How to spell God

Thursday, November 11th, 2004

Like a flabby, middle-aged couch potato on the chin-up bar, America went to the polls last week for its quadrennial democratic exercise routine and — oof, gasp, tremble — almost hit 60 percent voter turnout. Wow, pretty good, what with war, peace and “Adam and Steve” wedding cakes hanging in the balance.

In truth, this looks good only in comparison to our own recent past. It may be the best we’ve done in 30 years, but gauged next to most of the world’s democracies, the turnout is still anemic. Some 110 countries — including Mongolia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India — have averaged, since 1945, higher voter turnout than we managed this go-around, in what was generally billed as the most important election since God knows when.

It’s the Democrats’ fault, of course. Not the rank-and-file Dems — who worked their hearts out, registering voters, campaigning, spreading the message, poking at the national complacency and generally keeping pace with the GOP’s army of evangelical true believers. What we lacked, as usual, was cooperation from the top. We lacked a candidate who dared to extricate himself from the stale center and let himself be energized by the values that drove his constituency.

We did not need John Kerry the flag-draped “war hero,” hoisted to the ceiling of the Fleet Center last summer like an all too poppable hot-air balloon. I doubt if one voter in a million voted Kerry-Edwards based on such overblown, “we’re tough too” hype. No matter Kerry really was a combat-tested vet and medal winner — it was Dukakis-in-a-tank all over again. Karl Rove and the Swift Boat Veterans for Character Assassination had a field day.

The Democratic ticket campaigned once again as though there’s only one way to be patriotic, as though the only true American values are Republican values. “GOP doesn’t spell God,” Nancy Pelosi said in frustration after Kerry’s defeat. But the Democrats campaigned as though it did. They’ve been doing that for 30 years.

Pick an issue: abortion rights, gay rights, minority-voter disenfranchisement, economic justice, corporate greed, health care, education, global warming, nuclear weapons, the war on terror, national security. Core Democrats have a stance on these matters as fervently grounded in moral principle as core Republicans (or more so), but you’d never know it.

“I was puzzled along the way in the election how the Republicans continually invoked abortion, specifically talking about so-called partial birth abortion,” Jamie Raskin, a law professor at American University, said last week on Democracy Now, “and Kerry and Edwards did not emphasize the pro-choice, which I think does appeal to millions of independent and Republican women voters in the suburbs. They didn’t appeal to the values of the liberal base in the country to try to bring those voters over.”

What if our guys had done just that? What if they’d risked controversy, stood firmly on the moral high ground, declared unambiguously that a woman’s right to have control over her body is fundamentally just? On that issue alone, they could probably have won enough converts, awakened enough nonvoters, to put themselves over the top. All it would have taken was courage, a.k.a., leadership.

George Bush did his part to generate a healthy voter turnout. In fact, he did double duty, mobilizing — with his fear-mongering swagger, pre-emptive war and lip-service to the pet issues of fundamentalist extremism — both his own base and the opposition. Because of him, the election was halfway about something.

Looks like 56 million of us have four years to do better next time. “There’s no future in paralysis,” my friend Louise Mitran e-mailed me the other day, vowing, as so many people have since Election Day, to keep the struggle alive. There’s no other choice, of course. The stealth issues of the campaign — foremost among them peace and an approach to national security that’s not based on fear — are too important to walk away from.

Our best shot is in a context of a fair election (doubt is growing how fair this one was) and long, long lines — 70 percent, 80 percent voter turnout. Why dream of less? Only once in my life have I witnessed such an election: when Harold Washington ran for mayor of Chicago in 1983. This extraordinary man defied the old Daley Machine and stood his ground against the city’s entrenched racism. In doing so, he broke the backs of both. I assure you, he didn’t run on hype. He ran on values, and 82 percent of the city turned out to vote.

We won’t win next time with a candidate who risks less. We won’t win with a values void at the top of the ticket.