Why We Lost the Election

by Benjamin Kuipers

Someone recently wrote: "I literally cannot understand how anyone, let alone a majority of American voters, could give George Bush another term after what he has done with his first."

I've heard a lot of this, both before and after the election. I've even said it myself a number of times. We simply can't comprehend how people could support George Bush. And of course, this contributed to our defeat. We were blind-sided: clobbered by something we had made invisible to ourselves, so we couldn't see it coming. Since we had made it invisible, even the visible evidence was treated as irrelevant noise.

We ignored the issue of religious and moral values. We dismissed them as the concerns of "right-wing fundamentalist extremists", who we figured would be a marginal and unreachable part of the electorate. Both Right and Left seemed to agree that religious and moral values are equivalent to being anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage. We wrote those issues off, and those voters. The Left and the Right agreed that religious and moral values are the exclusive domain of the Right.

I've heard many Democrats mystified how so many people could vote against their own economic self-interest. But there's a lot of people for whom religious and moral values are more important than voting in their own economic self-interest. Many of them were quite unhappy with things that the Bush administration had done. Some voted for Kerry. But most saw that only one candidate was deeply concerned with religious and moral values, so they reluctantly sent Bush back to the White House, with all his flaws.

It didn't have to be this way. The Civil Rights movement was driven in many ways by religious and moral values, and so was much of the anti-Vietnam protest. Martin Luther King spoke deeply and directly to the shared religious and moral values of the nation. Not so Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, but even they are far more effective than any of our white Democratic candidates.

We Democrats argued policy and economic advantage, while the Republicans argued Right and Wrong. Guess who got the votes?

Where were the voices on the Left quoting the Bible: "As you have done to the least of these My children, you have done to Me"? This connects the problem of social justice to the religious basis that drives much of the country. [I can feel many of you squirm just reading this, much less imagining saying it as part of a campaign!]

Where were the people thundering to Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, "Thou shalt not bear false witness!"

You don't have to be committed to the Bible as Holy Writ to know that it contains a lot of important wisdom, and that it speaks deeply to the most fundamental values of a large and vital part of our population. If we Democrats act as though that aspect of the electorate is invisible, or simply cede it to the Republicans, we deserve to lose. And of course, we did. [Given the world situation at the moment, we should probably get educated about the Q'uran, for exactly the same reason.]

Now let me really grasp the Third Rail in this argument ...

We Democrats have allowed the abortion debate to be framed in a way that, ultimately, we can't win. (Maybe they can't either, but we certainly can't.) We've allowed the two visible positions on abortion to polarize to absurd extremes: Ultimate Evil versus Personal Whim. We need to take a morally defensible position on abortion, recognizing the moral weight of the act of abortion. The decision of when abortion is the lesser of evils should not be made by the federal government, but by the woman with her family and physician. But we must acknowledge that the lesser of two evils is still an evil.

It is a moral scandal that there are almost a million abortions a year in the United States. Democrats should be able to work with Republicans to reduce that number by every means possible. Not just abstinence education and adoption, but sex education and contraception too. We've allowed ourselves to be marginalized into the absurd position of claiming that abortion is a morally neutral act. Most people, and virtually every parent, know that that is simply not true. There are times when abortion is the lesser of evils, and it is not the government's role to make that decision. But a million a year is way, way too many. We should frame the effort to reduce the number of abortions through responsible behavior. The position that should be marginalized is the one that wants to ban sex education, contraception, and abortion.

We Democrats are supposed to be the party that welcomes diversity. We had better be able to welcome a diversity of serious religious and moral values, not just ask our supporters to check them at the door. Otherwise, they will go where they are welcome and valued for this important part of who they are.

Written 4 November 2004