09 November 2004

Election post mortem

In the wake of last week's presidential election in the US, many analysts will be trying to gauge its significance for understanding the state of political life in that country. After the indecisive 2000 election a number of observers noted the peculiar distribution of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states.


US News & World Report


A similar distribution can be seen in last tuesday's election:


PhotoBucket.com


Remarkably, this replicates a pattern seen over a century ago after the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan to oppose William McKinley in 1896. The difference, of course, is that party loyalties were reversed, with Republicans holding the northeast, Great Lakes and west coast, and Democrats holding the south and remainder of the west. The issues then were largely economic.

Today it seems that the frontline in the so-called "culture wars," famously described a dozen years ago by James Davison Hunter, has come to run along the partisan boundary between Democrats and Republicans, something which was certainly not the case as recently as 50 years ago, when evangelical protestants were evenly divided between the two parties and Catholics were firmly tied to the Democrats.

Following Walter Russell Mead, James Pinkerton sees Bush's second victory as a "Revolt of the Jacksonians," that is, of the spiritual followers of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the US. He might just as easily have mentioned Bryan himself, an evangelical Christian whose last days were spent testifying for the prosecution in the infamous Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925.

At the very least, it seems that the Democrats have allowed themselves to move too far out of the American mainstream, particularly with respect to their now monolithic pro-choice position. At a time when support for the current abortion licence is noticeably diminishing, especially among the young, the party's stance is difficult to understand. By contrast, Bush clearly appealed to those voters believing that the unborn deserve legal protection and that a stable definition of marriage ought not to be tampered with. Not only did evangelical protestants go for Bush, but even Catholics favoured Bush over Kerry, despite the latter's membership in the Catholic Church.

There is something of an irony in the respective positions of the Democratic and Republican Parties. More than three decades ago the former adopted a number of reforms intended to democratize more thoroughly the candidate selection process. This would presumably put the party in closer touch with its own grassroots and disempower the old party bosses, such as the late Chicago major Richard J. Daley. Yet, once adopted, these reforms effectively enabled a small dedicated cadre of activists to gain control of the party machinery. These pulled the party increasingly away from the American mainstream and pushed conservative protestants and Catholics into the Republican Party, which had adopted similar internal democratizing reforms. That the Democratic Party has taken an overt secularizing turn has been chronicled most notably by Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio.

I wouldn't wish to overstate the differences between the two parties, both of which represent the larger legacy of liberalism, though drawing on different strands. Using my own categories, the Republicans tend to reflect the influence of the 2nd and 3rd stages of liberalism, viz., the night watchman state and the regulatory state, while the Democrats embody liberalism in its 4th and 5th stages, viz., the equal opportunity state and the choice-enhancement state. Republicans have figured out a way to synthesize traditional christian belief with this classical liberal ideology. Witness Bush's speeches ascribing near redemptive qualities to the spread of freedom. Yet the Democrats have bought into a more obviously secular mindset for which belief in a transcendent God is increasingly foreign. How long this can last is difficult to say. The self-interested desire to win power, if nothing else, may force an internal reassessment within the Democratic Party.

That the Republicans' synthesis might be an unstable one is something which has not yet occurred to its supporters, especially among evangelicals and Catholics. However, for the near future the "Grand Old Party" has the advantage over its opponent.

Postscript: Here is the "Purple America" electoral map from the website of Robert J. Vanderbei of Princeton:



It better indicates the proportionate strength of popular support for Bush and Kerry on a county-by-county basis than the blue/red electoral maps shown above. Support for Bush in the heartland is, after all, by no means unanimous. Nor is Kerry wholly preferred in the metropolis. Thanks to Paul Bowman for tracking this down for us.

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