Where do we go from here. I
Carlton M. Caves
2004 December 5

The election is now more than a month in the past. You might say it's time to get used to it, but I still get a huge pit in my stomach whenever I see Bush, smirk firmly in place, strutting around in his new role as legitimately elected President of the United States. This time he won clearly, if narrowly, but after all the effort and all the emotion to defeat him, his victory is harder to take than the fraudulent circumstances that brought him to power the first time. We didn't know him then. Now we know him all too well. Four more years. It sounds like a funeral dirge. That pit isn't going to go away.

We all thought the election would be decided by the electorate's finally paying attention to and becoming informed about the Bush gang's record of ideological extremism, colossal incompetence, and general failure. Indeed, the debates, imperfect though they were, demonstrated that Bush and his record couldn't stand up to scrutiny---and polls confirmed that most of the people got the message. We thought the election would be close, but after playing obsessively with those electoral college maps at one or more web sites, we all convinced ourselves that Bush would go down to the defeat he so richly deserved. What we didn't reckon with was that a good fraction of the electorate---this is most of the Republican base, including the newly activated parts of the Christian right---didn't give a hoot about facts or the record. They voted instead out of fear of moral decay and terrorism. Those fears were expertly cultivated by the Bush gang, whose campaign can be reduced to a single slogan: "All we have to offer is fear itself." FDR is turning over in his grave.

Where do we go from here? My first inclination is to escape, to pack my bags and move to Australia, a country I love, similar to America in many ways, but with important differences. Aussies are refreshingly brash and even more egalitarian than we are. They're more cynical about government, yet have a sense of community that ensures that their governments do a better job of serving community needs. They're serious enough to discuss and often even to confront their national problems, but never so serious as to prevent them---left, right, and center---from breaking into a celebration of the good life at any opportunity. After pondering long and hard the Australian difference, however, I finally came, with my wife's help, to the crucial distinction: when God was handing out the religious right, he omitted Australia. This means that Aussies, conservative though they usually are, participate in a national discussion that is conducted in secular terms and is based more or less on facts, something that's gone missing in America. The tug of Oz is strong---it's palpable as I write this---but in the end, I think my roots are sunk too deep in American soil.

My second reaction is to give up, to acknowledge that the religious right and the GOP's big-money interests own the country. They made their bed; let them sleep in it. I can retreat to my private concerns and take life as it comes. The sun still shines brightly in New Mexico, the skies are still a deep blue, and the sunsets dazzle. I love my work as a physicist, my students and I acting as a small part of the international community of scientists who seek to understand the implications of quantum mechanics for information processing. I have a wonderful wife and two great kids. I can spend the next four years watching my kids turn into adults and doing the things I enjoy---biking, hiking, backpacking, downhill skiing (activities that mark me as outside the mainstream), and taking the whole family to Oz whenever we can afford to go. This, of course, is the classic fold-your-tent-and-go-home strategy, and it just won't do. That bed they're making---we all have to sleep in it, and that includes my kids after I'm gone.

What's left if you've decided against cut-and-run and fold-your-tent? The only option is to step up to the plate and intensify opposition to the Bush gang, and that's what we have to do.

The Republicans ran on a message of fear that activated and consolidated their base of religious and social conservatives. Now that they have a "mandate," they will reward their religious base, it is true, but in a classic bait and switch, they will concentrate on a radical transformation of America's domestic arrangements, a transformation that chiefly rewards the cash side of their coalition, the monied interests that finance them. Through tax policy and "reform" of Social Security, they will continue and accelerate the tilt of national policy toward concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. They will radically downsize the federal government, except where it serves as a cash cow to pump money directly into the pockets of their corporate allies, the goal being to render the federal government incapable of addressing national needs or opposing big-money interests. They will desecrate the environment, through direct assault and through further weakening of clean-air and clean-water laws and regulations. They will populate the federal courts with extremists who will safeguard and extend the radical transformation for a generation. They will neglect energy conservation and global warming, concentrating instead on a futile and counterproductive effort to increase domestic production of fossil fuels. And they will do all this using their now familiar tactics of secrecy, lying, and distortion, aimed at hiding as much as possible their true intentions. All this doesn't even mention their foreign policy agenda, which will increasingly isolate America from the other liberal democracies in a doomed attempt to impose America's will on the world and to stamp out terrorism by purely military means.

Forget the idea that the Bush gang will reach out to unite the country and to heal the the country's wounds. That quaint notion didn't survive Bush's post-election press conference, when he pointedly drew attention to spending the "political capital" he'd earned in the election. Bush's idea of reaching out is pretty much identical to the Borg's approach to other intelligent species in Star Trek: "Resistance is futile. Assimilate into the Bush collective, or be annihilated."

The next four years---especially the next two years---provide the Bush gang and its Congressional allies their prime opportunity to transform America radically in accord with their right-wing vision. They know it, and they won't be backing off. If we don't oppose them, the America we know and love won't be around in four years. Go to sleep now, and you will wake up in the '20s---not the 2020s, but the 1920s, a Rip van Winkle in reverse. We have to fight a desperate rear-guard action for the next two years, working all the while to elect additional Congressional allies in 2006 and grooming a set of leaders among whom we can find somebody to carry our flag in the 2008 Presidential election.

Memo to those blue-state voters who persist in sending Republicans to the Congress: it doesn't matter how much you like your local Republican; the only thing you accomplish by electing a Republican is to support DeLay and Frist and the rest of the radical Republicans who control the Congress. Wake up, get your head screwed on right, and vote to dump your Republican representative in 2006, no matter how moderate you think he or she is.

To win in 2006 and 2008, we need a strategy, a re-tooled message, and new and more effective ways of delivering that message. The strategy is to pick off enough of the fringe of the Bush coalition to change the results in a number of key states. The message must be tailored to do this. The hardest part is to develop new channels for delivering the message, which are resistant to jamming by the attack dogs in the right-wing media and think tanks.

The strategy. The first step in devising a strategy is to acknowledge the obvious: we're not trying to convert everyone who voted Republican this year. The Republican coalition is founded on a marriage of cash from monied interests with votes from fundamentalist Christians. Big-money interests finance the party, receiving tangible economic benefits in return, but they can't win by themselves, so they have sold their collective soul in exchange for the votes of the fundamentalist right.

We're not trying to convert the economic conservatives, the people who receive real economic benefits from Republican policies, and we're certainly not trying to reach the fundamentalist core of the Republican base. What we are trying to do is to peel off the fringe of those who voted Republican in the recent election. Politically this fringe consists mainly of independents. They are often Catholics, especially Hispanics, but they can also be found in the moderate Protestant denominations and even among the small moderate wing of evangelicals. They live mainly in suburbs and small towns across America, although there are substantial pockets in the big cities, too. They are worried about social trends, but they are interested in and concerned about other things as well. We have to show that we understand their concerns about social trends in order to get them to listen to our prescriptions for the nation's other problems.

A winning strategy has to be based on a map that charts the depth of the cultural divide that has split the country in two. Capturing 5% of the Republican vote would reverse the result of the 2004 election, and taking 10% would change the result decisively. This would have an impact everywhere in the country. It would increase Democratic majorities in the deep blue states and decrease Republican majorities in the deep red states, but those accomplishments would be side effects. The chief objective is to change the result in a set of key states where a movement of this magnitude is sufficient to change the result.

We can forget about winning in most of the South, in the stripe of plains states from North Dakota to Texas, and in the upper Mountain West. These are the strongholds of social and religious conservatism. Take my home state of Oklahoma as an example. Any state that can give Bush a 66-34 majority and elect an extremist like Tom Coburn as Senator---I went to high school with this loony---over an attractive centrist like Brad Carson---and by a substantial majority of 12 percentage points---is beyond hope. Take Alabama, where the Christian Coalition led a successful campaign to defeat a proposition that would have erased from the state constitution segregation-era wording requiring separate schools for "white and colored children" and eliminated references to the poll taxes once used to disenfranchise blacks. These good Christians claim to have opposed the proposition because of its other part, which would have eliminated a 1950s-era amendment that declares that the Alabama constitution does not guarantee the right to a public education. That this is supposed to excuse them tells you everything you need to know about these people. Forget about the states that are run by the Christian right. We're not going to win in these areas, we shouldn't bother trying, and we don't need them.

The primary objective must be to secure the entire Midwest outside of Indiana. This means firming up our majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, all of which were too close for comfort, and adding Ohio (20 electoral votes) and Iowa (7) to our side of the ledger. Everyone knows that changing the result in Ohio alone would have been enough to tip the recent election in our direction. Adding both Ohio and Iowa to the Democratic column almost exactly reverses the 282-256 Bush victory in the Electoral College to a 283-255 Democratic majority.

Primary though the Midwest is, it doesn't provide nearly enough margin for error. The next crucial area is the Southwest outside of solidly Republican Utah. The growing number of Hispanics and the long-standing Western tradition of soft libertarianism, as opposed to hard-core social and religious conservatism, put this area in play. Ranked from easiest to hardest to peel away from the Republicans, these states are New Mexico (5), Nevada (5), Colorado (9), and Arizona (10). Capturing all of them---admittedly a tall order---changes that narrow 283-255 margin to a substantial 312-226 majority.

Although most of the South is unreachable, there are special opportunities, Florida (27) being the main one. Increasingly different from the rest of the South as one moves south along the peninsula and with a rich reward of electoral votes, it must be the focus of intensive effort. Bringing Florida around gets us to a 339-199 majority. Beyond Florida, the final and most difficult thrust, but perhaps worth some effort, is based on the Union's Civil War strategy: drive a stake through the heart of the old Confederacy along the west bank of the Mississippi River, thus capturing Missouri (11), Arkansas (6), and Louisiana (9). Add these states, and the majority becomes a landslide, 365-173.

This scenario has now moved far into the realm of fantasy, but the point of the exercise is to show that though the situation is grim, it is by no means hopeless, even when we write off a good fraction of the country as unreachable.

The fringe we are trying to reach lives alongside the Christian fundamentalists who make up the core of the Republican base. Fundamentalism is a simple sort of bargain: renounce independent thinking, with all the disturbing doubts it engenders, and receive in return a set of absolute, comforting, and simplistic formulas that are supposed to answer all questions and address all situations. Buy the product, adhere to it unquestioningly, and annoying doubts will vanish. Sustaining this belief structure requires an insular existence within tightly knit religious communities. The world is out there, but it is at the same time dangerous and essentially irrelevant. Its main role is to enact a continuing morality play that illustrates the hazards of straying from the narrow path specified by the community. The information pouring in from the world is filtered till it fits into a pre-arranged pattern in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and the all too frequent and unavoidable exceptions are attributed either to the devil or to God's inscrutable will. Political beliefs in this environment are simple. The President receives guidance from God through prayer, so he must be doing the right thing. It is sufficient that he is consulting God; the actual results don't matter, because however they turn out, it's God's will.

We can't deal with this style of thinking, and we don't want to. Fortunately, we don't have to, because the Republican coalition is not a monolith. The people we want to reach and their opinion leaders are not fundamentalists. They still live in the real world and have real-world concerns, and that's why we can hope to reach them. Though faith is important, even central, to their lives, their faith looks outward to the world, as well as inward into their personal lives and their local religious communities. The fundamentalist core of the Republican coalition constitutes their neighbors, regarded as good, solid people, annoying in their aggressive religiosity and their rigid adherence to strict gender roles and other traditional practices, but good people nonetheless. We have to reach out to the fringe of the Republican coalition and help them to see their fundamentalist neighbors for what they are, a minority whose know-nothingism threatens to change America radically.

The message. I have every confidence we can do this, because our positions are the majority ones. Concern for families of all sorts and for people of all ages, a real commitment to education, economic opportunity for all, fairness in tax policy, attention to health care and other community needs, concern for the environment, and fiscal responsibility---these are the foundation stones of our beliefs, they are the real values, and they are where you will find the majority of Americans. We have to push these fundamental principles aggressively, contrasting them with the Republicans' single-minded promotion of the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Work needs to be done to craft a coherent progressive response to terrorism. In doing so, we would do well to recall the words of President Truman in his Farewell Address to the nation on January 15, 1953: "When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the cold war, it will also say that in those eight years we have set the course that can win it. We have succeeded in carving out a new set of policies to attain peace---positive policies, policies of world leadership, policies that express faith in other free people. ... Some of you may ask, when and how will the cold war end? I think I can answer that simply. The Communist world has great resources, and it looks strong. But there is a fatal flaw in their society. Theirs is a godless system, a system of slavery; there is no freedom in it, no consent. The Iron Curtain, the secret police, the constant purges, all these are symptoms of a great basic weakness---the rulers' fear of their own people. In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man." President Truman was at the nadir of his own personal popularity when he said these words, vilified in much of the country, yet he retained the faith that we would ultimately prevail because he knew that free societies had the winning hand. The policies that his administration formulated and put into effect did indeed lead to the fall of the Soviet empire 40 years later. What were many Republicans and even some Democrats doing at the time? Peddling fear about a nonexistent domestic Communist conspiracy while resisting the Truman administration's focused policies to contain the Soviet empire. Sound familiar?

We need Truman's serene faith and his policy vision now. The enemy is not some vague, poorly defined threat called terrorism; it is Islamic fundamentalism, pure and simple. Our free society, together with others around the world, cannot possibly lose to a sterile fundamentalist doctrine, provided we have the courage to remain true to our own best traditions. We need a policy based on leading a community of like-minded nations in marshaling the resources to attack both the perpetrators and the causes of terrorist acts. A part of this surely involves military activity against terrorist organizations and their supporters, but this can't be the whole policy. Yet it is nearly the whole story with the Bush gang, and even that story they execute with a startling incompetence. Along with our allies, we must find ways to promote a third way in the Arab world, between the authoritarian governments in Arab-Muslim states and the Islamic fundamentalists these governments have spawned. This will not happen without finding ways to engage with progressive forces within Islam that can change Arab-Muslim societies from within. Finally, we need a national commitment to reducing dependence on oil, thereby removing the prop that supports the authoritarian Arab governments and ultimately the terrorists and that inevitably makes us hostage to their interests. We need to be confident in formulating and promoting this more effective response to terrorism, which appeals to the best in Americans, while rejecting the Republicans' current round of fear-mongering as appealing to the worst.

Converting the fringe will also require underlining the moral underpinnings of our domestic message. A lot of this is easy. The fundamentalist right promotes a set of values that would cram all of us into the box of their narrow religious beliefs. In contrast, we promote a set of values that celebrate and expand human freedom and dignity. We promote values that make a real difference in the quality of people's lives. We promote values aimed at working with other countries and living in harmony with nature. All these values are based on a moral commitment drawn from this country's religious traditions.

We must insist on strict separation of church and state, but we cannot afford to cede religious sensibility to the fundamentalists. We should acknowledge that religion plays an important role in our national life, that faith can lead us in the right direction and give us the fortitude to continue in that direction when all seems lost. We can and must join forces with those whose religion lives in the world, knowing we can make common cause in promoting the values we share. To get the fringe really to listen, however, to separate them from their fundamentalist neighbors will require more. It will require neutralizing some of the issues that are gathered under the rubric of "moral values."

In my view this means not pushing some items in the progressive agenda, particularly unrestricted access to abortion and gay marriage. Insisting on these now not only makes them less likely in the immediate future, but also has the negative effect of torpedoing the rest of our agenda. If we truly want to save ourselves from the future the right has planned, we have to make the hard decision to stop pushing these issues, at least for the present.

Before addressing these two hard issues, let me illustrate what I'm talking about with an easier case, the controversy over the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I could happily do without this phrase, as indeed the whole country did until 1954, when it was added as a way to differentiate America from godless Communism. Trying to delete it now, however, is a godsend for Republican politicians, allowing them to fulminate about the exclusion of religion from public life and thus to draw attention away from their latest scheme to shovel cash toward the wealthy or to desecrate the environment. Even if you don't like the phrase, get used to it. We have far more important items on our agenda, and we can't afford to jeopardize them by handing the right free ammunition on a matter as trivial as this.

Here's how I deal with it. Although the phrase seems clearly to claim a special status for America in God's plan, I choose to read it differently, as saying that this country's sovereignty is limited, that we're under something, be that a higher authority or a higher set of principles. We should not ignore that something.

Those with a strong belief in God generally believe that the higher principles are written on the sky, and those without such belief think they are human constructions, which emerge after intense discussion and debate and are written on the sky afterwards. Fundamentalists believe the whole story is written plainly in bold print and in God's eternal ink, requiring neither additions nor emendation. Other believers know that the while the print is there, it is too fine to read without a process of discussion and debate that is indistinguishable from that contemplated by those who see no print at all. Either way, the purpose of the discussion is to maximize human freedom and dignity within the context of the traditions handed us by our forebears, thus making the world a better place to leave to our children. We dare not neglect what we have been taught by our forebears, but we also dare not forget that we are the forebears of our children, who will want to know that we, too, made a serious and thoughtful contribution to the tradition before handing it on to them. We will make mistakes, which our descendants will have to correct, but they will be more forgiving if they know we made an effort.

Part II of this essay will be posted before the end of the calendar year.

   Index to CMC commentaries