A verdict born of pain

15 Nov 2004


Prem Shankar JhaGeorge Bush's second victory has thrown liberal America into despair. When he won in 2004, it dismissed this as an aberration made possible by the hitherto unsuspected flaws in the American democratic system. While Jeb Bush (Florida's governor) exploited these to give Florida to his brother, the Republican majority in the Supreme Court politicised the rule of law and prevented a recount of the vote in Florida.

When Bush began, cold-bloodedly and without provocation, to plan an invasion of Iraq regardless of the cost in (Iraqi) lives, they railed at the ascendancy of the neo — conservatives and accused them of having staged a coup and hijacked American democracy. The implication was clear. This was an aberration and would one day be put right.

When Bush bungled the management of the country and showed a cavalier disregard for responsible government on every issue from Iraq to the budget deficit they rejoiced and began to hope that his days were numbered.

When Kerry failed to attack Bush on what was rapidly emerging as his weakest point — the rising body count in a pointless war — and instead allowed himself to be put on the defensive over his flip-flops on Iraq and his war record in Vietnam, they railed against his pusillanimity and began to say that he lacked the qualities of a leader.

When record numbers of young people and blacks registered themselves to vote, their spirits rose, for this was a sure sign of acute disenchantment with the incumbent regime.

When record numbers went to the polls, their spirits rose even higher. On the afternoon of November 2, as the first exit poll results showed that most of the new voters were voting for Kerry, they began to hope that the aberration that the Bush Presidency represented was coming to an end.

Therefore when, despite the record turnout, Bush won by one of the largest margins in American history, it was not only their hopes that were dashed. Some of their most deeply cherished assumptions about their country and about American democracy also came down in ruins.

President Bush did not win because Kerry could not bring out the democratic voters. He won in spite of Kerry's success in doing so. He won because even larger numbers of new voters came out to vote for him. They belonged to the Christian evangelical right. They voted for Bush because they wanted to turn the clock back. They wanted to prevent abortion; to prevent same sex marriages; to allow Christian prayers in public, i.e state schools.

They approved of the curtailment of the democratic rights of individuals if this was necessary to make the masses feel safer. They did not mind that their President had lied to them, or at least allowed them to draw the wrong conclusions, in order to take them into war. They did not mind if habeas corpus was suspended and new interpretations were given to law, by executive order, to permit torture and sexual molestation of prisoners who had not been charged with, let alone convicted of, anything.

They were, in short, people who were not guided by reason but swayed by passion. They were not looking forward to the technology dominated future but yearning to go back to the God-fearing past. For them rationality was at a severe discount.

Only blind faith in God, in Bush, and in the American flag, mattered. They hankered for a past when life was simpler, and values were more clearly defined. They yearned for simple solutions to intractable problems and did not mind if their government took short cuts to get to them. They longed for the conformism of the past and the freedom from doubt that it gave them. They took shelter in religion from a world that they no longer understood. They distrusted the big cosmopolitan cities. They came from middle America, from the smaller towns and in even greater numbers from the rural areas. Together, they made up as many as 41 per cent of the voters. They were, in short, the western answer to Osama bin Laden. On November 2, they cracked the liberal foundations upon which American democracy had rested for more than a hundred years.

A silent revolution
What America has experienced is not a temporary fit of insanity but a silent, non-violent revolution that has shifted the locus of American politics many, many degrees to the right. This is no temporary swing. It has brought home to the democrats how dangerously out of touch they had become with the mood of middle America when they blithely endorsed gay marriages and womens' right to choose. As The Guardian perceptively commented, the biggest loser in this election has not been John Kerry but Hillary Clinton. For she represents everything that a majority of the American electorate has rejected.

Where has this revolution sprung from? The answer can be given in one word: "globalisation". In the last four decades while New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles have become glittering 'global cities', most of middle America has turned into a 'rust belt' with silent mills, dying towns, boarded up homes and unswept pavements.

Blue-collar jobs have vanished. Trade unions have become defunct, and the security these gave to the working class has become a distant memory. Service sector jobs are still to be had, and in many areas the service sector has created more jobs than the manufacturing sector has lost. But the drop in status even for those fortunate to land one of these new jobs has been frightful. To cite but one example: in 1995 Long Island, outside New York, created more jobs than it lost. But the average salary in the jobs closed was $42,700 a year, while the average salary in the new jobs was $18,000.

The trauma is all the deeper because more and more of the available service sector jobs are being taken by immigrants. In the mid-west this is a new and unsettling phenomenon. Add to this the fact that more and more of the places in the top universities and in the largest corporations are going to another group of recent immigrants, the Asians, and it is hardly surprising that a large part of white male America believes that its future is being stolen from it. For many of its members there is nowhere to go but the past.

Far from being unique, the shift to the right in America is part of a far more widespread shift taking place in all the industrialised countries of Europe. In France Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the fascist national Front got 0.74 per cent of the vote in 1974. In the last Presidential election he got the largest number of votes in the first ballot. Austria and Denmark passed under far right regimes in the '90s.

In Germany the far right neo-Nazi party has captured almost a fifth of the vote. The main difference between America and Europe is that in the latter the far right remains, by and large at the fringe of politics, while in the former it has infiltrated the Grand Old Party and captured the State. The credit for keeping the Right at bay in Europe may go to its valiant efforts to retain as much as possible of its social democracy and welfare capitalism for as long as possible, instead of letting the market have its untrammelled way.

Since there is no way of halting globalisation and the hollowing out of industry in the older industrialised countries, there is also no way, at least in the perceptible future, of bringing the political pendulum back to what used to be the centre.

The consequences of the shift for American domestic and foreign policy are disturbing and unpredictable. Americans are swinging right out of pain. And the neo-conservatives are skilfully diverting the rage it has given birth to in the people away from the giant corporations whose decisions are causing it towards strangers in other countries whose lives are even more miserable than theirs. Within America the battle has turned into one between reason and fear, and fear is winning. But with every one of its victories the public space open for democratic debate and contention is getting more restricted. As for the rest of the world, Bush's victory will reinvigorate the drive towards empire and therefore hasten the end of the Westphalian order and the return, after four hundred years, to a Hobbesian world dominated by war, fear and uncertainty.

This is very far from the peaceful, democratic and prosperous world that Francis Fukuyama had predicted, to world-wide acclaim, in his essay, 'The End of History', fifteen years ago.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

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