Praise the Lord, pass the votes

The Republicans' pact with the religious Right reflects a growing divide between the US and other nations

Will Hutton
Sunday May 18, 2003
The Observer

In America it was a classic piece of Americana. The Democrats in the Texas state legislature hired a bus and slipped across the border to Oklahoma, so blocking a blatant Republican attempt at electoral gerrymander. If they were outside the state then they couldn't be compelled to attend the legislature to make quorate the redrawing of Texas's Congressional districts which would give Republicans up to seven more seats in the House of Representatives. So, as the Texas Rangers scoured the state in echoes of a 1950s B-movie, the Democrats were to be found holding court in a motel - with both sides accusing the other of reaching new lows of political treachery.

For, as the Republicans said, it was not as though Democrats are political innocents at gerrymander. Both sides have long fixed the boundaries of Congressional districts so that they include as many of their own voters and exclude the others - so that barely 10 per cent of Congressional seats have any chance of being won by the other side. Some of the Congressional districts proposed by the Republicans in Texas were so overtly convoluted to keep out Democrats that one stretched 300 miles in a corridor of middle-class streets sometimes less than 100 yards wide, an echo of the original gerrymander in 1812 when the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, redrew the boundaries of one area to resemble a salamander. And it is no more than the Democrats have done in their states. Gerrymandering is as American as pecan pie.

On this occasion tempers boiled over; Democrats believed the Republicans were changing the rules of the political game, revising the electoral map once they had won power rather than waiting 10 years as is custom and practice. The exchanges reached new heights of bitterness. Republicans, who have a majority of votes in the state that is not reflected in Congressional seats, felt they were simply making good the democratic deficit. The Democrats, for their part, felt this was all part of a Republican coup that is reshaping the US to make it impregnably conservative. The divisions and resentments are profound.

They extend well beyond politics. America has always been a nation of churchgoers, with invocations to God part of the national conversation. But over the past 20 years the longstanding American churches - Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Methodist - have been haemorrhaging members to the fast growing Pentecostal movement which takes scripture literally as the word of God and believes in salvation earned by individualistic virtue rather than via the mediation of the church. The Republicans have struck a Faustian pact with the Pentecostal movement; they will concede its arguments that abortion and even stem cell research are against biblical text in return for the church mobilising its members to vote Republican. Christianity is no longer above politics.

For the Republican high command this is not just a cynical exercise in coalition building. It believes that America is mired in moral decay, and that the character of the nation must be rebuilt, which begins with improving the virtues of individual Americans by celebrating patriotism and religion. Thus there are prayers before Bush cabinet meetings. Thus routine meeting by interest groups with the administration are punctuated by calls to praise God and the Bible. And thus one of the great benefits of the war with Iraq; it has made patriotism even more pervasive - helping to remoralise the nation around individualism and self-reliance, banishing to the sidelines the role of the social and the commonwealth in supporting good character. Gerrymander and alliance with Pentecostals alike serve the great cause.

American liberals feel their country is being taken from them - and rage in impotent fury. It is impossible to underestimate, they say, how 9/11 has changed the rules of the political game. Security has become the Republicans trump card, and under its cloak the country is being driven unassailably to the Right. This generation of Republicans respect neither the letter of the constitution nor its custom or practice. What they want is an entrenchment of their power and their own idiosyncratic world view - whether prioritising tax cuts to enrich the 'investor class' and so boost Wall Street, or insisting that pre-emptive unilateralism must rule in the name of homeland security. The troika deemed to be in their way - the United Nations, France and the New York Times - are mocked and savaged.

It is such a seismic change in America's political geography, yoking ancient visceral feelings about American exceptionalism with contemporary conservatism, that a growing group of liberal intellectuals believe that not even a Democrat President in 2004 could move the country back to any multilateralist international framework. Professor Charles Kupchan, a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and part of the task force set up to examine how transatlantic relations could be improved is pessimistic. In a well-regarded book, The End of the American Era, he argues that America is set on a path of economic, political and military isolationism. Over the next decade the paths of the European Unions and US will diverge - whoever runs the US. The trends are too deep-seated to overturn.

The diplomatic and economic events of the past six weeks, he thinks, are but a downpayment on what is to come. America, in allowing the dollar to fall freely and the euro to rise, is knowingly and carelessly exporting deflation to Europe - so EU recession and falling prices are becoming a racing certainty. The two sides are squaring up to each other over trade, with the EU insisting that the US remove its export tax rebates and US insisting that Europe lifts restrictions on the import of GM crops - and neither are giving ground. The differences over the role of the UN in Iraq remain profound. Never before have trends in the two continents diverged so fundamentally.

It is all incredibly dangerous - an undermining of how the globe is governed with nothing to put in its place. Globalisation itself could be in peril. Yet debate in Britain, rather like pre-war appeasement, is fundamentally misinformed. The right-wing press fulminates against the consolidation of Europe without recognising how the world is changing. That doesn't mean the choices are easy. To enter the eurozone as it becomes an area of falling prices is much less tempting; but to be outside the EU bloc politically is suicidal - the cause of the tension between Blair and Brown.

Equally Blair's hope of sustaining a unipolar world of Europe and America united looks like crying for the moon. American conservatism is creating a universe of invidious choices - and if you don't believe me think of 51 Texan Democrats spending a week in a motel as the only means of halting a shameless political fix. These are difficult times; they could yet become desperate.