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The Morning After: The Bitter Pill of American Democracy

Vinay Lal
The recently concluded American elections, which have given George W. Bush the
victorious verdict that he so vigorously sought, were being touted as the most marvelous
demonstration of the success and robustness of American democracy even before the
polls had closed in some states. The lines to vote were reported to be unusually long in
many places around the country, the prolific predictions about fraud, voting irregularities,
and the unreliability of electronic voting machines largely fell flat, a record number of
new voters made their presence felt at the polls, and more Americans cast their vote than
at any time since 1968. The usual platitudes, calling upon all Americans to unite after
a bitterly divisive election campaign, were heard from Senator Kerry in his concession
speech, and once again Bush, who poses as an archangel of compassionate
conservatism when he is not being a cowboy, has promised his opponents supporters
that he will attempt to win their trust. Only the future lies ahead of this, as Bush puts it,
amazing country.
The United States may be amazing for reasons quite at odds with those commonly
imagined by Bush and the American electorate which so evidently resonates to his
schemes for the upliftment of America and, strictly in that order, the rest of the world. In
the state of Oregon, a ballot cannot physically be cast at an electoral booth; it must be
mailed to the appropriate authorities beforehand. Fewer people vote in elections in the
US than in almost any other democracy, though no country has done more to peddlethe
idea, especially to that portion of the world which is resistant to electoral democracy, that
voting constitutes the ultimate fulfillment of a persons political life. If dictators
understood, at least from the American example, that voting absolves people from further
political responsibility, one suspects that they would be much less hostile to the vote as
an expression of political sentiment. I vote, therefore I am; man votes, Bush disposes --
with some aid from God. All these must surely constitute grounds for thinking of
America as an amazing country.
Quite to the contrary, these elections furnish the most decisive illustration of the sheer
mockery that electoral democracy has become in America. The iconoclastic American
thinker, Paul Goodman, observed four decades ago in Compulsory Miseducation that
American democracy serves no other purpose than to help citizens distinguish between
indistinguishable candidates. Both parties are utterly beholden to the culture of the
corporation and what used to be called monied interests, and both have contributed to
bloated military budgets; besides, however short the memory of those who fetishize
Democrats as paragons of liberalism, decency, and civility, Democratic administrations
have been scarcely reticent in exercising military power to subjugateenemies or ensure
American dominance. The current debacle in the Democratic party owes much to Bill
Clinton, though he has been so lionized -- the consummatediplomat, the comeback kid,
the supposed engine behind the growth of the American economy -- that any criticismof
him, barring the moral turpitude he is said to have displayed when he was caught with
his knickers down in the Oval Office, is all but impossible. Many Democrats instead
held Ralph Nader, who understands better than most people the elaborate hoax by means
of which one party has been masquerading as two for a very long time, responsible for
sprinting votes away from Al Gore in 2000. This served as one long-lasting excuse to
which the Democrats could resort to explain why Gore was unable to prevail at the polls,
and also explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to keep him from appearing on
ballotsin 2004; the other excuse originated in the circumstances under which a tenacious
Bush, whose ambition for power is just as ruthless as his ignorance and arrogance are
colossal, was able to get his brother J eb Bush and the Supreme Court to hand over the
White House to him. The dictators who run banana republics were doubtless imbibing a
very different meaning fromthe axiom that America leads the way.
The present elections have blown these excuses, under which the Democrats have been
sheltering and smoldering, to smithereens. Bushs victory margin, by the standards of
democracy, is comfortably large. Nader, the so-called spoiler and traitor, won a
mere few hundred thousand votes, and his presence doubtless even emboldened more
Democrats to go to the polls. If Americans could not much distinguish between Bush and
Kerry, and indeed how could they when Kerry, with his promise to hunt down the
terrorists and wipe them from the face of this earth, sounded entirely like his opponent,
the Democrats must ponder how they could have moved so far to the right and thus
surrendered what little remains of their tattered identity. Considering the horrendous
record that Bush has compiled in nearly every domain of national life -- an illegal war of
aggression against Iraq, the occupation of a sovereign nation, the strident embrace of
militarism, the reckless disregard for the environment, the shameless pandering to the
wealthy, thetransformation of a 5-trilliondollar surplus into a 400-billion dollar deficit,
the erosion of civil liberties, the insouciant disdain for international treaties and protocols,
and much else -- one cannot but conclude that the American people have given Bush
carte blanche to do more of the same. One thought of the Butcher of Crawford as the
arch executioner, under whose jurisdiction Texas sent more men to the death chamber
than any other state, but his appetite for destruction extends even to the English language.
Edmund Burke, with his inspiring mastery over English, indicated Warren Hastings, a
proconsul of an earlier generation, with the terrible observation that when Hastings ate,
he created a famine; but when Bushopens his mouth, words come out horribly mangled,
as unrecognizable as the bodies which litter the streets of Iraq. Bushs election means, in
stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite
confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless
pacification of entire countries, and an indefinitewar -- of terror, not just on terror --
against nameless and numberless suspects. No extenuating circumstances can be pleaded
on behalf of Americans, however much progressive intellectuals might like to think that
Americans are fundamentally good andmerely misinformed by the corporate media.
It is no secret that the defeat of George Bush was, from the standpoint of the world, a
consummation devoutly to be wished for. Many well-meaning Americans deride Bush as
an embarrassment. Used with reference to him, the word sounds like an encomium.
The best of peoples are embarrassed by their own actions at times, and embarrassment
can, at least on occasion, be read in the register of modesty, awkwardness, and innocent
virtue. Embarrassment seems wholly inadequate as an expression of the visceral anger
and hatred Bush unleashes among some of his detractors. Those even more critical of
Bush are inclined to view him as a liar. There is, however, scarcely any politician in the
world who does not lie, though one can say of Bush that he almost always lies. But what
if the American electorate understood, as appears to be the case, his lies to be desirable,
necessary, and premonitions of truth? Bush lied to the world about the presence of
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he lied about the purported imminence of a threat
against the United States from Iraq, and he falsely claimed a link between the al-Qaeda
network and Iraq. Yet none of these revelations about the insidious modes in which
consent is manufactured made an iota of difference, and Bush charged ahead with
insistent reiterations of the samefalsehoods.
Consequently, more arresting clues to the danger that Bush poses to the world must be
located elsewhere. One did not expect him to act any differently; but that a large chunk
of the American population has boldly declared its affinity for him is proof enough that,
at the end of the day, many Americans share with Bush his contempt for the world and
the view that the United States can never fundamentally deviate from the path of good. A
very substantial number of Americans have declared that they found Bush to embody
moral values, presumably the same moral values that they hold sacrosanct. Bushs
moral vision, as is well-known, extends to clear and unambiguous distinctions between
good and evil, and he is emphatic in his pronounced belief that those who are not for
us, are against us. The success of Bush points, in other words, to something much more
ominous, namely the sheer inability of Americans to comprehend complexity and retain
some degree of moral ambivalence. The fear that Bush is charged with exploiting,
namely the fear of terrorism, is more broadly the fear of the unknown, the fear of
ambiguity. Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear
invocations of authoritarianism, couched asmessagesto people to entrust themselvesinto
the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly
furnished the recipefor transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.
Elections in India have consequences mainly for the Indian sub-continent, just as those in
Australia largely impact Australia. But the American elections impact every person in
the world, and there are clearly compelling reasons why every adult in the world should
be allowed to vote in an American presidential election. However much every American
might balk at this suggestion, it is indisputable, as the striking examples of Vietnam,
Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Iraq so vividly demonstrate,
that the United States has never considered sovereignty an inviolable fact of international
politics. We shall, then, have to radically rethink the received notions of the nation-state,
sovereignty, democracy, and internationalism. These elections will widen the gulf
between Americans, ensconced in their gigantic Hummers and endlessly adrift in the
aisles of Cosco and Walmart, and most of the rest of the civilized world. One
nonviolent way of moving the world towards a new conception of ecumenical
cosmopolitanism is to allow every adult an involvement in the affairs of a nation that
exercises an irrepressible influence on their lives.
Meanwhile, there is no morning after pill to abort the nightmarish results of 2004, and the
rest of the world will have to swallow the bitter pill of American democracy.