Despite the usual voter apathy of Americans, the turnout on 2 November is expected to exceed European levels (1). Will that be because of 9/11 and George Bush’s response to it – the provocative policies coming out of the White House; the enthusiasm with which, on the pretext of reacting to the attacks on New York and Washington, it proposed a “preventive” war against Iraq? When the neoliberals realised that there was nothing to fear about the coercing power of the state – provided that they did the coercing – the political process was validated further. The electoral waverers, the lukewarm, the blasÃ©, all quickly went to ground.
This is as much a referendum on the current administration as an election. Bush has two rare, if not unique, distinctions: he was elected even though he received fewer votes than his opponent and he is the son of a former president. His enthronement was less democratic than dynastic. The election result conferred no particular mandate on him, and certainly no endorsement for a terrible leap to the right, an imperial inflection of the international order or the militarisation of American society and foreign policy.
The Democrats – for whose victory many European politicians and commentators hope so that once again they can say “We are all Americans” (2) – prefer to attribute this transformation of the political landscape of the United States to some “vast rightwing conspiracy” involving the media and the Supreme Court. But that ignores the way that President Clinton left behind him a party in disarray, without any clear plan and in a minority in the House of Representatives, the Senate and in the states.
The Republicans have the security of knowing that they hold the White House, Congress and the governorships of California, Texas, New York and Florida. But they want more. They want it all and they want to keep it for a long time. A few more reactionary judges in the Supreme Court would allow them to secure their conservative revolution and roll back forever what little remains of the progressive achievements of the 20th century. Civil liberties would be an issue: the Supreme Court – although it was responsible for Bush’s election – felt obliged to remind him this July that “a state of war is not a blank cheque for the president” and that “history and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others”. The neoliberal and authoritarian ambitions of the Republicans are transparent; but there was no rightwing plot to force both John Kerry and John Edwards to vote in favour of the USA Patriot Act and support the war in Iraq. Do either of them have any regrets? They go on claiming they do not.
The first of the two major policy initiatives of the White House is mired in a murderous military stalemate. The second has ruined the US public finances. The Republicans claimed that massive federal tax cuts would boost the economy and reduce unemployment. And when the right decides to spend its way to recovery, it doesn’t get hung up on details. As Vice-President Dick Cheney remarked, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter” (3). Between 2001-04 the federal budget plunged from a surplus of $100bn to a deficit of $415bn (3.6% of gross national product). This, plus the likelihood of the balance of payments deficit reaching $540bn in 2004 (5.1% of GNP), led Peter Peterson, former Secretary for Commerce under President Nixon, to conclude: “This administration and the Republican Congress have presided over the biggest, most reckless deterioration of America‘s finances in history” (4).
So for the first time since Herbert Hoover (1929-33) an outgoing US president will leave behind him fewer jobs than existed at his inauguration. The disaster of 9/11 cannot be blamed for everything. If a leftwing government had dared handle the major macroeconomic indicators with such nonchalance, financiers, leader-writers and the markets would undoubtedly have ordered in a team of IMF doctors to prescribe a course of structural adjustments from which the patient would never have escaped. No such medicine was forced on Bush.
The Republicans’ plan is crystal clear. They help the rich by lowering federal taxes. This creates deficits which force them not only to reduce public spending (apart from the army and “homeland security”), but also to make people pay for things that used to be free and pay more for everything else. In the last decade California has spent more on prisons than on universities. But that is not enough. Some 40 states plan to charge inmates for their time in jail (5), while students at public, and therefore significantly more affordable, universities face increases in their already-high registration fees (+13% in 2003, +10.5% this year).
That is how the Republican scheme works. First you cut taxes for the most wealthy on the pretext that deficits don’t matter; then – when it turns out that they do matter somewhat – you increase taxes and “voluntary” contributions such as health insurance, higher education fees and childcare. In October 2003 Bush outlined his plan to privatise pensions and professional training, which in future will, he hopes, be funded by lifelong, tax-exempt accounts managed by each individual. Then the president explained his premise: “There’s an old saying, ‘No one ever washes a rental car.’ You see, when you own something, you care about it. When you own something you have a vital stake in the future of our country.” That’s his idea of a social policy – collective solidarity compared with a badly-maintained car. That’s some philosophical project… And other countries are currently trying to emulate it.
Since the Reagan presidency, Republicans have been prepared to acknowledge class struggle, but they view it one-sidedly. According to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, Bush’s tax policies mean that in 2004 the 1% of Americans who earn more than $1.2m a year will be, on average, $78,460 better off. The 20% of Americans earning a mere $16,620 a year will gain on average only $250 from tax cuts, which will surely be promptly be eaten up by increases in indirect taxation. Even in percentage terms the rich have done better. As for the minimum wage, which, at $5.15 an hour, has not been increased since 1996, its real value has fallen to a 1955 low.
While millions of people were still transfixed by the television images of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, an advisor to the United Kingdom transport minister sent a memo to senior officials in her department telling them: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” The same idea evidently occurred to others. Have Bush’s constant reminders about the war on terror been made with the intention of propping up his political position? The New York Times listed 28 examples over the last two and a half years of alarming or alarmist official warnings, usually coinciding with bad economic or military news. Most of these alerts were unspecific about the nature or location of the threat. The others referred only vaguely to possible attacks on bridges in California, the Statue of Liberty, a nuclear power station in Arizona, or financial centres in New York and Washington …
To be fair to the Bush administration, it has not allowed such anxieties to distract it from priorities. Even when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their height, it found time to redirect health, social and environmental policies to favour business. Take measures to combat accidents in the workplace: since 2002 the US has repealed five times more of these than it has initiated (6).
So calamitous is Bush’s record that without the help of fear and the war on terror, he would long since have faced an election defeat like that of his father in 1992. But Kerry is less wily than Clinton, the 1992 winner, and the incoherence of his position on Iraq works against him. After much wavering, he now describes the war as “a colossal error of judgment” (7). He hopes that the recalcitrant allies of the US will be willing, if asked, to make a military contribution to the prolongation of this “colossal error”. There, he may be overestimating the seductive powers of a Democrat president…
If there is a Kerry victory, the Democrats have promised modest domestic policy improvements (tax, health insurance, the minimum wage), largely dependent upon the outcome of the Congressional elections, also on 2 November. Bush’s re-election can only benefit those whom the last four years have already blessed. They would love to quicken the pace of change further by giving the current president the popular mandate that he failed to secure four years ago.
(1) The usual comparison between the turnout in the US and that in Europe exaggerates the rate of abstention in the US, where current figures compare the percentage of those who vote with the population of voting age, rather than with registered voters, as is usual in Europe. In November 2000 51.3% of Americans of voting age went to the polls, but out of 67.5% of those registered.
(2) The title of Le Monde’s editorial the day after the attacks.
(3) The remark was made during a conversation in November 2002, according to Paul O’Neill,Treasury Secretary between 2001 and 2003. See Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004, p 291.
(4) Peter G Peterson, Running On Empty : How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2004.
(5) Some states have already begun. See Fox Butterfield, “Many Local Officials Now Make Inmates Pay Their Own Way”, The New York Times, 13 August 2004.
(6) Amy Goldstein and Sarah Cohen, “Bush Forces a Shift In Regulatory Thrust”, The Washington Post, 15 August 2004.
(7) On the wisdom of the war in Iraq, the Democratic party platform made this decisive pronouncement in July: “People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq.