Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The More Things Change............

In my last post, I considered the possibility that the 2008 election represented a fundamental change in the way people cast their votes. Some recent conventional wisdom held that middle and lower middle class voters we duped by the Republican party into voting against their own economic interests in return for promises to address their moral concerns (promises which went unfulfilled). I thought that there might be some evidence that this voting pattern had come to an end and that voters were ready to embrace economic concerns fully and abandon almost all others. It's clear now that I needn't have worried. Here is John Dickerson writing in Slate on Obama's victory:

People also seemed to vote against their economic self-interest, something liberal critics said only witless Republican voters did. Fully 70 percent said Obama would raise their taxes, while 60 percent said McCain would. They voted for Obama, anyway.

Apparently, voting against your own economic interest is still fashionable among the electorate of at least two of the parties (yes Virginia, there are other political parties!). We can see now that both Democratic & Republican voters consider factors other than economic ones when deciding which way to vote. But if an electorate can vote against its economic interest on two occasions, one resulting in a G. W. Bush presidency and one resulting in a Barak Obama presidency, what exactly are these other factors being considered?

With Bush, they seem to be easily identifiable and fall under the category of moral concerns. These are the same cultural issues that have been driving our politics for the last 20 years or more: abortion, gay marriage, the assault on the traditional family. Obviously, these were not the issues that drove people to vote for Obama. Also, I doubt it was a desire on the part of voters to destroy these issues once and for all that resulted in the election's outcome. While I fear Obama's commitment to provide completely unfettered access to abortion, I am not convinced that voters in Pennsylvania looked around and thought, " wow, we don't have enough abortion clinics around here, let's vote Obama."

I am willing to concede that many Obama supporters cast their ballot with a heartfelt belief that they were doing so based on moral concerns. No some of them did this with as much zeal as Bush voters did in 2004. The moral concerns for Obama voters just happen to be different ones than those that have resulted in recent Republican electoral victories. Instead of abortion and gay marriage, they can site numerous other social ills that desperately need to be addressed. Items like 40 million without health insurance, poverty, a large percentage of public schools clearly failing our children (and these in one of the richest nations on earth) all come to mind. There is, however, at least one other possibility.

Some historians have noted that elections often come down to a referendum on the current administration. It is possible, even likely I would argue, that a large portion of the Obama vote yesterday, was really a vote against George W. Bush. This is not take to diminish Obama's skills as an orator or his demonstrated thoughtfulness and grace under pressure. I don't believe that simply any Democrat could have won. But let's face it, the dissatisfaction with the current administration is deep and widespread. Perhaps voters saw their chance to punish Bush by voting for Obama.

That's exactly right you might say. Voters express their displeasure by punishing incompetence and removing it from office. What happens though, when the failing administration is no longer on the ballot? Is it possible we punish the party of the poor performer? If so, there is a very real chance that we could actually end up not choosing the best candidate just because of his party affiliation. Think about it, just because two people share a party, doesn't mean they will govern the same way. They may in fact govern in dramatically different ways. But if voters are unable or unwilling to examine candidates independently from an outgoing administration with which they are angry, they very well could end up making a bad decision. A decision that goes against their interests, economic or otherwise. Choosing a President out of spite is a horrible idea. If elections really are a referendum on the current administration, the one on Clinton got us eight years of Bush.

So perhaps voters are making decisions that go against their own interests, but not for the reasons that have been advanced so far. Not just because they are duped by the promise of addressing some long held grievance, but because they are looking for retribution. If voters that went Republican on empty promises were merely fools, what are voters, of either party, if they are motivated by vengeance?

If I am wrong about the election being a referendum on Bush, and the evidence shows that voters don't vote strictly on economic grounds, perhaps there are in fact moral concerns that drive voting decisions. It is abundantly clear and heartbreakingly sad that both of the major parties, and the majority of voters, have yet to embrace the entire slate of these issues. Preferring instead to pick and choose based on their particular taste rather than any moral or logical consistency.

In the run up to this election much has been said about Barak Obama being a transformational, or post-partisan political figure. The campaign made it perfectly clear that when it came to moral issues, Obama is not the the President to finally bridge the existing divide. That is one change for which some of us continue to wait.


Steve Mc Euen said...

Jerry, I'm not playing the devil's advocate when I say that Obama would have been elected without the economic crisis that developed in the last year or so. I, for one, think I see a possibility for a "world view" that Bush was incapable of (I recommend the movie "W" by the way).
Perhaps we will be proven wrong in our perception, but it will at least seem like a worthy experiment in politics, Bush was so socially, culturally, (and genetically?) parochial in his views that he gave one the feeling of a certain hoplessness in "progress". This could be the source of some of the voting against, and punishment of, a candidate that you,correctly, speak of.

Anonymous said...

The "world view" (for want of a better phrase) that I am talking about goes beyond moral issues; it is more of an attitude that is more in sink with humanity as a whole and humanity's survival as a whole. It is religious in the sense of taking existence seriously, more seriously than a flag-waving patriotism or nationalism or the word "democracy" used as an excuse for colonialsim.
Without sounding pedantic or shrill, this economic crisis may be a "blessing in disguise" by returning us to a reality that we in the U.S. have lost - a reality that we are only the last continent to be discovered in the world, not the world itself.

Anonymous said...

Jerry, thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts. One thing that drives me nuts about politics is the idea of legislating morality. Why do people think that the goverment should decide what products I consume, who I choose to marry and what I do behind closed doors. So long as my activies do not impede another's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is no one's business!