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May / June 2004 Cover

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Culture Shock


Culture Shock
How does liberty stand in election 2004?

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How will election 2004 be remembered? As in other U.S. presidential elections, history will be made just with the naming of a commander in chief. But beyond the noisy political campaigns this year are some new and not so new realities in American popular culture that are giving voters more than issues and iterations to think about.

For instance, this is the first presidential election since the hanging chads calamity in Florida. For many voters, a deep skepticism of technology has crept into what was once considered a sacrosanct democratic process.

This also is the first post-9/11 presidential election. To what degree is fear a factor?

War, both on terrorism and in Iraq, has mobilized many Americans. The past two years have seen more widespread citizen activism, civil disobedience and protests than at any other time since the Vietnam War. Such challenges to the status quo have implications.

This campaign season, more Americans than ever freely admit to throwing their vote to the most electable but not necessarily the best presidential candidate. Would it better serve democracy to choose the candidate based on issues?

Ultimately, all this skepticism, fear, unrest and seeming subjectiveness is being communicated back to us. Election 2004 has ushered in a new chapter in electronic communication. How voters are getting their information has given new meaning to mass media.

To take the pulse of American culture this election year, UMaine Today turned to University of Maine researchers in political science, history and sociology. Speaking from their fields of expertise, they offer perspectives on the cultural realities coloring today's political climate as voters prepare to head to the polls.

by Margaret Nagle

No technological panacea
Howard Segal, director of the Technology and Society Project, is the Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History

Modern technology is often considered a solution to social problems, but when it comes to electoral technology, recent problems at the voting booth have thrown a significant portion of Americans into a state of skepticism. Enough doubt has crept into the polling process so that this year, should any technology problems like those in the 2000 vote repeat themselves, the political process surely the heart of democracy might be undermined.

Ironically, major newspapers like The New York Times have promised readers unprecedented information and analysis, thanks to computers, the Internet and the Web.

To restore confidence, election 2004 must be free of any barriers to voting and must accurately record voters' preferences. Yet not enough has been done since 2000 to improve the reliability of voting machines. Indeed, some new voting machines that require a mere press of a button or that have touch-screen operation have been found wanting and unreliable.

Let me stress that the failures in the election 2000 voting process, especially in Florida, were as much political as technological, and reflected a Republican strategy of disenfranchising as many likely Democratic voters as possible, especially in poor areas. Still, hanging chads and confusing butterfly ballots have made people of all political persuasions more cautious, more concerned that their votes be counted and counted accurately. It's not only a question of whether people will be able to vote, but also of whether their votes will be accurately recorded.

Admittedly, the fact that many people didn't get their votes counted correctly in the presidential election four years ago is hardly unique. For most of American history, discrimination kept people of color away from the polls, political machines made it possible for the dead to vote, and corruption made what was supposed to be confidential balloting anything but.

Most recently, election 2000, with its close vote and disputed ballots in Florida, harkened back to the 1960 presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy beat Nixon by 0.2 percent of the popular vote, amid charges of corruption in states like Illinois. (Though even had Nixon won in Illinois, he would still have lost the election.)

On a larger scale, the 2000 vote in Florida might contribute to American citizens' declining faith in technology that has been historically optimistic. For decades, Americans had a bedrock faith in technology, including the space program, nuclear power and food production.

Prior to election 2000, 99.9 percent of all Americans thought they could exercise their voting choices in private, without repercussions. With the same blind faith in technology, people throughout the world once believed that if we only could get to the moon, Earth would be transformed in some fashion.

Ultimately, the most common-sense approach is for people not to assume automatically that technology is doing what it's supposed to do, but to monitor or have impartial authorities more closely monitor elections.

Post-9/11 politics
Nathan Godfried is a professor of history

Media pundits and politicians have pontificated on how the events of Sept. 11 reshaped and redefined America and its people. Often they use historical analogy to anchor their conviction that 9/11 marked a "turning point" in national political culture. But while history certainly offers insight into current events, some analogies work better than others.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many commentators referred to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the subsequent transformation of America from isolationism to internationalism. Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 share the characteristic of a sneak air attack, but the imagery of a complacent America shocked into action is too simplistic.

While some Americans adhered to a form of political isolationism in the early 1940s, almost all the nation's leaders were dedicated internationalists. By mid-1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration already had committed the nation to serve as the "arsenal of democracy" and actively planned for an American entry into the Second World War.

Similarly, the United States has been engaged in a war on terrorism for more than 20 years. This campaign probably experienced its most important change with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. No catastrophe initiated America's Cold War against Communism and the Soviet Union.

However, that half-century battle, like the current war on terrorism, constituted an open-ended, global U.S. commitment to do whatever was necessary to thwart threats to the "American way of life." The rhetoric of an international Communist conspiracy reverberates in the characterization of a global terrorist network.

Provocative actions by the Soviet Union after World War II generated legitimate security concerns in Washington and elsewhere, just as terrorist attacks have done recently. But America's Cold War leaders manipulated the fear of external Soviet expansionism and internal Communist subversion to bludgeon the electorate and Congress into acquiescing to the material and psychological requirements for American hegemony in the world. Once set in motion, the nation's most conservative elements used the Cold War political culture for their own purposes: to repress alternative political perspectives, obstruct civil rights and stifle social reform at home.

The leaders of America's war on terrorism, like their Cold War predecessors, remain committed to a world dominated by the United States and remade in its image. It remains to be seen whether the allegedly changed political culture of post-9/11 America allows them, like their Cold War idols, to wrap themselves in the cloaks of democracy and national security while shredding those very same garments.

Acting out
Professor Steven Barkan chairs the Department of Sociology

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans nationwide gathered in houses of worship, in parks and on sidewalks to express their grief and horror over the unthinkable loss of some 3,000 lives. For several weeks, the nation was united in its collective sorrow.

By the following summer, our national unity had dissipated amid a debate arising from growing alarm by the Bush administration over the threat allegedly posed by Iraq. As it became clear that the U.S. government was planning to invade, protests and counter-protests occurred. National support for the U.S. policy in Iraq diminished in the aftermath of the invasion as no weapons of mass destruction were found and as U.S. soldiers continued to die and be maimed by terrorist strikes in occupied Iraq.

The first few months of 2004 also saw protests on a very different type of issue same-sex marriages after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gay marriages must be allowed in that state. In response, protest rallies both pro and con gay marriages took place, and thousands of gay marriages were performed in San Francisco and elsewhere in apparent defiance of state law.

What will be the consequences of this renewed wave of activism? The scholarly field of social movements has found it notoriously difficult to assess the actual impact of protest, which obviously does not occur in a controlled environment. It's not always clear whether protest drives public opinion or vice versa.

However, a few consequences of the new wave of protest seem clear. For better or worse, protest helps intensify feelings that should translate to greater voter turnout in November. Also, U.S. history indicates that protest often affects public policy in the long run.

In the 1960s, civil rights protests helped to end Southern racial segregation, and Vietnam anti-war protests led President Lyndon Johnson to refuse to run for reelection and helped to keep the U.S. government from escalating the war on certain occasions. In the last few decades, protests and other actions by the gay, women's rights and environmentalist movements have changed the American landscape.

If the past is any guide to the future, historians and sociologists may one day regard the contemporary Iraq and same-sex marriage protests as affecting voter turnout in November and also the more general national response to these two issues. Whatever that response, the issues of Iraq and same-sex marriages will reverberate for many years to come.

Electability is everything
Amy Fried is an associate professor of political science

This year, we heard it all over. According to reporters and public opinion analysts, Democratic primary voters chose the candidate who was the most electable, despite not offering their preferred policy ideas. Rather than voting for a candidate most matched to policy preferences, these voters were engaged in "strategic voting," casting votes focused on the election process and outcome.

This approach to voting is not that unusual. For instance, in the 2000 presidential election, pre-election polls indicated greater support for Nader than he received. Evidently, after watching election surveys, a number of people voted for their second choice.

But if people vote strategically, doesn't this undermine elections' ability to indicate citizens views? In my view, strategic voting making determinations at least partly based on electability can be quite sensible.

If the most preferred candidate and the candidate judged most electable are not that far apart on the issues, then electability is the tie-breaker. In primaries, many candidates take fairly similar positions, particularly when compared to their general election opponent.

Furthermore, we now live in highly polarized times in which the national Democratic and Republican parties support quite divergent policies. Given these sharp differences, it is eminently reasonable for voters to support a candidate they think is most able to win. While sometimes primaries divide members of the party, the high levels of polarization mean that a vote for the more electable candidate does not harm the party's ability to unify around the nominee. Rather, the party's nominee can easily rally members and build a coalition based on a simple message: Vote the other fellow out of office.

Voters, of course, can be mistaken when it comes to electability. No one can know for certain who will run the best campaign and who will have the best chance months away, in November. But focusing on electability is not foolish, nor an abrogation of civic duty.

This just in
Richard Powell is an assistant professor of political science

The biggest change in the role of the media in American politics is in where people get their news. Until the 1990s, political news in the United States was dominated by the print media and network broadcasts. The 1990s saw the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. In the new century, it's multimedia news.

According to a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, since 1990 daily newspaper circulation has dropped 11 percent and evening news viewership has declined by about one-third. A growing number of Americans are getting their news from the Internet. Although the network news still has a much larger audience, its dominance is seriously challenged. In response, the networks have been forced to change their coverage to meet the demands of the new information environment.

For example, after his initial round of victories, John Kerry became the subject of an unproven allegation that he had an extramarital affair with a former intern. The story was reported widely on the Internet, including in the popular Drudge Report. Millions of Americans became aware of the story, but the mainstream media were hesitant to give attention to an unverified story. Increasingly, traditional media face enormous pressures to sacrifice their standards of accuracy for competitive purposes.

The Internet also is interacting with traditional news media to change campaign advertising. Under the new campaign finance regulations, candidates are now required to personally verify their support (i.e. "I'm George W. Bush and I approve this message.") in broadcast ads in order to limit the negativity. To work around this, candidates have produced separate ads for their Web sites. Not required by law to carry their spoken endorsement, the Web ads tend to be much more negative. Although relatively few Americans will actually view the ads on the Internet, the traditional media have given these ads a great deal of attention in their news broadcasts. In this way, candidates have found a way to work around the requirements of the new campaigning laws to make negative appeals to voters.

In addition, Howard Dean demonstrated the potential for the Internet to change the way campaigns are financed. Traditionally, candidates have raised money through sources such as fund-raisers, direct mail and personal networking methods that generally relied on a relatively limited number of affluent donors.

However, following John McCain's lead in 2000, Dean showed that one can raise a substantial amount of money from a large number of smaller donors through the Internet. This new form of financial support for future candidates has the potential to open the American political system to outsider candidates who can attract grassroots support. It could be a potentially democratizing shift.

With fast-paced changes in the role of the media in the American political system, it's clear that a new form of politics is emerging.

May-June, 2004

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