Election statistics are like pies. You can slice them up any way you want. And the way you slice them depends on the tool you use. My favorite tool is a nugget of wisdom from Democratic political guru Stanley Greenberg: "A narrative is the key to everything." The party that tells the best story wins. And the recipe for a winning story is simple: Take a few handfuls of fact, throw in a large dollop of fiction, and stir.
But the story of the 2006 election isn't over yet. It's like one of those movies on DVD with several alternative endings. You get to choose the one you want.
Greenberg said "a narrative is the key" right after the election of 2004. Back then, he credited the Republicans with "a much more coherent attack and narrative that motivated their voters." Though the media gave us a story about a new breed of "values voters," Karl Rove knew that was mostly fiction. It was the "war on terror" story that put George W. Bush back in the White House.
This year, Rove told Republicans to count on the same story to keep control of Congress. It went this way: Republicans, who are real Americans, have the backbone to fight against evil and do whatever it takes to win. Cowardly Democrats just want to cut and run.
By early October, it was clear that Rove's Scheherazade strategy -- keep spinning ever wilder stories to avoid certain death -- wasn't faring well. Nevertheless, Bush was out on the campaign trail right up to Election Day, sticking to the same old script. As he put it at a "victory rally" in Georgia:
"The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses. … The Democrat goal is to get out of Iraq. The Republican goal is to win in Iraq. We will not run from thugs and assassins."
Of course it was all fiction, just as the administration's Iraq policy has been based on fiction, from start to finish. Even the pathetic attempt at a "November surprise," the death sentence pronounced on Saddam Hussein on the eve of the election, was filled with fiction. The mainstream press gave us images of the "good guys" -- the Shi'ites -- celebrating with us, while the "bad guys" -- the pro-Saddam Sunnis -- threatened revenge. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Bush administration was busy wooing those very Sunnis to our side to fend off the rise of pro-Iranian Shi'ite rule. But that reality had to be ignored to make the fiction work.
The Media Chooses Its Story
On Election Day, though, all of Karl Rove's storytelling couldn't stave off the verdict the voters pronounced on the GOP. Then the media had its chance to slice up those polling and voting numbers and turn them into its own version of a good narrative. The result, as in 2004, was a mix of fact and fiction.
This year, the "values voters" were scarcely given a walk-on part. In fact, they were largely written off before the voting even happened. In most pre-election polls, when voters were asked what issue would influence them most, hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage were not even offered as an option. As it turned out, according to the exit polls on the House of Representatives, almost 30% of white evangelicals voted Democratic. So the old story of 2004 just wouldn't play.
Of course, the story that did play, right up on the marquee in bright shining letters, was: IRAQ.
But the polling data didn't demand that narrative. In most pre-election polling, less than a third of respondents said that Iraq was, to them, the most important issue in the election -- and the economy often ran a close second. In the House exit polls, only 36% of voters claimed they voted mainly to show opposition to George W. Bush and his policies. Nearly 40% said that local issues mattered most to them. However, 67% said that Iraq was "extremely" or "very" important in deciding their vote. But 74% said the same thing about corruption, while 82% said it about the economy. And all these groups voted pro-Democratic in nearly the same numbers. Moreover, there was a direct correlation between income and voting: The richer they were, the more likely voters were to go Republican.
So the media could easily have told us that the electorate had no clear focus. But their job -- no less than Karl Rove's -- is to tell coherent (news) stories that seem to make sense of it all. They could just as easily have spun a tale about the middle class repudiating an administration run by and for the rich who corrupt our government. But that is certainly not the story of choice for the corporate elite who own the media.
On the other hand many among the elite, and many editors and reporters in their pay, do want us to change the course in Iraq. So they took up Karl Rove's election-season invitation to focus on Iraq, but stood his story on its head. The president lent credibility to their new narrative by promptly linking the electoral "thumpin" to Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. He seemed to confirm the media's story of the election as a negative verdict on "staying the course" in Iraq.
Of course, that narrative does have a good dose of truth in it. Most Americans do now oppose Bush's Iraq policy and particularly its implementation. But the Democratic win does not mean that voters simply saw through the administration's lies and now demand the true story. They just want a new story.
Us and Them
In fact, truth didn't play much of a role in this year's elections at all. The airwaves were filled with negative ads concocted largely of fictional distortions of every wild sort. No matter how much we say we hate such ads, they work, because they reach deep into the heart of darkness of the political landscape. That's where Rove's narrative was supposed to do its magic, creating a simple moral drama of good versus evil that would send enough of the public to the polls reassured that there is an enduring moral order amid the chaotic tides of change that always seem to threaten our lives.
All that chaos makes it hard to hold onto any enduring sense of identity. If you can't say precisely what you stand for, it's a relief, at least, to know what you stand against. That's why so many of us are eager to have an enemy. We get a sense of certainty and clarity when we define ourselves in opposition to others. "I may not know exactly what I am," is what we, in effect, say to ourselves, "but I sure as hell know I'm not one of them."
That psychological trick works best when, as in the negative campaign ads, we create outsized fictional images of what we are not. By exaggerating the evil of the enemy, we assure ourselves that we are on the side of absolute goodness. It may be more than coincidence that a campaign season with a record number of negative ads, filled with exaggeration, brought out more voters than any non-presidential election in 24 years. Some of them voted for the candidate they liked. But most voted against the candidate -- and thus the story -- they disliked.
If our political life, like our identity, works by saying who and what we are against, what did the voters really say they are against? Exceedingly modest numbers of them are against war itself. More are against this war -- and have been from the beginning. But when the war started -- despite what was the largest prewar antiwar movement in our history -- it had broad public support. Even now, no great wave of moral revulsion against the war seems to be sweeping across the land. As far as can be told, not many of those voters who switched from the Republican to Democratic column were expressing outrage at the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died since we invaded their country. In fact, few seemed to care, or notice, when the media quickly disappeared the most recent, rigorous Johns Hopkins study (published in The Lancet, the prestigious British scientific journal) that confirmed the shocking magnitude of death in Iraq.
Most Americans seem content enough to see the U.S. use its immense military force no matter how many of "them" died -- but only as long as we win. We know what it means to be an American as long as we face an enemy who is not just an evildoer, but a loser. To see our side losing, however, just doesn't fit our national story.
For once, you don't have to be a conservative to agree with George F. Will: "Republicans sank beneath the weight of Iraq, the lesson of which is patent [to most Americans]: Wars of choice should be won swiftly rather than lost protractedly." As another major reason for the GOP defeat, Will added that the Bush administration was guilty of "nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently."
Across the political spectrum, an incompetent, losing war effort creates cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the United States, by definition, is supposed to be Number One -- as in, for instance, a phrase you hear a lot less of lately: "the world's sole remaining superpower." On the other hand, just about every American knows, deep down, that the U.S. is screwing up in Iraq. Most of us no longer believe that we can win, or even know what winning would mean. But there is no place in the dominant narrative of this country for a bumbling unsuccessful war. It's like trying to put a square story peg into a round narrative hole. Just ask the ghost of Lyndon B. Johnson as it nightly stalks the halls of the Bush White House.
Apple Pie, Mom, and a New Tale for a Lost War
It is a rare day when I agree with neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer. Yet he was right on target when he said: "The election will be a referendum of sorts on Iraq. But it will be registering nothing more than uneasiness and discontent. Had the Democrats offered a coherent alternative to the current policy, one could draw lessons as to what course the country should take."
A number of Democrats, like Congressman John Murtha, have spelled out their own plans for getting us out of the Iraq fiasco. But the Democrats as a party have not yet come close to agreeing on a single, clear alternative policy -- no less a story to tell about it. They've merely played on our cognitive dissonance about the Bush administration's losing war by telling us what they are against. So a midterm vote against the administration could not have been in favor of any specific Iraq policy.
That means it's now up to us to decide whether Krauthammer's conclusion proves true: "If either friends or enemies interpret the results as a mandate for giving up, they will be mistaken."
That's certainly what the Bush administration wants us to believe. And advance reports suggest that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (of which Robert Gates was a member until he was nominated to be the new Secretary of Defense) will probably agree. But the election results hint at a public hungry for a new story about the war. And George Bush's day-after response -- sacking Rumsfeld -- shows that, however reluctantly, he will change his story in response to voter disaffection. The public may be able to force policy change too, but only if there is a compelling new story that demands a new policy.
This is a job for the peace movement, whose role has always been to articulate alternatives. Now is the time to offer a new narrative using an alternative recipe, the same one that the peace movement has always used: Take big dollops of truth and moral compassion in equal measure and stir.
But there's another ingredient as well, one that peace activists should borrow from Rove's recipe, despite its recent failure: To succeed, the "new" story must contain elements of an old, familiar morality tale about good against evil. It must offer reassurance that there is still some ethical clarity amid growing war-bred dissonance, and some permanence amid all the change. That means it should be built on time-honored, bedrock principles from the mainstream of American political discourse.
Here are a few that those who would like to begin telling a tale of a lost war might consider picking up:
* Pragmatic Yankee ingenuity: If one approach isn't working, we Americans don't let our pride get in the way of simply trying something else.
* The innate goodness of American motives: As a people, we are not by nature imperialists; it's not in our cultural DNA to send troops to occupy the lands of people who don't want us there.
* Self-determination: We started the ball rolling in 1776 and it wasn't just for us either; it was for every individual and every nation; it's as American as apple pie and Mom that we keep our noses out of other people's business.
* The sacredness of life: Every human life is precious -- and what American can't get behind that?
* It's the American way to give citizens a fair chance to have their opinions heard and respected or we wouldn't have had a Bill of Rights: The humblest guy or gal might have the best idea for fixing things -- and the American people might have the best ones of all.
* We Americans trust that most people, deep down, are reasonable: Eventually, they can see that compromise is better than killing.
* And, most American of all, we apply all our principles not only here at home but in every land -- including Iraq.
There isn't an American principle in this list that the Bush administration hasn't tried its best to trash. That's why a new narrative built on any or all of them is bound to confound the President and his advisors. It also offers hope of building real pressure for a new policy that would actually get our troops out of Iraq, removing the main irritant that keeps the violence there going.
But the Democrats who now control Congress won't embrace a new story (or a genuinely new policy) unless they feel some pressure. Lobbyists are already descending on the new majority in droves. Now is the time for the peace movement to push its way to the head of the line.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest book is Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006 Ira Chernus