How Fundamental Is America’s Swing to the Right?

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

November 11, 2004

President Bush’s re-election and the gains made by the Republican Party in the two houses of Congress (they now control the Senate with 55 of the 100 seats and the lower house with 231 seats out of 435) has made Washington, DC a bastion of American conservatism. Adding insult to injury the Democrat senate leader, Tom Daschle, was defeated, thus signing symbolically the absolute grip that the Republicans now have on American government.

The victory was comprehensive. It leaves those who reflect upon the nature of America and its future with a very profound and serious question. Are these results indicative of a fundamental change in American political culture or is it merely the consequence of transitory factors such as the war on terror, the manipulative skills of a Machiavellian genius—Karl Rove the political strategist behind the Bush campaign—and a weak Democratic candidate?

If this was a fluke then the liberals and progressive elements in the country must be prepared to launch a better campaign in 2008 with a powerful candidate. Time to search for a Clinton clone, politically capable of running from the centre with confidence while culturally acceptable to the Deep South.

There is no doubt that John Kerry, in spite of his extraordinary performance in the debates and his remarkable recovery in the last week, was inherently weak on the electability scale. The fact that he was the most electable of all Democratic candidates does not bode well for the party. John Kerry is a liberal democrat from Massachusetts, the Mecca of American liberalism, a “believing” Catholic and a senator.

According to a Pew Survey, only 20 per cent of the American population is liberal and 34 per cent conservative. According to The New Republic 29 per cent of the voting electorate in 2000 was conservative but in 2004 the conservatives constituted 34 per cent of the voters. This demographic edge forces Democrats to run from a position much to their right, while the Republicans have to make fewer adjustments.

In the last seven elections, the Republicans have won five times and the Democrats only twice. In fact, the Bush family has a better record at winning the White House than the entire Democrat Party in the last quarter of a century. Bill Clinton won the White House twice. In the opinion of some analysts such as Paul Begala of CNN’s “Crossfire”, the Southern Democrat “was perhaps one of the finest Republican presidents we ever had”. Given this demographic and historical background, why then was a Bush victory not a foregone conclusion?

There were many reasons why those unhappy with Bush felt confident that he would be defeated. The biggest reason was the mess and chaos that Iraq has become and the clear evidence now that the American invasion of Iraq was unjustified. Bush critics felt that the Iraq fiasco would underscore the reckless and misguided nature of the Bush foreign policy forcing even the staunchest of his admirers to rethink their vote.

The second reason was the state of the economy. The huge deficit, job losses, declining wages and high unemployment would, many Democrats felt, generate discontent and hurt the incumbent. Big issues such as social security and healthcare remain insecure. It was believed that the shallowness of the case for Iraq, the growing anti-Americanism abroad, and the failure to apprehend or neutralise Bin Laden would expose the ineffectiveness of the so-called war on terror. Therefore, for a better security, better economy and a better future, a majority of Americans would vote for change.

Increasingly, analysts all over are converging on the singular role of evangelical Christian turnout at the poles to explain the election outcome. They argue that George W Bush managed to preserve his formidable Christian coalition, even adding to it, and thereby regained the White House on the strength of the “Christian Vote”. It is ironic that while American Muslim “leaders” bragged about the power of the Muslim vote block (between 1.2 to 1.8 million) as playing a potentially pivotal role in this election, the player that ran away with the election is the candidate with the Christian vote block which can now be safely estimated at about 40 million—34 per cent of the voting electorate.

In spite of losing the debates, scoring consistently around only 50 per cent on job approval ratings for months, clearly appearing to have lost control on his most important project, Iraq, failing to bring Bin Laden to justice and presiding over a very troublesome economy, George W Bush managed to carve out a major historic victory. It cannot be a fluke; there is more to this than meets the eye.

Many analysts argue that Karl Rove was able to mobilise and expand the Christian vote block by manipulating wedge issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Does this mean that the Christian block will vote for its candidate regardless of his or her effectiveness? Certainly not.

It is my contention that in the last three years, since the attacks of 11 September 2001, deeply religious Americans have experienced an existential anxiety. This is translating into a political backlash that is threatening American secularism, American democracy and America’s traditional respect for international law and international public opinion.

Unlike Europe, America has always been a religious nation. In 1831 Alexis Tocqueville claimed that religion was the first political institution of American democracy. 2 November 2004 saw this first political institution unleash a backlash against the assault on Christianity from Muslims; therefore the support for Bush’s irrational and bloody foreign policy, and against the growing secularisation of American society; therefore the across the board support for ban on gay marriage. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Oregon passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriages. A large number of voters, nearly 25 per cent, said that the primary issue for them was “moral values”.

Moral values are being widely understood as the Christian conservative opposition to gay marriage and abortion. But I suspect there is more to it.

The rise of political Christianity, a coalition of “Born-again Christians”, conservative Catholics, conservative African Americans and conservative Hispanics, is concerned with more than gay marriages and abortion. Political Christianity seeks to breach the wall of separation between the Church and State and wishes to make this country a Christian nation.

America has been experiencing nativist resurgence along with the rise of a form of Christianity—evangelical—that is both self righteous and “untraditional”. It is unwilling to compromise and is uncomfortable with enduring American traditions of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, fundamental equality of all and appreciation for diversity. This nativism can be heard in the calls for restoring America’s moral values and in the political works of scholars such as Sam Huntington who ask, “Who are we?” or in the fears of Pat Buchanan who declares “The Death of the West”.

George W Bush has returned to the White House on these nativist fears. He is probably convinced that God is firmly in his corner and his mission to “save America” is indeed divine. He is going to charge into battle against dragons overseas and wrestle monsters at home. By George! America will be born again, pure and Christian.

On 2 November 2004 political Christianity captured the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court. Bush is expected to appoint anywhere between two-four judges to the Supreme Court which already enjoys a five-four conservative edge. With every branch of the government under control, effectively neutralising the much-touted divisions of power in the American constitution, political Christianity has taken American democracy hostage.

It is time for American Muslims, American Jews, American Hindus and Buddhists, American Christians who are moderate, secular and liberal, to come together to form a moderate and pragmatic centre, eschewing the aggressive anti-religiosity of the extreme left, respecting the religiosity of the right, to restore balance, and preserve American democracy and its traditionally balanced relationship with its first institution—religion.