The Red Neck of Democracy
The reelection of George Bush is a salutary reminder for liberals (in any sense of the word) that democracy includes "rule by people who are wrong" no less than
freedom of thought includes "freedom for the thought we loathe". We must reflect that the religious right, neoconservatives, bigots and the simply stupid have the same right to determine the direction of a country as any of us. Governments are human institutions and no constitution can guarantee the wisdom or moral character of the government of the day. The purpose of the constitution must rather be to safeguard those freedoms and values that Americans (and New Zealanders) hold most precious against a government that does not respect or understand them or one that simply finds the constitution "too finely nuanced".
There are weaknesses in the American system. There are causes for concern in the dynamics of current support for the Bush administration and the Republicans generally and it is appropriate to look at them in some detail (but in a later post). It is not without precedent and not the end of freedom, civilisation or the world as we know it. Rumsfield, Cheney and Wolfowitz are no more sinister than Joseph McCarthy. The Southern Baptists are neither more numerous nor more bigoted than in the pre-civil rights era when they were the Southern Democrats. The judges appointed to the Supreme Court in the next years will be eminent jurists (whatever their politics) and certainly no worse than their predecessors who gave us Dredd Scott v Sandford. The current crop of Republican representatives and senators are no more politically opportunistic or constitutionally insensitive than their forebears who tried to impeach the president on spurious grounds barely three years after the death of Lincoln.
They wish to know whether the President has betrayed our liberties or our possessions to a foreign state. They wish to know whether he has delivered up a fortress or surrendered a fleet. They wish to know whether he has made merchandise of the public trust and turned the authority to private gain. And when informed that none of these things are charges, imputed, or even declaimed about, they yet seek further information and are told that he has removed a member of his cabinet.deja vu n'est ce pas.
The "checks and balances" of the separation of powers is at best an uncertain safeguard as "divided" governments (Republican President with Democrat Congress or vice versa) is by no means the norm and will not apply for at least the first two years of Dubya's second term. There are, however, other important safeguards.
The constitution limits what laws Congress may pass and what executive actions the President may take. The government cannot pass the Family Marriage Amendment (outlawing same-sex marriage) without a 2/3 majority in both houses of congress and ratification by 38 states. He may be able to start another war but will struggle to gain the congressional and public support he got for Afghanistan and Iraq - besides the US military have their hands full enough already.
The States have considerable autonomy and the federal government's role is circumscribed by the constitution. Bush may block federal funding for stem cell research but the State of California can (and will) pick up the slack. There will be no need for the "Bicoastian" States to secede or join the "United States of Canada" (Thanks Hans). Their State governments will ensure that life goes on pretty much as it would have under a Kerry presidency.
I don't think there will be a mass exodus of American liberals to Canada or NZ (welcome though they would be). Americans are optimists - perhaps that's the difference that separates them from European Social Democrats. Liberal Americans no less than conservatives are individualist rather than collectivist. They instinctively seek the opportunities of soaring alone above the safety of the flock. And they know that Dubya too will pass.
For that is the greatest safeguard of all. No President can serve more than two terms. Perhaps America can expect four more years of deficits, fiscal mismanagement and inappropriate tax redirection to the rich - but the economy will survive it. Maybe we'll see further encroachments on civil liberties - but they can be repealed. Maybe we'll see further intransigence on global warming - but we already have the numbers for Kyoto and Bush's term ends the same year as the first commitment period starts. Maybe we'll see further military adventurism - but first the US has to disengage from Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps with just a modicum of luck...
And then maybe we'll see some good things. It took Nixon and Kissinger to end the Vietnam war. Is it impossible that Dubka and Sharon might finally find a road to peace in the Middle East? And perhaps Kyoto won't matter if someone invents a technological fix to the global warming problem - cold fusion (ok not in four years), affordable photovoltaics or CO2 sequestration from coal gasification for instance. Who knows? It migh \t even be an American.