No other country today affects the world the way America does. Americans have a full appreciation of their nation’s immense power, but in general they tend to have a retarded view of the great responsibility that comes with this power. Global in reach, they remain incredibly parochial in consciousness.
The presidential election last Tuesday brought out the power of insular Middle America. Conservative, deeply nationalistic, moralistic, and wary of foreigners, this side of America found its voice in George W. Bush. The other America – progressive, cosmopolitan, pragmatic, and tolerant – found itself buried by an avalanche of voters who could find nothing in common with the more urbane John Kerry.
The rest of the world was reduced to watching how American voters choose their leaders, faintly hoping that the results would somehow reflect global sentiments against American unilateralism under a Bush presidency. But in the end Middle America’s voters did not really care how their country behaved in the world stage. They looked at global conflicts through the narrow prism of their own domestic security. And so, while intervention abroad, whether benign or imperialistic does not sit well with them, they understood what Bush was saying: America has to fight the terrorists abroad so that it need not fight them at home.
We were wrong to think that, since Iraq and the global war on terror became the focal point in the presidential debates, therefore voters would see the folly of having gone to war alone and the danger of further isolation. We forget that the average American does not read the New York Times or the Washington Post or watch BBC. He would not be able to point Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines on the map. While he would be distressed by the number of dead American soldiers being brought home from the war front, he would be unaffected by any suggestion that his country has violated any international law. It is an ironic fact that foreign affairs remains foreign to most Americans. This election was inward-looking, and probably even more so than previous US elections.
But more than the insularity, it is the further drift to rightwing conservatism and moral absolutism that has been the hallmark of this election. Bush’s strategists appear to have been fully aware of this shift in the cultural life of America, and they responded to it by weaving morality-based themes into their campaign agenda. But more than this, they succeeded in narrowing the meaning of moral values to suit the definitions of the Christian Right. One leaflet widely circulated in Ohio said it all: “George W. Bush shares your values: Marriage. Life. Faith.” These words were printed on a picture of a typical American family going to a small church. Rural and traditional Americans came out to vote. They voted against same-sex marriage and abortion, and proclaimed the importance of moral absolutes in the nation’s life. Yet they ignored the dishonest way Bush avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, and the dirty way in which political power has been used to advance the business interests of the Bush family and their partners.
There is no way John Kerry could have won these votes. A divorced Catholic who married the widow Teresa Heinz, this progressive liberal from the New England state of Massachusetts shied away from sectarian pronouncements. The Democrats could not have found a better candidate than this level-headed man — a decorated war hero, a veteran senator who understood the nuances of global politics, and a statesman who felt squeamish about quoting the Bible to score a political point. In a world threatened by a clash of fundamentalisms, such a leader should be president of the United States. His defeat demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the Democrats have lost the ideological battle. In retrospect, perhaps not even the charismatic Bill Clinton would have been able to override the moral stigma that his moment of weakness with Monica Lewinski appears to have stamped upon his party.
But it is clear that America remains an ideologically-split nation. Bush won 51 percent of the popular vote, while Kerry took 48 percent. Kerry won the economic centers of the East and West Coast, while Bush carried the small rural counties of the Midwest and the South. Kerry won the black and immigrant vote, while Bush took a big majority of the white vote. Kerry won the intelligentsia but lost Middle America.
The Democrats must now re-assess their situation to be able to fight for a more tolerant and progressive America. Democracy is no good without an effective opposition, and an American Empire run by a triumphalist rightwing party is a big danger to the rest of the world.
It was no doubt in the spirit of fighting another day and preserving what is left of the support the party enjoys that Kerry graciously conceded the crucial electoral votes in Ohio instead of going into a prolonged audit of the contested provisional votes. No one loves a sore loser in American society especially at a time when Americans need most to feel united. And so, as in the controversial 2000 election, the Democrats allowed the institutional process to dictate the electoral outcome and decently acknowledged their defeat.
America may have made a big mistake in re-electing Bush, but few will deny its admirable vitality as a democratic nation. We can criticize America for its arrogance in world affairs, but there is much to admire in the way Americans govern themselves. They follow the law and take their government seriously. They are unflinching in their beliefs.
They love their country, and their country takes care of its citizens. Such is a strong nation.
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