mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Bush Has No Mandate, Just A Better Machine

The morning after the US presidential election, vice president Dick
Cheney was claiming—and US media pundits agreed—that the results
were a mandate for President Bush’s right-wing agenda. Meanwhile,
Bush critics were raging about living in a country, as one impassioned
email put it, of morons, yahoos and rednecks who don’t believe in
evolution and want to return to the Middle Ages. For their part,
foreigners were asking whether America had lost its mind. That Bush
was named (one can’t say elected) president in 2000 had been hard
enough to fathom, but people here, even nationalist right-wingers,
can’t believe America did it twice, one Dutch resident said.


But whether elated or despairing, such sweeping conclusions about the
November 2 results misread the national American mood. Blame the
winner-take-all rules that govern US elections. They credit Bush with
much more popular support than he truly enjoys while obscuring the
real reasons for his victory, including the superior political machine
at his disposal.

The fact is, the American public is evenly divided about Bush. Only 51
percent of the electorate voted to give him a second term as
president, while 49 percent voted against. In parliamentary
democracies, such a close election would result in a coalition
government, with power sharing between rival parties. America’s winner
take all system instead grants total power to the 51 percent candidate
and nothing to his 49 percent counterpart.

It’s a very American way of looking at the world, winner-take-all.
It’s no accident that no major American sport allows contests to end
in ties. You’re either a winner or a loser here.

Winner-take-all can be especially misleading when combined with the
vagaries of the Electoral College, for a candidate gets all of a given
state’s electoral votes no matter how small his victory margin. For
example, a candidate who wins Florida by 50.1 to 49.9 percent gets all
27 of its electoral votes, even though half the state voted against

Bush cannot claim a mandate with only 51 percent of the vote. Contrary
to partisans on both sides, America is not a right-wing country that
enthusiastically backs Bush’s agenda. Bush won this election, though
just barely, because the political right in the United States has long
been better organized than the political left.

The left did mount an unprecedented effort against Bush. Never have so
many left of center groups—labor unions, environmental, women’s,
civil rights and kindred organizations—worked with such unity of
purpose and abundant funding as during the eighteen month campaign
they organized to defeat Bush.

But the left started too late. For decades, its groups had focused on
separate issues and immediate battles rather than a broader, unified,
long-term agenda. Only the threat of four more years of Bush finally
got them to work together. Not so their opponents on the right.

Every day I get up thinking [about] what…I can do today to advance
the conservative agenda, Richard Viguerie, the pioneer of direct-mail
fundraising and a founder of the modern American conservative movement
recently said. We’ve been doing that for decades, and the left hasn’t
done that. The left has been thinking of it as a sprint, from election
to election.

Viguerie and others set out in 1964 to build a movement that would
bring conservatives to power in the United States. They thought big
and planned long-term. They created institutions in three areas: think
tanks to translate right-wing philosophy into practical slogans and
policies; media outlets to spread those ideas to the general
population; and grassroots political groups to support candidates who
espoused those ideas.

After sixteen years, the right-wing’s champion, Ronald Reagan, was
elected president. But the right didn’t stop. In the 1980s, it created
radio, TV and internet outlets that have subsequently pulled the
mainstream media and American political discourse in general well to
the right.

One result: 42 percent of the American public still believe that
Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks, even though
the bipartisan committee Bush himself appointed to investigate the
attacks rejected that assertion. Most of those 42 percent presumably
favored Bush for president, giving him an enormous advantage over John

Bush should not have won this election. Historically speaking, an
incumbent American president burdened with a stagnant economy and an
unsuccessful war is usually voted out. What’s more, only a third of
the public shares Bush’s views on such substantive issues as tax cuts
and health care. But after decades of strategic organizing, the right
has built a political machine capable of marshalling troops and
delivering cultural messages about God, guns and gays that lead
millions of ordinary Americans to vote against their economic

In politics, a well-organized minority often defeats a less organized
majority. The American left has finally recognized the importance of
doing the kind of unified organizing that brought the right to power.
The left’s campaign to defeat Bush fell short, but it’s not easy to
overcome a forty year advantage in a mere eighteen months. Looking
ahead, the left should not be condemning ordinary Americans as cretins
for giving Bush a second term. It should be out organizing those
Americans—building a real movement—so that the margin in future
elections is 51 to 49 the other way.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.