This election was not a blowout by conservatives, and it was not
a fatal defeat for liberals. Despite liberal dejection and
conservative jubilation, the so-called “conservative
mandate” has not materialized. In many ways, campaign 2004
was another battle in the ongoing war to mold and define the
American sociopolitical identity. While the Republicans might have
carried the day, they did not win in the larger conflict.
America’s soul — the fundamental values and principles
which guide this nation — is still up for grabs.

Suhael Momin

The election demonstrated that there are starkly contrasting
visions of future America. The governing party advocates a much
more traditionalist position: heterosexual, monogamous,
single-species marriage and governance characterized by the melding
of absolute truths, religion and policy. From the other side of the
spectrum, a focus on secularism, the assumption of tolerance as a
superlative goal and an emphasis on individual, not group,
morality.

Faced with this dichotomy, the nation is caught without a clear
preference. The majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, but most
are not willing to pass a constitutional ban on it. Many Americans
who would not allow an abortion within their family are, at the
same time, unwilling to pass a law banning the practice. This
indecision is reflected in our law. Popular positions are those
that provide no clear direction: Give gay couples the rights of
marriage, just don’t call their union “marriage;”
allow stem-cell research on existing cell lines, just don’t
make new ones. Nonetheless, conservatives have taken this election
and used it as evidence that their ideology is ultimately what
Americans want, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

At the national level, President Bush’s 3-percent margin
of victory does not qualify, under any circumstances, as a
resounding mandate by the people. Even Democratic losses in the
U.S. Senate were not due to ideological shifts among voters. When
given the choice between conservative Democrats and Republicans,
Southern voters decided to replace five retiring Democratic
senators with Republicans. Ideology in the South did not shift,
party affiliation did. The U.S. House of Representatives remains
essentially unchanged. While the GOP claimed seven Democratic
seats, five were in Texas, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
redrew Congressional districts with one purpose: to oust Democrats.
The so-called “conservative mandate” is, in reality, a
very thin popular majority.

Those who oppose the conservative vision for America must
realize that they’re not an outspoken minority: 49 percent
— almost half — of voters cast ballots for the liberal
presidential candidate. Furthermore, the conservative social agenda
upon which this election hinged is at best a temporary phenomenon.
While conservatives claim to be standing for traditional morality
and traditional values, their actions have shown a contempt for the
American tradition and fundamental principles upon which this
nation rests. If history is any guide, the conservative social
agenda to define marriage will meet a fruitless fate.

This nation has a political tradition that is heavily influenced
by the intellectual beliefs of the Enlightenment. It was during
this period, the Age of Reason, that theorists first proposed that
humanity possesses inherent freedoms, that individuals have the
right to self determination and that religion should not mix with
government. These principles spread through Europe as well as
across the Atlantic, and they can be found in seminal American
documents and in the words of our founding fathers. The Declaration
reads that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness.” In his first inaugural
address, Thomas Jefferson stated, “It is proper you should
understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government
… Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or
persuasion, religious or political …” The
Constitution, our most basic legal document, aims to, among other
things, “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
posterity.”

In the past, attempts to obscure these founding values have
failed. Racial discrimination was once not only supported, it was
considered a vital part of society. However, through war, the
courts and public action, this nation returned to its Enlightenment
ideals. The deep social schisms we see today between red America
and blue America are indicative of the ongoing conflict over the
American identity. The choice is clear: traditionalism or
Americanism? Coming off this election, those who stand for the
liberal foundation of this nation must not be discouraged; the war
over American identity is still raging.

 

Momin can be reached at
“mailto:smomin@umich.edu”>smomin@umich.edu.

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