Looking Back, Looking Forward
The Nation, December 2, 2004
The elections are likely to have significant policy consequences, particularly harmful in the domestic arena, and in accelerating the "transformation of the military" that some prominent strategic analysts warn, realistically, may lead to "ultimate doom." But they tell us little about the country, though major studies of public opinion released just before the election are highly informative.
In particular, we learn that there were no elections, in any serious sense of the term. Voting patterns were similar to 2000. A small shift in preferences would have put Kerry in the White House, also telling us very little. As previously, elections were run by the PR industry. Its guiding principle is deceit. That is true in its regular vocation of undermining the fanciful markets of doctrine, in which informed consumers make rational choices. And the same practices are used when it is called upon to undermine democracy. That businesses spend vast sums to delude consumers, not inform them, is too obvious to merit comment. It is entirely natural that they should do the same when they are selling candidates, not toothpaste. And voters appear to be aware of it.
About 10 percent of voters said their choice would be based on the candidate's "agendas/ideas/platforms/goals." The rest would choose what the industry calls "qualities" and "values," the political counterpart to TV ads, with about as much relation to reality. The most careful studies reveal that voters tended to believe that the candidates shared their beliefs, even when this was demonstrably false.
Far more instructive are the virtually unreported attitudes. To illustrate, a considerable majority believe that the United States should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court, sign the Kyoto Protocols, allow the UN to take the lead in international crises (including security, reconstruction, and political transition in Iraq), rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the "war on terror," and use force only if there is "strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked," thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus on "pre-emptive war." Overwhelming majorities favor expansion of purely domestic programs: primarily healthcare (80 percent), but also aid to education and Social Security. And so it continues. There is little connection between public opinion and electoral practices.
The election has elicited much hopelessness and despair. The lessons should be different. There is ample opportunity for education and organizing to create--in part re-create--a functioning democratic culture in which public opinion plays some role