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October 20, 2004

Three Key Divides on Bush v. Kerry

We were discussing the election at lunch yesterday, and someone said that this election was engendering more bitterness than most. That's right, and it's not surprising why. The reason is not, I think, that Kerry is a left-wing extremist (at the far left of the U.S. Senate in standard rankings) and Bush is a conservative, though this is indeed the biggest ideological divide since at least Mondale vs. Reagan, or perhaps even Goldwater vs. Johnson. Rather, I think it comes down to disagreement about whether a few key features of each candidate are good or are bad.

1. Bush is truly religious. This pleases some people, and horrifies others. There is a great fear of religion in America, despite its being a religious country. Ironically, what many people fear is a politician with principles, because they are afraid he will do crazy things on their behalf. A Clinton will stick safely to what is popular. It is interesting to note that Kerry being irreligious (or, perhaps, Cheney-- who knows his religion?) does not similarly horrify anyone. We are used to politicians who pay lip service to God. Even conservatives are tolerant of atheism. Liberals, however, despite their occasional claims that character doesn't matter (remember Clinton?) do think it matters-- and that religiosity is a very bad character trait.

2. Bush overthrew the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. It's pretty clear that Kerry supporters think it would have been better if Saddam was still in power, even if they won't admit it, and pretty much the same principles apply to Afghanistan-- we overthrew a government that was a threat to us. After all, what alternative policy would they have suggested? What is usually suggested is to wait for the U.N., the French, and the Germans to come on board, which is the same as saying to do nothing.

Bush supporters think the overthrow of the two governments is a triumph for Bush; Kerry supporters think it is a big negative.

3. Kerry told lies about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and gave encouragement to our enemies. Bush supporters think this is appalling. Kerry supporters either don't care, or think that it is to Kerry's credit that he fought U.S. policy in Vietnam with such tactics.

These differences don't apply to all Bush and Kerry supporters, but they apply to many of those who feel strongly about the election. Other supporters care only about domestic policy, or are indifferent to the character of a politician.

For comments, continue reading...


1. "Bush is truly religious. This pleases some people, and horrifies others." I don't think so. To characterize Bush as truly religious begs the question, and it is that characterization -not the idea of the president being religious - that many find horrifying. I myself am favorably inclined toward religious belief, though not to the illiberal variety associated with the Christian right, but even so that is not the aspect of Bush's attitude toward and use of religion that I find objectionable. You called it "religiosity"; that might be about right, since one of the two standard meanings of that word is "exaggerated or affected piety and religious zeal." Being truly religious, on my belief system and that of many other religious people I know, requires humility and some temperance of the belief that one enjoys a direct line to God's will. This is not Bush's strong point, asyou must admit. Compare Pope John Paul II, who although theologically and socially conservative and determined about his faith [and also subject to exaggerated criticism by anti-clericalists of the left] presents a very different mien, one devoid of swagger.

2. "Bush overthrew the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. It's pretty clear that Kerry supporters think it would have been better if Saddam was still in power." This is a canard, and a smear on the level of saying that those who opposed expansion of the federal civil rights laws in the 60's [and those who oppose affirmative action now] are in favor of segregation and racial apartheid. The goal may be laudable; the means for achieving it can be questioned in good faith. Unless you think the end always justifies the means, which I don't think you do.

3. "Kerry told lies about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and gave encouragement to our enemies." Not sure what you mean here, unless you are taking the Swift Boat claims at face value, which most reports I've read indicate to me is not reasonable. All in all I think what Kerry said about the Vietnam war was justified, but if you think that lying is not appropriate even in the service of a good cause, it's unclear how you can defend the way in which the Bush administration worked up public support for the war.

Point 3 may be arguable on the facts, but your willingness to smear the views of your opponents in points 1 and 2 [and to equate criticizing our government with giving comfort to our enemies] is itself evidence of the bitterness engendered by current political divisions.


Although I agree with these points, I think there is more to it.

1. The left loathes Bush, and have attempted to smear him from day 1. (All the world's ills now stem from Bush.) Some of this may be backlash from Clinton days, when the roles were reversed. I think a lot stems from resentment that Bush won a narrow election, which the left attempted to steal via the courts. (This didn't work, and even the newspaper recounts demonstrated that Gore would have lost had he gotten the recount he wanted, but you still see misinformed bumper stickers indicating that the person thinks the election was stolen. Gore, and others who know better, egg this on (rather than acting like adults.)) And let's not forget the phony "intimidation" charges, etc., which some believe to this day - again, egged on by the likes of Jesse Jackson. That kind of climate is guaranteed to make hostile feelings surface - especially when Bush did not roll over and play dead to appease the left.

2. The left has engaged in an obstructionist campaign, which certainly flies in the face of the spirit of our government. That has irritated the right.

3. The left's smug condescension is irritating.

4. Bush embodies the evil enemy in the left's many religions: environmentalism, communism, humanism, transnational progressivism. Rational thought is just as easily shut off by these religious beliefs as it is by other religious beliefs. It leads to ridiculous accusations and tinfoil-hat theories, but evidently a sizable proportion believe them (e.g., MoveOn.org)

5. Biased reporting leaves many with the impression that Kerry actually has a leg to stand on, when in fact the percentage of true charges against Bush is quite small. This bias irritates the right, as does the left's denial of it.

Thus, the right feels irritated, and justified in hostile attacks as well. Add to this a deep loathing for the most liberal senator in the Senate (and his own smug condescension), and the mix is even more volatile.

So you get polarization.

That's my 0.02 for now. Probably tonight, I'll re-think it all and come to a different conclusion. (Or come up with some other reason for the polarization.)

COMMENT 3 (Eric Rasmusen): I didn't mean to say that Kerry supporters wouldn't have been happy if Saddam Hussein and the Taliban had disappeared by themselves. Rather, they don't think those ends are worth the means--that getting rid of the tyranny was worth the war. Thus, I think it is fair to say overall that they do *not* regard Bush's overthrow of those regimes as a good thing. Indeed, I would go further, and say that if it is a matter of justice, not prudence that we should not have done so, then we ought to restore Saddam to power. If we unjustly overthrew him, do we not have a duty to remedy the wrong we committed?

Posted by erasmuse at October 20, 2004 10:35 AM

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