After the tears

Anthony Barnett
3 November 2004

George W Bush has gained a plurality of 3.5 million in the United States election. With a turnout at 113 million, that is close but decisive.

What does it mean and what should those who want to secure open, democratic societies in America and around the world do now?

The New York Times reports that a retired bureau chief in the Iowa department of education, a lifelong registered Republican, had been turned into a Kerry supporter by the war in Iraq, “I feel I’m a bit of a traitor. But I have to deal with principles. I just feel that the Republican party headed by George Bush is calamitous.”

“With people like this”, a Democrat supporter said to me, “We should have been able to win. We recruited the greatest army on the left in forty years. And it still wasn’t enough.”

I don’t think that Democrats should beat themselves up about what has happened. The fact that they pushed Bush to the wire created amongst them a tremendous sense of hope in the last few days that there would be a breakthough. This may lead to arguments about what more they could have done that might have made the difference.

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But Bush had 9/11. He decided in September 2001, as the towers went down, to run as a national war leader, From a starting–point then of 88% popular support, he remained a huge spender and a tax–cutter, and launched two initially successful wars. It should never have been close. Why then did Kerry do so well?

Bush had lost all three debates. He is unlikely to forget the humiliation. The aftermath of his war in Iraq is going badly. The economy is sluggish. On all the major issues of domestic and foreign policy, and in terms of his capacity to be a capable, strategic leader, he failed. These failures point towards disasters to come in his second term.

Nonetheless he won because he used the incumbency to turn the contest into one about character, and himself as a leader in a time of war against a new evil: Terror with a capital T.

Voters bought this. Those who thought honesty was the most important quality in a leader split for Bush two to one, according the New York Times.

Make people afraid; make them quiver; then offer them strength through certainty. An evangelical nationalism that offers conviction without complicated content gave Bush victory on what America calls “cultural issues’’ – organised by religion, sport (especially the National Rifle Association), and media (especially Murdoch’s Fox News) and reinforced by fears for sex and marriage (with eleven state referenda on gay marriage).

This was, in short, induced and well–organised fear, politically unified by the Republican machine. But it is based upon a deluded view of the nature of the world and America’s capacity to be untouched by it.

To have any chance of success, the Democrats had to be led by a figure with enough military credibility to take on Bush at his strongest and offer a counter–response to his “war on terror”. This was a trap, but one that – thanks to Bush’s response to 9/11 – was unavoidable. Kerry did what he could backed by a hugely creative alliance of non–party organisations, creating a formidable counter – both financial and organisational – to the wealthy, church–backed Republican coalition.

The danger now is that this network will split apart as it rebounds from defeat. If it understands itself and how far it has come, this will not happen.

For this network has started, with all the breadth, freshness and energy of America, to develop a better form of politics, one capable of discipline but not commanded by the machine – an alliance of participation and the structures of traditional representative politics.

Boxed in by fear and terror, its greatest weakness has been its inability to articulate a clear, positive relationship to the wider world. Kerry tried, calling for multinational alliances, and even this seemed brave. But it was also unconvincing because old–fashioned. The world forces that American must work with and can no longer dominate go much further than traditional diplomacy or the exercise of “soft power”.

The politics of Bush defies the world and cannot succeed, economically or militarily. To be overcome it needs to be challenged by a domestic American politics that is also a politics of the world, open to the democratic influences of globalisation in a positive manner.

This will call for an open politics outside the United States committed to confronting terrorism democratically and able to work in concert with progressive forces in America.

Without in any way denying the disasters likely to follow from Bush’s victory – from the promotions into the Supreme Court and the intensification of the war in Iraq to a further deepening of inequality and dismantling of welfare in the US itself – this election has an upside: the quality, maturity and open–minded commitment of the opposition to Bush. Unlike the equivalent contest of Nixon versus McGovern in 1972 when the Democrats were wiped out everywhere, 2004 leaves the legacy of a movement capable of holding its own.

There is another America, an alternative to the closed certainties of the re–elected president. It has been defeated but it has reason to be proud.

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