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Eric Foner: Rarely Has an Election Left Progressives in Such Despair

Eric Foner, in the Nation (12-20-04)

RARELY HAS A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION produced such widespread despair on the left. By any objective standard, George W. Bush has been among the worst Presidents in American history. One of the main purposes of elections in a democracy is to act as a check on those in power by confronting them with the possibility of being removed from office. If Bush can be re-elected after having alienated virtually the entire world, brought the country into war on false pretenses and mortgaged the nation's future to provide economic benefits to the rich, what incentive will other Presidents have to act more reasonably?

Nonetheless, the vote was not a mandate for a conservative agenda. A majority of 51 percent and a margin of three points in the popular vote do not constitute a landslide, no matter what Karl Rove and the spin doctors insist. Indeed, the most striking thing about the result is how it resembled that of 2000. All but three states voted the same way they did the last time around. The nation remains closely divided.

Progressives must not succumb to hopelessness. The left must do what it has always done in American history--what Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and Eugene Debs did: stake out a clear position in favor of social and economic justice, at home and abroad, and articulate it as clearly and forcefully as possible. We must also work to strengthen institutions that provide the social basis for progressive politics. The right has its evangelical churches, often the only remaining centers of civil society in a decentered world of shopping malls and galloping subdivisions. The left traditionally had unions, and their decline is intimately related to Democratic defeat. Even without strong unions, Kerry did best among voters with lower incomes. Nothing would revive progressive politics more effectively than a reinvigoration of American unions. This may not be the road to immediate electoral success. But when Democrats return to power, as they surely will one day, it is essential that there be a progressive agenda in place to help shape public policies.

We must not join the bandwagon proclaiming that "moral values" were the key to this election. In exit polls, the "moral values" category was a grab-bag indicating everything from hostility to abortion rights to the desire for a leader who says what he means and apparently means what he says. Denigrating religious conviction per se is hardly the path to follow. But progressives must not seek victory by appealing to intolerance and unreason and rejecting the traditions of the Enlightenment that we alone seem to embrace today. We should take comfort from the fact that our values--social justice, respect for international law, religious and moral tolerance--are shared by the rest of the industrialized world. One of these days, the United States will catch up.

I suspect that the attacks of September 11 and the sense of being engaged in a worldwide "war on terror" contributed substantially to Bush's victory. Generally speaking, Americans have not changed Presidents in the midst of a war. The Bush campaign consistently and successfully appealed to fear, with continuous warnings of imminent and future attacks. Land of the free? Perhaps. Home of the brave? Not anymore.