Thursday, November 04, 2004

Wills Weighs In

Here's Gary Wills describing the election in much the same terms I used yesterday:

This election confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a political strategist. He calculated that the religious conservatives, if they could be turned out, would be the deciding factor. The success of the plan was registered not only in the presidential results but also in all 11 of the state votes to ban same-sex marriage. Mr. Rove understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution.

And later:

America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed “a candid world,” as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.

The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past. In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies.

Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists. Americans wonder that the rest of the world thinks us so dangerous, so single-minded, so impervious to international appeals. They fear jihad, no matter whose zeal is being expressed.

Exactly right.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election Round-Up

What kind of blogger would I be if I didn't weigh in on the presidential election? So here are a few thoughts, and a few comments on other people's thoughts.

First, here's Noam Schieber from The New Republic:

Per my piece from this morning and my previous post, here's an extremely telling piece of exit polling data from yesterday: Not only did Kerry win by an 86-13 margin among self-described liberals, he also won by a 55-45 margin among self-described moderates. So how'd Bush pull it off? He won 84-15 among self-described conservatives, and, more importantly, he made sure conservatives comprised a much bigger chunk of the electorate than they did in 2000. (Conservatives comprised about 34 percent of the electorate yesterday, versus 29 percent in 2000--a huge shift, raw numbers-wise.) Anyone anticipating a conciliatory second Bush term should stop and consider how much Bush owes his base.

When you go on to consider that exit polls have shown “moral values” to be the most important issue to a plurality of voters, it's not stretching things to say that it was religious conservatives who re-elected Bush.

And we're not talking about the sort of religion that coexists peacefully with science, reason and tolerance. We're talking about fundamentalism. The reason the South and lower Midwest are so solidly Republican has nothing to do with terrorism, or economics, or Social Security. It has everything to do with the large number of people in those states who will not vote for you unless you believe that human life begins at conception and that public policy should be set accordingly. Do you believe that homosexuals deserve something better than a mixture of pity and contempt? You just lost the South. Do you believe there's a moral distinction between a clump of embryonic stem-cells and a human being? There goes Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and several others.

I am often told that I shouldn't worry so much about the religious right. There are many people who assure me that, actually, they are a small minority of religious people generally and that mainstream religious people are far more moderate and reasonable. I wish those people would get their heads out of the sand and stop being so naive. Moderate churches have been hemorraging members for a decade. Conservative churches are growing by leaps and bounds. Fundamentalists and evangelicals are the mainstream in American religious life. It is the moderates who should be regarded as being on the fringe.

Kristof on the Heartland

Along those lines, let's consider Nicholas Kristof's most recent column from the New York Times:

I'm writing this on tenterhooks on Tuesday, without knowing the election results. But whether John Kerry's supporters are now celebrating or seeking asylum abroad, they should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates.

Here's Kristof from later in the column:

One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.

These two quote are very revealing. Specifically, they reveal that Kristof is as contemptuous of evangelical faith as the elitist Democrats he is criticizing. If he really took evangelicals seriously he would not suggest they are voting against their own interests by voting for Republicans. Electing candidates who will enact culturally conservative policies IS in their interests, as they see it. The idea of voting for someone who, in their eyes, sanctions murder in the form of abortion and stem-cell research because that person will enact policies that will aid them financially is horrible.

He concludes with:

“The Republicans are smarter,” mused Oregon's governor, Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. “They've created ... these social issues to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically.”

“What we once thought - that people would vote in their economic self-interest - is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that.”

Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.

To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don't need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.

Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.

Kristof is simply being naive here. It's not a matter of appealing to middle America. It's that middle America is chock full of people who vote solely on cultural issues. They will not vote for candidates who believe in a strong separation of church and state. Period. There's nothing Democrats can do to bridge that gap, short of moving so far to the right that they beomce genuinely indistinguishable from the Republicans.

Yes, Clinton managed to do it. But, frankly, the country is more conservative now than it was when Clinton was running. And Clinton had the help of Ross Perot and a famously inept candidate in the form of Bush 41. The simple fact is that Democrats will continue to do poorly in the South and lower Midwest because their ideas are unpopular there. It's that simple.

Was Kerry too Complex?

Here's Slate's William Saletan weighing in on this subject:

But if you're dissatisfied with Bush—or if, like me, you think he's been the worst president in memory—you have a lot of explaining to do. Why don't a majority of voters agree with us? How has Bush pulled it off?

I think this is the answer: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

Bush is a very simple man. You may think that makes him a bad president, as I do, but lots of people don't—and there are more of them than there are of us. If you don't believe me, take a look at those numbers on your TV screen.

Think about the simplicity of everything Bush says and does. He gives the same speech every time. His sentences are short and clear. “Government must do a few things and do them well,” he says. True to his word, he has spent his political capital on a few big ideas: tax cuts, terrorism, Iraq. Even his electoral strategy tonight was powerfully simple: Win Florida, win Ohio, and nothing else matters. All those lesser states—Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire—don't matter if Bush reels in the big ones.

And later:

This is what so many people like about Bush's approach to terrorism. They forgive his marginal and not-so-marginal screw-ups, because they can see that fundamentally, he “gets it.” They forgive his mismanagement of Iraq, because they see that his heart and will are in the right place. And while they may be unhappy about their economic circumstances, they don't hold that against him. What you and I see as unreflectiveness, they see as transparency. They trust him.

Now look at your candidate, John Kerry. What quality has he most lacked? Not courage—he proved that in Vietnam. Not will—he proved that in Iowa. Not brains—he proved that in the debates. What Kerry lacked was simplicity. Bush had one message; Kerry had dozens. Bush had one issue; Kerry had scores. Bush ended his sentences when you expected him to say more; Kerry went on and on, adding one prepositional phrase after another, until nobody could remember what he was talking about. Now Bush has two big states that mean everything, and Kerry has a bunch of little ones that add up to nothing.

I agree with much of what Saletan is saying here, but there is a serious problem as well. There was nothing even slightly complicated in anything Kerry said during the campaign. The problem wasn't a lack of simplicity, it was that he dared to consider an occasional practical detail or too. Americans don't like that. Saletan basically says as much when he says that voters trust Bush and see that his heart and his will are in the right place. Apparently merely wanting to install democracy in Iraq is enough to make people overlook your incompetence in getting the job done.

Of course, Saletan is using the word “simplicity” as a euphemism for “stupidity”. Saletan is saying pretty clearly that what Bush understood that Kerry didn't was that people care more about what you believe than what you do. That's a very fundamentalist sort of mindset. Remember that within conservative Christianity, what you do when you're alive has no impact on your fate in the afterlife. It is belief in Christ that gets you into heaven. Mahatma Gandhi is rotting in hell right now (unless he secretly converted to Christianity). Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler could be in heaven, as long as he made a sincere conversion to Christianity two seconds before his death. Many of the things fundamentalists believe are monstrous and immoral, a fact that is obvious to Nicholas Kristof, William Saletan, and all other thoughtful people religious or not. But these are the people who must be appeased in the South and Midwest to win a national election.

The Culture War

As a result of this election, the separation of church and state is effectively dead. Bush will appoint at least three Supreme Court justices, and possibly more. His appointees will all be Scalia clones. Keep in mind that Scalia and Rehnquist were the two justices who found, in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, that teaching Young-Earth creationism as an alternative scientific theory in science classes was just fine.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here's Bill Bennett:, writing for National Review:

Having restored decency to the White House, President Bush now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society, through both politics and law. His supporters want that, and have given him a mandate in their popular and electoral votes to see to it. Now is the time to begin our long, national cultural renewal (“The Great Relearning,” as novelist Tom Wolfe calls it) — no less in legislation than in federal court appointments. It is, after all, the main reason George W. Bush was reelected.

Obviously, I don't agree that Bush has restored decency to the White House. But otherwise Bennett is right.

The Lighter Side

Just in case you can't figure out why no one watches CNN anymore, consider the following mindless exchange between Roger Simon and Karen Tumulty, of U.S. News and World Report and Time respectively:

ROGER SIMON, “U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT”: Didn't I also say George Bush was going to win yesterday? I mentioned it. I made a note to myself. I got the margin. I didn't know who was going to win, but it is a big victory, it is a huge victory. It is a victory not only for -- a number of things, one of which I write about a lot, which is likability. Given a chance, Americans usually pick the most likable candidate, and I think they did it again yesterday.

DOBBS: Do you agree with that, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY, “TIME”: I think I do. Because if you look at the forces going into this election, the president was running with a 49 percent approval rating, 55 percent of the country was saying that it was going in the wrong direction, you go down a list of issues, and the country was much closer on most of them to John Kerry's position than it was to George Bush's. So I do think that the president was reelected not so much for what he was promising, but for who he is. And also for who John Kerry was, at least what the voters perceived him to be.

DOBBS: The guys -- you know, I love you and respect you all so much, but I just got to ask this question. I mean no disrespect, I assure you, but if Senator Kerry had been elected, would he have been more likable?

At least Dobbs tried, gently, to point out just how asinine Simon and Tumulty were being. As you might have noticed, I don't have a whole lot of respect for the views of religious conservatives. But even I have to blanch a little when I hear their deeply-felt convictions and careful consideration of priorities dismissed as merely being a vote for the more likable candidate.

Cuomo Wieghs In

Lou Dobbs also interviewed Mario Cuomo. The subject of religious voters was discussed. Here's what Cuomo had to say:

I have a problem. The report is moral values is 21 percent or whatever of the people who voted. You'd have to define moral values for me. I suspect what they mean is religious values. I suspect that with 40 percent of the people in this country being evangelical, when you say moral values, you're not talking about culture generally, what you wear, the way you talk, what sports you like, NASCAR or basketball. I think they're talking about religious values. If it's religious values, I think there's a lot of space for the Democrats. What they're talking about are basically negative religious values -- you can't do this, you can't do that, this is wrong, this is a sin. The largest part of most religions is the positive agenda. The agenda, for example, for Christians, Catholics specifically -- I happen to be a Catholic -- is an agenda that says take care of the poor, take care of the sick, provide for the working man. That whole area is a very strong one for Democrats to seize.

Cuomo is right here. The religious right has a very blinkered view of what Christian values are. They are so blinded by issues like abortion and gay marriage, that they simply overlook the affront to Christianity entailed in Bush's economic policies and his rush to go to war in Iraq, not to mention his incessant lying and willingness to engage in the most scurrilous attacks against political opponents.

So Cuomo is right that thoughtful Christians should naturally gravitate to the Democratic party. Sadly, it is the not-so-thoughtful Christians who are running the show.

The Upside

Finally, let me conclude with what I see as the one upside of Bush's reelection. Bush basically set a lot of time bombs in his first term. He should be the one to have to deal with them. Had Kerry been elected he would have spent his whole term fighting a hostile Congress in an attempt to do the politically unpopular things necessary to undo the damage Bush did during his first term.

Let Bush figure out how to clean up Iraq. Let Bush figure out how to dig us out of the financial hole he created. Second terms rarely go well, and I think the Deomcrats have reason to be optimistic in 2006.

As upsides go it's not very much. But it's the best I can do right now.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Chimps and Tools

Light blogging this week (busy, busy, busy), but do have a look at this interesting article about chimpanzees, once again, proving themselves to be smarter than we think:

Yet another species barrier has been broken. Chimpanzees have been videotaped with tool kits. Not just sticks, mind you, but three different kinds of sticks for different purposes, some modified (by chewing on the end, for instance) to make them more efficient.

We've known for a while that some other species, like the great apes and crows, use rudimentary tools, but just as a few adjectives are not the same as a sonnet, one stick does not a tool kit make.

I know what I'm talking about. For someone who doesn't do much work around the house, I have a lot of tools. I've always felt that this was a kind of tribute to my evolutionary heritage.

Tool use is a defining characteristic of the human lineage and, I tell those who wonder why I can't use the wrenches we already have to fix the faucets, I'm every bit as human as all the other people I see shopping for pipe wrenches and pipe on Saturday morning.

I have the regular hammers and screwdrivers and electric drills, of course, all of which I used extensively when I tried, over the course of the summer to rehang a screen door. I didn't succeed, but using tools is what makes you human. Nobody ever said you had to be good at it. I also have a variety of tools that are remnants of old habits and interests, like the vintage drawknives I bought on eBay when I was carving yew staves into long bows (a lot easier than hanging a screen door.)

But, no matter what others may say, the point here is not that I have spent a lot of money accumulating a lot of tools that I don't use much any more. The point is that when I'm waiting in the endless line at the home improvement store with the other humans and their tools, it makes me feel like I'm really part of something special, Homo sapiens - the only creature that buys random orbital sanders.

One can't ignore these new tool collecting apes, however. In the current issue of The American Naturalist three researchers have published “New Insights Into Chimpanzees, Tools and Termites From the Congo Basin.” Crickette Sanz of Washington University in St. Louis and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; Dave Morgan of Cambridge University and the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Steve Gulick of Wildland Security used remote cameras set at termite mounds to get hours of videotape of chimps catching and eating termites.

The chimps in the videos have three tools, a heavy puncturing stick, a lighter perforating stick and a light, flexible fishing stick. A chimp heading to a subterranean mound of termites will bring a strong puncturing stick and a lighter fishing stick. A chimp going to a mound above ground will use a lighter-weight perforating stick and an even lighter one to fish with.