Politics & Policy

Passions On High

We need two parties. Many Democrats don't seem to realize this.

I never expected 570 e-mails in response to my July 30 piece. I read 343 of them myself and kept track of the responses. (My assistant read the other 220, when I ran out of time.) Of the ones I read, 136 readers loved the piece, and many of them said they forwarded it to friends and family. Most of these thanked me profusely. “You wrote what I think, but couldn’t put into words,” several said.

A few of the other 207 wrote really nice e-mails, expressing why they disagreed with me, and giving good reasons. One letter in particular bewailed the fact that my column raised the emotional temperature of this election, when all of us should do all we can to dispel the hatred, the anger, the hostile emotions. That one really touched me, partly because both my son Richard and my wife also said I was too partisan. What I wrote was true, but more edgy than I wanted.

That may explain why most of the 207 “antis” erupted in bitter anger. Although I didn’t intend them to be so, two or three of the sentences in my column could be read in an inflammatory way. I’m sorry I didn’t see that, and didn’t word them more irenically.

An astonishing number of e-mails consisted simply in calling me idiot, moron, imbecile, and far more unprintable scatological terms. Some writers sure know how to express total contempt.

A good many wondered whether I was on a different planet, and expressed sheer disbelief that anyone could doubt Kerry would win. Most of these seemed certain that Kerry was far ahead and a sure thing.

I did get a little bit of reassurance that I was grounded in reality when a new Gallup poll came out over the weekend saying that among likely voters (the most reliable indicator) their polling showed a three- or four-point lead for Bush, exactly the margin my column predicted for the November 2 election.

Since I didn’t get to read most of the e-mail until after the Gallup report had come out, the charges that I was out of touch with reality seemed to apply more to my correspondents. All I asked of them was to consider the possibility that they might lose. Gallup suggests it is possible.

To be truthful, reading these letters was like visiting another planet. These 204 Democrats (about three said they were Republicans) clearly do have a totally different view of Bush–and, less clearly, a different view of Kerry–than I do. Their sentiment was far more animus against Bush than support for Kerry. One said my word ‘hatred’ was inexact: ‘Total disgust’ is more accurate. That’s what a good many people expressed–an almost inarticulate disgust beyond their powers of speech. Quite a number compared Bush to Hitler, and the present to the early Third Reich.

Others denied that there is any hate in their hearts, just disagreement with Bush policies. Deficits. Tax cuts for the rich. Failure of education reforms. The mess in Iraq. But then many of these tailed off into recounting Bush’s “lying” and lust for war. These letters tended to come from self-identified Christians who seemed as though they would be uncomfortable supporting almost any war. They were not kind in their judgments of Bush.

Still others admitted that most Democrats do hate Bush, and excused it by saying it was learned from the masters–the Republicans who hated Bill Clinton.

About half (or maybe only a third) of the 207 letters went into painful riffs, long or short, about the vices of George W. Bush. Several of these are based on untruths–things Democratic speakers such as Howard Dean and Michael Moore say all the time that simply are not true. The revulsion against Bush expressed in these emails does not seem to depend on truth. Even those who actually believe these things could with a little effort find out that they are false.

Let me just mention a few of these untruths:

The intelligence, academic achievement, and IQ of George Bush are too low for the job. Bush’s IQ, measured by his SAT scores and academic achievements, is higher than that of John F. Kennedy and many other successful presidents. Much was published on this in 2000.

Bush “lied” when he said Iraq was an “imminent” danger to the U.S. Bush expressly denied that the danger was then imminent, and said when it was actually “imminent” it would be too late to counter.

Bush “lied” when he said Iraq had the “potential” to develop weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam must be assumed to possess weapons of mass destruction. Saddam’s potential to develop weapons of mass destruction has been demonstrated from what was found after May 2003. And any reasonable leader, hearing the best estimates of all major intelligence services and observing Saddam’s behavior, had to assume that he possessed them. Even the anti-war movement employed the same assumption. It used as one of its arguments the claim that war would occasion Saddam’s use of WMDs.

Bush “lied” when he said in his 2003 State of the Union address that the British had information about the attempt of Iraq to purchase “yellow cake” in Nigeria, as charged by Joseph Wilson. (The famous 16 words.) The British Butler Inquiry said Bush’s words were “well-founded.” The Senate Intelligence Committee discovered that it was Wilson who had lied.

Bush “lied” when he landed on the aircraft carrier under a banner that said “mission accomplished.” General Tommy Franks has said he suggested the symbol as a strategic move, to dramatize to reluctant allies that the offensive operations were now over. A new (but still difficult) phase of ending disorder and bringing stable political and economic institutions had begun. On this task, some Europeans had hinted they would help. Franks wanted a dramatic signal sent to them. It was also meant as a “closure” for the main Coalition offensive.

A big reason for the deficits are the Bush tax cuts. As even the New York Times has noted, the main cause by far was the great drop of income for the wealthy in the two-year stock-market drop, with a consequent dramatic drop in tax revenues. This was before the Bush tax cuts came into effect. Since then, tax revenues have dramatically increased, especially from the rich. The top 10 percent pay 65 percent of all income taxes.

An ugly feature of many letters was the portrait of Republicans they painted, as if aside from being very dumb Republicans are also fascists and hate the poor and seek world domination. Some of these letters (especially the comparisons with Hitler) must be re-read to be believed, they are so delusional.

A handful of my correspondents gave rather good arguments against a list of Bush policies–the typical arguments Democrats hurl back to Republicans. I found these letters impressive, even though I disagreed with them. That people do not agree on such things is the reason we have two different parties. And it is better for the country when both parties are in a certain rough parity, keeping both on their toes.

As I tried to hint in the beginning of my piece, it is not always good when Republicans hold both houses of the legislature and also the executive office. Republicans do better when they are a minority. I had in mind the number of Republican governors who in the past four years have raised taxes. They violate their own principle of limited government all too easily.

We need both parties. The competition of ideas is essential for a free society.

There are many other points to lift out from these letters, but let me conclude with one. A surprising number of them–maybe 15 percent–reacted with intensity against my sentences on religion, and went on to voice their contempt for Christians (even if they had once been Christian themselves). They must be very uncomfortable with the many appeals of the Founders to the Creator, Judge, and Providence “who watches over the destiny of nations.” They didn’t pay much heed to the fact that I quoted the most irreligious of the Founders, Tom Paine, to make my point. Paine was by no means an evangelical.

Besides, many correspondents did not distinguish between my personal expression of faith in Providence and the Judge of all things (Jewish as well as Christian tenets) and “theocracy,” or failure to separate church from state. Do they also bridle, I wonder, at the four names of God invoked in the Declaration of Independence?

The Democratic party has many parts and many tendencies, and I should know, having been a Democrat all my life. On point after point, however, I’ve been breaking with the party, where it seems to me its mainstream spokesmen are out of touch with reality–economic, moral, and cultural. (As Will Rogers said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.” Well, that’s the way it used to be. Living in Washington, D.C.,I need to be a Democrat to vote in the mayoral primary, our most decisive local election. The national party has become too organized around abortion and too wrong about foreign policy and some domestic policies for me to support it. Reagan and now Bush have taken over the foreign policy idealism/realism I used to hold in common with John and Bobby Kennedy, Scoop Jackson, and others.)

To repeat my main theme: Democrats are confident about a victory this year. Maybe they are right. Still, if, as I anticipate, President Bush wins solidly in 2004, many people will be profoundly unhappy. As one wrote, “First we will vote, then if we lose, we will fight.” If such passions win out, it could be ugly.

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.


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