Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue
The unteachable ignorance of the red states.
The day after the election, Slate's political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won't win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won't vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.
I say forget introspection. It's time to be honest about our antagonists. My predecessors in this conversation are thoughtful men, and I honor their ideas, but let's try something else. I grew up in Missouri and most of my family voted for Bush, * so I am going to be the one to say it: The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry. I suppose the good news is that 55 million Americans have evaded the ignorance-inducing machine. But 58 million have not. (Well, almost 58 million—my relatives are not ignorant, they are just greedy and full of classic Republican feelings of superiority.)
Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states. There used to be a kind of hand-to-hand fight on the frontier called a "knock-down-drag-out," where any kind of gouging, biting, or maiming was considered fair. The ancestors of today's red-state voters used to stand around cheering and betting on these fights. When the forces of red and blue encountered one another head-on for the first time in Kansas Territory in 1856, the red forces from Missouri, who had been coveting Indian land across the Missouri River since 1820, entered Kansas and stole the territorial election. The red news media of the day made a practice of inflammatory lying—declaring that the blue folks had shot and killed red folks whom everyone knew were walking around. The worst civilian massacre in American history took place in Lawrence, Kan., in 1863—Quantrill's raid. The red forces, known then as the slave-power, pulled between 150 and 200 unarmed men from their beds on a Sunday morning and slaughtered them, many in front of their wives and children. * The error that progressives have consistently committed over the years is to underestimate the vitality of ignorance in America. Listen to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are—they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence. The blue state citizens make the Rousseauvian mistake of thinking humans are essentially good, and so they never realize when they are about to be slugged from behind.
Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.
Next, they tell you that you are the best of a bad lot (humans, that is) and that as bad as you are, if you stick with them, you are among the chosen. This is flattering and reassuring, and also encourages you to imagine the terrible fates of those you envy and resent. American politicians ALWAYS operate by a similar sort of flattery, and so Americans are never induced to question themselves. That's what happened to Jimmy Carter—he asked Americans to take responsibility for their profligate ways, and promptly lost to Ronald Reagan, who told them once again that they could do anything they wanted. The history of the last four years shows that red state types, above all, do not want to be told what to do—they prefer to be ignorant. As a result, they are virtually unteachable.
Third, and most important, when life grows difficult or fearsome, they (politicians, preachers, pundits) encourage you to cling to your ignorance with even more fervor. But by this time you don't need much encouragement—you've put all your eggs into the ignorance basket, and really, some kind of miraculous fruition (preferably accompanied by the torment of your enemies, and the ignorant always have plenty of enemies) is your only hope. If you are sufficiently ignorant, you won't even know how dangerous your policies are until they have destroyed you, and then you can always blame others.
The reason the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections is simple: A generation ago, the big capitalists, who have no morals, as we know, decided to make use of the religious right in their class war against the middle class and against the regulations that were protecting those whom they considered to be their rightful prey—workers and consumers. The architects of this strategy knew perfectly well that they were exploiting, among other unsavory qualities, a long American habit of virulent racism, but they did it anyway, and we see the outcome now—Cheney is the capitalist arm and Bush is the religious arm. They know no boundaries or rules. They are predatory and resentful, amoral, avaricious, and arrogant. Lots of Americans like and admire them because lots of Americans, even those who don't share those same qualities, don't know which end is up. Can the Democrats appeal to such voters? Do they want to? The Republicans have sold their souls for power. Must everyone?
Progressives have only one course of action now: React quickly to every outrage—red state types love to cheat and intimidate, so we have to assume the worst and call them on it every time. We have to give them more to think about than they can handle—to always appeal to reason and common sense, and the law, even when they can't understand it and don't respond. They cannot be allowed to keep any secrets. Tens of millions of people didn't vote—they are watching, too, and have to be shown that we are ready and willing to fight, and that the battle is worth fighting. And in addition, we have to remember that threats to democracy from the right always collapse. Whatever their short-term appeal, they are borne of hubris and hatred, and will destroy their purveyors in the end.
Correction, Nov. 8, 2004: When I wrote the line about all my Missouri relatives voting for Bush, I was, of course, making an assumption (in which, of course, there is an a--). This morning (Friday), one of the relatives I was thinking of, my cousin, Jody, happened to be dropping something off at a construction site, and when he went into the office, he heard my name being taken in vain by R___ L________. Mr. L_______ quoted me as saying that all my Missouri relatives had voted for Bush, and my cousin went straight home and called me to say, "Not me, not my mom, not my brother, and not my wife." My cousin, who is 58, was in the Navy for 25 years, from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. When he came out, I recognized that even though I loved him, he was sexist, racist, and homophobic. We had a few arguments and then lost touch. As a result of marriage, a college education, and considerable introspection, he's converted. He said when I spoke to him, "I wasn't going to vote a straight Democratic ticket, but when I read it over afterward, I saw that I had." And so I stand corrected. The family vote (as far as I can discern) has shifted from 9 D vs. 24 R to 14 D vs. 19 R.
Also, my brother called my sister and asked her, "So which am I, greedy, pompous, or ignorant?" We told him we would get back to him on that. (Return to the original sentence.)
Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and essays. She lives in California.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.