November 5, 2004

A call for liberal conversation with the Right

It's generally assumed that get-out-the-vote efforts work to the benefit of the Left. Younger, more transient voters are less likely to be registered, and more likely to vote Democrat. In this election, particularly, liberals assumed that voter registration and turnout were a top priority. As we plastered campuses with information, looked up polling places, and offered rides to the polls to first-time voters, we rarely worried about changing votes. In a polarized country, with undecided voters few and far between, the work of winning hearts and minds took a backseat to bringing the Left to the polls in force, and keeping them there. Anticipating voter suppression in Ohio and Florida, we prepared to grapple with Republican challengers at the polls, prepping students with information on provisional ballots and laws of legal residence.

For the most part, however (and I do stress most) the Right won through fair play. There were the usual dirty tricks: a letter sent to Ohio voters claimed that those who registered with progressive groups like America Coming Together couldn't vote, a Fox newscast implied that Arizona students could be jailed for voting in-state, and Republicans attempted to move polling locations out of black neighborhoods in Philadelphia. However, with white evangelical Protestant voters turning out in droves to vote on same-sex marriage, Bush didn't need butterfly ballots or hanging chads. This time, the Right won via voter turnout, not voter suppression—and that's exactly what we hadn't prepared for.

It's still true that voter registration and turnout must rapidly increase if the Left is to make any progress. We are the majority in this country, as red as the U.S. map is today—most Americans support expanding Medicaid for uninsured, low-income people, childcare assistance for low-income families, and other social welfare programs supported by the Left. If all Americans were to vote—particularly students, who, despite gains this year, continue to vote at dismal rates—and retroactive voting barriers such as felon disenfranchisement were lifted, the Left would certainly stand to gain.

In the wake of the election, how ever, as progressives in New York, Chicago, and Northern California joke about secession or the merits of Canada, we must move towards dialogue with the Right, and with all those in-between, who want a social safety net, who want affordable health care and childcare, but grow queasy at the thought of same-sex marriage or worry that terrorist threats may require pre-emptive war. Many of the Kerry supporters I talked to mentioned a friend or family member voting for Bush. "We don't talk about politics," they'd aver. Others, when confronted with voters' misconceptions—linking Saddam and al Qaeda, for instance—simply threw up their hands. On a larger level, the Democratic party has given up on red states (as have the Republicans in blue states)—a pragmatic decision, given the limited resources of the party, but nonetheless an example of the growing trend against dialogue.

As the cultural divide between the Left and Right widens, liberals can't afford to grouse among like-minded company. Nor can we count on the traditional bedrocks of the Left. Republicans have made inroads among youth, blacks, and Jews—groups that, traditionally, fall squarely left of center. Be assured, however, that if the Right is making inroads, so can we, and that starts in simple, everyday conversations with friends, family and acquaintances. As a resident of Chicago, with parents in San Francisco and roots in yellow-dog-Democrat Cleveland, I'm hardly immune from echo-chamber liberalism. Heck, this column itself is addressed to the Left.

Therefore, I ask that this column be read, not as an indictment, but as a call to action. More accurately, a call to conversation. Let's use the networks we built to dump Bush to spread information, and to generate real dialogue with red America.