Four more years of what? The debate starts here

The US election campaign showed that politics has become a dangerously passive spectator sport - spiked wants to change that.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

At the time of writing on Wednesday 3 November, President George W Bush’s Republican team has declared victory and the US election is all over bar the shouting – although there seems likely to be a lot of that, about provisional ballots, excluded voters and assorted other legal and constitutional technicalities.

But what about the political fallout from the elections? Far less is being heard on that subject. The whole world has apparently been watching the American elections for weeks, with most of it reportedly hoping and praying that President Bush would be defeated by the Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry. Yet there has been precious little serious discussion of what the results might mean.

Starting today, we at spiked hope to help put that to rights, by kickstarting a debate about the meaning of the US elections for the future of everything from war and peace to science and environmentalism.

Such a debate is sorely needed now. Elections can provide an insightful snapshot of the state of political life. This one has highlighted important trends in America and the West, revealing a political culture that seems as confused and confusing as most of the pundits and predictions have been.

For example, the election campaign seemed to reveal a society that is deeply and bitterly divided, with both sides warning of dire consequences if the other should win. Yet in reality there was little or no meaningful political divide between the parties. The more shrill the personal abuse became, the less substantial seemed the differences.

All the talk of an historic election motivated more Americans than usual to go out and vote. Yet at the end of the long and intense campaign there was no sense of political movement or change. Almost every state voted the same way as in the 2000 election. There was no sign of anybody having engaged in and won a public debate. It was almost as if they might not have bothered with the campaign at all. As Helen Searls pointed out on spiked last week, the intense Republican/Democrat conflict looks less like a political battle between right and left than an immovable cultural divide, more like that between the rival baseball fans of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (see Divided States of America).

It was an election where the American and international left declared that all that mattered was defeating Bush. Yet they seemed strangely reluctant to discuss what the alternative might be. Instead their view of the election appeared to be based on comfortable myths: on one hand the myth of Bush as a uniquely vindictive and hawkish president, on the other the myth of Kerry (a genuine foreign policy hawk) as some sort of peace-mongering liberal. No doubt they will spend the next four years drawing an even worse caricature of the evil Bush; how much easier it is than to engage in a proper political debate about how to change things. (And more lucrative of course; the Bush presidency remains a meal ticket for the likes of Michael Moore, who would lose their raison d’etre without a cartoon Republican president to attack.)

The US election has also revealed other broader problems of Western political culture that now need to be tackled. It confirmed, for example, how the political class of the most powerful nation on Earth, the world’s only superpower, is now almost paralysed by fear. As Frank Furedi has analysed elsewhere on spiked, both sides deployed the politics of fear throughout the campaign (see The politics of fear). The impression of insecurity and paranoia left behind is far removed from the popular image of a self-confident American empire.

The election focused attention too on the crisis of political authority and legitimacy in the West, often referred to as a problem of ‘trust’. In America that crisis has been expressed through legal concerns about the voting process in various states, while foreign observers from third world countries made fun of American democracy and attention focused on allegations that the government lied over Iraq. These problems first came to a head after Bush was elected president in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. That situation was temporarily papered over by the atmosphere of forced unity following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. But the underlying crisis of political authority seems unlikely to be contained for long, despite any breathing space provided by Bush’s slightly clearer victory this time around.

So, how are these and other confused factors likely to work themselves out over the next four years of uncertainty? What are the consequences of the election likely to be in terms of continuity and change? How will it affect international affairs, from the Middle East to Europe? What next for the scientific debate about stem cell research? Or the legal/political conflicts over abortion law and gay marriage?

At spiked, we want to facilitate a debate about all of this. Your opinions and expertise are canvassed. Because perhaps above all, the US election campaign demonstrated that politics has become a dangerously passive spectator sport. Everybody spent weeks simply waiting for election day, reading the entrails of the latest up-and-down opinion polls, but with no sense that anybody could do anything to change things, win an argument or make something happen. Despite the frantic activity and the millions of words, there was a deathly atmosphere of inertia and a lack of meaning surrounding it all. Getting some more people to go out and vote for a Bush or a Kerry – or a Tony Blair, a Michael Howard, or a Charles Kennedy – is no solution to the problem of politics without political alternatives.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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