A subtle change has occurred in the last two weeks. In unguarded moments of conversation, the possibility that John Kerry might actually be elected president is quite suddenly being taken into account. This is true among strong supporters of George W. Bush, even those who are still confident that Bush will win, and also among Democrats who are not all that high on Kerry. All are beginning to allow a little of the air of possibility into their speech.
In his appearances on our television screens, Kerry is seeming friendlier and more at ease, and a little more presidential. He actually has a presidential face: craggily Lincolnian, somber, serious.
There is no doubt that in crowds President Bush seems much more at home than his rival. He’s closer to people; he likes them, they like him. He bounds across the stage, his enthusiasm infectious, his good will tangible. His approval ratings are going back up; he looks confident.
So I’m not saying that John Kerry is going to win, only that he now looks more like a real candidate than he did four months ago, when he first clinched the nomination.
Four months ago! And we are now just past the halfway point to the election.
The good thing going for Kerry is that the rabid hatred for George Bush that drives Democrats has spread like an infection, farther and farther, sowing some doubt and fragments of dislike even among Bush supporters. Even in those we most admire, we also see weaknesses or gaps; hatred, a corrosive passion, only exacerbates these flaws.
Hatred, for the haters, is a license to show no respect. It is for them a reason not to be civil–to stomp, to destroy any vestige of a good name. Because it destroys respect, this passion is corrosive even for those who do not directly share in it but are nonetheless rained upon by its sparks. It weakens respect. It makes the hated’s supporters defensive–shocks them into a kind of silence.
In the past, liberals made a point of hating hatred. They imagined that the forces of hate were entirely on the other side: “Right-wing hate merchants.” Now they have begun publicly to glory in hate, first writing articles explaining why hatred of Bush is okay, then being pleasured by the ferocity of their own hatred, then competing with others to see who can voice the most intense disdain, and who can curl from his lips the most deliciously forbidden insults. The Left has engaged in an orgy of hatred. And enjoyed it, really enjoyed it.
There is something so innocent, direct, fresh-faced, open, Tom Sawyerish in George Bush’s manner–something so western, Christian, decent, even kind. And there is such candor in his eyes and behavior that the ferocity of the hatred aimed at him seems completely out of proportion. The hatred is a suit that ill fits him.
Nevertheless, George W. Bush has been re-conceived and re-wrought into everything that the sophisticated Leftist absolutely hates about Americana: Its innocence. Its boyishness. Its Christianity. Its unpretentiousness. Its heedlessness of all the shibboleths the Left most highly values.
And, in addition, the president exercises unsuspected political skills. The man has actually won most of the political fights he’s taken on. And he has turned the country in a far more Reaganite direction than anyone ever imagined under that anodyne term, “compassionate conservatism.”
Personalizing Social Security? Cutting the teachers’ unions out of total control of the schools? Supplanting the governmental plantation with private charitable initiatives, which actually show better success rates than the welfare state? The handwriting is on the wall, piercing through the dreams of the big-government Left, foretelling the end of the social-democratic illusion.
How did this hick have the nerve to be so radical in government–he who so barely won the election of 2000? (Stole it, the most bitter partisans still say, despite all the studies disproving it.) How did he have the nerve?
The Right tends to think that the Left is stupid–never learns, keeps repeating the same old errors. The Left is different. The Left tends to think that the Right is mean, narrow, selfish, evil (on top of being stupid). I once had a professor at Harvard who was trying to explain what it was like for Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of his time, to have succeeded in winning a teaching position only in Konigsberg, far from the glittering list of leading universities in Germany. That would be, he said, like winning tenure at…at…at Ohio State. (So superior do Harvard professors feel toward Middle American universities.) In this spirit, the Left also thinks the congenitally evil, conservative Bush is also stupid and second-rate.
Who is Bush to drive the last nails into the coffin of social democracy, and all those big-government dreams? The Left can feel the demography slipping away from them, and the strong currents of the future, too, and the bilious taste of failed ideas rising in their throats. It is now or never for the Left. It is desperation time.
On the left, there are no “ultra-leftists.” “Ultra” is a term reserved for the Right.
At election time, the Left pretends to be more religious than it really is, and more centrist than it has any desire ever to be. It cannot succeed without donning masks. It cannot flourish without telling the most awful lies about its opposition, and even about itself. Learning how to be a (successful) leftist is to learn elaborate codes of speech and instruments of disguise.
Conservatives may be hypocrites, in not living up to standards to which they repair (and more credit to them for holding to standards better than they are, in whose light their own faults are mercilessly made clear). But they almost never harbor any ideology about the future, which they would have to disguise. Most are defending the way things have been, are, and should properly be in America. Marx may call this “false consciousness” in service to an un-admitted ideology, but in fact conservatives are simply people who think their grandparents and earlier ancestors were at least as wise as, even wiser than, they.
Then, too, the Left has developed a tic about neoconservatives. These former leftists (for a former leftist is what a neoconservative is, of the first generation anyway) do have a vision of the future, a bright vision to rival that of the Left. They fight the Left, ideology for ideology, policy proposal for policy proposal, class analysis for class analysis. The neoconservatives side with the conservatives on most issues, but with an attitude, and an aim, and a determination. They are, in the life of the intellect, warriors. Their sharpest weapon is the reality check. That is their comparative advantage over the Left. They have been “mugged by” and won over to reality. The Left has lost argument after argument to the neoconservatives for the past 20 years–has proved to be on the wrong side of reality on issue after issue–and hence reserves for the neoconservatives a special loathing.
George W. Bush turns out to have been far closer to the neoconservatives (though he is not one) than Ann Richards and Al Gore ever believed possible. True enough, he is no intellectual, and would not want to be one. Still, his mind is quicker, of a more tempered steel, and honed to a more acute practicality than lazy-minded leftists before 2001 ever allowed themselves to imagine. They “misunderestimated” him then, and still do.
George Bush wants to change the country’s direction. He wants each person to own and to be able to will to his children the unused portion of his Social Security. He wants to make personal responsibility the central principle of our common life. He wants a more compassionate, initiative-taking citizenry, less passive and less dependent upon government. Help for the needy, but not help that is that is condescending and incapacitating.
With half the presidential race to go, George Bush is still talking about responsibility, bravery, hope, and opportunity as he did before 2000. Following Howard Dean, though, the Democrats have discovered the illicit pleasures of hatred. Hatred has empowered their campaign, lifting it from nowhere to a close race.
The Democrats will try to hide this. As the election proceeds, John Kerry will put new skins on his arms and alter his voice and mimic George Bush on just about everything–conservative values, hope, opportunity, his policies in Iraq: the same as Bush’s. He will be the “me, too” candidate. That has already begun.
Beneath the surface, though, everyone will feel the heat of hate. The Democrats cannot help themselves. I am not at all sure that their hatred will defeat them. But it ought to.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.