Democratic Underground

Inside the Mind of a Bush Voter

November 19, 2004
By Jason Bradfield

In 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 for W.

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 worldview.

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 jaybradfield.blogspot.com. Comments, critcisms, and suggestions are highly encouraged and may be addressed to jasonbradfield@gmail.com.

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