Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, very near the liberal epicenter at Berkeley, I’ve yet to meet anyone who is now or has ever been a Bush voter. I?ve been thinking hard about this, because it’s in my nature to want to understand those with whom I disagree, and my encounters with their views through the media have not been satisfying. I keep wondering if understanding would be easier face-to-face.
Polls give us gross readings that don’t illuminate anything. The orchestrated controversy over Kerry’s war record seems opaque too. It appears that the veterans who are trying to discredit Kerry are very angry with him over his war protests 30 years ago, and consider it an unbearable disgrace to have a president who has denounced the behavior of fellow soldiers. Struggling for comprehension, I try to turn the tables. I pretend it’s the 50s: would I go public to discredit a candidate who had named names to the Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing those who?d been fellows in the fight for social justice? Maybe, but I don’t think my feelings would be nearly so intense. I lack that allegiance to blood, loyalty and honor that seems to grip some war veterans and animate their outrage.
The pundits say that for many Bush voters, their votes turn on issues I consider matters of personal choice, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Until this week, that hadn’t seemed a sufficient explanation. My brain gets tied in a knot as I try to empathize with a working-class voter who cares more about banning same-sex marriage than about Bush’s policies to enrich millionaires at the expense of working people. I find myself thinking there must be more to it, that I’m not seeing it.
But not long ago I spoke with a friend who’d just returned from a visit with relatives in the south, Bush voters all. No matter what she said about the war in Iraq, the economy, America’s standing in the world, they answered her arguments with the same question: Yeah, but what about abortion? These Democrats want to kill babies, they told her, and only Bush can stop the madness.
Sometimes the truth seems too simple. I am beginning to think this is one of those times I should take people at their word. Some people will vote for Bush because his economic program is in their direct financial interests; others will vote for him because they passionately want their personal morality to become public policy. These two groups are lost to the Democrats, but happily, they don’t make up an electoral majority. The trick is to engage the hearts and minds of those who seek fairness, who prize diversity, who want to earn the respect of our neighbors around the world, to make them really want to vote on election day. I hope the Democrats aren’t hypnotized by the culture of sound bites and polling numbers into stifling the messages that could really mobilize these voters. A little simple truth could have a large effect in this election.