Much of this kind of analysis of the public’s political attitude is nonsense. The labels “liberal” and “conservative” define a person’s policy positions; the word “moderate” defines temperament. Many liberals and conservatives no doubt have moderate temperaments. The same could be said for “leftists” and “rightists.”
Of course, some who apply the moderate label mean to imply that a moderate is a person who takes a “centrist” position, i.e., one between the left and right. But what the heck does that mean? From one historical age to another, or even one presidential cycle to another, right, left, and center can mean different things in terms of policy positions. Yesterday’s left can now be the center. “Centrist” economists, for example, now believe in the necessity of stricter government regulation of the financial industry, whereas only a few years or months ago such regulation was considered liberal or leftist.
Then there’s the matter of how the respondents to the Pew poll or other polls perceive these terms. It is likely that some who identified themselves as conservative, for example, consider themselves conservative because they want to conserve and preserve their family, money, health, and property, in addition to conserving and preserving the environment or such institutions and programs as Social Security and Medicare. In other words, these are self-identified conservatives who have liberal positions on select issues but are thinking about their personal “conservatism” when answering the pollster’s question.
Likewise, many self-identified moderates may actually take conservative or liberal positions on policy issues. I know that what I just wrote is true because of what I know about history, myself, and my friends and acquaintances, and also because I once conducted a poll (of historians, no less) that correlated self-identification labels with actual policy positions. My poll also revealed that the policy positions that “independents” (or those with no label) take break down into left and right/liberal and conservative categories (see THE HISTORY TEACHER, Vol. 17, No. 3 [May, 1984], pp. 355-384).
Then there’s the label “radical” — another term that begs clarification. Is a radical a person who goes around throwing bombs, or is he/she one who goes to the root of an intellectual or policy problem (which is one of the meanings of radical)? Typically, the radical label is associated with “extremists” or “ideologues,” which presumably means in this context “rigid, dogmatic persons.”
But we know that all human beings possess an “ideology,” a “worldview,” or a “cultural perspective”—however coherent, incoherent, or un-dogmatic it might be. Even centrists have an ideology; i.e., a body of ideas, perspectives, and sensibilities that in any historical moment is considered centrist. Does this mean that we are all dogmatic? Of course not. In other words, one who is “ideological” can also be “pragmatic” or “realistic.” I mention this because Obama has claimed that he wants to take a pragmatic approach to the enormous problems the United States now faces. The press and others have followed suit, making distinctions between “pragmatism” and “progressive,” for example. But as a progressive myself, I hope and expect that Obama will approach these problems from a progressive perspective and sensibility while seeking pragmatic and politically-possible solutions to them. In other words, pragmatic politicians can also be progressive, and vice versa.
The presidential totals in the county in which I live and vote might provide some clues to the mystery of white-voter decline. Butler County borders Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati to the south, and along with other counties in this southwestern corner of the state, Butler contributed large majorities for H. W. Bush in 2004. The Bush/Cheney ticket received 109,866 votes for 65.87 percent of the total votes cast in the county. Kerry/Edwards received 56,234 for 33.71 percent. In 2008 McCain/Palin received 101,537 votes for 60.90 percent. Obama/Biden received 62,871 for 37.70 percent.
As throughout the state, the turnout of registered voters in Butler County was lower in 2008 than in 2004. Assuming that these voting estimates and counts are accurate and that the 2004 figures were not distorted by Republican padding and suppression in that year, this lower turnout in 2008 seems to have been mostly a Republican phenomenon. The consequence in Butler County was a 14,966 net gain of votes for Obama compared to Kerry–6,637 additional votes for the Democratic ticket and 8,329 fewer Republican votes for the Republican ticket. This net gain was 7.4 percent of Obama's margin of victory over McCain in Ohio in 2008.
Obama's majorities came from the university town of Oxford, where I live, and from the inner-city sections of the mid-sized cities of Hamilton, Middletown, and West Chester. The rural, suburban, and x-urban areas of the county delivered for McCain. In other words, Butler County seems to fit the national pattern of geographical voter distribution (except for the suburban vote). In addition, the lower Republican vote appears to be related to the lower white-voter turnout, which is what the McClatchy story implied. (It is not clear to me from the data whether or not any of the reported white-voter decline was the result of undervoting as opposed to whites not showing up.)
But why? Based on my and others' experience canvassing suburban, rural, and x-urban areas around Oxford and Hamilton, the answer seems to be that a significant number of white voters were unexcited or unhappy with the Republican ticket but were also unwilling to vote for Obama, with "cultural" issues and race being important determinants in their no-show decision. As one 83 year-old rural, pro-Obama, former minister told me, "the 'religious' people around here are unhappy with Bush but will not vote for Obama because he is black and is the anti-Christ." Another prospective voter told me that though she was unhappy with Bush and McCain, she was not tilting toward Obama because "he was unpatriotic."
Still, why were 45 percent of white no-shows nationwide from the state of Ohio? My guess that it is because Ohio is a borderland. Rural and x-urban Ohio–and especially the southern part of the state–have been heavily influenced by Southern Appalachian culture; thus, in part, their larger vote for McCain and their reservations about Obama. On the other hand, there may be a silver lining to the large white no-show phenomenon in Ohio. It might indicate that in this borderland region, where North meets South, old prejudices are eroding. The no-shows were not quite ready to vote for Obama, but at the same time they were not reflexively ready to vote for an unsatisfactory Republican ticket either.
Some other analyses of polling data indicate that in Southern states where Obama campaigned heavily–in other words, where white voters got to know him better–the white vote for him increased. Familiarity bred acceptance. More white voters by a margin of 4 percent voted for Obama than Kerry. Two of these were a retired white labor union couple on Main Street in the Republican bastion of Hamilton, who had voted for George Wallace in 1968 and Bush in 2004 but were now coming back to the Democratic fold because they were unhappy with Bush's policies across the board and thought of Obama as a decent, capable candidate with the right policies. They were willing to "stand in line all day if that's what it took" to register their vote on election day.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether a bailout is wise or not and focus on the precedent Obama is setting. He is trying to shape policy as if he were president, but he has no official power as yet, beyond being a senator.
I can think of no precedent for this. The two most contentious transitions were in 1860-61 and 1932-33. In the former, Abraham Lincoln was urged to endorse the Crittenden Compromise or in some other manner placate the seceding states. He did not, because he could not compromise on limiting slavery to the states where it currently existed, and he knew that the seceding states would not settle for anything less.
In the latter, Franklin Roosevelt ignored calls that he work with Herbert Hoover. In part he did so because they were unlikely to come to any agreement and in part because he did not want any association with Hoover’s actions or policies. It made for a long five months and stimulated the quick passage of the 20th amendment, which shifted the inauguration to January 20.
So Obama is making a new path here. Why? The stated reason is the imminent risk of collapse in the auto industry.
However, another reason can be seen by comparing his situation with FDR’s. Hoover was not pushing for new programs to aid the situation. His philosophy was opposite that of the far more activist Roosevelt. Roosevelt could have a free hand in addressing the issue because Hoover was not foreclosing any options by actions of his own.
In the current situation, Obama is faced with an activist president who is shaping a long-term response. That may or may not be good for the country, but it certainly poses problems for the president-elect. If Obama does not inject himself, he will be allowing Bush considerable power to shape and limit Obama’s future actions. On the other hand, by actively engaging in policy now, he will be taking at least partial responsibility for the outcome in a situation in which his power is indirect.
It’s a fascinating challenge for everyone involved.
In the long-term, I wonder if one result will be a new constitutional amendment to shorten the interregnum further. Doing that would be difficult, given the way that both political parties and the election process itself are organized. But right now we are witnessing the downside of an election process that can repudiate a president without immediately replacing him.
Fox News [sic] commentators, including Karl Rove, argued that the election somehow proved that the United States was a “center-right” nation. Most mainstream media pundits maintained that Obama would have to move from"left" to" center" in order to get things done as president, and that he and congressional Democrats would also have to avoid “overreaching” in order to govern successfully. Cable TV and even some NPR radio analysts suggested that the national deficit and debt would prevent Obama from boosting consumer demand and capital investment through job-creation, mortgage bailouts, infrastructure projects, and other New Deal-like domestic programs in order to resolve the economic crisis.
Left-of-center bloggers countered that Obama had put together a broad"progressive" coalition, that the Reagan Republican coalition was shattered, and that Obama’s election represented voters’ rejection of Reaganescue economic and foreign policies.
Needless to say, it is too early to know where events will take us, how Obama will govern, or whether old coalitions have disintegrated and new ones have formed. It does seem safe to say, however, that if 60 percent of the voters perceive Obama as a “liberal,” and if his election represents the majority electorate’s rejection of Bush’s “conservative” economic and foreign policies, then we may be entering a new progressive or neo-New Deal era. ( Also see this. )
Obviously, much depends on what Obama will do. Economist Robert Kuttner is calling on him to take bold steps not baby steps in order to avoid a depression. I agree. In any case, the battle of narratives will go on.
(9 Nov '08 addendum: also see this by John Judis. )
Yet I am struck that so many different people see different Obamas. (See. e.g., some of the responses to my last blog.) For some, he is the social revolutionary who will a) restore smokestack America and its well-paying jobs; b) give us all low-cost, or no-cost, health insurance paid for by taxes on a few thousand billionaires; c) end free trade; d) extend free trade; e) soak Wall Street; f) encourage investment, etc., etc. His voting and rhetorical records might seem to be a good indication of his attentions, but commentators tell us not to take them seriously. Initial reactions display such widespread gratification at the election of America’s first African-American president that one might think that was the only important thing about this election. Question marks about the direction of his presidency loom large.
The Ayers, Wright, and Rashid Khalidi associations were largely opportunistic affinities on the part of an ambitious young man. I still think they were deplorable, but they would not have happened but for the evolution of the Chicago machine. Daley 1.0, as led by the original Richard J., was largely an organization of traditional white ethnics with the black population brought along in a trailing role by social benefits and patronage. Daley 2.0, under Ritchie’s leadership, has compensated for the decline of old-time ethnic solidarity by constructing a contemporary version of "popular front" politics that included neo-New Leftists, black militants, and even Palestinian anti-Zionist advocates. I saw Khalidi call in effect for the destruction of Israel at a conference I attended years ago. He dismayed me then and still does. I’m not Jewish, believe that Israel is not without sin, but still think the country is on balance an example of democratic progress in the Middle East.
From my point of view, the transformation of the Daley organization into a 60s Popular Front, with room for Weathermen bombers, old Black Panthers, and Israel-haters are revelatory of the moral confusion of post-Vietnam American liberalism.
Who IS the real BHO? I'm damned if I know, but I feel that I can only take him and his record at face value. No one can deny, however, that he ran a helluva of a campaign and is as charismatic a figure as we’ve seen in American politics for a long time. Let’s hope for the best.
Maybe we really belong together
But after all, how little we know
Maybe it's just for a day
Love is as changeable as the weather
And after all, how little we know
No, this Johnny Mercer lyric does not open another discussion of how little the American people know. It came to me as I finally put a political bumper sticker on the back of my car yesterday. As I smoothed it out—deeply pleased about getting a sticker on straight for a change—I had two thoughts. I thought while looking at the candidate's name, “I hope you win.” My second thought was something along the lines of “I hope the future shows I am right.” Soon afterwards that lyric—complete with Lauren Bacall’s dusky contralto voice—popped into my head.
How little we know.
These are not second thoughts. I have examined the alternatives and feel comfortable with my candidate. While something could shake that comfort in the next month, that something is not on the horizon. If anything the opposite is occurring.
Yet, in the midst of this campaign that keeps getting uglier, it might be good for those of us who are both historians and partisan to recall that knowing the past does not do much to help us predict the future. How many predicted that Bill Clinton’s greatest successes would be in working with (and over) a Republican congress after failing to work well with a Democratic congress? Who would have predicted that the current Bush Administration would do more to make the government responsible for day-to-day economy than any presidency since FDR pushed the NRA through Congress?
On a larger level, I have often wondered what would have happened if Gerald Ford had been reelected in 1976. Would Reagan have become president in 1981? Would the world be better off, or as much as I disagreed with Reagan’s policies, did he provide the nation’s majority with a much needed sense of optimism? Not even the most intelligent of us can anticipate how the temperament, values, and even policy goals of a candidate will fare when he or she encounters the unexpected, whether it be an enemy attack, economic turmoil, conflict among alleged allies, or something else entirely.
I would not suggest that historians withdraw from the political field. First, we are citizens, and second, we can use the past to shed light on the visible challenges before us. Nor should we shrink from making choices in the face of the unknown. That is the human condition. But I think that we, as professionals, should resist as best we can the tendency of politics to cross the line from opposing to demonizing political foes, even though it sometimes seems all too tempting.
For in the end, we should know better than most how little we do know of what fate (or love, to return to that fine song) will bring.
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.
I thought it was a curious piece in which she declared “[McCain's] problems are not technical; they do not have to do with ads, fundraising or tactics, as some have suggested. They are institutional; they have to do with his colleagues, advisers and supporters.” After a long list of issues on which she agreed with McCain on numerous issues and even praised his courage through the years, she seems to have decided that she simply could not vote for someone supported by Sean Hannity (her one specific example).
Having made her endorsement, she goes on to admit, “Barack Obama is indeed the least experienced, least tested candidate in modern presidential history.”
How do we interpret her preference? Maybe part of the answer is that she writes from Warsaw (her husband is a prominent Polish political leader) and swims in a sea of European intellectuals who seem to be about 100 percent for Obama. Or maybe she has just fallen for Obama’s charisma and his skill at convincing so many backers of varying policy preferences that he really agrees with them.
At any rate, the column generated a letter to her that I reproduce here:
All this reads to me like a strong argument for McCain and a limp argument against him.
If he is all you say he is, that should override the weaknesses of a party with which he always has had an ambiguous relationship. It does seems pretty clear that, if elected (which I doubt very much), he would attempt to govern from the center (assuming that is possible in the polarized world of Washington).
McCain's appeasement of the right wing of his party (like that of every Republican candidate over the last generation) strikes me as more grudging that Obama's appeasement of the left wing of his party (like about every Democratic candidate over the last generation). I can't escape the sense that Obama really means it far more than McCain.
I agree with you that the Republican party is coming apart, a development that would facilitate a McCain outreach to centrist Democrats. And you know as well as I that political parties in America have never been as controlling and monolithic in America as in Britain.
I also wonder how your nostalgia for Thatcherite conservatism translates into support for Obama, rather than McCain. [“Joe the plumber,” by the way strikes me as an archetypical Thatcherite type.]
The one thing you fail utterly to do in this column is make a case for Obama. What little you do say amounts to an argument against him.
Since I usually find you persuasive, I'm a little puzzled by your endorsement.
Alonzo L. Hamby
Is Barack Obama really a socialist?
Is Obama really a Muslim? Or, was Obama a Muslim?
Why does Obama want to kill babies?
Aren’t you embarrassed by the blatant attempts to register voters by ACORN, an organization that Barack Obama has been tied to?
How is Senator Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?
Should anyone care about Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright?
Can anyone think of any loaded questions we could ask about John McCain or Sarah Palin? Is that a loaded question or a legitimate question?
“Reaganite verities” while praising Obama for being “better positioned to reinvent the American model and . . . present a very different and more positive face of America to the rest of the world.” His is just one of a string of high-profile Republican and/or conservative endorsements: Colin Powell, Christopher Buckley, C.C. Goldwater, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Scott McClellan, Ken Adelman, and many others.
Madison Powers in CQ Politics observes:
“The growing list includes Republicans who were governors, senators, congressmen, cabinet officials, military leaders, corporate directors, and even some stodgy old newspaper editors. They are serious people, genuinely concerned about the future of the country, and they are not much given to fads and fluff.
“In short, the rank and file of defectors are not merely the Republican party irregulars who are, in reality, the party regulars of the much maligned Georgetown cocktail circuit. Nor can this phenomenon be explained as some sort of mass, late-life ideological epiphany.
“What is most striking about these high-visibility defections is that overwhelmingly they come with ringing endorsements. They speak to Obama’s skills, abilities, and temperament. Everywhere, except in the occasional tepid endorsement such as the one in the Washington Post, the precipitating factors may be the lead line, but the bulk of these statements is taken up by extraordinary praise for Obama.”
What other notable conservative endorsement might follow? Will McCain’s October surprise be a Halloween announcement by President George W. Bush that he supports Obama? In that case, Obama will no longer be able to link McCain with Bush. On the other hand, Obama might have an October surprise of his own: perhaps McCain’s mother will announce for him.
His major foreign policy point seems to be a promise of a rapid military drawdown in Iraq and redeployment to Afghanistan, which he sees as the central front of the war on terrorism. In debate with McCain, he went on to say that he would send American troops into the tribal areas of Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden. This assertion, consistently made over the fall campaign, might fairly be called the Obama Doctrine, at least if we could attach a larger meaning to it. Is it a smart policy? What happens if bin Laden is hunted down and killed or captured? Is the war over? What does the Obama Doctrine imply about the future of American involvement in the Middle East?
Based on what we know now, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. It was tactically unnecessary at that time and, much worse, undertaken without an endgame plan. That said, it is hard to believe that the status quo of 2003 would have endured to the present day. UN sanctions were clearly along the road to abandonment. US planes enforcing a no-fly zone were being fired on every day with the odds increasingly tilting toward a shootdown or a flameout. The Iraqi regime, we now know, appeared strong but was rotten at the core, banking on the illusion of "weapons of mass destruction" for its survival. If sanctions had been lifted, it likely would have resumed work on those weapons. It seems distinctly likely that US military intervention might have been necessary at some point.
Whether that was the case or not, once we became involved in Iraq, extrication was no easy matter. We could not simply declare victory and go home with no real consequences for ourselves. We could do that in Vietnam, where we had no vital interests; only the Vietnamese suffered. Iraq is at the heart of the Middle East, an area of immense strategic interest for the United States and Western Europe. How do we withdraw from Iraq without appearing to withdraw from the Middle East? How could, say, King Abdullah of Jordan have any faith in our promises? Could the Israelis conclude that the US would always be there in extremis, or would they feel compelled to establish a first-strike capability against Iran?
We should have no great optimism that one hundred percent success in Iraq is possible, but we do seem on the right path and capable of a resolution there that will be more tolerable than the likely consequences of leaving prematurely--internal chaos, an al Quaeda resurgence, and likely Iranian domination of the region south of Baghdad.
A transfer of resources to Afghanistan and raids into the tribal areas of Pakistan seems much less promising than our course in Iraq. What outside force in modern history has been able to establish control in this remote and rugged area? Would it be possible to go about trying it without destabilizing the already-precarious Pakistani government? If the government of Pakistan begins to come apart, just how secure is its nuclear weapons stockpile? How do we even move in forces and supplies without Pakistani cooperation? And other than the satisfaction of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, what are our long-term strategic interests there?
Where, in sum, does the Obama Doctrine lead us? Away from an area of vital interest into a quixotic manhunt? Or is the whole business about a new “central front” a rhetorical cover for “come home America” isolationism?
I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there with opinions.
But the consensus among the intelligentsia seems to be that this aphorism does not apply to Barack Obama—at least not when names like William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright come up. Should it?
Let’s be clear that many esteemed politicians at one point or another in their careers have unlovely associations. Harry S. Truman was a loyal henchman of Kansas City’s Pendergast machine in its heyday and never renounced it. Boss Tom’s creative voting manipulations (which ACORN would envy) launched Truman into the U.S. Senate. (Of course, in those days the other side was also creative.) Franklin D. Roosevelt made peace with New York City’s Tammany Hall. As Governor of New York, needing its support for his 1932 presidential run, he desperately tried to avoid prosecution of its multiple corrupt practices.
Roosevelt and Truman almost surely would not have established relationships with Ayers and Wright.
Does that say something about Obama, or about ourselves in the present day?
Rev. Wright is a bitter and polemical black nationalist, who demonstrated in his National Press Club appearance that his “God damn America” line had not been taken out of context. I doubt that Barack Obama bought into his worldview. I suspect that an aspiring young politician looking for a church to affiliate with saw Wright’s large and influential black Chicago congregation as ideal place for networking.
The Reverend’s own crazy and hateful pronouncements extravagantly expressed the suppressed rage many of his congregants felt from the slights—real and imagined—that come with being black in America. And in the Chicago political world of Mayor Ritchie Daley (Daley machine 2.0, a profound leap forward from Richard J. Daley’s primitive machine 1.0), Wright got respect.
Ayers was indeed a revolutionary terrorist dedicated to the overthrow of “the system” through the use of explosives at targets like the Capitol and the Pentagon. He planned at one point to inflict casualties on the enemies of mankind by setting off a couple of pipe bombs at an Army officers dance. He knew he was not tossing firecrackers and has written that he expected to kill and maim people. In the classic mode of revolutionary terrorists, he believed one could not make an omelet without breaking eggs—or limbs or lives. He failed, but not for lack of trying.
The liberal political system he hated let him off because the conclusive evidence of his guilt had been improperly gathered. Northwestern University gave him a doctorate in education. The University of Illinois at Chicago gave him a teaching position that has become the latest redoubt for his continuing war against the system. A well-heeled foundation gave him a large grant to spread his “reform” ideas. Daley machine 2.0 gave him respect. The Mayor has been eloquent on his importance as an educational reformer.
On, of all days, September 11, 2001, the New York Times published a story on Ayers in which he expressed no regret about his “activist” past and wished only that he had done more.
Barack Obama began his first political campaign at a meeting in Ayers house and subsequently served on the board that disbursed his foundation grant to various radical educational programs. Obama, his supporters, and sympathetic journalists deny that the two men had a “close” relationship. “Close” is a flexible term, and we may grant that Barack and Michelle probably did not go out on weekends with Bill and Bernadine. But by most objective measures they had a close and supportive political relationship.
From Obama’s perspective, the relationship made sense. In the world of Chicago, Ayers was a good person to know.
Obama made some bad choices, but they were not his alone. They tell us less about him than about the world of post-Vietnam liberalism in which he chose to get ahead.
One final thought. Suppose Bill Ayers, instead of being a revolutionary Marxist, had been a neo-Nazi attempting to set off pipe bombs in black churches? Would Daley machine 2.0, esteemed educational institutions, reputable foundations, and, ultimately, Barack Obama have had anything to do with him? If not, why not?
In an article entitled “Automatic Mental Associations Predict Future Choices of Undecided Decision-Makers,” published in the 22 August 2008 issue of the journal Science (subscription only), research psychologists Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, and Bertram Gawronski reported that undecided voters “sometimes have already made up their mind at an unconscious level, even when they consciously indicate that they are still undecided.” (See this summary.)
In a supporting commentary in the same issue of Science, “The Unseen Mind,” Timothy D. Wilson and Yoav Bar-Anan argue that respondents' answers to political pollsters’ questions “are highly suspect. Voters explain their reasons by relying on cultural and idiosyncratic causal theories that may bear little relation to the real reason for their preferences. . . . Pollsters should be equally skeptical of voters who say they are undecided, because they may have already made up their minds at an implicit level.”
I had conjectured in my original essay that one reason for the undecided-voter phenomenon was cognitive in nature – that undecided voters were people who had trouble making decisions about almost everything. The above studies suggest that many undecided voters have indeed made up their minds – but at an unconscious level. They lean one way or the other, but they don’t know that they have already made a decision.
An excellent"opinion" piece in the Los Angeles Times (12 October 2008) by Ezra Klein, “Undecided Voters?,” sums up some other research; for example:
“Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup Organization . . . reported after the 2004 election that they [undecided voters] tended to be less educated, more rural and somewhat older than most voters." [But compare this. ]
Klein continues: “Many of those who claim to be undecided are not. Some don't want to admit their preference. In their paper, ‘Swing Voters? Hah!’ political scientists Adam Clymer and Ken Winneg amassed substantial data suggesting that very few undecided voters are truly indecisive. Examining the 2004 election, Clymer and Winneg found that even the most hard-core of undecided voters were fairly predictable.”
An additional reason for the undecided-voter phenomenon is that the TV news media want to keep alive the apparent fiction that there are lots of undecided voters out there who are “swing voters.” This supposedly makes uncompetitive races competitive, thus increasing the drama of these races, encouraging us to watch TV coverage and punditry.
The major party candidates have been campaigning for almost two years. Their competition has dominated print and electronic news coverage for most of that period. C-Span has broadcast coverage of entire political rallies and stump speeches. The candidates have appeared in presidential-primary and post-primary debates too numerous to remember their number. Their positions on the issues are detailed on their Web-sites and have been debated in countless blogs, editorials, op-eds, and TV punditry. Their party-affiliations and general political philosophies are well-known. The stories of the lives of the candidates have been much advertised and discussed, and most reasonably informed people can easily distinguish between truth and fiction in these stories. Despite third-party candidates like Barr and Nader, only one of the two major-party candidates will be elected: McCain or Obama. At this stage in the campaign season (if not long before), it doesn’t take the political equivalent of rocket science to choose or to have already chosen one of the two – even if you are not entirely satisfied with either. Undecideds are the reason that U.S. presidential elections cost hundreds of millions of dollars and last for two years. Why can’t they decide?
The satirically humorous answer from comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver is that 55 percent of the undecideds are “racist Democrats,” “attention seekers,” and the “chronically insecure,” while 45 percent are “the stupid people,” a category that includes “numbskulls,” “nitwits,” and “Cubs fans” – among other groups.
Maybe Stewart and Oliver are on to something, but historians and other professionals can’t go around calling people racists, numbskulls, and nitwits, so we use terms like “inattentive voters” or “low-information voters” to distinguish some voters from others; namely, the “attentive” and “high-information” voters. Thus, the undecideds may just be those people who haven’t been paying much attention to the campaign or haven’t been giving much thought to it – they are neither engaged nor well-informed. This explanation, however, is not entirely satisfactory because we know that there are many among the “decideds” who are not much engaged or well-informed either. I’ve run into a lot of them while canvassing during this election cycle.
No doubt there are many other explanations for the undecided phenomenon, and I believe that one of them is cognitive; that is, the reason has to do with the mental processes of knowing and judging. In other words, there are lots of people who have trouble making up their minds about anything. Maybe this is a symptom of a psychological disorder or condition. But whatever it is and however respectful we may be about this condition, it remains an annoying fact of political campaigns.
Also see, "Why Are Undecided Voters Still Undecided? – Research Addendum."
I first encountered Carruth as an anthologist. He edited a book of American 20th century poetry called The Voice that is Great Within Us. The title is from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Evening without Angels.”
It really can’t be called a 20th century anthology anymore. It came out in 1971, so it barely covers the first 2/3 of the old century. No matter. I ran across it sometime in the 1970s and it opened doors and doors and doors of poets and poems and universes to me. It still does. It is the only anthology of poems I have had to buy a second time, because I wore the first one out. Each year I see something new as understanding grows, one hopes, with age.
It was some years later that I looked for his poetry, and found some marvelous works. This one, “Eternity Blues,” will give you a sense of his sensibility though perhaps not of his amazing ability to unity strict forms and a colloquial, even slangy speech. Nor is it set in New England where he lived and where much of his poetry is rooted. Still, it’s on the web, and it’s a start.
His death is not the reason I was having trouble sleeping. There are more trivial though irritating concerns that opened my eyes and got me out of bed. But as I got ready to get off the computer and away from the tasks at hand, I remembered the loss. Another person who I had always hoped to meet and never did. I should have written him, simply to honor him, but I am poor at that. So I write this today.
In the anthology I mentioned, he restricted his own entry to what he called “Five Short-Shorts,” “the last five of several hundred” that he wrote while editing. An appropriate one to end on would be this:
A hard journey. Yes
it must be. At the end they
always fall asleep.
However, I think I will end with the very last of the five.
So be it. I amPS (Oct. 15): A fine 2005 article on Carruth.
a wholeness I’ll never know.
Maybe that’s the best.
Bush has earned this rejection. The bailout as originally proposed had the primary earmark of any major Bush Administration response to a crisis—the aggrandizement of presidential power with no pretense of restraint. Only this time, he failed to reckon with bi-partisan anger with his bumbling and scheming and with the Republican recognition—at last-- than Bush’s long-term efforts have been to strengthen the national government at the expense of Congress, the states, and the individual.
From the Democratic standpoint, Secretary Paulsen’s belated willingness to accept limitations on executive compensation got him some votes. But his original insistence that the only people who would not pay would be the people who did most to create the crisis helped spark the popular opposition that pushed a majority of Republicans and a significant number of Democrats to still just say no.
PS (10/1) An intrguing alternative approach to address the crisis.
I don’t agree with all of it, and the world is more complex than a single perspective like this can admit. But enough of it rings true that I want to share it for comments.
I will also pose these questions. In a political culture in which identity politics has become more and more overt, is this the most diverse set of major candidates that we have had? Or are we so focused on the differences that we are not seeing what they have in common in terms of background?
Now to work. I’m a Whig.
The realization hit me some years ago when I was in graduate school and read about JQ Adams’ first annual message to Congress. I was captivated by his trust in education, his desire for not only a national university but also a national observatory, and his vision of a national government that met the expressed needs of the people and yet attempted a long-range vision. My captivation startled me, as I was more used to thinking of Whigs as darlings of the plutocrats and religious bigots suspicious of anything Catholic. Still, when I got home I declared to my wife, “I’m a Whig.” Sue was understandably confused, as I am ordinarily the household populist. Even after I explained she remained dubious, and with reason. I still have my populist moments.
I don’t think about this aspect of my identity much, but the past three weeks of the election campaign has reminded me all too well of 1) my Whig-like tendencies and 2) the fate of Whig-like presidential candidates.
Barack Obama has vision. It is a serious vision and a good vision. That’s what captivated so many of my colleagues during the primaries. Personally, I was more dubious, inspired by his ideals and fearful of his inexperience. My first choice would have been John Edwards; happily Edwards quick and now utterly comprehensible withdrawal spared me and many others from a serious mistake. Still that left me with Obama and Hillary Clinton.
In the end I went with Obama in the Wisconsin Primary. It was a near thing; I truly did walk into the polling booth not knowing clearly who I would vote for. Part of the decision was based on Obama’s momentum at the time; part was on general admiration; most was based on the belief that he could change the tenor of politics. He convinced me that it was possible that politics could be a little less cut-throat and a little more concerned with the common good.
Over the next four months Hillary Clinton proved me and his many stronger supporters wrong. Good vision is not enough to win. It must be combined with a self-evident prowess. Like her or dislike her, Clinton showed what prowess combined with pocket-book liberalism could do against Obama. Like it or not, Obama never did respond with great effectiveness.
It is now John McCain’s challenge to show if prowess and conservatism can overmatch Obama’s ideals. McCain does not have much of a reputation as a visionary. In fact, his Maverick image has obscured—at least to the general public--his lack of direction. That is why many conservative Republicans don’t like him even though he clearly tilts more to the right than his opponent. His advantage is that his public persona usually seems pretty moderate, an image he seems to be maintaining despite his campaign's ugly baldfaced lies.
That image alone might not play well against Obama, whose image of thoughtfulness has reached farther outside educated circles than is common. Whether by luck or genius, McCain picked the perfect running mate: a pit bull governor whose personal life embodies the growth in opportunity for women even as her politics embodies a knee-jerk social conservatism.
Obama picked another Whig, Joe Biden. Biden has a reputation as a fighter among political cognoscenti, but the vast majority of Americans have never seen that side of him. For most he is at best a good man who could be a good president but who brings almost no spark to the campaign. In Rick Shenkman’s ideal world that would be enough, but in fact, it’s not, or at least it’s not enough when faced with Sarah Palin, the rare if not totally unique vice-presidential candidate who is getting more buzz than her running mate.
There is lots of time left to the campaign. Palin may well have skeletons in her igloo, and Obama has done much, much more than either Palin or McCain to make economics the issue. Today's economic news may help Obama in putting that back at the center of the debate. That can still be his winning ticket.
Still, I fear that Obama may continue to make the ultimate Whig mistake, which is assuming that being reasonable and being right is enough. It’s not. Americans want the sense that someone has the personality to fight and to lead as well as the sense of a good destination. If forced to choose, a majority will usually pick a strong leader going in a questionable direction over someone they perceive as weaker, even if they think he might know the right place to go.