Being an American abroad can be difficult sometimes. There's so much to defend, to explain, to demystify. Now is certainly one of those times; I spent a lot of yesterday failing in my earnest desire to discuss anything but the election.
My British colleagues asked, "Why?"
"Because," I replied, "They don't see the news you see."
The stories that don't make Fox, or Clear Channel, or the Murdoch press: the death of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the erosion of the case for war, the French as a rational nation with a reasoned viewpoint. Bush the bumbler, Cheney the crook, Rumsfeld the hatchet man. Alert statuses changing from puce to chartreuse to teal whenever there's an awkward story to bury. Historical analyses of how Saddam Hussein came to power and was kept there; the deaths of Palestinians as well as Israelis; a positive view of Democrats.
"But, but, but, why? I don't understand."
"Because you don't see the news they see."
I don't see this news either, but I can make some guesses: Bush the charming, folksy man verses Kerry the cold, stiff intellectual. A judge who feels his allegiance to Christ supersedes his obligation to separate church and state. Gays lining up to marry in coastal states, intercut with deliberately shocking images of Gay Pride parades. World War 2 documentaries, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Reagan days. The 700 Club and Christian radio.
People who voted for Bush were not by definition idiots, or insane, or evil, as many people on the Net have stated in their anger and disappointment. They voted as sombrely, with as much thought, commitment and dedication, as the rest of the electorate. But their priorities, their aspirations, and their worldview are different from that of my Scottish colleagues, so different that there's almost no explaining it.
The lives they lead - or at least strive for - are classic Norman Rockwell. Small towns of good neighbors, where doors are not locked (or haven't been within living memory), where children go safely to school and families to church, where people work hard and value honesty and faith above money and power. Marriages last, teenagers don't get pregnant, no one has affairs or abortions, or suffers from domestic violence. There are no drugs, maybe not even alcohol. Summer vacations are spent at "the lake" (there always seems to be a lake); Christmas and Easter are religious holidays rather than just time off. When jobs are scarce and times are hard, everyone pulls together, and every funeral is followed by a succession of covered dishes. There are a lot of flags, and not just at the Fourth of July parade. Folks have no need to go to foreign places, because America is the best country in the world.
People may not live this way in real life, but a large proportion of Americans wish they did. I do, sometimes. And the Midwest, the farm states, are the custodians of this dream. They see themselves as the moral compass of the nation, the heart of the land. The coastal states are corrupted by their contact with foreign cultures, too much money, and too many intellectuals.
Kerry never spoke their language, though as a combat veteran he had an "in" that his East Coast lawyer image couldn't ruin. But Bush and his colleagues talk the talk, however little they walk the walk. And the anti-foreigner, anti-intellectual message has been underlined for years by Republican-owned media that panders to its viewership's biases. (Just as the New York media does, by the way, and the Californian, and the various flavors of British - a news channel that its viewers doesn't like doesn't survive.) A Midwestern voter could get up, switch off Fox News, listen to Clear Channel on the way to the polling station, and vote the way his pastor suggested (using copious Bible references), with a clear conscience. It all made sense; all the inputs hung together.
I don't know how to change the Midwest, or whether it would be a good idea to try. I don't think anyone has the right to but the Midwesterners themselves. Perhaps the Internet, with its wider spectrum of news available, will broaden views (though it's equally possible that it will simply consolidate them around a few conservative websites). Perhaps, as with Clinton's "The Economy, Stupid" message, some unifying problem will cause the heartland to vote for someone who is more palatable to the rest of the nation and the world.
I do know, however, that berating Bush supporters, calling them stupid, or ignoring their reasons for voting as they did will not get their votes in the future. Once the hurt has died down, I hope the rest of us can distinguish between the voters and their candidate. (Just as I distinguish between our soldiers, whom I respect, and the people who sent them to war, whom I criticize.) As an American expat, I may oppose any attempt to pare down our Constitutional rights, may cringe at what Bush says and does on the world stage, and may very well worry for the future he builds. But I'll still be defending Bush voters to my British friends and colleagues.
E Pluribus Unum