A Dark Week For Democracy

by Will Hutton
guardian unlimited

The stranglehold the far Right has now taken on America will make it a more divided, reactionary and illiberal country

The election in Georgia said it all. The Democrat governor, Roy Barnes, had dared to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag last year. His Republican challenger wanted to bring it back, to honour, he said, 300,000 Confederate 'veterans'. A Republican has not occupied Georgia's governor's mansion since 1872. After last Tuesday, one does, courtesy of wanting to celebrate a civil war fought to defend slavery.

Europeans do not understand the curious civilisation that the current America is becoming, and the grip that a visceral and idiosyncratic conservatism has on its national discourse. They especially do not understand the undercurrents of an increasingly self-confident and subtle racism that is its own variant of the forces that in Europe gave us Le Pen and Pim Fortuyn. George Bush Jnr is a chip off the old multilateralist, transatlantic establishment, runs the European argument. He may seem hawkishly conservative but, in the end, he seeks UN resolutions like other American Presidents. Even at home, his bark is worse than his bite.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Anyone who thinks the Tory party is 'nasty' has not encountered contemporary American republicanism. Georgia's Republican Party, for example, is now lead by Ralph Reed, a long-time crusader against abortion, divorce and single parent families. He would regard last week's vote in the House of Lords allowing unmarried and gay couples to adopt as the work of Satan. He is part of US conservatism's ideological hard core.

Reed played every card he could. If the governorship was to be won celebrating the Confederacy, the race for the Senate seat would be no less shameless. The Democrat incumbent had lost three limbs fighting in Vietnam, but was attacked for being unpatriotic - the worst accusation in today's US - because he believed that unions should be able to recruit in the newly established Department of Homeland Security.

And so one of American liberalism's darkest days was repeated across the country. Minnesota and Missouri, long-time Democrat strongholds, fell. Governor Jeb Bush, despite the Democrats insisting that justice now be done for those infamous chads, won in Florida. As if to underscore conservatism's ascendancy, the only Democrat gain was in Arkansas where the Republican senator had suffered a messy divorce and his Democrat challenger was even more pro-gun and pro-Bible than the incumbent.

The result is that the Republicans now control the Senate, House and the presidency for the first time since President Eisenhower. The consolidation of America as an ultra conservative country is going to take place rapidly. Mr Bush may have offered a few tit-bits to show his credentials as a 'compassionate conservative', like his concern to reduce the price of prescription drugs for the elderly, but the core of the Republican programme is anything but. There will be radical tax cuts for the rich and the corporations; a freezing of all efforts to stiffen regulation in the wake of America's corporate scandals; moves to privatise the social security system; and a roll-back of environmental protection.

Abroad, there will be the continued construction of a new international order built around the prejudices of the American Right; unqualified support for Israel, building the National Missile Defence System and tepid support for the framework of international law and treaties.

Nor do the Conservatives' ambitions stop there. Following the ideas of the high priest of ultra conservatism, Leo Strauss, they want to construct a republic of 'moral', god-fearing citizens who adhere to traditional virtues, rewarding the rich who can only have become rich through the virtue of hard work and penalising the poor who are only poor because of their own fecklessness. Above all, by now having the opportunity to pack the judiciary with extreme right-wing judges, they intend to do away with the famous Roe v Wade judgment that legalised abortion. This is the most fiercely reactionary programme to have emerged in any Western democracy since the war, and for which last Tuesday's vote, argue Republicans, is an explicit mandate.

Horseshit. George Bush has al-Qaeda and a low turn-out to thank for his victory. The central message of his five-day tour of 15 key states in the last week of the election was to play on Americans' fears about terrorism, rallying them behind their national leader. When the electorate voted locally, the Democrats had the edge, winning governorships in four of the biggest industrial states - Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Democrats I have spoken to are so traumatised by the overall defeat that they dismiss these gains as irrelevant; I think they are wrong.

America is not a happy place. A generation of increasingly conservative policies has shrunk the American middle and induced not just fantastic inequality but a sharp decline in social mobility and opportunity. The US's social contract, never more than minimalist, is now threadbare. Consumer confidence is low; job insecurity high. American capitalism is viewed with deep scepticism. Nor are the majority of Americans social conservatives and closet racists; they do not want the clock put back over women's rights, the environment and race.

The trouble was that this silent liberal majority was only prepared to voice its preoccupations at state rather than national level, if it bothered to vote at all. The Democrats had to find a way of voicing the concerns of the mass of Americans while not undermining the President during a national emergency, but to do that they had to have a powerful pitch based on a liberal ideology as animating and dynamic as that of the conservatives. They didn't and they lost.

But the game isn't up. America's conservatives, blinded by their ideology and in control of every lever of government, will overreach themselves and the reality of what they plan will become evident to all, stirring the apathetic voter and reminding the best of America what it stands for. Last week represented the highwater mark of American conservatism and, although it looks bleak, the beginnings of the long-awaited liberal revival. Not just the United States, but the world, needs it badly. In the meantime, despite its flaws, give thanks to the European Union for partial shelter from the conservative storm.