Why should I vote for John Kerry?” a friend asked me the other day.
I began to rattle off the usual breathless flurry of compelling reasons that any liberal, if pressed, would likely give. I whined about the tax cuts. I moaned about the environment. I whimpered on about abortion, the Supreme Court. And I bellowed about Iraq and our alliances.
“Fine,” said my friend, unimpressed. “But what’s the best reason?”
Point taken. It’s easy to recite a laundry list of grievances, but in the final analysis, why vote for John Kerry? It’s a question that every campus Democrat should try to answer. And in my opinion, at the end of the day, the upcoming election reduces to one fundamental difference between the two candidates, a difference overshadowing everything else.
First, a different question: What does George Bush really stand for? Most of the president’s most ardent supporters, and probably the president himself, would agree that the fundamental characteristic of his public persona setting him apart from many other politicians and endearing him to so many Americans is his perceived unflinching refusal to compromise. “Either you’re with us or against us,” Bush has famously said, and that attitude permeates every major decision this president has made: Every issue, from the war in Iraq to gay marriage, gets recast into an “us” versus “them” narrative. For the most part, Bush hasn’t compromised on any of his major legislative initiatives, hasn’t fired anyone in his inner circle and has yet to admit to a single significant mistake, even though he’s been asked to name one several times this year. From the president’s perspective, he and his loyal subordinates all fall clearly on the right side of the fence, and so can do no wrong.
To Bush, calling Kerry a “flip-flopper” is the worst insult imaginable, because it implies that Kerry is unable to pick sides in a world that constantly requires us to pick sides. When every issue has a right side and a wrong one, flip-flopping back and forth between the two shows a basic lack of principle. And so Bush hurls this charge at Senator Kerry again and again with relish, convinced that it implies an unfitness to lead.
Maybe you agree with Bush that most issues can be reduced to clear-cut rights and wrongs — if so, by all means vote for him. However, even the briefest of glances at the actual workings of our government reveal that this world view is complete fiction. In general, it is a remarkable truth that the more you know about a given issue, the more nuanced and the less clear-cut it seems. Governing a nation of 300 million in the modern age is a complicated business — even small policy proposals have countless ramifications responsible policy makers must take into consideration.
This is true even for the most controversial of issues. Anyone who has studied the complexities of human cloning cannot insist the issue is entirely black or white. Anyone who has actually read Roe v. Wade begins to see that abortion doesn’t reduce to abortion rights versus anti-abortion quite so easily as partisans on both sides of the issue might like us to believe. Anyone who is actually living in Iraq, I suspect, cannot believe that America’s involvement there is either entirely good or entirely bad. The world is a nuanced place, and never more so than when you’re a global superpower, because your every action reverberates across the world.
But even as our universe has gotten ever bigger and more complicated, the American political trend over the last half-century has been precisely the reverse. With the advent of television and the modern presidential campaign, our candidates for high office have had to simplify their message and their positions more and more. Thirty-minute fireside chats have gradually given way to 30-second TV spots and 15-second sound-bites. A shortening national attention span has forced our leaders to squeeze more and more of the nuance out of their public statements. George Bush, who proudly sees virtually no nuance at all, is simply the logical extension of this unfortunate trend.
I do not pretend that John Kerry doesn’t constantly oversimplify the issues, either, because of course he does. Gross oversimplification is inherent in a modern presidential campaign. But that does not mean that the oversimplification cannot be minimized. Kerry stands for greater nuance, consistently rejecting the president’s ridiculous “with us or against us” formulation. I’m not a flip-flopper on Iraq, Kerry patiently explains over and over, I just see a difference between supporting the original war and supporting the rebuilding effort. I’m not a flip-flopper on the Patriot Act, he says, I just see a difference between my support of the act’s basic tenets and Bush’s support of the act’s every single word. On any number of issues, Kerry has tried to show that the choices are, as he said in the Oct. 8 debate, “never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”
This recognition of complexity is healthy, necessary and one of the best things to happen to American politics in a long time. A Kerry victory in November may be a signal that Americans are tired of being spoon-fed easy answers, tired of their leaders turning every decision into a choice between good and evil. The real world is mostly shades of gray. It’s time we elected a president who’s not afraid to tell us that.
Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford College.