For the past several weeks, I've been trying to make sense of the opposing "facts" that are informing the presidential campaign. I don't mean that I advocate hiring (another) independent investigating team to verify or rebut the facts dealt out by either or both sides. What interests me is how subservient facts are to the political convictions that we bring to them.
Put another way, I don't think this election is about religion in politics, but about the religious zeal with which many of the nation's voters hold our political positions. And that frankly, John Kerry can only win if there are enough "converts" and new "baptisms" to a different world view than the one most of the country has held since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
For example, Bush supporters point to Kerry's "waffling," with examples of public statements and senatorial votes. And they deride him for his opposition to the Vietnam War after he returned from combat. (Only a few would really question that he saw combat, although there have certainly been attempts to question the seriousness of the combat and the injuries he received.) Most Kerry supporters will readily admit that Kerry has changed his mind on certain issues, but point to changing conditions (for example, in Iraq) as reason for his changes of position. They will argue that Kerry went to Vietnam out of conviction, but returned and "spoke the truth" about a war that we had been mistakenly led into.
Claims and counterclaimsKerry supporters say that President Bush avoided service in Vietnam by using family connections to enlist in the Texas National Guard, and that he ultimately did not complete that service. They say that the United States had world opinion on our side post 9/11, and that we have squandered it by acting unilaterally in Iraq. They say that the President mislead us by claiming that there was a link between Saddam's Iraq and Al Queda, and that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They claim that world opinion, once solidly on our side, is now solidly against us, and that only Kerry can bring international presence to the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
Bush supporters say that Vietnam is yesterday, that the President received an honorable discharge from the Guard, that Saddam had the "capacity" to make WMDs, that we have a "coalition of the willing" fighting in Iraq, and that we are better off fighting terrorism "over there" than we are risking another 9/11.
The "facts" don't swayOne can enumerate and shout these "facts" across air waves, book pages, and talk radio shows. The truth of the matter is, however, that such facts rarely sway anyone. As a bookseller said in an interview about the proliferation of political books this year, "no one is reading them to change their minds."
Working with this hypotheses, that facts are secondary to the religious-like political belief systems that determine the leaders we choose and the directions we go as a nation, I looked at recent history in search of parallels and easily found several.
First, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he said that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The Great Depression was horrible, with much loss of livelihood and life itself. Hoover and the Republicans claimed that we were growing our way out of it, but FDR convinced the nation that we needed to band together and use the great resources of the federal government to pull us out of despair and into prosperity.
Essentially, that message held sway until the time of Ronald Reagan.
Is government the problem?In the first election that I really paid attention to (I was 18 in 1960, not then a legal voter), John Kennedy asked us to consider "not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Although JFK won the election by a very slim margin, this message echoed across the land, fueled the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, and sent thousands of us - young people especially - to the Peace Corps, the Green Berets and other government jobs where we hoped to make the world a better place.
Ronald Reagan successfully countered FDR and JFK with a message that "government is the problem." Goldwater had been swamped when espousing a similar message in 1964, but by 1980 the Vietnam War, domestic turmoil, and program failures had caused enough political conversions in the country to elect President Reagan.
I believe that the current majority belief system in American politics remains essentially the same. It is often pointed out that President Bush skips comparisons to his father's presidency and harkens to Reagan's.
The core belief system - taxes are bad, capitalism and individualism are good, wealth will "trickle down" and serve everyone, government's one sacred duty is an overwhelmingly strong defense program - stand today as they did in 1980.
There are two preachers on the stump in America. Reverend Bush is preaching the gospel of individualism, supply side economics and taking American power to the world.
Reverend Kerry is trying to convince a majority of voters that community barn-raising and international cooperation are just as American as individualism and military strength, and that his gospel will deliver us from fear and trembling in our homes and our nation.
Rich Wandschneider is a longtime columnist for the Chieftain and director of Fishtrap, Inc. He can be reached on the Internet though (www.fishtrap.org).