in the Middle East.

One last tangential point: I went into the voting booth and voted for every race except for President. I refused to cast a ballot for either Kerry or Bush, and just thought a Libertarian vote was futile in this instance. But I am not at all convinced that Kerry would have done more harm to this country economically than Bush has done already, and there is some historical evidence to suggest that a Democratic President dealing with a Republican Congress would have been institutionally constrained.

All of this is moot. Bush won. As I have been arguing for many months, his victory would be derived from many factors for sure, factors that most assuredly include terrorism and not changing"horses in mid-apocalypse." But among those factors is his crucially important support from an evangelical voting bloc that has gained political leverage and cultural clout. We minimize the extent of that leverage and that clout at our great peril.

I stand opposed to Bush's fiscal irresponsibility. I stand opposed to his social conservatism. I stand opposed to his foreign policy adventures. And I stand opposed to those who see in Bush a Moral Crusader, not because I oppose morality, but because I repudiate the specific nature of that Crusade.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Chris says many things here that I don't disagree with.
That fundamentalism is gaining ground, that it's irrational, that it violates rights, that it is best relegated to the trash-can of history: no disagreement. The disagreement between us concerns the extent to which religious fundamentalism explains the re-election of Bush. I don't think it explains all that much.

Chris protests at the idea that he should be interpreted as saying that religious fundamentalism is THE single causal factor behind the re-election. But that is precisely what Garry Wills, whom Chris quoted, was saying. Chris distances himself from Wills by saying that Wills had overstated his case. So Chris then moves to a understated version of that case.

The understated version is that religious fundamentalism was a "necessary" condition of Bush's re-election. But that is actually not all that different from saying that fundamentalism is the crucial causal factor behind the re-election. If X is a necessary condition of Y, then if you remove X, Y will not occur.

What Chris is saying is that had the fundamentalist vote not come out, Bush would have lost. I know that people have repeated this claim over and over, but I so far have not seen one good reason to believe it. Yes, fundamentalists voted in larger numbers than usual. But were they CRUCIAL? Was it their votes that made the difference to the election? If you subtract their votes, do you get Kerry? (That's what "crucial" means.)

The religious fundamentalist explanation has to compete with another, much more plausible explanation: the terrorist explanation. The most plausible explanation for why Bush won is that people, secular and religious, were convinced (rightly or wrongly) that he would do a better job than Kerry at fighting terrorism and winning the war. And the basis of this explanation is not hard to see. Kerry tried to outflank Bush from the hawkish right as regards Al Qaida, and then said absolutely incoherent things about the Iraq war (wrong war, wrong place, wrong time--so let's send more troops!). The first ploy failed on grounds of credibility; the second, on grounds of clarity. (I don't often agree with Arthur Silber, but I agree with much of his blog entry below on this topic.)

As for Reagan vs. Bush, I think Chris is romanticizing Reagan beyond anything that the historical record can bear. Reagan was not as articulate as Chris is making him out to be, and he certainly said things that were outrageously absurd than anything that Bush has said. Bush characteristically confesses to ignorance when called to task on matters of above-average abstractness. He doesn't say--as Reagan did--that there was no enforced racial discrimination in apartheid South Africa. Nor I think would you catch Bush talking about welfare mothers in the way that Reagan did. Nor is there the suggestion nowadays from the Bush administration that gay people are the cause of AIDS and should fend for themselves. (Nor, to repeat, do we find astrologers in the Bush White House.) Today, we are struggling over *gay marriage*. The idea that one could have raised such an issue during the Reagan years is a pipe dream. I dont' mean to credit Bush with the moral progress, merely to say that progress has been made.

Precisely because Bush cares less about reducing govt than Reagan did, he isn't interested in fighting the special interests that want an expansive gov't--and has less reason to demonize them. But Reagan really did want to reduce gov't, really did have to fight them--and really did demonize them. Even Bush feels constrained to stay away from that.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Just to clarify--I was agreeing with Silber's Friday Nov. 5 post, not his Sat. Nov. 6 one. Primarily, I was agreeing with the long quote from Paul Freedman in the middle of the Nov. 5 entry.

Bill Woolsey - 11/7/2004

Fundamentalists are probably best defined
today as biblical literalists.

Evangicals believe that one must have
a special religious experience of being
"born again" in order to be saved and
go to heaven.

Pentecostals believe that various talents
are expressed in today's church, especially
speaking in tongues.

Millenialists believe that the end of the
world is near.

There are some people who are all four.

But not all evangicals are fundamentalists.
Not all evangicals, fundamentalists, and
pentecostals are focused on end
times issues. (The orthodox position is
that no one knows the time of the end of
the world and is pretty disdainful of
tying current events to the end of
the world.)

Most importantly, there are socially
conservative Christians who are none of
the things above. They go to church
every week, but are not fundamentalists,
evangelicals, pentecostals, nor focused on
end times.

My conservative Episcopal parish and diocese
is full of people who voted for Bush. Many
of them might consider moral values as the
chief reason for their vote. But they are not
fundamentalists, evangelicals, pentecostals,
or focused on end times.

By the way, the majority of people didn't vote
based upon what they described as "moral issues."

Why is this claimed to be the key element of
Republican victory? I believe that it is because
the Democrats believe that their class-warfare
tactics should get them the votes of the lower
middle class. Conservative Christians in the lower
middle class are voting Republican, presumably
because of moral issues.

tex mac - 11/6/2004

As a bit more evidence of the Republican strategy in Ohio, we have this, from the Washington Post:

The Bush campaign officially stayed out of the same-sex marriage initiative, but Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) said in a letter to supporters that the Bush campaign had asked that he advocate the initiative. Blackwell did radio spots and taped a message that was played in 3 million phone calls to voters. Supporters also mailed out 2.5 million church bulletin inserts.

Indeed, even close observers of Ohio politics might have missed the Bush campaign's emphasis on social values because much of its outreach efforts occurred away from the mass media. While the two campaigns slugged it out on big-city TV stations with commercials about the war and the economy, Bush's Ohio campaign used targeted mailings, phone calls and doorstep visits to talk about values, said John C. Green, a University of Akron professor who studies religion and politics. Green described one piece of mail from the Bush campaign that featured a beautiful church and a traditional nuclear family. It was headlined, "George W. Bush shares your values. Marriage. Life. Faith."

"It could not have been clearer if it had quoted from the Bible," Green said.

Another interesting look at Republican campaign strategy, this one in Florida, another swing state, can be seen here: Gay republicans for Kerry

We can quibble about how big a part this played in Bush's reelection, but there is no denying that it was part of the strategy.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/6/2004

Barry, thanks for your insightful comments. On one point in particular, you wrote:

Admittedly, 9 of those 11 states went to Bush (OR and MI, 24 combined EVs, were the exceptions). But it's interesting to look at Ohio. There, the referendum passed 62% - 38%, with a vote differential of more than 1.2 million. Bush won there by only 136,483 votes. How many of those 1.2 million swung over to Bush because he was so strongly for the ban? Was this issue enough to cost Kerry Ohio and perhaps this close election?

I think it was very likely. And remember that the Ohio initiative was actually one of the most hard core ballot initiatives in the country. It barred not only gay marriage but even gay civil unions, since these "approximate" marriage. This amendment, on the ballot in a key "swing state," had the effect of bringing out not only people who may have had reasonable gripes with altering the time-honored legal status of marriage as between one man and one woman, but also people who reject the very notion of any kind of union between gay men and gay women. People for whom such a notion is anathema to morality itself.

Barry Rosenthal - 11/6/2004

I liked your recent articles on the election. You're right that Republicans are guilty of me-tooism and are just as committed to welfare and pork as the Democrats. We had a pitiful choice to make.

But I'm wondering how much of an effect the gay marriage issue had. In all 11 states which had a referendum for banning it, the vote was overwhelmingly for the ban:

Admittedly, 9 of those 11 states went to Bush (OR and MI, 24 combined EVs, were the exceptions). But it's interesting to look at Ohio. There, the referendum passed 62% - 38%, with a vote differential of more than 1.2 million. Bush won there by only 136,483 votes. How many of those 1.2 million swung over to Bush because he was so strongly for the ban? Was this issue enough to cost Kerry Ohio and perhaps this close election?

As sympathetic as I am to gay marriages, I think San Francisco's granting of gay marriage licenses and the ensuing media frenzy galvenized the right and created a backlash that could only hurt the Democrats in an election year. Unfortunately, I don't think most Americans are very liberal on gay rights. Even MI, which went for Kerry, voted 59% - 41% for the ban. One has to choose one's battles wisely.