My staff of thousands has reminded me of an opinion piece that appeared a little more than a dozen years ago in the Oslo-based Norwegian newspaper VG. I had stashed it away and forgot about it. Notice the dateline: September 30, 2004. Since my piece never appeared in English, here it is — a little dated, but (leaning heavily on Thomas Frank, Louis Menand, and Michael Moore) a lot prescient. The headline that editor-translator Yngve Kvistad put on it still applies: “Why Are Americans So Stupid?”
The great American guessing game about who will be the next president of the United States has run into a little problem: the subversion of democracy in the land of the free, not by anarchists or terrorists but unknowingly by the mainstream electorate itself. This development, which was unimaginable until now, has the pundits, sociologists and polling experts working overtime to explain what has happened.
The theorist causing the greatest stir at the moment is Thomas Frank, the 39-year-old, Missouri-born, founding editor of The Baffler magazine, whose best-selling book What’s the Matter with Kansas? makes the case that blue-collar and middle-class Americans have been seduced to vote against their own best economic interests by the Great Backlash, which “imagines itself as a foe of the elite.”
The basic premise of the Great Backlash is that culture outweighs economics, a bait-and-switch Republican agenda mobilized around “explosive social issues” — such ABCs as abortion, buggery and creationism (or affirmative action, busing and Christ) on up the alphabet to gay marriage, gun control, school prayer, stem-cell research and so on — enabling arch-conservative reactionaries “to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their ‘New Economy’ collapses.”
Frank points to the red state-blue state paradigm — a perpetual “quasi-civil war” promoted by the Great Backlash — that dominated the 2000 election and now seems inescapable. It was in the red states — “out in the great plains,” he writes, “where ranchers struggled to feed their cattle and the nation’s farmers stare every day into the abyss of bankruptcy and destitution” — that “the Republicans racked up 80 percent of the vote.”
But the Democrats, “the party of the poor and defenseless,” are complicit in the stunning paradox of voters deciding against their own best interests. Liberal Democrats have acted as enablers, allowing the manipulation of the electorate, partly because of their “association with East- and West-Coast values,” but mostly because they’ve accepted the imposition of “cultural wedge issues like gays and abortion” so that material concerns are overshadowed.
The greater irony is not that Democrats have been painted into a corner as “a tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show” — as described in a famous TV commercial, which Thomas cites — but that the Great Backlash is actually designed “not to win the cultural battles.” Rather, the goal is “to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly,” he asserts. The backlash is designed chiefly to arouse indignation and, by doing so, put voters into a rage that blinds them.
Yet there are further, equally strange ironies. In a recent piece of political analysis in The New Yorker, the cultural historian Louis Menand pointed out that it may be delusional to think that American voters — regardless of their cultural beliefs or their economic interests — actually care who gets elected. He cited one voter study from 1952 to 2000, which showed that when asked whether it mattered to them who won the presidency, between 22% and 44% of voters answered “don’t care” or “don’t know.”
Democracy in the land of the free has been subverted
not by anarchists or terrorists but unknowingly
by the mainstream electorate itself.
Consider this, too: Nearly 3 million Americans voted against Al Gore in 2000 “because their states were too dry or too wet,” Menand writes. Because of that year’s weather, “those voters cost Gore seven states, any one of which would have given him the election.” Further, according to Businessweek, only 55% of eligible voters participated in the 2000 election. This means that 138 countries with democratic elections rank above the U.S. in terms of voter turnout.
Menand notes that all of this may simply indicate three things: 1) “The will of the people” is essentially arbitrary because many more voters who do turn out respond to misinformation, manipulation and “random personal associations” than those who vote their economic interests. 2) Voters don’t understand their interests, but merely reflect what the elites tell them. “Therefore, democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face.” Or 3) Voters may not be able to articulate their interests but they understand basic cues — shortcuts expressed by candidates — so it all “comes out in the wash.”
Finally, to believe Michael Moore — and this may be the greatest irony and most inexplicable paradox — there is no culture war among most Americans, despite the red state-blue state paradigm. Even if arch-conservative Republicans “seek nothing less than ridding the planet of bleeding-heart, multiculturalists wherever they may be having gay sex,” as Moore quips in his best-seller Dude, Where’s My Country?, many reliable polls have shown that opinions on various hot-button issues do not differ significantly between voters in red states and voters in blue states.
He cites a ton of those polls in his book, indicating that 85% agree with the goals of the Civil Rights movement; 85% support equal opportunity in the workplace for gays and lesbians; 83% of all Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement; 80% believe in racial diversification for colleges; 80% believe in universal health care; 73% believe in gun control. It’s why he devotes an entire chapter to “the liberal paradise,” his nom de pays for the U.S.
If Moore is correct, a better question than “What’s the matter with Kansas?” might be, “What’s the matter with Thomas Frank?” Better yet might be the question, “What’s the matter with the U.S. electoral system?” Even the novelist Mark Helprin, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who writes columns for the right-wing opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote that in a Parliamentary system, George W. Bush would have been turned out of office long ago.
But as the system stands now, presidential elections do not necessarily reflect the popular vote. The American Electoral College operates on an indirect, state-by-state, winner-take-all basis. In other words, the victor who gets the majority of the popular vote in each state wins all the electoral votes for that state, regardless of how large or small the majority is. That’s why Al Gore lost the 2000 election (shenanigans aside), despite having won the popular vote by a significant margin.
And here comes some of the especially dated stuff:
Given such confusion, it might be best to take the advice of Richard Reeves, a wise and respected pundit. He says to forget about the presidential election until the first nationally televised debate two weeks from now, on Sept. 30. Nothing the candidates do between now and then will matter, Reeves claims, because the deciding factor of every campaign since 1960 (when Kennedy defeated Nixon) has been the debates. And if the election is not decided by the first debate, it will be decided by the last, on Oct. 13, two weeks before the election.
Unless, of course, it turns out that one of the candidates doesn’t know how to dine on a hot tamale. Ask Gerald Ford. As Menand tells it, during the 1976 campaign, Ford mistakenly tried to eat a tamale with the corn husk still on. This ethnic gaffe caused enough of a stir to make the papers. Later, after losing to Jimmy Carter, when he was asked what lesson he’d learned, Ford replied: “Always shuck your tamales.”
We know that Hillary Clinton not only won the popular vote last November by a much larger margin than Gore’s but that she also won the debates by a landslide. Which puts all punditry about debates in question. And of course, despite the interregnum of the Obama years, the peculiarity of the American Electoral College is so much worse these days it’s clear that Michael Moore’s nom de pays no longer applies, if it ever did. Americans are now living in the United States of Trumpistan.