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Calling all progressives

Peter Quaranto | Thursday, November 4, 2004

Be careful what you wish for. One of the chief objectives of the Kerry campaign was to turn out record numbers of voters, in accord with the recent electoral reality that more voters equals more Democratic victories. On Nov. 2, the Democrats achieved their objective with the highest voter turnout since 1968 – about 120 million voters – yet they learned the difficult lesson that the means do not always meet the ends. In a surprising outcome that defied exit poll predictions and left Larry King stuttering, President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry by over 3.5 million votes to gain a second term as president. In the wake of the Ohio defeat, progressives across the country, shell-shocked from the returns and despairing about “four more years,” have to face the sobering query of what went wrong in 2004.

In so many ways, it seemed everything was going right. The Democrats were unified, the Kerry campaign had raised record funds and hundreds of thousands of new voters were registered across the country. There was the rise of independent groups, such as MoveOn PAC and America Coming Together, organizing thousands of volunteers to get out the progressive vote. And the situation in America seemed ripe for change – chaos in Iraq, rising healthcare costs, significant job losses and deteriorating education. When I was in Ohio last weekend, there was fervor among the masses of volunteers, believing resolutely that we could bring a real change to this country. Such optimism and advantages floundered around 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, leaving many grappling for answers. And hope.

The president won on the back of his strong conservative base, led by evangelicals and the wealthy. As anticipated, the president fared strongest among those falling into the categories of white, male, married and gun-owning. Also, President Bush carried the whole of the South, continuing Republican presidential dominance below the Mason-Dixon Line. However, the surprise of 2004 was that more exit poll respondents – about 22 percent – deemed “moral values” as the election’s most important issue, of which more than 80 percent voted red. In an election season that highlighted deep national discord over Iraq, terrorism and the economy, it appears that “moral” issues such as gay marriage played the largest role in determining the leader of our country for the next four years.

Placed in the context of other issues, this information is quite revealing. Of those who considered Iraq to be the most important issue of the election, 73 percent voted for Kerry and 26 percent for Bush. Of those who considered the economy and jobs to be primary, 80 percent for Kerry and 18 percent for Bush. For healthcare, 77 percent for Kerry and 23 percent for Bush. For education, 73 percent for Kerry and 26 percent for Bush. These numbers are highly telling because they show that on the issues that the Kerry campaign highlighted – jobs, education, healthcare and Iraq – they dominated. The problem appears to be that the progressives misread the American people.

The American people wanted to hear about “moral issues,” and all they received from Kerry was discourse about the economy, foreign affairs and education. The American people wanted to hear about whether two people should be allowed to get married before they wanted to hear about the state of our schools. The American people wanted to hear about the faith of a candidate before they wanted to hear about our affairs in the world. Beyond begging the question of how we define “moral issues,” this reality highlights a great divide among the American people in the way we understand America.

Though hard for many of us to swallow, Bush called it right when he said today, “The American people have spoken.” For those of us progressives, Tuesday was a deeply disappointing day, a day when we lost hope for our country. The thought of four years of a second-term Bush administration, teamed with a Republican House and Senate, could not be more discouraging. More than ever, the long road to taking back America is daunting. Yet, it has never been more critical.

In a day when Republicans have monopolized speaking to moral and spiritual concerns of the many, Democrats must learn to speak to the moral and spiritual yearnings of a population, connecting those yearnings to policies for universal health care, economic justice, civil rights and more humane foreign policy. In a day when Republicans capture the fears of a nation, the Democrats must find a way in the years ahead to articulate an alternative politics of hope that can lift this country up to its ideals.

Challenging days lie ahead for progressives. The words of John Kerry are best: “And building on itself, we go on to make a difference another day. I promise you, that time will come, the time will come, the election will come, when your work and your ballots will change the world. And it’s worth fighting for.” And so, let us fight.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.