I’m as appalled as the next leftist that we’ll have George Bush around to terrorize the planet for the next four years. Unbound now by re-election worries, our lame-duck president can let his true inner Bush emerge. On my end of the political spectrum, that’s pretty scary. But even if John Kerry had won last Tuesday, life wouldn’t be perfect. The Iraq war would continue, corporations would still have too much power, and the rich and powerful would still dominate the rest of us.
Still, the shock at Bush’s victory in the Northeast and on the West Coast demonstrates that not enough Blue-state Americans spend much time in all those Red states. To the surprise of people who’d never move west or south, I actually found things to appreciate during my own sojourns outside New York, where I was born, and Massachusetts, where I now live. But it’s also true that I rarely felt like I belonged.
That sense of not fitting in, of realizing how different my worldview was from so many of my neighbors, of discovering how provincially urban my tastes in movies and music and restaurants were, prepared me for the likelihood that a majority of voting Americans would choose Bush over Kerry. I wondered during the presidential debates if those Red staters would notice or care that Bush couldn’t answer even predictable questions, but I always knew my perceptions might not be universally shared.
As others have noted, the Electoral College’s winner-take-all rule exaggerates the cultural divide a bit. My decade in Sangamon County, Illinois, seemed culturally as Red as the rest of the southern mid-West despite the Blue majority a few hours up the interstate toward Chicago. Even Massachusetts has cultural conservatives, the South and Mid-West liberals and radicals. Yet although the culture doesn’t really split as neatly as the Electoral College map, the cultural divide suddenly on every pundit’s lips has been with us for a long time.
It’s worth noting that Bush’s victory had other causes as well. Like many on the left, it seems clear to me that the Bush campaign’s heavy dose of deceit (or maybe honest presentation of his own self-deceit, to give him the benefit of the doubt) magnified fear and encouraged selfishness. Kerry’s middle-of-the-political-road tepidness, designed to appeal to swing voters, failed to motivate either those in the middle or, more important, the largest bloc: nonvoters. Yet even if Bush were more honest and Kerry more dynamic and a shift of a couple of percentage points had left Kerry the winner, the cultural divide would remain significant.
Two decades ago, trying to make sense of another dismaying event — Ronald Reagan’s re-election — I wrote that many on the left as well as on the right seek community and mutuality rather than isolation and alienation, even if the communities they would prefer might differ sharply from one another. It’s reassuring to think there might be some commonality across the divide, eventually.
In the meantime, we’ll see more battles than reaching out to the other side. Bush’s pledge to end divisiveness will prove even less meaningful than his identical pledge four years ago. If he and his people have their way — if the left doesn’t regroup quickly and effectively — our lives will become more restricted, our role in the world more aggressive, our society more unequal. What’s shocking, though maybe not surprising, is that some people knowingly seek such outcomes. That so many more accept them is sad.