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The slogan 'It's security, stupid' has poisoned American politics


Washington DC

AMERICAN elections are real. They do not echo, they choose. To hell with parties, platforms and manifestos. These events go straight to the heart of democratic leadership, collective trust in an individual. Small wonder they draw blood.

Nothing in my political experience has been as gripping as the Bush/Kerry contest. It has God and the Devil, charm and malice, wit and vulgarity — and is wholly unpredictable. For a brief moment the coliseum is emptied of clutter and two men fight alone, with the mob to decide on death or glory.

The hatred between the two camps is now visceral. On television, in offices, coffee bars and dinner parties, men and women shake with rage at the antics of their foes. Media bias is outrageous: “Vote Kerry, Get Nuked”, runs a headline. Election night parties have been advised to have therapists on call.

The Bush camp has made not just “liberal” but “Massachusetts” terms of abuse. John Kerry is depicted as an “anti-life” Satan, lacking consistency, principle and “the vision thing”. He and his wooden-faced East Coasters inhabit a “reality-based community”, at odds with Mr Bush’s “faith-based” politics of instinct. Mr Kerry lacks a sense of the great American myth — myth here being a benign term — and of the nation’s “historic narrative” in the fight of good with evil. Britons will find this the language of a different political planet.

Democrats reply in similar terms. Mr Bush is a crazed revivalist preacher. He has betrayed the American compact that statesmen should make people feel good. He makes them feel bad, scared, frightened in their homes and ready to splurge another $40 billion on defence. To the Kerry camp the President is guilty of intellectual treachery. An educated Yaley, Mr Bush displays open contempt for rational, evidence-based argument. He simply lies. An incandescent series in The New York Review of Books depicts him as rejecting the entire European Enlightenment, as a throwback to monastic fundamentalism. To the Democrats here is a man guided by prayer not reason, by biblical exegesis not the dialectic of modern government. Only thus can he declare Iraq a stunning success.

This is the first election for decades that has not been “about the economy, stupid”. Economics are susceptible to statistics. This campaign is about the will-o’-the-wisps, fear, insecurity and its antithesis, pre-emptive aggression. A Bush advertisement has wolves loping out of the forest towards the camera while a voice intones “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm”. This is a Hallowe ’en election. “Alone in the booth . . . ” says another spine-chilling Bush ad, “Why take the risk?”

How could Mr Kerry vote for war when it looked good, ask the Republicans, and against when it looked bad? How can he call Iraq “the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place” and yet demand 40,000 more troops to fight it and ask Europe to join in? How can this vacillator be a leader? And such vacillation is extended to Mr Kerry’s “softness on culture”, code for abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. And he can speak French!

The Kerry camp retorts in fury that Mr Bush is “a 9/11 junkie”. He and the “Bolshevik, neocon jihadists” are taking America back to the Salem witches, the Monkey Trials and McCarthyism. If re-elected, Mr Bush’s three upcoming Supreme Court appointments will ban abortion, make Christianity a state religion and denounce Darwinism. They will entrench neoconservatism. When a Bush supporter was accused of sounding like a Muslim fundamentalist she replied: “Yes and what’s wrong with that?” The religious Right has found a strange comfort in mimicing the certainties of its Muslim adversaries. Mr Bush’s jihadism is overt: “It is not Americans who want to free the peoples of the world, it is Jesus Christ who wants to free them.”

In these exchanges the Republicans have undeniably made the running. Every attempt by the Democrats to turn the fight to the economy becomes dust. It is not easy to discuss federal discount rates when your opponent is discussing the Day of Judgment. Except in the televised debates, Mr Kerry has seemed on the defensive, not least where supposedly strongest, as a war veteran. To prove his anti-terrorist credentials he was sent into an Ohio swamp last weekend to shoot a goose. He did, but could not display the corpse for fear of offending the animal rights lobby.

The Bush camp has neutralised the President’s dreadful war record as a campaign issue. It has turned his lassitude on terror before to 9/11 to his advantage after it, depicting him as a “changed man”, a born-again hawk. Continued hostilities and daily bad news from Iraq, far from ridiculing “mission accomplished”, lets the President play the commander-in-chief card at every rally. To each charge that he has bombed, tortured, broken laws, conventions, treaties and polluted America’s global values, Mr Bush shrugs and says, in effect, “It’s security, stupid”.

This battle has made American politics toxic. Time magazine calls the election the “Uncivil War”. Newt Gingrich, congressman turned historian, remarked this week that America has not seemed so polarised since the 1850s and the Civil War. To him the election is not a political disagreement but “a genuine disagreement over the future . . . This is not a divided Government. It is a divided country.” As never before it has separated a mostly East Coast governmental elite — commonsensical, cosmopolitan and secular — from something quite new, an evangelical politics which to some is exhilarating, to others alarming.

Not even Barry Goldwater was as shamelessly right wing as Mr Bush in this election. Mr Bush’s xenophobic vision of America in a state of war is McCarthyite, a nation under perpetual threat from unknowable foes abroad and “in every American home”. Disagreement as unpatriotic. And there is something Latin American in Mr Bush’s raw fiscal irresponsibility. He has cut more than a trillion dollars in taxes and yet spends billions in handouts to business friends and interest groups. The favouritism to Halliburton is shameless. Mr Bush has turned Bill Clinton’s $236 billion budget surplus into a record $415 billion deficit. And he revels in it. The policy even has its own ism, “big government conservatism”.

On the surface it is hard to believe that a mere election, especially one so finely balanced as this, can resolve this apparently great divide. There can be no compromise between America as a tolerant melting pot of peoples and opinions, restrained in its power and influencing the world chiefly through trade and example, and America as Innocent III’s Holy Roman Empire, a Church charismatic and militant. One or other must yield.

Conventional wisdom holds that either man as president will face a ghastly term of office. If Mr Kerry wins, he will be savaged by the Republicans for betraying the global crusade and for raising taxes to pay its debts. If Mr Bush wins, he too must in some degree dismantle that crusade and find money to pay for it. Most Democrats, and many Republicans, remain in a state of shock at the neoconservative putsch after 9/11. A small group round Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld seized first the Pentagon, then the presidency and then America’s foreign policy. They went to war against a distant country, Iraq, which offered American no threat, against the will of the Chiefs of Staff.

The neocon strategy may seem absurd, changing from crisis to crisis. But its purpose is simple, to redefine America in ideological, if not theological, terms. Neoconservatism is not a pragmatic response to the new world order. It is the crucible of a new America, with insecurity as its binding myth and 9/11 as its “reality check”. Iraq could be anywhere. Hence such Bushisms as “the transformational power of freedom”, enforced by the barrel of a gun. Hence a terminology of fear so cosmic that the end justifies any means, however illegal or gruesome.

Against this politics, that of reason may seem dull and plodding. Yet I cannot see the neocon adventure as anything but a historical cul-de-sac, product of the backlash from 9/11. Mr Bush put himself among dangerous — in Mr Cheney’s case very dangerous — men. The so-called War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq involved stunning errors of analysis and execution. But democracy’s antibodies will emerge to rectify them. No foreign policy can be based on myth for ever, any more than little men in green will pay off a budget deficit. Reality will end Mr Bush’s crusade sooner or later, however much I might prefer it done by a show of hands on Tuesday.

You need only drive down any American street or scan any American crowd to be reminded that this country contains people from every corner of the world. For those people “back home” the present argument might have them tearing at each other’s throats in fratricidal war. In America they do it on the hustings. In America the issue will be decided on Tuesday, lawyers permitting, by a simple vote. And whoever wins, I believe that realism will eventually triumph. That fact, not the neocons’ wars, bombs and prison cells, is the message that America should broadcast to the world. That is its continuing victory.