Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Why the Democrats lost: an interview with Todd Gitlin

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).
openDemocracy: In your pre-election column – the one you received most emails from readers about – you quoted a taxi driver in Washington DC who was worried Bush would steal the election. Do you think he did?

Todd Gitlin: I doubt it. The grand theft took place in the election of 2000 and it proved to be irrevocable. Bush became the president in an illegitimate manner, and as a result was in a position to be elected legitimately, which I think he was the second time.

Along with Todd Gitlin’s weekly column, openDemocracy’s United States election discussion in 2004 included:
  • “My America: Letters to Americans” – eighteen vivid, personal exchanges between non-Americans and Americans
  • “American power and the world” – incisive argument from fleading thinkers, including Tom Nairn, Charles Pena, Anatol Lieven, and Stephen Howe
  • “Election 2004” – pro- and anti-Bush views from John Berger and Karim Souaid, and inquests from John Cavanagh, Fred Halliday, Mariano Aguirre, and Susan George
  • John Hulsman’s “Inside Washington” column – independent views from the Heritage Foundation scholar
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Remote Control” column – from Texas via Ronald Reagan to Heartbreak Hotel, a panorama of American culture in the age of surveillance
  • Dave Belden’s column, “What do we have faith in?” – making real the importance of religion in American political life long before the left started listening
If you find openDemocracy’s coverage of the United States valuable, please subscribe for £2/$3/€3 a month and gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of all our articles
openDemocracy: Your columns were pretty cautious about predicting the winner. Did you ever really believe that John Kerry could win?

Todd Gitlin: I started with low expectations. But what gave me most hope was observing the great mobilisation that developed – a collaboration between the movement spirit and the party spirit. It was focused, disciplined; all the things that the left and the Democrats have not been. I wrote a number of columns in which, against the grim expectations of others, I let myself be swayed by its energy and clarity.

It was not reckless or crazy to think that Kerry could win. It was impossible to anticipate the fullness of the residual and inflated reaction to 9/11. It was gravely irrational. The people who are most safe and least at risk of terrorist attacks voted for the candidate of terror panic: George W Bush. People in New York, Washington DC, and California – who are certainly more at risk than residents of Wyoming or Arkansas – supported John Kerry.

Much of what the Republicans did – like their mobilisation of the suburbs - was invisible to the media. Most people, including me, missed that groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) were out in force, campaigning for Bush.

John Kerry: achievement and flaw

openDemocracy: Kerry’s campaign strategy was a central focus of many of your columns. What could he have done differently?

Todd Gitlin: I think Kerry fought a rather good campaign. The Republicans had a stronger hand of cards, principally because of 9/11, but also because the economic bad news was not so bad. They played these well. When you end up losing by 3.5 million votes I am not so confident that adaptations of tactics would have made up that difference, but I do think Kerry didn’t fight rough enough.

I thought it was clever to focus the Democratic Convention on Kerry as the commander-in-chief in waiting. But it was a desperate mistake to let the Swift Boat operation land unscathed. If Kerry was campaigning as the tough guy you can follow into battle, he should have clobbered the Swift Boat group that had assailed his Vietnam service record. I think his “reporting for duty” strategy worked until he surrendered in August to its attack.

August was one-third of all the time Kerry had left to campaign after the Democratic Convention. Against a campaign that undercut his tactic by blasting him for cowardice, for weeks he couldn’t get off the defensive.

The press, which was shamefully and woefully respectful of the Swift Boat claims, would have been jolted by a Kerry offensive and would have been less accommodating to the claims. I think this was overconfidence and Kerry’s upper-class gentility and naiveté at work.

openDemocracy: How should he have tackled the “moral values” issue?

Todd Gitlin: First of all, I don’t buy that the so-called “moral values” issue was decisive. That struck me as post-election day pundit panic at work. There’s a lot of counterevidence. It’s not clear that any larger number of people felt more passionate about so-called “moral values” in 2004 than in 2000 or in the 1990s.

There’s a very interesting Washington Post report by Steve Rosenthal, the head of America Coming Together (Act), a Democratic voter mobilisation project, about their post-election poll of 1,400 rural and exurban voters in Ohio. They found that Bush’s ability to play on 9/11 and the subterranean panic it generated was the most decisive factor of Republican victory.

But I think Kerry is a moralist who is embarrassed by moralism. As a politician, I think he is probably guided by moral conviction, but his style is to not be explicit about it. He just doesn’t have the gift that great politicians have of being able to articulate their moral convictions in terms that meet the vernacular.

A feast of unreason and politicised desire

openDemocracy: Considering the mobilisation effort on both the left and the right: of voter registration drives, organisations like MoveOn, the churches, and even interest groups like the NRA, do you think this election was a triumph for democracy?

Todd Gitlin: Triumph is a little too effervescent for my taste. But it was a substantial improvement. Not only in turnout rates but also in intensity of attention – going all the way back to the spring. The percentage of people who were paying attention was vastly improved.

You could say that the mobilisation and eventual turnout constituted a rejection of the silencing which some commentators have said is the automatic consequence of the terror attacks and the demagogic use of them by the administration.

This was not a country that had pulverised politics on behalf of imperial mobilisation. This was in fact a politicised country. Many of the terms in which this conflict would take place were degraded and built on deception, but the polarisation was politics, and the politics was a sign of a collective freedom to choose.

The wrong road was taken, and that’s a terrible judgment on our general condition. But it was a triumph of vitality and of politicised desire.

openDemocracy: Your election-eve column said: “Americans who think have the chance to demonstrate that the cause of thought is not lost.” Don’t you think there’s something arrogant about reducing Bush supporters to people who don’t think?

Todd Gitlin: I would still argue that people who think poorly, and who are inadvertently and wilfully ignorant, supplied the margin of victory. A significant percentage of Bush supporters are living in a cloud of fantasy about the motives for and the rationales for the war in Iraq, the belief in weapons of mass destruction, in the al-Qaida-Ba’athist connection - delusions they were fed by the Bush administration.

openDemocracy: But is uninformed the same as unthinking?

Todd Gitlin: I believe there was a breakdown of reason. There are among Bush voters a significant number who reject available evidence in behalf of some prior schema that explains the world to them. It was necessary for them to believe, for example, that there were Iraqis among the 9/11 hijackers. I consider that a refusal to think. It’s not just ignorance; it’s wilful ignorance. I can see it in the rightwing-echo email I receive. It has this foot-stomping, “I think with my fists” quality. So I stand behind the claim that this is a triumph of unreason, I don’t mean to say that there is no unreason on the left too, by the way.

openDemocracy: Your openDemocracy column explored the workings of America’s election via encounters with a global audience. You filed columns through the year from India, Greece and Turkey. Was there anything you wanted to convey specifically to Americans?

Todd Gitlin: I certainly wanted to convey to Americans that our election was the world’s election. It wasn’t just that the whole world was watching, the whole world was breathing, gagging and praying in unison. It was a powerful experience to realise how acutely people felt.

The intensity of the anger at America surprised me, because it came from everywhere. I had the remarkable experience in Turkey of speaking to a very wide variety of people, a few of whom I just met on the street. It registered quite deeply with me that I could not find a single person who liked Bush. Moreover, I spoke to people who traditionally regarded themselves as pro-American, and who were pro-American during the cold war, but no longer felt that way. That was an arresting discovery.

And yet I encountered very little automatic anti-Americanism. It wasn’t loathing of Americans as such. It was of a political magnitude that was very deep and intelligent. It wasn’t wild.

It was awfully important for Americans to realise this, but on that score Americans flunked. 51% of Americans enjoyed the spectacle of sticking it to the world.

openDemocracy: You’ve kept tabs on how the media was covered the campaigns in your columns. Overall, how do you feel the establishment media handled the election?

Todd Gitlin: The media served Bush in two crucial ways. First, by taking seriously the Swift Boat charges and by failing to rebut them, they gave Bush’s legions a free pass. It’s still shocking that nobody else writing about the Swift Boat business seems to have gone to the trouble of actually reading the transcript of the 1971 winter soldier investigation.

Even the best of the press haven’t figured out that, by treating campaigns of propaganda and deception as bona fide he-said she-said assertions, they’re taking sides.

Bush ran as the “man of the people,” and he got away with it - in part, because there was no consistent voice reminding voters of who his administration was. The failure to report on the plutocratic identity of so much of the cabinet and sub-cabinet was a gift.

The left and the “paramedia”

openDemocracy: In a late October column you celebrated how the leftwing “paramedia” were all over Bush. Weren’t most of them just preaching to the choir? Is there really any way to affect public opinion outside the establishment media?

Todd Gitlin:The paramedia are the best at the mobilising, which is not insignificant. Not just in terms of affecting public opinion but nudging along public activity and helping people overcome a sense of isolation. Air America had some of that effect. Fahrenheit 9/11, for all its deficiencies, had some of that, as did other films.

What Robert Greenwald has demonstrated with his films Outfoxed and Uncovered is that with research-intensive work you can perform the visual equivalent of fact-based argument. If you’re preaching to the choir – the choir has to stay in tune – even the best choirs rehearse. You have to sound good, and sounding good in this case means doing your homework and knowing your facts. Anybody who helps the choir stay in tune is performing a service.

openDemocracy: What now for the Democratic party? In another openDemocracy interview, Colin Greer of the New World Foundation says the Democrats need to learn from Europe by developing an opposition identity that lasts throughout this presidential term, forging links with local organisations to develop an agenda people actually want.

Todd Gitlin: The Democrats didn’t just lack a willingness to fight in this campaign; they lacked a willingness to fight on behalf of something that would ring true to someone in the middle of Ohio, and not just on the west side of Manhattan.

The ringing calls to opposition on the part of the readers of small left-wing magazines do not impress me, nor do I believe that America is secretly a left-wing country that is simply awaiting the clarion call. That was a Ralph Nader and Howard Dean fantasy, and there’s no evidence for it. That’s why I don’t think the lesson to learn from Kerry’s defeat is that he should have been more left-wing.

I agree with Colin Greer about being oppositional, but it has to be oppositional in a way that’s persuasive to Americans. My belief is that getting out of the sealed rooms and gated communities of the left and doing politics with people who are unlike you is to participate in the essence of politics.

Todd Gitlin’s media favourites during the election:
Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian, says the Democratic party hasn’t really existed for decades in most parts of the United States. It’s been basically a fundraising apparatus. Thanks to the Dean campaign and internet fundraising, it can now actually look more like a party of people than a simple social club of the wealthy. Kazin would say, and I would agree, that to sit back as the hard left does and say that the Democratic party is a tool of the corporate establishment is profoundly ignorant because the Democratic party is barely more than a shell. Therefore, in many places, it is available, it can be taken, just as the right took over the Republican Party starting in the early 1960s.

Given how retrograde the Democratic party had been, and how out of it the left had been, we made up an amazing amount of lost time. We went from zero to something pretty impressive under the heat of George W Bush dragging the world down.

That achievement stands as a precedent. One big question now is whether a new wave of Democrats – skilled politicians in the making – will move into party politics, make careers there, work in local and state campaigns as a matter of course, so that (for openers) the democrats can at least hold their own in the 2006 mid-term elections and reclaim some lost ground at state level. At the same time, the party has to prove it can mobilize again in the course of holding the line against rightwing judicial nominations and Bush’s attempt to dismantle social security.

A party is something that’s in being, that people feel occupies a part of their ordinary life, not just a special occasion for emergencies but part of the work of life. This is the hope. There are going to be some awful times in the next few years, and some of them will be useable by an intelligent opposition.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.