Bush whacking: It’s the mythology, stupid
It's been a week of dishonesty and denial about why Bush won.
In the long week in politics since the American election, several myths have taken root about why President George W Bush won, and what it will mean for America and the world.
Many of Bush’s disappointed opponents in the USA and internationally seem willing to grab at just about any claim or conspiracy theory that can excuse John Kerry’s defeat. As we predicted beforehand, the one thing that they appear unwilling to contemplate in all this is that they failed to win the political arguments or offer a convincing alternative. spiked is no supporter of Bush’s Republicans (or of Kerry’s Democrats, come to that). But this sort of dishonesty and denial does no favours to anybody who wants to advance the development of political alternatives.
Several of these self-serving excuses hark back to the controversial 2000 election, when Bush won the White House despite losing the popular vote, amid allegations of electoral fraud in the key state of Florida (remember the great ‘hanging chads’ scandal?). This time around, of course, Bush won a clear majority of the votes (if a rather narrower one than some subsequent commentary might suggest). Nevertheless, radical critics now claim that the 2004 election was an even worse travesty than 2000, with a combination of hidden incompetence, intimidation and corruption somehow denying the Democrats thousands of votes in key states. Greg Palast, an investigative journalist in the Michael Moore mould, has even declared that ‘Kerry Won’ and called on his supporters to ‘hold your victory party’ (1). Enjoy.
But however much you try to talk up this sort of ‘Fantasy Election’, it cannot alter the fact that, in the real world, the Republicans won almost 60million votes and the key battleground states. Despite all of the obvious problems and failures of the Bush administration at home and abroad, the Democrats and the anybody-but-Bush lobby could not beat them. How to explain that away? Bring on the most influential myths of the post-election debate so far: that the Republicans won by scaring stupid redneck voters, and by mobilising a powerful block of Christian fundamentalists to vote for their conservative moral values on abortion and gay marriage.
It is not hard to see why this should be an attractive explanation/excuse for the Democrats and their supporters on the international left. After all, how can they be blamed for losing to Bush, if the voters are just too ignorant or too bigoted to appreciate their sophisticated arguments? This sort of contemptuous attitude towards the electorate reveals rather more about the left than it does about American voters. Apart from anything else, it is a bit rich to blame Bush for emotive scaremongering when the Kerry campaign was just as guilty of exploiting the politics of fear, attempting to cast Bush in the role of co-bogeyman alongside bin Laden. It appears that many American voters were simply not daft enough to see Kerry as a convincing alternative.
The notion that Bush won the election by mobilising what have been called ‘battalions of Christian soldiers’ or, in the words of one Republican columnist, by running ‘a jihad in America’, has become something approaching conventional wisdom in the course of the past week. The key statistic quoted everywhere to ‘prove’ this is that, when asked by exit pollsters which issue they were most concerned about, more voters named ‘moral values’ than Iraq or the economy.
At first sight that seems impressive. But, as Guardian/Observer columnist David Aaronovitch points out, on closer inspection the ‘populist uprising’ of Christian conservatives turns out ‘to be more or less a mirage, a self-inflicted liberal nightmare’:
‘Twenty-two per cent placed “moral values” as the number one voting issue, of whom four-fifths voted for Bush, making around 17 per cent of those voting. Eighty-three per cent of voters did not fall into this camp at all. Furthermore, the percentage of voters describing themselves as evangelical was the same as in 2000. The proportions in favour or against abortion were no different – 55 per cent are broadly in favour of abortion, with 42 per cent opposed. A majority supported either gay marriage (which we do not have here in Britain, or in most countries in Europe) or gay civil unions. In fact, among these latter, there was a five per cent lead for Bush. (Equally unexpectedly, those most scared by terrorism actually voted for Kerry.)’ (2)
There clearly was a substantial vote against legalised gay marriage in those states where the issue was put to the ballot at the same time as the presidential vote. But even on this issue and abortion, it would be wrong to imagine a popular Christian conservative juggernaut rolling across America. These have become totemic issues on which some people want to make a stand, not so much for a coherent set of absolutist values, as against the dominant cultural values of our relativist age. The very fact that gay marriage – an issue that would not have seen the light of day a decade ago – is now so high on the agenda, suggests that Christian fundamentalists have long since lost the culture war in America.
Making a show of voting against such issues today is largely another form of gesture politics, of lashing out at things that you identify with a discredited, alienated cultural elite. It is a remarkable sign of how confused and degraded political life has become that voting for the incumbent President of the United States, the most powerful leader on Earth, can now be seen by some as a form of protest politics.
Related to the claims about Bush’s Christian battalions, many argue that the election proves that America is now deeply divided between two camps with irreconcilable moral values. On one hand, apparently, there are the liberal, urban, secular Democrats, on the other the conservative, rural and small-town religious Republicans. In fact, things are rather more complicated than that simplistic line-drawing would suggest. For example, as Helen Searls has pointed out on spiked, where does Arnold Schwarzenegger fit in, as the Republicans’ rising star and governor of California who also supports much of the ‘liberal’ agenda on social issues? (see Divided States of America ).
Rather than an all-out ‘values war’ between two entrenched camps, it might be more accurate to say that these apparent divisions reflect the lack of any truly powerful values in US society today. In the past, there have often been serious divisions between north and south, black and white, cities and suburbs, and so on. But above and beyond these tensions, there was usually a powerful sense of all-American values which, while never doing away with divisions, held US society together as a coherent and dynamic whole. Today, by contrast, there is palpable sense of uncertainty about what America stands for at home and in the world, an uncertainty that comes from the White House downwards. The talk of deep divisions looks more like the result of this central corrosion of a moral consensus that could unite America, rather than the pull of any powerful competing values on either side.
The defensive myth-making about why the Democrats lost the election is matched by the wild speculation about what we can expect during the second Bush term. Just before the election, one American writer warned that if Bush won, ‘fascism is possible in the United States’, and similarly ridiculous comparisons with the Nazis are all over the internet. No, says leading British eco-crusader George Monbiot, to understand what’s going to happen ‘we must look not to the 1930s, but to the 1630s’, because what Bush’s Republicans are really practising is a revived ‘Puritanism of the rich’ (3).
These various schools of political hysterics not only distort history to a degree that even Bush’s spindoctors might balk at. They also give the Republican right far too much credit as an ideologically driven movement.
In truth, the disproportionate influence of the minority Christian conservative and neo-conservative wings within Republicanism results from the political incoherence that has afflicted the right since the end of the Cold War. No doubt this provides the potential for some out-of-control Iraq-style campaigns against, say, legal abortion that could cause problems in the near future. But the inconsistent record (as opposed to the bold rhetoric) of the first Bush administration does not suggest that the far-right’s fantasy politics are all about to be brought to life. A government that has accumulated the largest budget deficit in American history will not find it easy to dismantle the taxation system, and the traumatic intervention in Iraq does not offer an easy stepping stone to further military adventures. Those gloomy left-wingers predicting ‘bombs on Tehran by Christmas’ reveal a lot about their own state of mind, but nothing about the state of play in geo-politics. We shall see.
The debate about what the US election means for the future of politics and what we should do about it is only just beginning. But one thing that already seems certain is that we are not going to get very far on a diet of big myths, weak excuses, and low contempt.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: US election
After the American election – the spiked debate
(1) Kerry won,Greg Palast, TomPaine.com, 4 November 2004
(2) ‘No, it wasn’t God’, David Aaronovitch, Observer, 7 November 2004
(3) Puritanism of the rich, George Monbiot, Guardian, 9 November 2004
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