The Meaning of the American Elections
By Molefi Kete Asante (First Published in City Press, November, 2004)
When I woke up to the news that George Bush had been re-elected to the presidency of the United States I had to re-think the entire campaign. I was not alone in believing that the Bush presidency would end, that the American people would not vote for him to lead the country, and that enough damage had already been done to the global image of the American nation by Bush that people would reject his re-election bid. Of course, we were wrong.
Many reasons will be given for this election results, but in the end, Bush won by putting together a conservative base, comprised of white males who benefited from the Bush tax cuts, religious conservatives who believe that Bush is defending the white Christian world against Islamic terrorists, and some of the Spanish speaking voters who abandoned their traditional role in the Democratic Party. Bush gained about fifteen per cent more of the Spanish speaking vote than he had in the 2000 election. Thus, while the Spanish speaking voters still went for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, it was with less vigor than in the 2000 campaign.
The strong African American vote, galvanized by celebrities, political leaders, civil rights leaders, university professors, and labor union organizers, was a major factor in Kerry winning in the industrial states of the Northeast. However, the African vote in the southern states was not able to overcome the strong Christian right-wing voting bloc of the white “born again” soldiers of the Bush movement.
Bush used his conservative base to lead a movement. Kerry had a political campaign. The Bush base stood for a moral vision; Kerry was determined to talk about practical politics. For example, Bush was against the science of stem cell research, basically calling it a form of abortion; Kerry believed that for research purposes this was necessary science. Bush was embraced by the evangelical Christians; Kerry, a Catholic, was rebuffed by his own bishops for positions he took on stem cell research.
The Iraqi war, a terrible disaster for American foreign policy, worked against Kerry because he often sounded like Bush. Kerry said frequently that he would pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him. He was trying to out-Bush Bush. This proved a bad strategy because it did not allow Kerry to generate enthusiasm in his own base. Most Democrats wanted to see a candidate who would challenge the Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes, global domination, and lack of international accountability.
George Bush’s political base was adamant that the United States had to retain its ability to act for its own interest; Kerry believed that the United States had to be a part of the rest of the world. But I did not believe that Kerry was forceful enough in staking out his difference with Bush. Perhaps he was not that different.
In fact, although many voters wanted Kerry for president, it was still not clear if he would change the bad United States policy on the Palestinian question or if he would lead in the effort to reduce or eliminate the debt of African nations. We still do not know where Kerry stood on the question of African trade relations with the United States. Yet he was a better choice for black voters than Bush. Therefore, African American voters reacted to Kerry in a positive way because he was much more liberal than Bush.
In the American context, however, this difference can often be minimal. A third party candidate, Ralph Nader, was the most progressive, liberal, and environmentally conscious of the three candidates, but he only gained about one per cent of the votes. He had neither the money, prestige of party, nor mobilization that the Republican and Democrat parties had.
What is so stunning about the Bush win, however slight it was, is that he was a candidate who had made some disastrous choices over the past four years and yet was able to win. He refused to allow Colin Powell to represent the United States at the Durban Conference Against Racism, he proclaimed a pre-emptive strike doctrine that threatens to make the world a chaotic mess, he claimed to have absolute proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he lost more jobs in the American economy than any president in 75 years, he came into political office with a surplus in the budget and immediately through bad tax policies, playing to the wealthy, put the country in deficit.
This does not mean that all of the wealthy voted for Bush, because they did not. John Kerry, his wife, a Mozambican born woman of Portuguese origin, is a multi-millionaire, and they were able to attract the wealthy with a conscience. Those individuals who believed that they had an obligation to work for the good of the collective voted for Kerry.
The demographics for Kerry included the African American voters who went for Kerry by about 92 per cent of all votes cast by African people, the liberal Jewish vote, the college educated voters of states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, and Oregon, and the women voters.
Nevertheless, the African American population in the United States is dismayed that the Republicans captured the presidential seat. George Bush is not looked upon as a friend of African Americans or Africa. In fact, he recently snubbed the NAACP, the largest Civil Rights Organization in the United States, when it asked him to appear at its convention held in Philadelphia.
So the re-election of George Bush is troubling for the liberals and the African American community. We believe there will be four more years of the same failed policies, four more years of the same antipathy toward African interests and four more years of bad economic policies for our community.
There is something fundamentally flawed in George Bush’s vision and I believe that the flaw was most apparent in the election campaign itself. Bush won because of the heavy turnout of church-going white people who put aside their economic interest for what is being called the “moral issue.”
These voters preferred George Bush to John Kerry because they said they felt that George Bush was a “man of God.” This is stunning for many African people in the United States who believes that the killing of more than 100,000 Iraqis, according to some accounts, is immoral. How could good God-fearing Christians accept as moral a person who has pursued such anti-human political policies?
This is where bombastic rhetoric comes into play and recalls for the people of the American heartland the cowboy character. The image of the tough, individualistic, determined person who will do what is necessary to achieve his or her purpose even if it goes against all ethical principles or against the collective good is a mythical symbol of enormous power for the white American of the middle states.
Bush used every opportunity to appeal to the crass arrogance of the American people. He warned the nation that if Kerry were elected then the United States would have to get permission from other nations, like France and Germany, before they could take a decision. He told the American public that he was the defender of civilization and that he would lead the nation toward standing up to terrorists anywhere in the world.
Our fear is that with this election, that is, the election of George Bush the chickens will come home to roost. There are some standing issues that will need to be resolved on the domestic and international fronts that will demand different responses than in the past four years. Bush will not have the fear factor in his favor any longer. The idea that the United States was facing an imminent attack, after the September, 11, 2001 terrorist assault, propelled the Bush strategy. It allowed, in some respects, Bush to change the agenda from seeking Osama bin Laden to taking care of what was thought to be unfinished business with Saddam Hussein. All of this is changed now. We know that Bush got it wrong.
At home President Bush will confront the growing deficit brought about because of the tax breaks he gave to the wealthy and the continuing strains on the economy caused by the war in Iraq. It is estimated that the Iraqi War has cost more than 200 billion US dollars already and it is far from being over. It is impossible for the United States economy to sustain such a cost without international assistance from other countries.
He has also created issues around North Korea, Syria, and Iran. These are going to be tougher problems to confront. Where will the policy of preemptive strikes lead the world? What is the moral ground for attempting to force other nations not to have nuclear weapons while your own nation creates new categories of mini-nuclear weapons? What is the ethical base for a nation to seek to impose freedom, democracy, and free enterprise as the only way to govern when there are other traditions, values, and ideas of morality in the world?
I can only believe that the setting up of one group as All-Good and the other group as All-Evil is a formula for poor policy. Such a dogmatic stance will lead to many more disasters, to double standards, and to crimes against global stability and peace.
If the election of George Bush, some believe that this is his first election, means anything for the world, it means that there must be a reinvigorated movement in the United States for an ethic of justice with mercy, balance with wisdom, and politics with pragmatism.
I am certain that the African American people, whose nobility and patience cannot be questioned, will survive four more years of Bush and remain in the moral leadership of those pushing for a more just international policy.
Molefi Kete Asante is one of the most published contemporary scholars, having written more than sixty books and three hundred articles.