Warning: I'm going to write about the 2004 US Presidential election. Yes, I
know you probably don't want to hear anything more about it, no matter what
your political views might be. But bear with me, at least for a little while.
I have a few observations to make, and I've also got a few stories to tell--stories that you don't hear too often in other places.
I'll get to them in just a little bit.
First let me give you some background so you know where I'm coming from.
I grew up in the Northeast, went to school in the South, and have since moved
to California. For most of my adult life, I've been a fiscal conservative
and a social liberal/libertarian. I believe in small government, minimal
interference in citizens' personal lives, and local control of
education and infrastructure and welfare. I think that campaign finance
reform is a well-intentioned but poorly-implemented policy; I'm in favor of
the legalization of marijuana, at least for medicinal purposes. I'm
pro-choice--forever uneasy about it, but pro-choice nonetheless.
And so, in the 2004 election, I cast my vote for Michael Badnarik, the
Libertarian candidate for President. I didn't actually want him to win--
the man's pretty wacky--but he came closer to my ideals than either of the
major-party candidates. I couldn't vote for Bush, the
big-government fan who used a wartime State of the Union address to take a random slap at gay folks who'd like to get married. I certainly couldn't vote for John Kerry, the man who
protested Vietnam, voted against the first Gulf war, and then
voted for the far less justifiable second Gulf war for reasons he
could never adequately explain (he either trusted that the government would
conduct itself rationally and appropriately--in which case he learned nothing
from all that Vietnam experience he kept blabbering about--or he helped send
our troops off to war just so he could look all tough and Presidential, in
which case he should be shot for treason along with Hillary Clinton, John
Edwards, and anyone else on either side of the aisle who voted yea but knew
But I digress. I am supposed to be telling stories and making observations
In the days before and after the election, I spent a lot of time visiting
two political websites, namely Democratic Underground and Free Republic.
If you haven't heard of them, DU tends to be left-liberal while the Freepers
tend towards the religious right. Both sites are full of passionate people
and interesting news stories presented in the most biased manner imaginable, and they both have strict censorship policies that result in the banning of
anyone who deviates too far from a very narrow party line set by the
moderators. So they sort of balance either out.
Anyway, the Freepers have been ecstatic, of course, while the DUers...well,
let me just say that at times I seriously considered posting the phone number
for a national suicide hotline. I am not trying to be funny here. Some of
those people sounded like they might need it. They were worrisome enough, but
the angry people bothered me the most. "Angry" is actually an
understatement--these folks were enraged. Some of them swore up and down that
there must have been fraud. Some said that they didn't know
anyone who had voted Republican. (This was probably true; like many
Freepers, a lot of these people perceive unity only because they've carefully
insulated themselves from opposing views). Other folks posted all sorts of
graphs and charts that purportedly showed voter fraud in Ohio and Florida.
(I didn't have a chance to look at all of them, but the ones I did look at
didn't seem to show an understanding of margin of error, statistics,
probability, base rate, and the like.)
But others, by far the angriest of them all, said no. There's no fraud, and even if there were it wouldn't make up the three million votes. No, the blame
for the election lay squarely with a bunch of Bible-thumpin' gun-totin' wife-beatin' inbred racist porch
honkies who turned out for Bush in droves, and who voted not with what little
brains they had but happily did whatever Rush Limbaugh or Fred Phelps
or whoever told them to do.
Nope. It was fraud or it was porch honkies. That was about it.
I wish I could make you understand just how poorly a man like John Kerry
goes over with those "porch honkies" in the South. He doesn't speak the
language. He doesn't know the customs. He's not from around there. He doesn't fit in.
See, there's a particular way of speaking in the South, a way that affects
everything from what you say to how you say it. Northerners often mistake it
for stupidity, but it's not that at all. It sounds simplistic, but what's
not said is often more important than what's said. Your values and principles suffuse what you say, but you don't really speak about them directly. You
weigh alternatives, but you don't vacillate or equivocate. You are polite,
and you respect the other person's privacy and dignity. You use simple and
straightforward language, but at the same time you use allusions and
oblique references. As with the accent, it's a tricky thing to fake. They
say that if you didn't grow up in the South, you'll never quite understand it.
After having lived there for over a decade, I'm inclined to think they're
If you don't speak that language, you'll find it hard to communicate with
folks in the South. You won't understand them and they won't understand you.
George Bush, for all his linguistic incompetence, can speak that way. Carter and Bush the First could do it, sort of, though not as well as
the men who defeated them; Clinton and Reagan
were masters. I think Al Gore once knew but forgot how after all those years
And John Kerry can't speak to the South. In speech after speech, and to a
lesser extent in the debates, he showed that he had no idea how to do
it and only the vaguest idea that it needed to be done. He's all wrong--wrong in ways I can't even begin to describe. It's one big reason why he lost.
It's one reason why a Northern Democrat hasn't won a Presidential election
since John F. Kennedy over 40 years ago. It's one reason why the Democratic
Party has slowly lost its seats in the south until the only Southern Democrats
left are mostly DINOs like Zell Miller. It's one reason why the
Dems will continue to lose unless they figure this out.
I'd like to tell you about a woman I know. Her name is Carolyn, and she was
the secretary in the department where I did my graduate
work. We were probably the only two people in the department who weren't
radical leftists (this is a university, after all), so we got to talking
about politics. We didn't actually agree on all that much, but we both
disagreed with everyone else, and that was somewhere to start.
Carolyn is what you'd think of as a fairly prototypical Southern
woman. Every Sunday, her family dresses up and spends the
morning at the Baptist church down the road from her house. She cooks,
cleans, and takes care of the kids; her husband handles the house and car
repairs, and on the weekend he cooks stuff on the grill. She's the nurturing
mother; he's the disciplinarian. They're overweight and dress in
handmade clothes. They speak with strong Southern drawls. They're poor.
One day we got to talking about the upcoming election. Carolyn said that
she was "conflicted" about the war in Iraq. She wondered from the start
whether it was a good idea, because Colin Powell didn't have anything but some grainy photos and sketchy diagrams, but she knew that Saddam Hussein was
clearly an evil guy. She was troubled to find out that the WMDs didn't appear
to exist and that Saddam wasn't as much of a threat as it had seemed. She
was worried about a draft--she has two young sons--and said that on the whole
she was "beginning to doubt."
Carolyn was conflicted about gay marriage too. Her religious beliefs were
opposed to it, for one, but it went deeper than that. She said that she didn't
really understand homosexuality on an emotional level, but that
when she saw gay couples together, it didn't seem like they had what she and
her husband had. Still, it wasn't a major issue for her, and she said that
she'd probably be willing to live and let live. So far, that's what she's
done--the gay and lesbian folks in our department have never had a problem
with her on that account, and she certainly knows about their sexuality.
And she was worried about the economy and terrorism and the national debt
and everything else that people worried about in this election, but still in
spite of all of this she told me that she was voting for Bush. I knew her well
enough to ask her why, and here's what she told me.
Shortly after she got married, Carolyn found out that she was pregnant.
She didn't explicitly say so, but I suspect from the way she told me about it
that the conception had occurred before marriage and that her family wouldn't
approve. They were dirt poor and could barely afford their house and beat-up
old car, let alone a baby.
Carolyn seriously considered having an abortion. But before she even told
her husband about the pregnancy, she went to find out more about what the
abortion would entail. And she went not to the Bible or her church or her
pastor, but to some medical books and websites. She found an obstetrics book
that had pictures of fetuses at different gestational ages.
She turned to the right page. She looked at the eight-week-old fetus, and
the fetus looked back at her.
And that was it. She said that at that moment, she knew she couldn't have
the abortion. More to the point, she came to believe in her heart and mind
that the fetus was a living human being, basically the same as her
two-year-old son, and that nobody should be allowed to have an abortion except
in certain special cases. You might say that it's not right to impose on a woman's body in that way, but in her view an abortion is a much worse
imposition on the body of the fetus. You might say that it's awful to make a
woman go through an unwanted pregnancy. But she knows how tough it is; after
all, she had the kid. What she said was that when you have a kid it's hard
work of one kind before they're born, and then it's hard work of another
kind afterwards. As for stem-cell research and discarded embryos, she
believes that it would be better for a woman to have no children at all rather
than to use a fertilization method that would lead to the destruction of what
she believes is human life.
That's what she believes. You may agree or disagree--heck, I disagree with
her. But she's not simply parroting something somebody told her, and
she doesn't argue by quoting Bible verses. She's faced this issue straight-on,
thought about it, researched it, and come up with her own view--a view she
holds very deeply. So when George Bush gave a speech about embracing the
culture of life, she knew what he meant. She knew he understood how she
felt, and that's why she voted for him.
Now, what do the Democrats have to offer this woman? How do you think she'd
feel about John Kerry's position on abortion? Do you think she'd find it consistent at all? And how do you think the folks at DU would treat her if
she started posting there? Would they see her as a thoughtful and
intelligent woman? Would they firmly but respectfully disagree with her, as
she would them, or would they pelt her with sneering and contempt and then
delete her account?
Sure, the Freepers and Republicans are just as guilty in their own way, with
all their burbling about highfalutin Northeastern liberals, and when they're
out of power, I'll write a node about them. But the point is that people like
Carolyn are really out there, whether the Democrats realize it or not, and
if you want to win you have to talk to her.
Several years ago, I worked with a Sikh guy named Mandeep. Now, to
understand what I'm going to tell you, you have to know that Mandeep--by his
own admission--looks remarkably like Osama bin Laden. It's not just the
turban and full beard; Mandeep's tall and thin, has the same nose, and his skin
is roughly the same color. Needless to say, this isn't exactly the ideal look
in the post-9/11 world. Or so you'd think.
A few weeks after the September 11 attacks, Mandeep and
his family were driving back from a camping trip on the mountains. Now Mandeep
is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but he's a bit forgetful at
times, especially when it comes to doing chores. He was supposed to get the
car's radiator or whatever fixed, but winter was coming and he didn't think
it was necessary. But sure enough, the day they drove back was boiling hot,
and the car overheated on an empty highway somewhere in the rural western
half of a deep red state.
As I said, Mandeep is an exceptionally nice person. His wife...well.
Suffice it to say that while Mandeep didn't want to walk a mile to the next
exit in the sweltering heat while wearing a turban and a full beard, he
really didn't want to stay in the car with his wife and three cranky
kids while they waited for someone to show up. Anyway, the next exit led to a
crossroads...and only a crossroads. There wasn't a thing there except for a
boarded-up old restaurant on one corner, Riddle's Garage on another, and empty
road in all four directions. Now Riddle's Garage was covered in American flags, bunting, and "We Will Prevail" signs--not to mention
battered old political signs for Republicans going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mandeep, who had heard all the tales about racist Southerners
and shotguns, was a little nervous. But he didn't have much of a choice, and
in he went.
Well, the Riddles didn't even blink when Osama's twin brother walked in
the door. As soon as he explained the problem, they closed down the
garage--closed it down!--and put the "Back in 15 Minutes" sign up. Mr. Riddle
drove out in his tow truck and Mrs. Riddle followed him in her car because the
truck could only hold two other people. Once they got back, Mr. Riddle set to
work and Mrs. Riddle brought out fresh iced tea and lemonade for
everyone. Mandeep and the Riddles' eldest son talked about basketball; Mrs.
Riddle and Mandeep's wife talked about their kids. As for the kids themselves,
they played with the Riddle kids. You could tell that the Riddle kids were a
little taken aback when their mom called them in, but she gave them the
no-nonsense glare and they set to it.
They played Tinkertoys, of course. Mrs. Riddle said it: "Everyone likes
Mr. Riddle fixed the car, charged a price that was so low that Mandeep almost felt guilty, refused all of his efforts to pay for the drinks, and sent them on
their way with best wishes and a recommendation of a nearby restaurant that had
some vegetarian food. Not a word about terrorism or their appearance or
anything. No racial slurs, no violence, just good country people. And
Republican, born and bred.
Now you tell me. How often have you heard a story like that about the
South? How often do you hear about sacrifice and courtesy and people
helping people regardless of background or appearance? Do you hear those
stories, or do you only hear the stories that confirm your prejudices? What
stories do you tell about the South? When people ask you about the racial
climate in the US, do you make jokes about the rednecks in the South? How
much time have you spent in the South? What do you really know about it
I am telling you all this because I sometimes think that the left doesn't
realize or care that people like Carolyn and the Riddles exist. To them, the
red states are essentially one big asylum filled with those people you see on Springer or Sunday morning evangelical shows. And yeah, the
South has those people. The stereotypes are true to an extent.
But they're false to an extent too, and it's the falsity that really stings,
because those of us who have spent time in the South know that there's more to
Southern culture than evangelical racists in stained t-shirts. When
Southerners talk about the great aspects of Southern culture, they're talking
about things like this--about the customs of kindness and civility and
generosity that you just don't find up North, or at least not in the same way.
And there's a sadness and perplexity that the rest of the country just doesn't
get it and never will.
I have news for you. If you want to win, you have to get it, or at a bare
minimum you have to try. You can't win by casting a blanket rejection of all
the guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks, or
whatever it was that Howard Dean said before screaming himself into oblivion.
You can't win by spitting in the face of the Riddles and Carolyn and the
hundreds of red-staters I've met who are just like them. Because those guys
are not all morons. They are thinking reasoning beings, citizens just like
you, and they vote whether you like it or not. And you can get their vote, as
Clinton sometimes did, if you don't contemptuously dismiss their home and their culture and their values.
Mike Moore isn't going to help you here. Hell, Mike Moore makes his
millions by capitalizing on the division; why would he want it to disappear?
No, if you want to win, you are going to have to remember that these people
exist, because it's your job to represent them after all. You are going to
have to listen to what they say, and you are going to have to speak their
language. And if you don't, then you can expect them to reject you--just as
you have rejected them.