You may be burnt out on election retrospectives, but Chris Hayes' first-person report on undecided voters, published yesterday on the New Republic Online, is fascinating not just for what it says about the recent race, but for what it tells us about our polity.
After seven weeks canvassing swing voters in Wisconsin, Hayes concludes that the pundits' contempt for undecided voters is misplaced. It's not that they're undeserving of derision, he writes. It's "just that Jonah Goldberg, and the rest of us, may well be deriding them for the wrong reasons."
Hayes portrays undecided voters as so fatalistic that Bush's manifold failures only confirm their conviction that the world's problems are intractable, a conviction that worked against Kerry's promises to fix things. He paints them as weirdly irrational, possessed of chimerical "facts," and unable to connect politics to material outcomes.
"Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality," Hayes writes. "We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research."
More disturbing still is Hayes' portrayal of the odd lacuna in voters' understanding of what a political issue even is. "As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word 'issue'; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the 'political,' he writes. "The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief -- not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December."
The depressing upshot of this is that Democrats can't make headway by configuring their policies. In the end, Hayes sees only two options: "either abandon 'issues' as the linchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary -- of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues." In other words, find a demagogue or educate the country -- either way, Democrats have their work cut out for them.