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Presidential Election 2004

by: David Hill, © Nov, 2004

Based on Garry Wills' Nov 4, 2004 letter to the NY Times editor entitled: The Day the Enlightenment Went Out

Today, Karl Rove, "architect" of George Bush's re-election on Tuesday, said that for the first time in history "more Republicans voted than did Democrats." This, in my opinion, confirms Rove's brilliance as a political strategist. He calculated that religious conservatives and other right-wing extremists would be the deciding factor in the popular vote if they could be energized and turned out to the polls in large numbers. He kept Bush on message and used all the tried and true Republican propaganda against Democrats and Kerry. The success of Rove's plan was registered nationally in Bush's reelection by a majority and locally in the eleven states which voted overwhelmingly to ban same-sex marriage. Rove understands what surveys have shown for years, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Historians may someday call the election of 2004 "Bryan's Revenge" honoring William Jennings Bryan, the "Great Commoner," who was three-times the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908. In the Scopes trial of 1925, the great trial lawyer and agnostic, Clarence Darrow discredited Bryan's Evangelical Christian rejection of evolution. Although the court upheld the fundamentalis's position (teaching evolution in Tennessee schools is illegal), it was a Pyhrric victory: the press ridiculed them mercilessly. Bryan, exhausted and shaken by Darrow's mean-spirited cross-examination, died five days after the trial. Disillusioned by the spectacle, many Evangelical Christians withdrew from direct engagement in politics.

Several decades later they came roaring back into the political arena angered by court decisions that banned prayer in school, legalized abortion, and protected flag-burning as a First Amendment right. They have remained at the heart of the Republican Party since. Still fighting those old battles, they are now enraged because in some locales, courts have legalized or defended the civil rights of gay Americans, including their right to marry. Rove calculated that appealing to this huge constituency would assure Bush's reelection. He even went so far as to have Bush endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage despite Bush's earlier opposition to such proposals.

Rove also threw into the campaign some anti-Democrat propaganda appealing to right-wing extremists who may or may not be fundamentalist Christians. Resurrecting the old Republican attacks on Democrats as "un-American" and even "traitors," Bush reminded them that Kerry had publicly opposed the Vietnam War in the early 1970's, suggesting he was "un-American" or worse, a traitor for doing so. Shortly after the Democratic Convention, one Republican, a retired military officer, angrily said to me "they should have court marshaled him (Kerry) for treason!" (However, he was unable to explain how the military could have court-marshaled a civilian exercising his first amendment rights to speak freely and petition the government for grievances.)

This propaganda technique originated in the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln's Republicans defended the Union against Jefferson Davis' Democratic Confederacy. For over forty years afterward, Republicans all but excluded Democrats from the Presidence and other high offices by branding them as "traitors" who could not be trusted to govern. By default, the Republican Party was the only legitimate American government. Since then, they have maintained this arrogant presumption in various ways, most often by repeating the "traitor" and "un-American" attacks on Democrats: against Woodrow Wilson for his involvement in creating the League of Nations, against Franklin Roosevelt for his New Deal programs, against Harry Truman for his involvement in creating the United Nations, against Lyndon Johnson for his "Great Society" programs, his Civil Rights legislation and his handling of the Vietnam War. Throughout the Cold War, from 1946 through 1990, Republicans branded Democrats as unfit to govern because they were "soft on communism." Now Rove has done it again by branding Kerry as a "traitor" who is soft on terrorism.

None of these charges were true. We learned during this campaign - after the political damage had been done - that the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on Kerry's leadership and courage in the Vietnam War were baseless. Baseless charges of this type are a common Republican political strategy. In the 1950's, for example, Americans learned - again too late - that Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy had fabricated most of the "evidence" he presented against government officials and many ordinary citizens (mostly Democrats) in his Un-American Activities investigations. (seeThe Glory and the Dream and The Grand Old Party which describe in detail this sordid chapter in our history).

There is sublime irony in all this. Over the last 150 years, the Republicans and Democrats have almost completely switch positions on every major issue: civil rights, taxes, tariffs, states rights vs the role of the federal government and many others. Comparing the results of this election with that of 1896, for example, shows that George Bush (Republican) won virtually the same states William Jennings Bryan (Democrat) won: in the south and mid-west. The red and blue states are flip-flopped (to use an expression we have heard often lately). The Republicans of 2004 were the Democrats of 1896. http://www.multied.com/elections/1896State.html) If, as many Americans think, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, embodied all that is noble and wise and compassionate in the American character, then it is the Republicans who have betrayed the American character; Democrats have embraced it.

But the keystone of Rove's strategy was his appeal to the Evangelical Christian right. This strategy brings to my mind a visit the Dalai Lama made to Chicago not long ago. He met with reporters and academics beforehand and asked them to give him challenging questions, since he is too often greeted with deference or flattery. One attendee therefore asked, "If you could return to your country, what would you do to change it?" He quickly replied that he would disestablish his religion, since "America is the proper model." As a follow-up, the questioner then asked if a pluralist society were possible without the Enlightenment. "Ah," he said. "That's the problem." He seemed to envy America its Enlightenment heritage.

Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?

America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Our Founding Fathers were well versed in the philosophies of David Hume and John Locke and the scientific achievements of Isaac Newton, John Harrison, James Hutton and Adam Smith. They cherished enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the Founding Fathers - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, George Washington and others - differed on many important issues of their day, they shared a common belief in these values and incorporated them into our constitutional documents. Indeed, they could not have written those documents without first having read Hume and Locke. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, they addressed "a candid world," out of "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind."

Now it seems respect for evidence means little to at least 51% of Americans. Never mind the scientific evidence collected over several decades from scientists around the world about the imminent dangers of global warming, the Republicans deny it and refused to sign the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty. Never mind that over one hundred years of scientific evidence shows that homosexuality is a naturally occurring sexual orientation, the Evangelical Republicans call it an "abomination against the Lord" and would have us all treat gays as second class citizens. Never mind that Social Security benefits have reduced the poverty rate among the elderly and disabled by 60% since Democrats created it in 1934, the Republicans call it "un-American" and want to "privatize" or abolish it. Never mind that there is no evidence that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda, the Republicans ignore it - based on a poll taken just before the election 75% still believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Centers on September 11.

People in the secular states of modern Europe - our long-time friends and allies - do not understand American fundamentalism or its vast influence on our elections. Some were shocked by the results. One European headline asked "How Can 59 Million People Be So Dumb?" Another featured a dark blank page with the words "Oh God!" written in small type. Fundamentalism is not what Europeans had experienced from America in the past and it is not what they would have expected from a country founded on Enlightenment principles. Now, after four years of Bush's zealous unilateralism and isolationism, they think America resembles them less than it does our putative enemies. After all, where else in the world do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage against secularity, religious intolerance, a denial of scientific evidence, fear of and hatred for modernity? Certainly not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. Instead, we find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists - the terrorists who are our enemies. Americans wonder that the rest of the world thinks us so dangerous, so single-minded, so impervious to international appeals. But we should not wonder; the reason is clear: they fear jihad, no matter if the zeal being expressed is Arab or American.

The American journalist, Sydney Harris, warned us years ago that, "Enemies, as well as lovers, come to resemble each other over a period of time." And so it is. We now torture the torturers; we say our Christian God is better than their Muslim God - as one American general put it, in words President Bush has not repudiated.

President Bush promised in 2000 that he would lead a humble country, that he would be a uniter not a divider, that he would make conservatism compassionate. They were empty promises then. This time, he need not make even empty promises. He was re-elected precisely by being a divider, pitting the reddest aspects of the red states against the blue - splitting the nation almost equally in two. In this, he is very far from his beloved mentor Ronald Reagan, who was amiably and ecumenically pious. He could address more secular audiences, here and abroad, with genuine respect.

In his victory speech Wednesday, President Bush indicated that he would "reach out to the whole nation," including those who voted for Kerry. But even if he wanted to be more conciliatory now, the Evangelic and right-wing constituency to which he owes his victory is not a conciliatory one - it is not now and never has been. He must give them what they want: conservative judicial appointments, limitations on stem-cell research, and action on a long list of faith-based legislation such as criminalizing abortion, banning gay marriage, reinstating school prayers, requiring that Creation Science be taught side-by-side with the Theory of Evolution in science classes - their agenda goes on and on and on. His helpers are his keepers.

There may be a few moderates left in the Republican Party. I predict that the moral zealots of the Republican Party will give them and all the rest of us much cause for dismay over the next four years. Jihads are scary things whether they are Arab or American. But it is not too early to start yearning to recover what we have lost from the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, Democrats may be reassured by these words spoken by Mahatma Gandhi: "When I despair, I remember this. Throughout history there have been tyrants. And, for a time, they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it: always.