Inside the Mind of a Bush Voter
November 19, 2004
By Jason Bradfield
his article An
Oppositional Strategy, Bernard Weiner states the following:
Until we can come to grips with the fears and concerns that motivate
the other half of the country - and somehow find a way of communicating
across the wide perception-gap separating us - we risk remaining
a permanent minority faction, doomed to lose election after election.
That doesn't mean we have to abandon our principles on key issues,
only that we try to put ourselves in the position of The Others
and figure out how to talk to them human-to-human.
I only wish more progressive commentators would take this advice
seriously. As a proud and passionate liberal I initially had a hard
time believing so many people would vote for Bush. However, this
should not have been hard for me to understand because I voted for
Bush the first time around. In fact I used to be a staunch conservative
Republican but over the last four years I have made a journey to
the left side of the political spectrum.
Once I pushed the blue-state, liberal rhetoric out of my mind
and started thinking like the Bush supporter I once was I started
coming up with some answers to the puzzle of why someone would vote
Upon reflection there were three reasons I voted for Bush in 2000:
First, Bush promised something for ME! Namely, a tax cut. I spent
the rebate on the oversized sofa I have in my living room now. Talk
about tangible benefits. I sit down on my tax rebate every night.
Secondly, my ignorance seriously crippled my political perspective.
At least that's the way I see it now. I'd just graduated from college
in 2000 and had a very na´ve understanding of how the real world
works - especially the working world. I also was not well-read when
it came to social science literature describing how important it
is to understand society as an interdependent network of groups
rather than a random collection of individuals.
Unfortunately, ignorance is something that will always exist among
many people but not through any fault of their own. They may be
too young (as I was) or too busy (as most people are). Understanding
why someone would vote for Bush means understanding why some people
cling to a hyper-individualistic vision of society even when reality
is clearly different.
Thirdly, like most Americans I respect clarity and decisiveness.
Bush had that. He was a "compassionate conservative." Al Gore and
the Democrats had been so triangulated that they appeared apologetic
for any core liberal beliefs they might be accused of having. Frankly,
it's pathetic when a grown man won't stand for something.
If I did not vote for Bush in 2000 my second choice would have
been Nader. Indeed, reading Nader's book Crashing the Party
was one reason I became a progressive. Why was I, a hardened right-winger,
persuaded by Nader but not by Gore? Because Nader did not seem to
apologize for his convictions. This confidence allowed him to communicate
far more effectively than Gore or other centrists.
To sum up these reasons they are:
1. The desire for direct tangible benefits
2. A na´ve hyper-individualistic "me-first" worldview
3. Message clarity
These were the reasons I voted for Bush in 2000. These reasons
can help shed light on why someone would vote for Bush in 2004.
I am willing to bet that the extra three million plus voters Bush
got this time around were largely motivated by the fact that:
1. They thought Bush would protect them from terror (a tangible
benefit if there ever was one)
2. He would not remind them of any social commitments they may
have in an increasingly interdependent world
3. He stood his ground clearly and confidently
Now you won't hear this from the professional pollsters because
what I just described is a motivational model for voting that cannot
be summed up in pithy little answers to exit poll questions. Instead
it is the result of translating my concerns in 2000 to the concerns
of the swing voter in 2004.
What can progressives learn from analyzing these motivations for
voting for Bush?
Two things that stand out clearly are that progressives must endorse
policies that have direct tangible benefits and they must communicate
those policies clearly. This is just basic politics here, you can't
win without doing these things. However, telling the electorate
what benefits you are going to provide them is very much linked
to the second element; a worldview that stresses interdependence
rather than a selfish hyper-individualism.
Alas, this is where progressives start to fall short. My limited
experience with progressive organizations and candidates tells me
that progressives have yet to master the art of communicating a
positive vision that encompasses liberal policies but does not permit
any one issue to dominate the overall vision. Instead the progressive
movement seems to be a hodgepodge of single-issue groups. In fact,
I would almost go so far as to say there is no progressive movement
comparable to the conservative movement that has now ensconced its
candidates in power.
This becomes a problem because many progressive policies depend
upon voters having a sympathetic understanding of their fellow citizens.
Contemporary political rhetoric is dominated by the right-wing's
hyper-individualistic model of society which precludes sympathetic
thinking. Unfortunately, so-called centrist Democrats contribute
to this rhetorical paradigm by not challenging the Right's fundamental
worldview. Americans are not 100% committed to either the conservative
or the progressive worldview, however, when the progressive worldview
doesn't even show up in debate the Right's vision wins by default.
For example, advocating a higher minimum wage turned out to be
a big winner in Florida and Nevada. Voters are capable of sympathizing
with the plight of others when the issue is communicated clearly
and unapologetically, as it is when a single issue is put on the
ballot. The minimum wage ballot initiatives demonstrate reasons
1 and 3 from above; tangible benefits and message clarity.
The success of these initiatives indicates that a candidate who
is confident in endorsing progressive policies and communicates
that clearly has a chance to win. But the crucial factor is how
that candidate ties in the benefits he promises to an overarching
The electorate is smarter than we realize, they know that a candidate
with a worldview can marshal the forces of others who hold that
worldview and thereby deliver the benefits he promised. A candidate
who does not have the support of an active powerful movement won't
get his policies implemented. Just think of Clinton's pathetic attempt
at health care reform.
So how does a candidate develop and communicate a worldview that
can contrast with the selfish right-wing worldview? They can't.
Only a highly-disciplined political movement can develop and communicate
a worldview that emphasizes the importance of our interdependence
over the shallowness of hyper-individualism.
In other words what is needed is not a revamped or re-energized
Democratic party, but rather a progressive movement in Washington,
DC that is willing to emulate the successes of the conservative
movement. Despite what the political pundits say the Republican
party did not win this election, the conservative movement did and
they started campaigning over 30 years ago for the hearts and minds
of the American people.
It is past time for a new generation of progressives to learn
from the successes of Right and build a political movement of their
own. The future of the Democratic party depends upon it.
Jason Bradfield is a 27 year old former conservative activist
who is seeking to work with other progressives in the Washington,
DC area to build a progressive governing majority. His blog is at
Comments, critcisms, and suggestions are highly encouraged and may
be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.