The triumph of imperial politicsMichael Northcott
- 5 November 2004
George Bush won America?s presidential election, not because his policies were markedly different from John Kerry?s, but because of the worldview of the Republicans, who have no doubt about the rightness of their cause
THE presidential race which concluded this week saw a United States more divided than it has been since the civil-rights struggles of the Sixties. As television channels and newspapers painted the nation red and blue, people in apartment blocks and suburban neighbourhoods held dinner parties and discussion groups just to talk about the election. In hair salons, aromatherapy boutiques, garages and mini-marts the talk was of little else in the weeks preceding the big day. The unprecedented number of votes cast and the hight turnout reflected the way in which this election has divided the nation, and provoked many whose votes have not previously been registered to turn out and vote for their man. If you believe the commentators, and indeed if you listen to American friends describing children and parents falling out over how they intended to vote, President Bush will be presiding over a State of the Union that has not been so divided for a generation.
But if the nation was divided by its belief that only their man would deliver the kind of America they wanted to live in, the strange fact was that on most policy issues there were few sharp differences in the announced intentions of the two main candidates. The rhetoric was different, and Kerry showed himself in all three televised debates to be in command of the issues in a way Bush (without a prompter) will never be, but real clear water between the candidates on issues from Iraq and Palestine to education and the economy was actually hard to find. Take Palestine, for example. In the past two weeks of the presidential campaign 100 Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israelis, some of them while asleep in their beds as bulldozers razed hundreds of homes in Gaza to the ground, and the others killed by air strikes on refugee camps and West Bank homes. The continuing ferocity of the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon?s treatment of the Palestinians reflects the fact that during his first term Bush gave Sharon carte blanche to do whatever he judged necessary to subdue the Palestinians. But in their campaign for the White House the Kerry team failed to criticise Bush?s stance on Israel, and they failed to offer any clear alternatives should Kerry make it to the Oval Office. Listening to Bush and Kerry debating Palestine was, as the third candidate Ralph Nader put it, ?like listening to Tweedledee debating with Tweedledee?.
Similarly, in relation to the ?war on terror?, the Patriot Act and the pre-emptive strike policy, Kerry sought to show himself as ardent a patriot and warrior as Bush. He wore a Stars and Stripes lapel badge throughout the campaign, he adopted the habit of saluting the crowd in the first months of the campaign, hoping to pick up votes from those who would recall that he, unlike Bush, actually fought in one of America?s wars. And where Kerry did criticise Bush on the war on terror he simply argued that he would prosecute it more effectively and strategically. But the efforts of the Bush administration to stoke the country into a constant state of fear with its continual warnings about the threat of terror, large-scale denials of civil liberties at home, and in Guant?namo Bay, and its rhetoric about the ?enemies of America? ? none of these came in for consistent criticism from Kerry, although he did promise to abandon the Bush administration?s colour-coded terror alerts. While Kerry on the stump, though not in Congress, criticised the failure of Bush to capture Osama bin Laden, and said he would be more of a multilateralist than Bush by involving European allies in Iraq, he failed to distance himself from the empire-building, fear-stoking, and liberty-denying militarist policies of the Bush-Cheney first term.
In what then, if not in the actual policies of the candidates, did the divide consist in this hard-fought campaign? The divide was not so much over policy as over the way in which the presidential candidates, their teams and their supporters, approach reality. The Bushites are conservative idealists. They are committed to a number of non-negotiable ideals and they see the business of the presidency, and the Republican-dominated Congress, as bringing the culture into conformity with these ideals. These include efforts to limit abortion, efforts to prevent homosexuals gaining the sanctity of law for their long-term partnerships, and efforts to restrict the use of public funds for research on human embryos and stem cells. These also include the belief that taxes on property and income are a form of theft ? some Republicans have mooted the idea of abandoning income tax altogether during Bush?s second term. In their view the use of violence in defence of property is a human right, and government regulation or taxation of corporations, entrepreneurs and property owners is contrary to the divine blessing announced in the Book of Proverbs on the fruits of hard work, good stewardship and wise use. This is why Bush has promised to use his second term to drastically reduce business regulation, including a continuing assault on environmental law and regulation. In all of these policy stances the Bushites are driven by messianic certainty that their view of the world is the right one, and that if the world as described by scientists or economists or legislators or bureaucrats does not match these beliefs then it is the descriptions that are wrong.
Ron Suskind in a justly lauded article in the New York Times Magazine on 17 October quoted a Bush aide as saying to him that Suskind?s problem was that he was ?in what we call the reality-based community?, or in other words people on the east and west coasts who ?believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality?. The aide went on to say, ?that?s not the way the world really works any more. We?re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality We?re history?s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.? These are chilling words. They represent a throwback to an imperial politics in which the emperor?s courtly culture reigns supreme and is unchallengeable. Truth for this generation of Republicans is not important if truth is understood as telling it like it is. The important thing is how they want things to be. And so when the Bush-Cheney administration debunks the science of global warming, and when it rewrites intelligence reports indicating that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and no links with al-Qaida, they are being entirely consistent: the truth is not ?out there? but rather it is being manufactured by public relations blitzes, political spin, the military, and corporations like Halliburton.
If the Bushites are idealists, John Kerry and his supporters were realists. They claimed to represent a more empiricist and Enlightenment approach to politics, preferring open dialogue based on discussion of the facts, and a preparedness to listen to different points of view. Kerry?s account of the way in which his Catholicism affects his politics is not that it gives him unquestioning certainties in the policy arena but that it connects him with the poor and the vulnerable, giving him a concern for social justice and for environmental responsibility. That much was clear from his opening comments in the third of the televised presidential debates. For Kerry, religion is not about imposing his moral values on those who elect him but about engaging faithfully with the people of God in worship. Bush rarely attends church either in Washington or at Camp David and this is not because he is too busy ? he has had more holidays, and played more golf, than any recent incumbent of the Oval Office. But Kerry regularly attends Mass in his home town and impressed on his team his determination to continue to do so throughout the presidential campaign.
Worship forms Christians in certain habits from which they learn the virtues of peaceableness, of reasoned argument, of concern for the weak, and even love for the enemy. That Bush is more given to fits of temper than Kerry, that he seems actually to prefer a violent imperial posture towards the outside world than a consensual and multilateral stance, that he frequently makes messianic claims to know the rightness of his cause despite the evidence, and that he opposes the righteousness of the empire he would lead to the evil of its opponents ? these hardly display the key lineaments of Christian character as we read of it in the New Testament, or as it is understood by Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin.
So are Christians idealists or realists? Well, in this election the majority of faith-based interventions have clearly been on the idealist side of the spectrum. The states which Kerry was always going to win included California and New York, where fewer people go to church, while most of the southern and more churchgoing states were committed to Bush before the campaign began. Southern Baptists, evangelical mega-churches and conservative Catholic parishes, and even pacifist but conservative religious groups like the Amish, all backed Bush.
For European Christians the really disturbing thing about this election is not that religious people, and moral issues close to their hearts, including the lives of the unborn, were central to this campaign. It is rather the way in which the religious and Republican Right have merged around an openly imperial agenda in which the power of the federal government and the military are used to impose the often dubious moral stances of a governing elite on those who resist their power both at home and abroad. This is not Christian idealism but plutocratic idolatry in which the power and privileges of the few are raised to the level of a religiously hallowed reality claim while the poor and the weak, including the 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died since the American invasion according to a well-researched study in The Lancet last week, are excluded from any claim to know how the world truly is. And yet it was precisely as a vulnerable child, a non-violent teacher, and a crucified trouble-maker in an occupied land that God chose to reveal the truth of the divine Word by which reality was created. This ultimate reality check resisted the claim of an empire and its servants to know the truth and impose their fiat on the children of God.
Michael Northcott is reader in Christian ethics at the University of Edinburgh, and is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. His latest book, An Angel Directs the Storm: apocalyptic religion and American empire, was published last week by I.B. Tauris.