Despite a weak economy and contentious war in Iraq, Democratshave lost seats in Congress and their bid for the presidency. Theyhave to ask themselves, a history department panel said Tuesday,what went so wrong?
Even when Election Day remained in the misty future, the historyprofessors planning the event – David Horowitz, Joe Uris and BillLang – were already referring to “the bitterly contestedpresidential race,” not because of the election’s outcome butbecause of trends in campaign messages.
Horowitz, who specializes in U.S. cultural history, raised theissue of morality.
“One-fifth of voters told exit pollsters that social moralitywas more important to them than the war on terrorism, the Iraqconflict or the economy,” Horowitz said, “and four-fifths of (thatgroup) went for Bush.”
“There’s no getting beyond the fact that conservative issues ofsocial morality seem to be framing the political debate,” Horowitzsaid. “If Democrats hope to recapture the country, they must dealwith the foundations of these social attitudes and come up withresponses that speak to voters while expanding upon their ownvalues.”
Horowitz also pointed out that the Republican moral image islargely symbolic, paraphrasing Tom Frank in saying, “conservativebacklash … is essentially rhetorical in that it offers littlepossibility of enacting actual policy. …George W. Bush’s symbolicdefense of ‘family values’ was extremely reassuring to manymiddle-class parents concerned about the upbringing of theirchildren in an aggressive consumer culture.”
Lang focused on the anticipated environmental decisions, sayingthe Bush administration plans to overhaul the Clean Air/Clean WaterActs, pursue drilling in the Rockies, the Arctic National WildlifeRefuge and off the shores of California and Florida, privatize somefunctions of the Forest Service, cripple the EnvironmentalProtection Agency by cutting funding and “defang” the EndangeredSpecies Act.
Lang predicted that a loss of moderate Republicans would takemake environmental regulation agencies ineffectual.
“They have been key in holding back environmental attacks byideologues,” Lang said.
One thing that we’ve learned from this election, Lang said, isthat “the environment can’t produce votes. Is that because youcan’t consider the environment when you’re staring down the barrelof a gun? I think that may be the case.”
Lang agreed with Horowitz that a focus on moral values may haveframed this election, though he said he objected to the exclusionof environmental issues from the discourse about morals.
He called the Bush administration “a more ideologicaladministration” than we have ever seen before.
“They’re not wackos, but they’re focused on moving to marketsolutions to environmental problems.”
Joe Uris, an associate sociology professor who will be teachinga history class winter term, said that the Bush campaign had”defined the terms of every debate” and was able to control themessages voters heard and keep Kerry on the defensive.
“As a young man, Kerry was a beautiful, clear speaker,” Urissaid, pointing out Kerry’s loss of stage presence during his bidfor the presidency. “Something sounded twisted. George W Bush, onthe other hand, has no problem with twists and complications.During the first debate, [Bush] obviously didn’t know what the hellhe was talking about. But people don’t care, because most peopledon’t know what the hell he was talking about, either.”
Uris added that voters contrasted Bush’s folksy approach toKerry’s intellectual image.
“We have distrusted and disliked the intelligentsia for a longtime. It’s very much a part of the American character. There havebeen moments when that’s not true, but even then we care abouttechnology rather than science,” he said. “‘Can we beat theRussians to the moon’ rather than ‘What’s out there?'”
After their presentations, the professors fielded questions fromstudents about the effects and possibility of abolishing theElectoral College and how voter fraud would change after thiselection.