As the world watches nervously, Kerry and Bush battle for the applause of U.S. voters.
You’d have to go back almost 70 years to find an American election so dramatic as this one. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt’s moves to establish social welfare programs in the midst of the Great Depression sparked a fierce political debate about what direction the country was headed. Despite prominent polls predicting his defeat, Roosevelt proudly promoted his vision of a compassionate America—and won 46 of 48 states.
Now the whole world is watching as the nation is immersed in a presidential campaign every bit as historical and emotionally intense. While Franklin Roosevelt brought America into the 20th Century politically, by proving that myths of Wild West individualism didn’t serve the needs of a modern nation, George Bush is trying to push us back to the 19th , by stripping away decades of social and environmental reforms and conducting foreign policy in a distinctly Imperial way.
From where I sit in Minneapolis, a city noted for it progressive politics, opposition to Bush is more fervent than anything I’ve seen in my life—neither Nixon nor Reagan aroused such emotions. People I know who generally steer clear of electoral politics, other than voting once in a while, are signing up to work on the Democrats’ campaign. Others (myself included) who voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader once or twice are furious that he’s in the race this year, jeopardizing Kerry’s chances in key electoral states. Dinner conversation often turns to what we will do if Bush wins reelection, and invariably someone starts humming “O Canada”. Don Hazen, who runs the influential San Francisco-based Alternet news service, is urging activists to move to a battleground states and organize for the Democrats. If dedicated people are willing to work in Palestine or Chiapas to change the world, he asks, why not Pennsylvania or Florida?
It’s not discussed much in the mainstream media but millions of Americans are still angry about the way the last presidential election was decided. You see growing numbers of bumperstickers and buttons vowing to “Re-Defeat Bush”. After years of trumpeting the virtues of electoral democracy and sending our observers to Latin America and Eastern Europe to ensure fair elections, Americans ought to be embarrassed at how the brother of a presidential candidate manipulated the vote count in the state he runs and how these shenanigans were validated by a court appointed in large part by his father. Not to mention the undisputed fact that he received a half-million fewer votes than his opponent. Imagine the American response if Nicaragua’s Sandinistas or Slobodan Milosevic had tried to claim victory in such a manner.
Another amazing element of American politics today is that Bush, who billed himself as a “uniter not a divider” in 2000 and squeaked into the White House under the most controversial circumstances, has been so brazenly right-wing in his policies. The hard right thrust of Bush’s presidency has distressed a number of self-identified conservatives and moderate Republicans, and this might have consequences on election day. Even Lee Iacocca, former head of Chrysler Motors and an exalted hero of corporate America, has endorsed Kerry.
All these undercurrents, on top of months of bad news about the war and the economy, seem to boost John Kerry’s chances of becoming America’s next president. But Kerry’s innate cautiousness poses problems, especially compared to Bush’s natural acting talent in portraying a decisive leader striding boldly into the future. John Kerry and John Edwards won’t prevail just because people are angry at or weary of George Bush. Americans, ever the positive-thinkers, don’t like to simply vote against someone. To win, Kerry needs to generate some excitement for Americans audiences about where he wants to take the country. That’s how Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency four times, and it will make all the difference again this year when the curtain falls November 2.