Analysis: America prefers it simple. That was Kerry's big problem

'Democrats have yet to convince most Americans that they understand the threats of the new century'
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The Independent US

While the political scientists pick over the remains, some conclusions seem obvious. The 2004 US election was almost a re-run of 2000 from the standpoint of the division of electoral blocs. The reds stayed red and the blues stayed blue. Second, it is difficult to defeat an incumbent President and particularly so in time of war. "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream," goes the mantra. Third, the Republican Party is solidifying its hold on America's middle class, a term which embraces both wage-earning blue-collar workers, home owners, office workers and young professionals.

While the political scientists pick over the remains, some conclusions seem obvious. The 2004 US election was almost a re-run of 2000 from the standpoint of the division of electoral blocs. The reds stayed red and the blues stayed blue. Second, it is difficult to defeat an incumbent President and particularly so in time of war. "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream," goes the mantra. Third, the Republican Party is solidifying its hold on America's middle class, a term which embraces both wage-earning blue-collar workers, home owners, office workers and young professionals.

The less obvious intricacies, though, may hold some clues to the future. Americans are increasingly voting separately from, if not in opposition to, their economic self-interest. In the age of terrorism, fear and insecurity are powerful political forces. Americans prefer a simpler leader whom they perceive to be "strong" to a more nuanced leader who sees the world in more complex terms. And, finally, the culture wars begun in the 1960s rage on below the surface.

Given a choice of reasons for their votes, the predominant choice was "moral values" over economic issues, Iraq, and the terrorist threat itself. This was particularly true of married women who have been reliable Democratic voters in modern elections. There are two cultural centres in modern suburban America - the shopping mall, where young people particularly "hang out" and watch Hollywood's increasingly mindless, sleazy and degrading products, and the community church which offers a sharp contrast in the form of a place of worship, a social centre, and a focal point for family and community life. The mall inhabitants do not vote and the church-goers vote overwhelmingly Republican.

Americans have been notoriously libertarian on cultural issues, that is except in times of turmoil and insecurity. The multiple revolutions in globalisation, information, immigration, state failure, and new forms of violence, together with an increasingly permissive popular culture and the evolution of new forms of family, have seriously loosened cultural roots and caused many Americans to seek simplicity, tradition, and a moral core in their leaders. When an individual or a nation feels suddenly adrift, there is a natural tendency to return to a known shore.

Democrats, rightly or wrongly, have become identified with forms of permissiveness that American traditionalists see as dangerous, destructive, and relativistic. The seismic effects of the 9/11 attacks are still being felt. If cultural revolutions make people feel morally insecure, hitherto unknown vulnerabilities of the homeland make them feel physically endangered. The Democratic Party has yet to convince the majority of Americans that it understands the threats and dangers, some real, some perceived, of the new century. The Democratic Party, once known as the "war party", (remember Bob Dole's warning in 1976: "If you want to go to war, vote Democratic"), is now seen by too many Americans as "weak on defence".

Like the cultural revolutions, this all began with the trauma of Vietnam when first the Democratic Party then the nation divided deeply and profoundly. Symbolically, John Kerry was the ideal candidate to heal these still-open wounds in that he, famously, fought in the war and then returned to oppose it. But what made him a healer among Vietnam-era Democrats also made him a "flip-flopper" to his opponents and to too many voters who did not know him otherwise.

For our British and European friends, all this navel-gazing may sound pathetically immature, and possibly with some reason. A large number of Americans are well aware of the radical departure from 20th-century foreign policy behaviour that the first Bush administration's performance in Iraq, and on international co-operation generally, has been. Some thumb their noses at foreign dismay and disdain, but many more have a Jeffersonian "decent respect for the opinions of mankind". Comfort may be found in the performance of the second Reagan administration which subtly shifted from Cold War confrontation to perestroika accommodation. The chaos in Iraq has seriously discredited the neoconservatives' dreams of a democratic empire in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere. Despite his "stay the course" rhetoric, there is every reason to believe that saner advisers will convince President Bush to liquidate the Iraqi operations and quietly abandon those imperial dreams. Great effort will be made to get a new Iraqi government to invite us to leave as quickly as possible.

When the American people recover their egalitarian impulses and their sense that we are all in this together, the Democrats will be there. When they become secure enough to embrace cultural diversity and difference, we will also be there. And when our people look for leadership and genuine strength based on mature thought and experienced wisdom, we will once more be there.

Gary Hart is a former Democratic senator who ran for the US presidency in 1988

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