There Is No National Security Gap, Just An Identity Gap
by Chris Bowers, Mon May 02, 2005 at 10:37:57 AM EDT
Yes Bush had a huge evangelical turnout but Chris, shall we consider why Kerry was not more effective with the rest of the electorate? There were a number of factors but the most significant, by far, was the national security gap. And that gap must be addressed, at least in the near and medium term.Also:On the evening of January 4, I had dinner with a small group of progressive intellectuals at a Capitol Hill restaurant. The question at hand, though unstated, was obvious: What ails the Democrats, and what's to be done about it? As wine was poured and salad moved to entrée to dessert, many ideas -- most of them good -- were put forward. Conspicuous for its absence until I brought it up, however, was the party's single biggest problem area: national security. It doesn't take a lot of imagination for me to consider myself one of the liberals who Yglesias describes. I mean, Armando is right--if I was somehow ever invited to such a dinner (unlikely), I probably wouldn't bring up national security right away. As commenter KBowe wrote on MyDD last month: Chris, you've been working very hard over the last few months down playing the so-called national security deficit of the Ds. And while I agree with your past posts that we lose the debate in the first sentence by saying "the war on terrorism" there is no such thing as political alchemy that will numb the memory of the falling towers and counter the preying hands of nationalistic demagoguery. Guilty as charged. I have argued for some time now that "national security" and "keeping America safe" is neither the main, nor even among the top few problems, facing the Democratic Party. This is a position I am willing to defend, and in this post I do just that.
But Kerry's 40 percent share among the third of the electorate citing either Iraq or terrorism as their top concern is another matter entirely. Liberals most emphatically do believe that the government should keep the population safe from foreign threats. Voters who think that this is important are voters that any self-respecting political party ought to aspire to win. And if Democrats do ﬁgure out how to win their votes, they'll start winning presidential elections.I agree with the first part of this. Generally speaking, the "moral values" vote is actually code for wanting the government to help maintain "traditional norms" of gender and sexuality. However, I vehemently disagree with the notion that the Democratic problem among the third of the electorate cited by Yglesias, Armando, Peter Beinart and others is that they do not believe that Democrats are able to "keep America safe."
For Exhibit B in my case, consider the regional exit polls in the 2004 election among those who considered either Iraq or terrorism their main reason for voting:
West % Kerry Bush Terror 19 17 83 Iraq 20 76 24 Total 39 47 53 East % Kerry Bush Terror 21 17 83 Iraq 17 80 19 Total 38 45 54 South % Kerry Bush Terror 21 11 89 Iraq 12 64 36 Total 33 30 70 Midwest % Kerry Bush Terror 16 13 87 Iraq 13 72 28 Total 29 39 61(Links, from the top down, US West, US East, US South and US Midwest.)
This may come as a surprise to many people, but Kerry actually won the two areas of the country where terrorism and Iraq combined were of the most concern to voters. Kerry won the West 50-49, with 39% of the electorate citing either Iraq or terrorism as their main issue. Kerry also won the East 55-44, where 38% of the country cited either Iraq or terrorism as their main issue. By contrast, Kerry lost the South 58-42, with 33% citing Iraq or terrorism as their main issue. Kerry also lost the Midwest 51-48, where only 29% of the electorate cited Iraq or terrorism as their main issue.
Certainly, Kerry was aided in the West and the East by performing better among the national security voters than he did in either the Midwest or the South. In both the East, where Kerry lost these voters 45-54, and the West, where Kerry lost these voters 47-53, Kerry performed better among voters in this category than he performed nationwide (nationally, he lost the issue 60-40). However, what I want to point out is why he performed better among these voters in the West and the East.
- In the East, among national security voters, Kerry performed better than he did nationally primarily because he won an even larger percentage of the vote among those people who took Iraq as their main issue (80-19) than he did nationwide (73-26). He did slightly better among those who took terrorism is their main issue (17-83) than he did nationwide (14-86). However, the primary swing came among the Iraq block in the national security electorate, which shifted in Kerry's favor more than twice the amount that the terrorism voters shifted in Kerry's favor.
- In the West, the bulk of Kerry's improvement came in the form of more people taking Iraq as their main issue (20%) than terrorism as their main issue (19%). Kerry did have slight swings in his favor among Iraq voters (+52 instead of +47 nationally) and among terrorism voters (-66 instead of -72), but those swings account for only one-third of Kerry's total improvement among national security voters in the West. The significant majority of his Western gains among national security voters came from Iraq voters actually outnumbering terrorism voters in this region of the country. Nationwide terrorism voters were noticeably more numerous (19% to 15% of the total electorate).
I believe that the vast majority of Kerry's gains among the national security vote in the East and the West came from the Iraq block instead of the terrorism block for exactly the same reason Yglesias argues that Democrats cannot gain among the values voters. Specifically, it is impossible for Democrats to gain among terrorism voters, because their worldview is antithetical with progressive and liberalism. Terrorism voters are not looking, for leaders in government to keep Americans safe from terrorism, they want to keep America safe from terrorism. They are interested in and eager to fight a clash of civilizations that is based upon a reductive view of identity, and they want their leaders in government to carry out that fight: American-ness versus Other-ness. Just like traditional notions of gender and sexuality being antithetical with liberalism, this reductive view of civilization identities is itself antithetical with liberalism, which at its very core is nothing if not pluralistic.
This may sound extreme, but it is the position I have arrived at, which I explained in a recent article after a weeklong MyDD demographics-fest. (Interestingly, this demographics-fest was started when I encountered the same study on Generation Y that Armando used as the basis for his article quoted above). Here is a large section of my article:Democrats have not won the majority of the white vote in this country since 1964 (and before that, since the 1940's), but that does not mean they do poorly among all whites. In particular, Kerry won the white non-Christian vote (14-15% of the total electorate) 66-33, which was slightly better than Gore's 61-30 margin (also among roughly 14-15% of the electorate). Without question, the white demographic where Democrats do the best are non-Christians. Interestingly, Kerry's margin among non-Christian whites is almost exactly the same margin by which he won the non-white vote (70-30).
I think readers can see exactly what I am getting at here. The quickest way to summarize the developing demographic trends of the two coalitions is a white Christian coalition versus a non-white and / or non-Christian coalition. The voting habits of non-whites and white non-Christians are rapidly approaching parity, just as the voting of white Protestants and white Catholics are doing the same. Further, race and religion are now far better at determining how someone will vote than region, income, union membership, or pretty much anything else you could name.
Although I hope it does not happen and we should work to make sure it does not happen, as time goes on I fully expect that white Catholics will continue their Republican trend until their voting habits are nearly indistinguishable from those of white Protestants (who are also turning sharply Republican). If they do not, Republicans will be in a world of hurt at the voting booth. Winning 60% of a rapidly shrinking 60% of the electorate is not enough when your opponent is winning 70% of a rapidly growing 40% of the electorate. Further, white Christians make up less than 40% of the under-40 population of the United States, so the change will only accelerate in the coming years. Already, nearly 60% of Democratic voters are non-white and / or non-Christian. By comparison, less than 25% of Republican voters fit that description. That is a shocking difference in diversity.
It wasn't always this way. If white Christians had always voted for Republicans to this same degree, than past Democratic nominees would have lost by, well, what Mondale lost by in 1984--18%. However, I have already documented the dramatic decline of Christianity within the United States over the past fifteen years, and when you combine it with the fact that whites have shrunk from 89% of the electorate in 1976 to just 77% in 2004, you can get a sense of just how quickly the white Christian percentage of the population is shrinking. As they shrink in size, they have voted more and more for Republicans.
As this coalition, which was first forged under Reagan, has shrunk in size and trended Republican, it has also begun to declare war on a number of things. First, there was a War on Drugs, which is really a war on minority youth. Next, there was a Culture War, which really is a war against modernity. Now, we have the War on Terror, which could easily be characterized as a war against interdependence and pluralism. The clash of civilizations that conservatives have regularly visualized as one of the main justifications for their "war on terror" is being carried out at least as much in America as it is outside of America. Is the anti-liberal rhetoric that Curt Matlock quotes in his recent diary really all that different from what we have all regularly heard from the Christian Right about Islam since September 11th? Are the proclamations we hear from conservatives about the end of the family as a result of gay marriage really that different than statement like "they hate us because of our freedom?" Both are viewed as equally threatening attacks against a perceived cultural tradition.The Iraq block versus the terrorism block strikes at the very heart of the growing difference between contemporary American conservatism and contemporary American liberalism. There is a gap between voters who view national security in liberal terms--pluralistic, reality-based and problem solving--and those who view national security in conservative terms--faith and identity based. The liberal view identifies Iraq as the major national security problem facing the United States, and looks to its leaders to develop a workable solution to that problem. The conservative view identifies an abstract concept-- terrorism--as a general threat to "American-ness" or "white Christian-ness." The conservative view takes terrorism as the largest threat to national security, since nothing could possibly be more important to this viewpoint than maintaining traditional norms of identity. Conservatives want their leaders to wage war against this abstract threat to our identity / national security. It is in this sense that terrorism voters and moral values voters are nearly identical (pun intended), and equally unwinnable. This conservative viewpoint also bears a remarkable resemblance to the conservative view of class, best described by Thomas Frank.
And this is why I do not think that there is a national security gap where Democrats have not convinced enough people that they can keep America safe. I do not think it is particularly useful to lump two distinct voting blocks, those concerned with Iraq and those most concerned with terrorism, into a single "national security" voting block and then conclude that we are losing this group of voters for a single reason: that they do not trust Democrats to keep America safe. Clearly, the Iraq block of voters do trust Democrats to keep America safe, as even in the South they voted for Kerry in overwhelming numbers. On the other hand, those concerned with terrorism, who clearly do not trust Democrats to keep America safe, cannot ever be expected to trust Democrats to keep America safe because their faith-based, identity-based worldview is antithetical with liberalism.
Instead of convincing more people that Democrats can keep America safe, we need to convince more people to think of national security as a series of problems that we need to solve instead of an identity war that we must bring to the rest of the world. In other words, and applied to our current environment, we need to convince more people in the national security electorate to think of Iraq as the main problem facing America in terms of national security rather than terrorism. Those who do not trust liberals to "keep America safe," do not view America in the same terms as liberals: they view it as an abstract identity rather than as a diverse collection of actual people. It is in this sense that people not viewing Democrats as trustworthy to keep America safe is itself symptomatic of our larger, truly, undeniable problem: more people are thinking like conservatives than like liberals. It is literally impossible for liberals to keep America safe from a conservative viewpoint, because liberals reject the conservative notion of what America is. However, this does not stop us from swallowing their language on the subject hook, line and sinker, and thus compounding our own problems.
The problem is identity, not trust over whether or not Democrats can keep America safe. We need to convince more people that national security is not a clash of civilizations, but rather as a series of problems that we can solve based on evidence (evidence, as we know, is clearly not important to the conservative view of national security). This is a battle we are winning when it comes to economic issues, even on taxes. However, as long as the majority of the American people view national security as the defense of our national identity, we will never win a majority of national security voters, and the majority of the country will never trust us to keep them safe. Not only is this not going to happen by talking about terrorism more, we are actually more likely to continue to lose if we talk about terrorism more. As long as the war of terrorism, aka the clash of civilizations, is being fought, they win and we lose. When we are able to end that war, and national security becomes about protecting American citizens rather than American identity, then and only then will we win national security voters.