Apocalyptic Democracy

Life goes on, long after the pain of the election is gone


You may be lucky enough to live in a community of discourse where you haven't noticed, but let me tell you: Some people are very, very upset about the results of the election last week.

Among my own pals in the progressive left—I'm finding this expressed in privately circulated emails, though the New York Times has also been splashed by this wave—there is a growing certainty that, after last Tuesday, all is lost: Every last right for gays, women, and atheists has been flushed down the toilet, forever, and a monstrous unfettered free-market capitalism, cruel in conception and rapaciously destructive in practice, has been loosed upon the Earth.

An America that any secular, social-justice-loving, tolerant, decent person (the type of people who make up 99 percent of the social circle of the people who believe this sort of thing) can support is dead. Goodbye, America. Hello, Canada. Deep depressions are setting in; apocalyptic upheavals in the sense of the prospects for civilization are in motion; appointments are cancelled; levity and humor and optimism seem useless relics of a pre-Bush civilization, best buried now for some dimly hoped-for renaissance. Maybe in 200 years. As summed up aptly by my colleague Jesse Walker on his blog, these people "are now terrified, resentful, and convinced that the culture is poisoned."

The results of the election, predictable as they might have been, are so upsetting to many people's sense of reality that the notion is spreading that this simply couldn't have happened. It's all just a nightmare from which we might awake, if only officials would examine the spreads in certain counties more closely, and discover the election has been stolen.

This election, for many, has thrown the worst fear that could ever be hurled: that this isn't your world—a creepy paranoid ontology seems to have infected elements of the progressive left, this feeling they have suddenly woken up in a world that isn't what they thought it was, cold and alien, with no prospects for warmth or safety.

But what has really happened? It isn't, despite many reports, and as John Hood has ably pointed out in Reason, that Bush won because of an unexpectedly huge, and apparently unshakable, outpouring of religious and moral fundamentalism, one that will be immune to reason or political persuasion—or even to buyoffs, as Thomas Frank hopes—because it's based in a blind, almost lunatic faith.

It seems more likely that this progressive apocalyptic mindset is what's based more on faith than evidence. Taking a look at a huge set of the New York Times' detailed historical statistics among their polled voters, there is no reason to assume America is now locked into an unshakeable pattern of Bushite dominance. Especially when you consider the last time things looked eternally hopeless for the Dems, after their third straight loss in 1988. (The evidence does show that a convincing third party run with significant appeal to Republicans is money in the bank for Democrats—Perot was invaluable to Clinton.)

Yes, Bush won overall with a three percent margin. As the New York Times summed it up, "Most men, whites, Protestants, regular churchgoers, high earners, conservatives and, naturally, most Republicans voted for Mr. Bush. Women, blacks, Hispanics, young voters, the lower paid, moderates, liberals and, of course, Democrats gave John Kerry a majority of their votes." But these results don't show any alignment that we should assume is permanent, especially when looking back at the shifting fortunes of the parties over the past half-century.

Some random bits of statistical good news for the Democrats: They earned a significantly larger portion (54 percent vs. 48 percent) of the 18-29 vote than they did in 2000, gained one percentage point among the unmarried (58 percent vs. 57 percent), got even more solid gay and bisexual support (77 percent vs. 71 percent—though it's interesting, given how the gay marriage debate is spun, that the number is as small as it is), and increased their pull this year vs. 2000 among self-identified Democrats, independents, liberals, moderates, independent liberals, independent moderates, and even independent conservatives (21 this year vs. 17 in 2000). And their pull on the "attend church at least once a week" crowd stayed solid at 39. (That's more than it was in 1992—36 percent.)

Sadly for them, one of the Democrats' sure shots for winning more of the voting population's fealty is to hope for continued lack of financial success and education for American families. The Democrats dominate the below-$50,000 a year family income crowd, with larger margins the lower the income gets. And despite accusations from angry progressives that Republican voters are invincibly ignorant, the Democrats continue to lead among non-high-school graduates, as they have since 1988—though their lead has shrunk from 56-43 then to a mere 50-49 now. (The Dems don't start dominating any other educational groupings until you get to postgrads, where they rule 55-44, a margin that's growing compared to the past four elections.)

Party fortunes will always shift. But the lefties' historical compass at the moment is missing the massive changes in American culture over the last 40 years. This is most obvious in cultural matters. We are not now facing the loss of our long-lasting, precious birthright as Americans for gay marriage. In fact, as recently as a decade ago it would have seemed like the heated fantasies of a paranoid Moral Majoritarian even to guess that major cities and states in America would now be trying to legalize the practice. (Probably as recently as five years ago, too.) Anyone who doesn't recognize that the social and legal conditions for women and gays are far more comfortable than they were 30 years ago, and very unlikely to get worse, is allowing addiction to fear and depression to cloud the obvious evidence.

Americans' legal and social freedom to live their own lives when it comes to questions of family and sexual ethics is huge, and getting bigger. (In fact, the efforts to roll back some of these freedoms—free association in renting and employment, and freedom to eat and smoke what you wish without legal hassles or complications—are coming from the same folks weeping over Kerry's loss.)

Progressive victories are solid and unyielding in most governmental matters as well. (And the most significant defeat along those lines, the '90s welfare reform, came via a Democratic president.) For example, it seems only an actually unfolding crisis—not merely a clearly inevitable one—will trigger a change in the income redistribution programs that now form the core of American government, Social Security and Medicare, which account for over a third of government spending.

The basic structure of the regulatory state that has been built since the 1960s is strong. Aggrieved American lefties are showing their ungallant inability to accept victory. Sure, they've been stymied on national health care…so far. And they can always complain that particular regulatory programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to the Food and Drug Administration to national control of education, aren't growing fast enough or weighing in strongly enough. But they've got them, and they aren't going away. The progressives can continue to enjoy their lives in the big coastal metropolises where rarely is heard a discouraging word for their principles, or an encouraging word for George Bush or Republicans.

The principles of left-progressivism continue, as they have for the past 40 years, to dominate American political life, with any actions against them being mostly rearguard or rhetorical. (Unless the thought of the wealthy enjoying any sort of tax cut drives you so mad with envy nothing else can ever again seem sweet, in which case, good luck to you.)

Thus, the level of panicked distress from progressives these days is both confusing and unseemly. A smart recent book by Boston University Professor Loren J. Samons, What's Wrong with Democracy: From Athenian Practice to American Worship, sheds some light on why a mere single election result can generate such panic: It touches on sacred recesses of what has become a civic religion, and implies that the spirits you wish to propitiate through the act of electoral participation have abandoned you, taking their blessings to your enemies.

Samons' book takes a delightfully jaundiced look at what our Athenian forefathers, inventors of the most-citizens-can-vote (and can pay themselves off in doing so) polity actually achieved with that system. Mostly, he argues, they created a big mess, waged a lot of useless imperialistic wars, and eventually ruined the entire civilization. As he points out, we should not honor Athens for its early experiments with democracy but for its literary and cultural achievements.

But our modern obsession with democracy makes the voice of the people (as expressed by the 50 to 60 percent who bother to vote) seem the Holy Voice of America. Even though Bush only pulled a 3 percent margin over Kerry, the winner-take-all aspect of our two-party system makes people feel, unjustly, that the values of the winner have swept the nation. But that isn't true.

More importantly, these results have little, ultimately, to do with the warp and woof of life as it is lived by actual Americans, as opposed to those who let their minds be violently colonized by TV news and radio and political blogs and magazines. The fact is, most Americans don't know much about public policy—which is ultimately a rational choice for them, not some sin, because most of them don't care that much about it, and usually couldn't do much to affect it on the individual level even if they did.

Only those who, haunted by the ghosts of Holy Athens, associate civic duty and service to polis with all virtue, should see that as a bad thing. America, after all, is still a great place. We've got, as Chuck Berry (one of the great things about America) pointed out, hamburgers sizzling on open grills night and day, jukebox jumping with records, and pretty much anything else you want, right here in the USA.

For example, consider my own post-election ritual. I went on tour with an absurdist touring cabaret, 25 or so of us in a converted Green Tortoise bus going from San Francisco to Portland and Seattle and back. Once, at a gas station off the 5 somewhere north of San Fran, a small town cop circled us for a while suspiciously while we gassed up, but we were otherwise unhassled. No internal passports, no one asked for our papers. We entered freely into deals with sellers of diesel, lodging, sandwiches, and beer. We met friendly, amusing, and interesting people, hundreds of whom paid $7 to watch us amuse ourselves with a series of lunatic acts playing hard-but-fair with decades of America's indigenous cheap medicine show, sideshow, and musical traditions.

We visited old waterworks in Seattle and museums of Asian culture. We stood on a hill near the Gasworks in Seattle, watching seaplanes land and private sailboats glide and with some inexpensive imported Japanese keyboard technology enjoyed an impromptu singalong of some classic American popular song from the '20s to the '60s while rolling around on grassy hills. (A plaque at the Gasworks informed us, grimly, that even though we can now produce certain coal fuels synthetically, this doesn't mean it's OK for men not to serve in the military. Really.)

We had snowball fights near Mt. Shasta. We bought six-shot espresso drinks and Italian sodas with cream near Grant's Pass, Oregon, just after sunrise. We were, among others, an old Japanese man obsessed with American cowboy song, a young American woman raised by urban artists riffing on '80s dance styles, a former Clinton White House press worker, a German videographer, an expert card trickster from the Midwest, a central figure in a comedic cult religion, a hard-driving punk rock used car salesman turned barkeep, an aging Australian blue heeler, and one cranky libertarian journalist.

We all got along swimmingly along the highways and byways of this great land. Hardly any of us mentioned the election. (I did get an opportunity to do a version of my why I don't vote rap, but in the spirit of friendly bantering camaraderie, not enemy-making ideological conflict) It was sweet, and fun, and gave me many of those brilliant and touching and intense moments that make life seem like a good idea.

Only in America? I don't know, but in America, yes, whoever is president. We are rich, richer than any people in history. (Yes, even most of our poor.) The possibilities of a joyful life are all around us. I say sincerely to people whose political ideologies I find sometimes horrifying: it's a damn shame to let something like the results of an election ruin your chance to enjoy the myriad possibilities of life—real life, not political life—in these United States.