The mid-term political earthquake in the United States was a vote against a macho politics of fear, says Ruth Rosen.
The world will long wonder what took the American people so long to realise that George W Bush, the swaggering, macho, faux rancher from Texas, was an incompetent and dangerous man who threatened the democratic foundations and moral credibility of the United States.
The answer, I believe, can be summed up in one word: fear.
After 11 September 2001, Bush successfully employed a politics of fear which resulted in widespread indifference to his domestic and foreign-policy agenda. Urged to be terrified by terrorism, Americans became blinded by fear. If a policy was part of the "war against terror", most Americans figured it was probably worthwhile. As a result, they ignored the administration's "tax relief" to the wealthy, its lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, its zealous campaign to promote the religious right's vision of a Christian nation, and its determination to privatise anything and everything, including security in Iraq.
As long as they thought they had a strong masculine president who would protect them, Americans seemed willing to give up all kinds of constitutional liberties and rights. As long as they felt comforted by the illusion of safety, Americans also seemed willing to tolerate Bush's arrogant attitude toward the rest of the world.
Ruth Rosen is a historian and journalist who formerly wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute. A new edition of her book The World Split Open: How the Modern Womens Movement Changed America
(Penguin, 2001) will be republished in 2007 with an updated chronology and epilogue
Also by Ruth Rosen in openDemocracy:
"South Dakota, sexual politics, and the American elections"
(27 October 2006)
But such hubris almost always ends in tragedy. Eventually, people began to notice that the emperor wore no clothes. When hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, Bush's incompetence and lack of compassion could no longer be hidden behind a strutting swagger. As people drowned, he dined. As people died, he ignored their plight. Widespread corruption and sexual scandals among conservative Republicans further undermined the illusion that Bush - the man who believed God wanted him to be president - had anyone righteous on his side.
Finally, the daily news reports of death and devastation in Iraq made Bush's daily mantra of "staying the course" seem more pathetic than protective. "Is this man capable of safeguarding my family?" Americans asked themselves. At the polls, they cast their votes and decisively answered "no".
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it: "This will be known as the year macho politics failed - mainly because it was macho politics by marshmallow men. Voters were sick of phony swaggering, blustering and bellicosity, absent competency and accountability."
And so they turned to the Mommy party. Victories by fifty Democratic women in the House of Representatives helped their party gain control of both houses of Congress and catapulted Nancy Pelosi, a feminist liberal from San Francisco, to assume leadership as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to the presidency.
Not everyone turned to the Mommy party, of course. But women gave Democrats an important edge; 55% of them voted for Democrats, but only 43% voted for Republicans. Exit polls reveal that both white men and women split their votes fairly evenly between the two parties. The female vote that really made a difference came from women who were young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minority populations. Democrats also enjoyed even larger margins from both men and women among the young, between 18 and 29 years of age (22%); low-income workers who earn less than $15,000 (37%); African Americans (79%); Latinos (39%) and the highly educated (17%).
The real "family values"
Although she won't become speaker of the House until January 2007, Nancy Pelosi has hit the ground running. During her first 100 hours as speaker, she has promised to introduce legislation that raises the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, requires all cargo shipped into the US to be screened, cuts student-loan interest rates in half, allows the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients, and broadens the types of stem-cell research allowed with federal funds.
Pelosi has also demonstrated bold leadership by backing John Murtha in the race for majority leader in the House. One year ago, Murtha - a hawkish Democrat from Pennsylvania, and a decorated Vietnam veteran - stunned colleagues when he called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Defying the president, Murtha argued that many troops were demoralised and poorly equipped and that after more than two years of war, they were impeding Iraq's progress toward stability and self-governance.
On 13 November 2006, Pelosi wrote to all elected representatives, saluting Murtha's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and endorsing him as Democratic majority leader. At a time when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton still hasn't opposed the war, Pelosi has staked out a strong anti-war position by promoting Murtha to such a position of leadership.
Liberal women have been celebrating this election for many reasons, including the potential return of the nation's attention to actual "family values". Throughout the election, Pelosi, a self-described "mother of five children and grandmother of five", emphasised the necessity of health care, education, energy independence, and a dignified retirement.
Pelosi's promises have already raised expectations among women's rights advocates. Just days after the election, author Judith Warner argued in a widely-discussed New York Times op-ed that Pelosi should expand her agenda and do even more to support America's working mothers and their families: "The American family", she wrote, "needs quality after-school programs, national standards for childcare, voucher programs and tax subsidies to help pay for that care, universal, voluntary public preschool, paid family leave and incentives for businesses to make part-time and flex-time work financially viable."
Not all these things will necessarily happen, but still (as a friend of mine recently commented) at the very least we now have politicians who will discuss these vital matters.
For those who have feared the end of legal abortion in the United States, the election means that the Democrats won't have to watch helplessly as the Bush administration packs the Supreme Court with rightwing conservatives. As a result, legal abortion seems protected - for now. Even in the conservative state of South Dakota, voters defeated an initiative that would have banned all abortion, except to save the life of a pregnant woman. In California and Oregon, they also beat back initiatives that would have limited women's reproductive choices.
As the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA) notes: "the change in House leadership can only bring good things for reproductive health advocates..." In particular, the organisation expects "a marked decline in anti-choice, anti-family planning legislative attacks, including the freestanding anti-choice bills that have been a centerpiece of the social conservative agenda."
The election has raised hopes, but they will almost certainly be dampened by political reality. Still, there is a palpable sense of possibility in the air, a glimpse of a brighter future, a growing confidence that the constitution will not be eviscerated, that a theocracy won't govern this nation, and that Americans just might remember, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, that Americans should pay "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind..."
One day after the election, my stepson - a properly cynical, but sensibly progressive young man with whom I've shared these years of bleakness and gloom - called me and said: "Today, I'm proud to be an American. We still live in a democracy." I couldn't remember the last time I heard anyone I respected utter those sweet and moving words.
Get our weekly email