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Why Did Bush Win? And What Do We Do Now?

- by Pham Binh

This is the question that 55 million Americans who voted for Democrat John Kerry asked themselves when they awoke November 3rd to find that George W. Bush had - for the first time in his life - won a national election fair and square. Bush won the popular vote with 59 million votes, and the Republicans picked up 3 Senate seats and 5 seats in the House of Representatives. Bans on gay marriage won in all eleven states where they were on the ballot.

What happened?

One view is that the country has moved to the right politically, and the majority of working-class Americans in the "red states" or "middle America" are too conservative, apathic, stupid, or some combination of the three to see that Bush has been one of the most terrible presidents in history. Yet this view doesn't square with the facts.

The first fact is that turnout of eligible voters was only about 55 percent, which means only a minority of the country supported Bush. When broken down by education, Bush voters tended to have more education indicating that Kerry's support tended to be working-class, while Bush's tended to be from the middle and upper classes. The class breakdown of the vote becomes even more stark when looking at income: 36 percent of people making under $15,000 voted for Bush, 55 percent of those making $75,000-$100,000 voted for him, and 63 percent of those making over $200,000 voted for him.

According to CNN exit polls, Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote and 23 percent of the gay/lesbian vote. Bush even got the votes of 38 percent of union members and 25 percent of voters who said "abortion should always be legal". What these numbers indicate is that John Kerry failed to mobilize the Democratic Party's base: women's organizations, left-wingers, progressives, labor unions, and minorities. And he failed miserably.

The Democratic Party is used to taking its base for granted because of the politics of lesser-evilism. The party's leaders figure that it can take the votes of blacks, women, gays, progressives, and unions for granted because who else are they going to vote for? The Republicans? So instead of working hard to win the votes of their base by promising universal health care, substantially raising the minimum wage, ending the Iraq war, expanding affirmative action programs and women's access to abortion, and fighting for gay marriage, Kerry's campaign wrapped itself in the flag, talked about "killing terrorists where ever they are," opposed gay marriage, critized Bush for being "soft" on N. Korea and Iran, and barely spoke of its watered down support for affirmative action and abortion rights. In short, the Democratic Party took its base for granted and tried to appeal to Bush's base of evangelical Christians.

Given a choice between the right-wing original and the right-wing copy, voters chose the original (Bush) instead of the copy (Kerry). Aping the Republicans is not a viable strategy for the Democratic Party if it wants to win elections for the simple reason that we already have a Republican party.

But Kerry's terrible campaign was only part of the equation. Even more crucial to understanding what happened at the polls on November 2nd is the complete capitulation of progressives, the anti-war movement, and the rest of the Democratic Party's base to the politics of lesser-evilism in the name of "anybody but Bush."

Instead of organizing marches and rallies to press their demands on Bush and Kerry, labor and movement organizations spent tens of millions of dollars and millions of people spent their free hours campaigning and canvassing for Kerry. The main anti-war organization in this country, United for Peace and Justice, sent busloads of activists to swing-states like Pennsylvania to campaign for Kerry who said that war spending should be increased "by whatever number of billions it takes to win." As a result of the Bush-Kerry consensus that "we can't cut and run," the number of people who said that the U.S. made a mistake by going to war with Iraq declined from 54 percent in June and July to 44 percent at the end of October.

By jumping into Kerry's pocket, the anti-war movement gave up its ability to impact public opinion, and now it will be harder to convince people that they should against the war by demanding the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops and the payment of reparations to the Iraqi people for damage done. While the American military is ready to kill thousands of Iraqis to take back rebel-held cities in Iraq, anti-war activists are not ready to handle the massive escalation in the coming months because their organizations withered while they wasted their precious time, energy, and organizational skills on a pro-war candidate.

The same dynamic was at work with the once-vibrant gay marriage movement. When gay marriages were performed in San Francisco and Massachusetts, a wave of jubilation swept the gay and lesbian community all over the country, and a gay marriage movement began in earnest. Within a month or two however, mainstream gay rights organizations put the brakes on the movement because the priority was to "get rid of Bush," not press for gay marriage. Besides, pressing for gay marriage during an election year would put Kerry on the spot because he opposed it. As openly gay Democrat Barney Frank put it, "When you're in a real struggle [the election], San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion."

As a result of the pressure to get behind Kerry to oust Bush at all costs, the movement for gay marriage disappeared, and the debate on the issue of gay marriage became dominated by two candidates who opposed it. While gay rights organizations put the fight on hold to campaign for Kerry, the Religious Right and the Republican Party stepped up its campaign to ban gay marriage. The result of this "tactical" move was a complete disaster for gays and lesbians: gay marriage bans passed in all 11 states where they were on the ballot. Even worse, the marriages that were performed in San Francisco were anulled by the California Supreme Court.

So what do we do now?

The first thing we have to understand is why it seems like the country has moved to the right. Putting mass mobilizations and organizing on hold to elect the "lesser evil" John Kerry led to enormous setbacks for both the anti-war movement and the gay marriage movement. Without mass protests, the left could not exert any influence on popular consciousness and pull it leftward.

Secondly, we have to understand that Bush does not have a mandate. Winning a little over half the vote when only 55 percent of the country voted means that Bush supporters make up a little over a quarter of those eligible to vote. Bush's minority shrinks even further when you consider the millions of felons who have lost the right to vote, the illegal immigrants who never had the right in the first place, and the millions of radicalized teenagers who opposed the war and hate Bush but weren't old enough to vote on November 2nd.

Although Bush does not have a mandate, he and the Republicans think otherwise and will act accordingly. Karl Rove assured Fox News that Bush was "serious" about pushing a ban on gay marriage; there is open talk of partially privatizing Social Security and handing it to Wall Street; Roe v. Wade and abortion rights are in danger; and Bush is gunning to turn America into a tax-free country for the super-rich.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the Democratic Party will do in the face of Bush's onslaught. The signs are not good. In his concession speech, Kerry said he and Bush: "had a good conversation and we talked about the danger of division in our country and the need - the desperate need - for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today, I hope that we can begin the healing." But millions of people who voted against Bush - and those who didn't see enough of a difference between the two parties to bother voting - are in no mood to unite with him or accept his right-wing agenda in the name of non-existent "common ground."

The left, the anti-war movement, unions, gay and women's rights organizations are in a do-or-die situation. But they also have an opportunity. Like the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, the right is likely to overreach because they think they have a mandate when they don't. How much they get away with is the direct result how well we are able to mobilize and fight. To do that, we need to be clear politically on why gays and lesbians should have the right to marry; why the troops should get out of Iraq now; why Social Security should not be privatized; in short, we need to be clear as to what kind of alternative we are putting forward in opposition to the Bush agenda.

As Joe Hill put it, "Don't mourn - organize."

Pham Binh, is 21 year old student from Hunter College, NYC, member of the International Socialist Organization.
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