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Blue in a Red America
The values of Red America are ascendant: Fear, intolerance, and an insistence on imposing a pinched notion of morality on everybody else

WHEN THE HISTORY of the 2004 presidential campaign is written, I suspect a piece of fundamentalist agitprop that got little attention at the time it was sent out will loom large. In September, the Republican National Committee mailed a flier to prospective voters in West Virginia and Arkansas warning them what would happen if "liberals" were to win the election. A picture of a Bible was labeled BANNED. And beneath a photograph of a man placing a wedding ring on another man’s hand was the word ALLOWED.

Both states went for George W. Bush on Election Day. And no, it’s not likely that visions of burning Bibles and marrying gays were decisive in keeping either state in the red column. But the Republican mailing — hateful, false, toying with the fears of ignorant, intolerant people — certainly didn’t hurt the Bush re-election effort. The real importance of the flier, though, wasn’t whether it swung a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand votes. Rather, it was as the perfect symbol of Bush’s invisible campaign. Of how he and Karl Rove succeeded in tapping into the primitive religious uprising that’s sweeping over this country and used it to snuff out the hopes and dreams of those who believe in — whose lives depend on — an inclusive, diverse society.

It’s now Wednesday morning, the proverbial day after. John Kerry trailed Bush by more than 3.5 million votes — seven times the margin by which Al Gore defeated Bush in the 2000 popular vote. And Kerry lost Ohio, the Florida of 2004 and his sole hope of capturing the presidency, by about 140,000 votes. Bush has won. And by capturing more than 51 percent of the popular vote, he has become the first presidential candidate since his father (in 1988) to win an outright majority — a feat that eluded Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996.

Gay marriage was on the ballot in 11 states on Tuesday, including Ohio. In all 11, people overwhelmingly voted to make sure that their gay and lesbian neighbors cannot enjoy the same rights they have. Obviously Rove’s oft-stated plan to energize the four million evangelical voters who stayed home in 2000 worked brilliantly. Earlier this week, in Slate, Chris Suellentrop wrote that Rove’s pitch to the religious right would fail because it had "inflamed the Democratic base," which would more than offset any Republican gains. Suellentrop’s theory was logical and appealing. It was also wrong.

No sooner had Ohio fallen early Wednesday morning than NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw began badgering retired Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell about why his party had so alienated cultural conservatives. Mitchell, without answering the question directly, acknowledged the problem, and said that many on the religious right were "voting in a manner that’s contrary to their economic interests." But Brokaw — whose pending retirement can’t come quickly enough — wanted more, telling Mitchell that evangelicals often feel as though "they’re mocked by the Democrats" and "belittled for their values." I have nothing in my notes to indicate that Mitchell responded. Maybe I was just too disgusted to write anything down. In real life, Brokaw is both liberal and worldly. Why did he feel the need to pander so?

On CNN, David Gergen, a former top-level aide to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, approached this cultural divide from an entirely different perspective: from that of blue-state liberals who can’t believe what happened this week. "There’s going to be a sense of alienation, a lot of isolation from the majority," Gergen said. He even went so far as to observe that many liberals are going to find themselves wondering "what kind of a country" they’re living in.

Nowhere is that sense of isolation, of alienation, going to be felt more keenly than in Massachusetts, Kerry’s home and the bluest of blue states. We live, after all, in the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, protected by the state constitution. It is a state that both Bushes bitterly mocked in their successful presidential campaigns, with George W. sneering that Kerry was a "Massachusetts liberal." It’s possible, of course, to make too much of this: 37 percent of Massachusetts voters cast their ballots against Kerry on Tuesday, just as 34 percent of Texas voters opposed Bush. There are plenty of red voters in blue states and blue in red. But for Massachusetts’s urban, educated class — the folks who work in medicine, higher education, or technology, live in or near the city, and value diversity — what happened on Election Day was a terrible blow not just to their hopes for a Kerry victory, but to their very idea of what it means to be an American.

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Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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