The colours of Washington [Archives:2005/805/Opinion]

January 6 2005

By Joseph S. Nye
Condoleeza Rice's replacement of Colin Powell as US Secretary of State shows that America's recent presidential election continues to produce powerful reverberations. But understanding what that election tells us about America is important not only for Americans, but for the world.

This year's presidential vote proves that America's democracy is healthy, but that some things could be better. Contrary to the election in 2000, when President Bush lost the popular vote and barely won the vote in the Electoral College, Bush prevailed this time by 3.5 million votes. While some Democrats remain bitter, there is little serious questioning of the legitimacy of Bush's victory.

America remains closely divided into red states (Republican) and blue states (Democrat). If 100,000 votes changed in the red state of Ohio, John Kerry would be the president (albeit with a minority of the popular vote).

The Electoral College was included in America's constitution to protect small states in a federal system, but it now means that the political campaign focuses largely on the dozen or so battleground states where public opinion is closely divided.

More fundamentally, there is something unseemly about electing presidents without a popular majority. So it is time for a serious debate about amending the constitution to abolish the Electoral College.

Some observers also complain about the divisive negative rhetoric and advertising that characterized the campaign. But this should be seen in historical perspective.

In the era of the Founding Fathers, newspapers were extremely partisan, and George Washington was dismayed by the harshness of political language. For much of its early history – to say nothing of the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction – the country was as closely divided as it is today, and bitter campaign rhetoric reflected the closeness of the competition.

At the same time, despite negative advertising by both sides, the three nationally televised debates raised important issues in a serious format and were widely viewed. In general, an incumbent president with a growing economy is likely to be re-elected. In that sense, what was surprising about Bush's re-election was how thin his majority was.

In large part, this was because of the unpopularity of the Iraq War. Kerry tried to make the war, the low rate of job creation, inadequate healthcare, and Bush's tax cuts for upper income groups the central issues of the campaign, but some observers felt that this never added up to a clear message.

Bush countered with concerns about security against terrorism and cultural populism on issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights. In the end, security and cultural populism trumped economic populism.

Interpretation of the election has been influenced by exit polls in which voters were asked (after they voted) about which issues mattered most to them. The largest number (22%) answered “moral values,” comparison to 20% who cited the economy and 19% who mentioned terrorism.

Social conservatives interpreted this to mean that they won the election for Bush, and that their agenda should dominate his next term.

But a Pew poll taken a week after the election indicated that the category “moral values” encompassed a wide range of issues besides abortion rights and gay marriage. In fact, polls show that 25% of the public support gay marriage and 35% favor legal civil unions for gay couples (the position advocated by Kerry). Nonetheless, for the 37% who oppose gay marriage, particularly in the red center of the country, the issue helped mobilize Bush supporters to come to vote.

A larger question is whether the US is hopelessly divided. The election map of red and blue states has given rise to Internet jokes and cartoons about the two blue coasts seceding from the red center of the country. Some call it “Coastopia.”

But the division is not that sharp. Many states in both camps were won by narrow margins, and if one colors the map at the level of counties rather than states, much of the country looks quite purple. Cities versus suburbs and rural areas is a better description than coasts versus heartland.

Indeed, public opinion polls show that most Americans are clustered in the moderate center of the political spectrum rather than at the two extremes. But political elites, such as party activists and members of Congress, tend to be more extreme than the public.

At first, this seems puzzling, because they should have an incentive to move to the vote-rich middle. But many members of Congress represent districts that are safe for their parties, and the threat to their re-election comes in party primaries that are dominated by the more activist and extreme wings of the parties.

This tendency is reinforced by the rise of cable television, which attracts viewers by means of contentious “infotainment” programs, and Internet bloggers, who engage in fierce polemics with no editorial filter. Reforms to alter the boundaries of Congressional districts to make them more competitive would help alleviate this problem, but few incumbent Congressmen will vote for changes that might increase their risk of defeat.

The closeness of the result suggests Bush won less of a mandate for change than he seems to believe. Faced with difficult questions in foreign, fiscal, and social policy, he would be wise to turn toward the center rather than conciliate his conservative base, but it remains unclear whether the politics of conviction or of pragmatism will prevail.

Joseph S. Nye is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author of The Power Game: A Washington Novel.