Split the Difference

Living with our divisions


The good news is that it wasn't a disputed election. The bad news is that it's a deeply divided country. For many liberals, this is not just a loss but a time of mourning. They no longer have the consolation of regarding Bush as a usurper (though conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines are already making the rounds). He is the first presidential election winner since 1988 to get a majority of the popular vote. This time, there's no disputing his mandate.

Why did Bush win despite a number of strikes against him—above all, the incompetent waging of a controversial war? One likely reason is that John Kerry was not a particularly appealing candidate. According to the CNN exit poll of more than 13,000 voters, close to two-thirds of those who voted for Kerry said that they were voting primarily not for him but against Bush. The attacks on Kerry's character and his record undoubtedly played a part; but there were attacks on both sides, even if, ultimately, the ones against Kerry proved more effective.

Some of the reaction to the election results, both abroad and among American liberals, brings to mind an acerbic comment by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht: "The government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one." Many pundits and activists obviously feel that we ought to elect another populace, the current one being too stupid or too bigoted. " `Reach out' to these voters? Yeah. Then boil your hand till it's sterilized," a Kerry volunteer jeered in Salon.com.

The ugliness in this campaign has been not just between the candidates but between their supporters as well. To listen to some conservatives, Kerry voters are a bunch of latte-sipping, America-bashing, amoral elitists. Meanwhile, all too many supposedly tolerant liberals fear and despise Bush voters as a mob of dumb, racist, Bible-thumping rednecks.

As a libertarian conservative, I'm not particularly happy about the fact that people who want to use the law and public policy to promote their moral and religious values currently have so much power in the Republican Party. (Of course, liberals tend to be oblivious to the ways in which they are willing to use the law and public policy to foist their own version of morality on others.) But the caricature of Bush voters as ignorant religious fanatics is just that, a caricature.

The CNN exit poll found that only about 8 percent of the voters regard religious faith as the most important quality in a presidential candidate. (Not surprisingly, these voters went overwhelmingly for Bush.) While Bush voters are more likely to attend church regularly, 47 percent of occasional churchgoers and 36 percent of those who never attend religious services backed the President as well. As for educational levels, 52 percent of Americans with a college diploma voted for Bush. Even among those with at least some postgraduate education, Bush captured 44 percent of the vote.

President Bush has been accused of pursuing divisive policies. But let's face it, promoting crude stereotypes of slightly more than half the electorate is not exactly the way to promote understanding.

In addition to the presidential vote, the big news from this election has been the vote by referendum in 11 states to ban same-sex marriage. The measure was approved even in Oregon, where its passage was uncertain and where gay rights activists invested a great deal of money and energy into defeating it.

It would be, I think, a grave mistake to conclude from this vote that most Americans hate gays. In recent polls, upward of 80 percent believe gays and lesbians should be protected from discrimination in the workplace. No less important, about half of those who oppose same-sex marriage support civil unions for gays. Altogether, more than 60 percent of Americans support some legal recognition of gay and lesbian partnerships—either marriage or civil unions.

Yet in eight states, the newly approved marriage amendments outlaw even civil unions. These bans were hitched to the prohibitions on same-sex marriage—even in states whose constitutions specify that ballot initiatives can only deal with a single issue—and are worded so vaguely that it would take a crystal ball to figure out exactly what legal protections they would prohibit. They deserve to be tossed out by the courts.

A final thought on the election results. Democracy is great; but in a divided culture democracy means that roughly half the people will live under a government they did not elect. That's one good reason to limit the federal government's intervention in our lives and to give more of the decision-making power to local governments, private institutions, and individuals.