Bush, God and the Democrats

This country isn't secular or rational. And if the Dems want to win, they can't be either.


Edgar Rivera Colsn
November 5, 2004 1:53AM (UTC)

Any fourth grader who has paid attention to her math lessons knows that George W. Bush has won the election of 2004 decisively. In the coming days, Democrats and their liberal and left allies will mull over the ruins of the Kerry/Edwards campaign and wonder what particular tactic or strategy might have led to a better result for the majority of working people in the United States as well as the other beleaguered inhabitants of this ever shrinking and increasingly violent planet.

Four more years of the now "legitimately" elected Bush/Cheney administration will impoverish more Americans and lead to more tragedy and mayhem for, among others, the people of the Arab/Muslim world. If the American administration had a velvet glove phase, that particular tenderness is gone and crypto-fascism with an electoral mandate will be the order of the day. I will let more erudite minds decipher the economic, legal, military and political fare that will be served to the American people and an anxious world community as proper medicine for difficult times.

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Of course, left analysts of various stripes will chant the stalwart hymns of yesteryear that the Democratic Party needs to stop acting as the ideological and policy waiting room for the Republican Party and pull up its New Deal stockings and act like "real" Democrats. This critique needs to be made.

Nonetheless, there is another critique that needs to go in the mix, as progressives engage in a period of reflection and retrenchment in preparation for the next wave of reaction packaged as homeland security and elite greed as social empowerment (the "ownership society" comes to mind). The odd truth is that the Kerry/Edwards campaign came to naught in part because the Democratic Party has no real language for the irrational kernel at the heart of the persistent problem of identity in America.

The white evangelical core of the Bush/Cheney electoral coalition has no problems with identity politics and has both a deep and rich religious and political language with which to narrate its own problems and aspirations. Whatever one may think of this feeling-laden ideology, Bush knows how to connect to this base precisely because he eschews a secular and rationalistic rhetoric in favor of a language rich with moralistic, eschatological, and even apocalyptic themes.

In a country where upward of 75 percent of the population believes in God and an afterlife (in its decidedly Christian registers), only fools do not avail themselves of such a diverse and vibrant rhetoric for communicating concerns around a whole host of issues concerning justice and what possible ethical and social meanings can be attached to our sojourns here on earth.

Well, the Democratic Party leadership is such a collection of secular and rational fools. There are obvious exceptions in the black churches and the mainline Protestant denominations, but the religious rhetorics of these communities have rarely taken center stage in the last decade or so. In short, the Democratic Party needs to stop pretending it lives in a secular country. Until French citizens are allowed to vote in U.S. elections (as an old-time Socialist, how I would welcome the advent of that political impossibility), the Democratic leadership will have to fashion its messages for the deeply religious country it presumes to lead one day.

That African-Americans were able to forge both an abolitionist and civil rights movement with the resources of the King James Bible and the Constitution of the United States should give Democrats some food for thought about the progressive possibilities inherent in the most widely owned and read book in this country. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the theology, stupid!"

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Now, to the irrational. The Republicans appealed to fear in their successful bid for the White House. They gave a language to the fear that has gripped this country since the events of Sept. 11. Vice President Cheney in a classic Orwellian moment warned an audience of partisans that if John Kerry were to ascend to the presidency, then another terrorist attack on American soil would be the inevitable result.

As a matter of fact, the opposite is true: The reelection of George W. Bush is a clear go signal for al-Qaida and its allies. The White House now has an electoral mandate for its "war on terrorism," including its plodding, disastrous intervention in Iraq. Those proverbial "angry young men" in the Arab street will interpret Bush's victory as a vote of confidence by the American people for the lunatics to continue to run the asylum.

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Fear is a great motivator. The Democrats should have said explicitly that to vote for Bush-Cheney was literally to endanger the lives of ordinary Americans. The message should have been very clear: "If you're afraid now, wait until these guys think that they have a mandate ..." Appealing to people's deep-seated fears and, quite frankly, paranoid fantasies is not a rational approach to building a ruling coalition. Exactly -- and that is why the Democrats need to make judicious use of the irrational.

People are not rational, nor do they make their political choices out of some logic model. Americans voted their fears, their fantasies, their hopes, and their irrationalities. The Republicans banked on these factors and won. No doubt John Kerrys awkward and stiff personality fed into the ability of Republicans to paint Bush as affable and a real person, but Kerry's stiffness also lent him the air of a calculating politician who is never irrational and always in control.

People do not identify with control freaks even when they are control freaks. They "feel at home" with people that are a bit sloppy, but with whom they can connect with on an emotional level. George Bush is a Texas slacker and former bad boy gone straight: The perennial smirk gives it all away. Bill Clinton was the affable philanderer who liked his Big Mac and fries like the next person. These are only public images, but they are entries into mass identification based on irrational excess, not on calculation or rational deliberation. What about John Kerry made people feel at home with their own insecurities and irrationalities? If truth be told, not much at all in the end.

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There is no sense in belaboring the point. Kansas may have a problem, but it will not be solved without a political strategy that has recourse to a religious and nonrational rhetoric and imagery. The Democratic leadership needs to do some hard thinking and feeling in the coming weeks and come to terms with a not so simple, but obvious fact: The country we live in is neither secular nor rational and won't be for quite some time to come. What did Dorothy say to get back from Oz? "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."


Edgar Rivera Colsn

Edgar Rivera Colsn teaches courses in Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is an ethnographer who does research on HIV/AIDS amongst Black and Latino men in New York City. He is a member of the Episcopal Church.

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