Among the many thoughts running through my addled head on the morning of 3 November 2004, two still stand out. First, where's a hanging chad when you really need one? Second, while it's a truism that you can never go home again, it's something else entirely to find that you don’t want to.
It was an odd experience to follow the election from abroad, particularly as there was enough German coverage to make one think that the winner would reside in Berlin rather than Washington. A pre-election poll showed some 80% of Germans favoring Kerry, making the Federal Republic one of the bluest states in an overwhelmingly anti-Bush EU. In the final weeks of the campaign, press coverage seemed to reach a fevered pitch, and I was astounded by my German students' interest in the intricacies of the Electoral College and their earnest questions about undecided voters in Ohio. Incidentally, this is an interest unlikely to be reciprocated; it is hard to imagine Americans speculating on whether or not the states of Hessen or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are "in play" during the next German federal elections in 2006.
So, despite the distance, it was difficult to really feel that I was “away” from it at all. Central European Time may have meant that the results could be digested as part of an early breakfast, but in the morning darkness it was easy enough to switch over to CNN and briefly have the feeling I'd never left. Indeed, it was too easy. As my feelings went from anxious optimism (as early word of heavy turnout was
confirmed and exit polls were giving Kerry Ohio and Florida) to frustrated anger between 5am and 7am, there was something increasingly preferable about following
events through the German media. It was easier to face the news interpreted
through the bewildered eyes of my adopted homeland, and I found a (perhaps imagined but nonetheless comforting) solidarity in the long faces and muted tones of the reporters from ARD and ZDF.
It was bad enough, way back in what seems like another era, to have to go to bed with the news of a Bush "victory" in 2000. The clear
illegitimacy of that result left a bad taste, but supplied a steady, sustaining anger. It was infinitely crueller to have to absorb the blow in 2004 in the
cool light of day and without the comfort of a popular majority. There is a particular pain in being robbed of the mantra that has kept many of us going over the last four years: Bush is an illegitimate president without a popular
mandate. I'm going to miss this line, as it's become well worn with use in assuring people around me that Bush doesn't represent the “real” face of America. Although that is still partly true, no amount of rationalization and
differentiation can soften the rude awakening of 2004.
Nonetheless, despite the sense of media-driven, globalised immediacy, America seemed a long way away.
The word “mandate” has never sounded so vile, so threatening. I
couldn't answer the bemused question that the weekly newspaper Die Zeit put
on their cover, Warum wieder er? (Why him again?) After the collapse of all the putative reasons for invasion? After months of demonstrated incompetence?
After reams of worrying, or even outright bad economic data? After three mediocre debate performances? After the disgusting – yet carefully calibrated–intolerance toward gays and lesbians? I realized that I had difficulties answering
these questions for Europeans largely because I couldn't answer them satisfactorily
for myself. Of course, the language of the pollsters became an easy refuge:
Bush had energized his base, painted Kerry as indecisive, used the advantages
of a wartime incumbency, benefited from voters' fears about terrorism, etc.,
etc., ad nauseam. All of this has a certain anaesthetic quality but focuses
merely on the symptoms. What it can’t do is diminish the creeping sense
of not understanding my own country anymore.
On top of this, the results defied
expectations in another way. Two things central to Democrats' post-2000 identity
will play little role in the next several months' efforts to absorb the lessons
of 2004: corrupt electoral practices and Ralph Nader. In some way, this is unfortunate,
as problems with the American electoral machinery – in particular its
dominance by partisan interests – still seem clear (even if unlikely to
have been decisive this time). Furthermore, while some might say that Nader
deserves even more criticism for the way that he handled his own campaign (including
accepting assistance from the Right), he ceased to have enough influence to
matter. With the Nader factor moot, we are all spared a lot of very tiresome
and distracting verbiage.
With these topics robbed of political
oxygen, two other questions have taken their place: what went wrong with the
Democratic campaign and what does this tell us about how American society has
changed? Much of the former will focus on Kerry's flaws. Just as with Al Gore,
of course, there were real missteps in the campaign and faults with the candidate.
And this begs the question: which other prominent Democrat could have done better?
This is all in the realm of non-testable speculation, of course, and therefore
unscientific, but who among us is really convinced that Dean/Kucinich could
have captured enough of the states that Kerry/Edwards did not? This was, in
any case, a different election than 2000, one in which the distinctions between
the candidates were clearer (making Nader’s campaign less necessary and,
as the results show, less popular). In 2000 Bush could be written off as a ridiculous
(and more or less harmless) joke; by 2004 the laughter, along with far too many
people, had died.
Thus, although on record as a critic
of Democratic centrists, I was somewhat bewildered by the lukewarm support of
many Democrats for Kerry. One didn't have to agree with all his plans to see
that – this time – he represented a serious, if flawed, alternative.
Admittedly, for me this had less to do with the details of his health care plan
than with my growing concern about something American conservatives have been
talking about for more than a decade: the cultural war. For me, to put it simply,
Kerry represented the forces of reason, and I was hopeful that this would be
plain, if not to everyone, then at least to a majority of my fellow citizens.
Did I expect that Kerry alone would have turned America into a fundamentally
different (or differently fundamentalist) country? Absolutely not, but a Kerry
victory would have made a useful start in protecting the diminishing remnants
of post-New Deal liberalism and in short-circuiting a surging provincial conservatism.
Kerry, of course, is no radical, but if old-school New England liberalism isn’t
to Americans’ tastes, what does that say about the more spicy varieties
of progressive politics? That a majority was more moved by appeals to intolerant
“values” (and by plain fear) than the reasoning of the “reality-based
community,” is now, depressingly, clear. Nevertheless, I think Kerry proved
to be a good campaigner (and debater) and brought the election to a much closer
conclusion than most would have predicted a year ago. The problems he faced
in developing a clear and consistent line on various domestic and foreign issues
was a less a personal failing than a sign of a broader confusion among Democrats
about what kind of party they actually are.
In all the coming internecine fighting
among Democratic factions, one cause of Kerry's loss shouldn't be overlooked:
the American voter. It was Robert Novak who, sometime well past midnight EST
on election night, stated that “America is a conservative country.”
Of course, it is in his interest to see things this way, and selective poll
information can be brought forward to contradict it. But, amidst all of the
finger pointing this time around, liberals need to confront the fact that, even
if Novak is only 51 percent correct, the country's decades-long lurch to the
right (it would be too euphemistic to call it a drift, especially as it seems
to recently have become more of a sprint) shows no signs of slowing. For liberals
– even for moderate liberals – the political scenery is bleak, with
Republican political dominance becoming stronger, not weaker. This is all well
known, but one typical assumption on the Left (especially since the last election)
puts this down to sinister behind-the-scenes machinations. Obviously, there
is some truth to this, as the stolen election of 2000 or the growing influence
of the Fox propaganda machine demonstrate. On the other hand, it seems now that
while our attention has been focused on process, the Right has been busily focusing
on (and winning the battle of) belief. It would be a serious mistake, I think,
for progressives to continue to act as if Bush (and his politics) were merely
some kind of aberrant, sinister plot. A lot of Americans, for one reason or
another, seem eager to accept what he has to offer.
I have no more answers as to why
this has happened as anyone (though Thomas Frank seems to have made a good start
with What’s the Matter with Kansas?). What I do note is the tendency for
many post-election responses to be alternatively satisfying
while unconstructive or constructive
while unsatisfying. It is inevitable that the coming four years will bring
with it a new chapter in the long internal debate within the Democratic Party
about whether it should mimic the Right (“moving toward the centre”)
or whether it should try to represent a meaningful alternative. I can’t
really say which move will bring the party more success in 2008 (but I humbly
suggest that “Hillary in ‘08” would be the beginning of a
new chapter of Democratic political suicide). What I do know is that Republicans
have not succeeded by merely moulding their policies onto pre-existing American
opinion. Instead, through active, consistent conviction and organization –
and these over decades – they have moulded that opinion, creating an effective
political movement which can not only deliver electoral victory but also dominate
what is seen as the cultural and social common sense of large parts of the nation.
Democrats will need to find a way of articulating a meaningful alternative in
a language that can attract more voters, and they won’t succeed by simply
moving closer to Republicans’ positions.
Naturally, I hope that this succeeds.
It is important not only for the US itself, but also – increasingly –
for the world as a whole. At the moment, however, unlike in the wake of Inauguration
Day protests against Bush in 2001, there is less room for optimism. Indeed,
it’s tempting to turn away from a politics and culture that I find increasingly
bizarre and threatening. Far better, perhaps, to leave the old country behind
and engage in a different, though related battle: that of achieving and maintaining
a different social, political, cultural and economic model in Europe. From Germany,
I must say, the outlines of what Jeremy Rifkin has recently called the “European
dream” look foggy indeed; instead, Europe is mired in often nasty
conflicts over immigration, security, multiculturalism, the reform of the welfare
state, the EU constitution and foreign policy, among many others. Nonetheless,
European progressives (whether Green or Red) who are frustrated by the very
real troubles facing them should be heartened by a comparison with their counterparts
in the US. Whatever genuine strife there is, it is striking that some centre-right
parties in Europe are (at least with regard to some of their policies) significantly
to the left of the Democrats. Indeed, the political geography of the European
“centre” is far less rocky than its American equivalent. Making
sure that this remains so poses a serious challenge, but how much better to
face that trial than the one confronting American progressives? America’s
increasingly negative example, in fact, may prove to be helpful in this regard,
and, in return, perhaps progressive successes here may one day inspire the American
But even this minimal optimism has
taken a few weeks to emerge. A few days after the election, I co-hosted a long-planned
post-election party. Having hoped to celebrate, we settled on drowning our sorrows.
Although it was a far more solemn occasion that I had expected, it was good
to be surrounded by fellow mourners. As we drained our glasses, I mentally raised
– with not entirely dry eyes – a personal toast: to John Kerry and
to the 49 percent of America that I can still call home