John Chuckman: Does The American Election Matter?
Does The American Election Matter?
January 21, 2004
Presidential elections in America are long, with formal campaigns lasting about a year and positioning leading to the campaigns lasting nearly three years. A President's four-year term of office leaves just enough time to dish out contracts and jobs.
There is nothing out of the ordinary in America about the length of presidential campaigns. Elections for other offices consume time pretty much in proportion to their power and importance. Senators, for example, spend about two-thirds of their six-year term just raising money for the next election.
American elections consume not just time but money, a great deal of money. Bush is expected to have a quarter-billion dollars in donations ready to fight for re-election. The nation's air waves will be jammed for months with mind-numbing images easily confused with personal-hygiene or toothpaste commercials.
In America's early years, only a few men of considerable substance could vote. Any concept of wider democracy disturbed America's founding fathers as risking their wealth to the votes and whims of men without any. With the gradual, unavoidable extension of the American franchise over two hundred years of wars and social movements, a political system gradually emerged preserving the founders' concerns. Americans in theory can vote for anyone, but the candidates they see and hear and whose names appear on all the ballots in so vast a land will only be people effectively pre-selected by those of great substance. It is an inherently conservative system.
I don't want to put too much weight on the result of the Iowa caucus, it is hardly a future-shaping event, but the winner, John Kerry, brings pretty modest potential for change in America.
Kerry is an uninspiring figure, a man who has never stood out on matters of life and death or great injustice. He declared his candidacy in front of an aircraft carrier. Yes, he can shout his lines with the best of them when seeking the power and privilege of high office, but Kerry's voice is not one known for defending great principles. He opposed the war in Vietnam toward the latter part of that holocaust against Asians, but by that time being anti-war had become almost stylish, and Kerry's opposition came only after a ferociously-ambitious effort at a successful career in the war, a career that included shooting a man running away as well as a man under his command killing a child.
The War on Terror, while remaining an undefined slogan, is supported by Americans. Despite the odds of death by terror being not much greater than death by lightning, an attack by nineteen men, all of whom died in the effort, has caused America to kill thousands of innocent civilians abroad, destroy the economy of Iraq, keep thousands of shackled prisoners in offshore kennels, deport people against whom it has no evidence so they can be tortured in other lands, and to pass fearful new laws.
Sentimental liberals continue to write about a glorious national past blotted out by Bush, ignoring America's tradition of near-rabid responses to real or imagined danger. This tradition began before the Revolution with periodic waves of fear and violence in the South over imagined slave revolts, and it continued with crazed slaughters of aboriginal people, the police-state Alien and Sedition Acts under President Adams, Jefferson's police-state enforcement of a boycott on British trade, beatings and killings of blacks in the North thought responsible for conscription during the Civil War, Lincoln's police-state suspension of basic rights in what was a totally-avoidable war, periodic mass slaughters of blacks during the twentieth century, the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, the wanton incineration of Japanese cities, the McCarthy-era lunacy, a holocaust in Vietnam second in size only to the Nazi's grim work, and countless ugly little colonial wars and overthrows of elected governments.
It is notable that much of this kind of liberal writing ignores the international dimension of what Bush has done, the truly new and highly dangerous part of his handiwork. The authors focus on nasty domestic laws and bringing the troops home. Most liberals, like most conservatives in America, have a remarkable indifference about what happens to the world, so long as it doesn't affect their enjoyment of life. It is a disturbing orientation for people who, secretly or overtly, regard themselves as divinely-anointed planetary overseers. So many times during the Vietnam War, I was astounded that people went right on happily sucking beer and dancing while American pilots napalmed villages in Asia. It was only when American coffins started arriving by the hundreds that much popular music turned harsh and full of protest and many proms lost their cozy glow.
There will be no return to what, before Bush, passed as normal in America until the nation has shaken its latest violent seizure. Even then, actions have been taken that will continue to sour the future. Does anyone believe that all the new oppressive legislation in the United States will be rescinded? that the bloated, dangerous increases in military spending will be undone? that America's damage to international institutions will be corrected? that America's contempt for its more thoughtful allies will disappear? that the immense welling-up of prejudice against Arabic people will simply disappear?
The truth is that even if a moderately liberal person were elected President, he or she would face exactly what the Clintons faced for eight years, a hideous and relentless assault with opportunity for few meaningful accomplishments. The American Congress is so conservative, and has demonstrated itself so lacking in courage or imagination or largeness of view, that only the most modest changes can be expected under any president.
Failing new developments, the one big issue promises to be whether the costly, pointless invasion of Iraq was a legitimate part of the War on Terror. I believe the answer will hinge on how many Americans continue to die rather than any rational discussion. The most troubling aspect of this is the way many Bush opponents seem only to care about getting American troops out of there. Where's the sense of responsibility for the mess America created? Iraq will take many years to return to any kind of meaningful society.
Well, by all means, it would be nice to see Bush back with the rattlesnakes in Texas and once again to have a President capable of addressing civilly the rest of the world - nice things but not a lot to get excited about. No likely Democratic candidate is going to produce a greatly more rational and decent United States. One or two Democrats, Lieberman or Clark, almost certainly would be as narrow and harsh as Bush, offering nothing beyond a day's satisfaction in seeing Bush sent packing.