Politics & Policy

The Politics of Division

Kerry's backers use shameful tactics to shore up a faltering base.

Senator John Kerry likes to scold his critics for practicing “the politics of division.” But if practice makes perfect, his allies are more deserving of his disdain.

In the run-up to Election Day, Democratic groups backing Kerry have used every weapon in their arsenal to divide and conquer at the polls. Their favorite tactic: fomenting racial tension and religious bigotry to Kerry’s advantage.

Last month, Kerry’s friends at MoveOn.org placed a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the Gallup polling organization and its director, George Gallup Jr. It seems that Gallup polls have consistently found President George W. Bush faring better than Kerry, which led the folks at Moveon.org to conclude that the poll’s numbers were flawed. With conspiratorial flair, the ad unveiled the reason behind George Gallup’s refusal to change the numbers for MoveOn.org: Gallup “is a devout evangelical Christian” who considers his job “a kind of ministry.”

That probably did not shock many committed Christians, who often talk about their careers as “ministries” or “vocations” that allow them to serve God by serving others in the various professions. But the revelation of Gallup’s religious leanings was not meant for a Christian audience. The ad targeted Kerry’s secular base–a group that seems to consider evangelical Christians only slightly less dangerous than Islamic jihadists.

More recently, another Kerry organ entered the fray, this one opting for race-baiting over religion-baiting. The group, which bears the Orwellian name of Americans Coming Together, is blanketing African-American neighborhoods in Kansas City and St. Louis with get-out-the-vote fliers that show a black man being pinned against a building by water from a fire hose. Under the picture are these words: “This is what they used to do to keep us from voting.” The flip side of the flier says, “This is how Republicans keep African Americans from voting now,” before belching a laundry list of recycled rumors and outlandish assertions about “phony cops” being sent to polling places to discourage black voters and the purported plan of Attorney General John Ashcroft “to prevent African Americans from registering to vote at all.” “Don’t let them do it again,” the flier concludes, “. . . show them who has the real power.”

So much for subtlety. When questioned about the fliers by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the state spokeswoman for Americans Coming Together seemed to feel no need to document evidence for the fliers’ claims. “We want people to be aware that there have been increased reports of problems with voter suppression,” she said, as if describing a nonpartisan pamphlet produced by the Federal Election Commission.

The reports and rumors in the ACT flier are a far cry from reality. But distinguishing between fact and fiction may not fire up the base. And strong turnout from the Democratic base is a major concern for Kerry, a candidate who has failed to inspire enthusiasm among key constituencies that Democratic presidential contenders usually take for granted.

Consider the black vote: A poll released last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that nearly one in five black voters now supports Bush over Kerry. Though the vast majority of African Americans remain loyal to the Democratic party, Bush has doubled his percentage of support from those voters, to 18 percent. Pollsters say those crossover voters are attracted by Bush’s conservative stance on issues such as gay marriage and by his faith-based initiative for addressing poverty.

Recent polls have also found Bush luring away some of Kerry’s Jewish support. The American Jewish Committee’s Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion found nearly a quarter of Jews backing Bush this fall, up from 19 percent who supported him in 2000. Kerry still attracts the lion’s share of Jewish support–69 percent–but that’s 10 percentage points less than Gore attracted in 2000.

Among Catholics, another key constituency of the Democratic party, Kerry is neck-and-neck with Bush. Polls released last month showed Bush pulling ahead, particularly among white Catholics who tend to vote in higher numbers. The Catholic vote remains in flux, but if Kerry loses it, he will be the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1988. And he will face unflattering comparisons to John F. Kennedy, the last Catholic presidential candidate, who handily won 80 percent of the Catholic vote.

Perhaps Kerry’s desperation to secure a base that should already be solid has led him to overlook his contempt for the politics of division–at least long enough to allow his allies to inflame racial tensions and revive religious bigotry to his advantage. If he cannot appeal to enough Americans on the strength of his record or the sense of his policies–and the numbers suggest that he cannot–then his supporters must divide and conquer, pitting black against white, religious against secular, Christian against Jew.

It is a cynical, arrogant tactic, one that arises out of anger at voters in minority groups who refuse to toe the party line. It relies on the assumption that the traditional Democratic voter is easily manipulated and needs only the image of a fire hose or the mention of an evangelical Christian to send him scurrying to Kerry’s side.

Let’s hope, for the sake of a united America, that the cynics are dead wrong.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.


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