Alfred C. Goodson
American Gothic
Signs of the Times in the 2004 Elections

Our God is a God of increase–
Texas Televangelist Kenneth Copeland

Michael Moore’s Slacker Uprising Tour of sixty US cities came to town on the morning of the first debate between the two main party candidates for president. Moore is a local hero, Michigan’s gift to Cannes via Fahrenheit 9/11; the film was a surprise box-office hit, setting the tone for a combative election season. Thanks to his provocation, Iraq would be the real issue from start to finish. He drew a raucous crowd of some 3500 on campus here, an hour from his home town, playing to a largely white student clientele. Moore is a great bear of man, but he is no rabble rouser. He has an angelic face, and if not shy he appears self-effacing, as he was when receiving an Academy Award for Bowling for Columbine, at the time of the sack of Baghdad. For shame he thundered, to the patronizing stare of Dustin Hoffman. A year later, he has become the public figure of dissent against military adventures and a corporatist political establishment. He infuriates young Republicans protesting politely outside the auditorium with his rant against our current round of national sanctimony. His barbs about the »Christian decency« of the Iraq war go straight at their claim to moral authority. What Would Jesus Bomb? he asks, citing a bumper sticker he spotted on the road. It is a sign of the times, summarizing the real stakes of the political season: the smug self-assurance of the Great American Public. Will they be permitted to feel vindicated by the ordeal of Iraq? Not if Michael Moore can help it.

This is a quite different matter from the outcome of the election. Sanctimony is the disease of the churches, but it has spilled over into the political arena since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. His vision of America as a shining city on the hill was openly scriptural, though the man hardly pretended to go to church, nor to be a father to his own children, to judge from what they have to say of him in print. His son Ron is a fashionable political commentator, and though he does resemble the family, his view of things is a generation, and a look, apart. But of course it doesn’t take a great man, much less a decent Christian, to make a president in the US. Just a great communicator, as the elder Reagan was always, tiresomely, called, as though an ability to act made him prime time material. Scripture is a kind of lowest common denominator of political discourse here because it reaches the American voter ex cathedra, when he knows he is supposed to be sitting up straight and paying attention in his pew, in whatever congregation he may happen to worship. What is at issue in this election is not so much a line of policy, for the two main candidates are both Skull and Bones establishment types. The political authority of religion lies at the bottom of all the sound and fury. As Moore’s delivery shows, the imitation of Christ is a sharp nettle to grasp not just for the heathen but for the religious, such as they are.

Moore is trying to stir up younger voters, the slackers of his road tour logo, who are presumed to be too self-absorbed, or stoned or whatever, to go to the polls on 2 November. It’s interesting that he thinks they will vote for Kerry–while holding their noses, he adds, given the slight differences between the main candidates. But then it’s interesting that he’s stumping for Kerry at all, considering. The anti-corporate bias of Roger and Me, Moore’s send-up of General Motors, is effectively represented by Ralph Nader – the only authentic truth-teller at work on the hard nut of US politics for many seasons past. Nader and Moore stand front and center of this year’s campaign. Nader voters in Florida and elsewhere cost Albert Gore an election he won in every way but the legal way in 2000. Most of them were dissidents who might have gone for Gore, if they had bothered to vote at all, absent Nader. Four years later, much effort is being expended on both sides of the Great Divide to round up these Nader voters. Republicans have been active in Michigan, traditionally Democrat but more and more conservative, gathering signatures to put Nader on the presidential ballot, with the idea of drawing off his crucial dissident vote and so depriving the Democrats of their usual victory here. Chastened by defeat, the latter have been busy denouncing the legitimacy of the tactic. Moore contributes by pitching an anti-Bush line on behalf of the Kerry ticket, without reference to Nader at all.

Whether it’s good politics remains to be seen. Voter registration is running high after the Slacker Tour, despite determined effort on the part of the Michigan’s Secretary of State, an elected Republican, to make it difficult for many to vote at all: a sign of really existent democracy in that shining city on the hill, and an object lesson for our client state in Iraq. Such shamelessly partisan tactics give some idea of the desperation of Republicans to maintain their grip on power. Keep the Detroit vote low is their mantra, and Moore reminds his audience what it means – African-American voters are the most reliable constituency for Democrats here and elsewhere. It was a low turn-out of these stalwarts in Palm Beach that doomed Gore in Florida in 2000.

Rousing the dormant voter means appealing to her identity. Moore mentions the recent lifting of the ban on assault weapons, a matter close to home in cities like Detroit and Lansing, where armed criminals will have access to more convincing weapons. Such natural opportunists will presumably be voting their pocketbooks. Bowling for Columbine was all about the gun culture, so Moore is on high ground with the issue. Bumper stickers pitch the constitutional right to bear arms as a political badge of honor. The gun-owners are militant: it was the National Rifle Association that forced Bush’s hand on assault weapons, holding up its members’ endorsement of his candidacy until he signed the congressional legislation they paid for. These are mostly church-going folk with a frontier mentality. Their muscular Christianity includes a taste for combat. The sanctity of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which ordains »the right of the people to keep and bear arms,« is their politics in a nutshell.

Women’s pay and environmental pollution come into Moore’s delivery along the way. Both are important issues because the women’s vote is supposed to be decisive, and because the long-suffering environment crosses the Great Divide, leading normally conservative voters to take a chance on the devil in hope of improving water quality or the integrity of old-growth forests. But it is not clear that the women’s vote is breaking decisively for Kerry this year, in fact there are signs that the political solidarity of this bloc has been eroded over time by fear and aging – if these are not practically the same thing. The caricature Soccer Moms who turned power over to the Democrats in 1992 and 1996 are turning into Security Moms, according to the polls. Republicans pander to their apprehensions by floating the scenario of »killing terrorists abroad so we don’t have to kill them here.« With God on our side, of course, for this is a crusade against the heathen, something fundamentalist television preachers never let their captive audiences forget. We are fighting for our culture, according to The Reverend Kenneth Copeland, the Fort Worth (Texas) evangelist whose gospel of increase is broadcast coast to coast every morning with the coffee. The appeal to Haus und Herd und Heimat is what fundamentalism is all about, here as in the Islamic world. So it is that Iraq effaces even women’s issues that were once the staple fare of Democrats on the stump. Against this background, Moore’s counter-punching on behalf of women’s pay hardly comes up on the screen.

A few days later, L. Paul Bremer is in town, at the invitation of M. Peter McPherson, president of the university and erstwhile Reagan administration appointee. They are old friends. As chief US administrator in Iraq from May 2003, Bremer oversaw reconstruction efforts, employing McPherson to introduce new currency last year. His appearance amounts to the official story, in counterpoint to Michael Moore’s contrarian take. Bremer’s political slant is informative, but the timing is challenging for his case, for he is quoted in the papers on this day as complaining that »we paid a big price for not stopping [the looting in the aftermath of Mr. Hussein’s overthrow] because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,« and that »we never had enough troops on the ground« (Financial Times, 6 October 2004). Partisan revision of the Iraq story is at full boil, especially on the Republican side, where the defense of the invasion is being mounted for political purpose at the very moment when the facade of party solidarity is falling apart in public. Bremer claims that his remarks have been distorted. He defends the invasion of Iraq on grounds that the Iraqi public welcomed the demise of Saddam Hussein. His audience consists of local party operatives plus students, faculty and functionaries: a very different mix from Moore’s noisy crowd of a few days past, but just as contentious. Bremer has hecklers to contend with, including some who stand and deliver: »What do you get when you go into a country and kill innocent people?« Others resent such intrusions, and about a dozen protestors are thrown out. This is not a conversation, despite the monitored questions that Bremer entertains. It’s a political catechism.

A t-shirt paraded on the sidewalk reads Free Michael Moore. The face atop the t is smirking; he is white, his shirt is black like a pirate’s. What’s his game? This is the face of the young Republican mugging at the enemy. Hostility is in the air; this is not a friendly contest, it is a culture war, the self-appointed Elect defending freedom against the god-damned heathen Moore and his hippy-dippy pranksters. Freedom is the mantra of this party. Freedom to invade Iraq without answering to international law. Freedom to arm like Rambo. Freedom to preach to the abject Islamist, undeterred by cultural relativism. On the stump, their president proclaims that he really believes that freedom is a gift of God. By which he means freedom à l’americain, that universal solvent. He might as well have said Don’t Mess With Texas, a bumper sticker widely circulated in the Lone Star State. It is supposed to keep guys from throwing beer cans out of their pickup trucks. But to them, the sign reads like a pledge of allegiance. It’s not a nannying intrusion on their God-given freedom to throw beer cans, it’s male bonding. Freedom from overseas interference in our Iraqi turkey-shoot is at the heart of the matter in 2004, and France is the Euro-nanny of choice in this president’s declaration of independence.

Texas vs. France is a proxy for Edmund Burke’s attack of 1790 on the political legacy of Rousseau. Karl Rove, the Republican suit in charge, is smart enough to know how to play this hand of cards. His electoral strategy reverts to the original stage of revolution, when Burke countered popular enthusiasm for the end of the royal heads by appealing to national usage, custom, and habit. Meaning the bloody king, the church, and of course proputty, proputty, proputty in Lord Tennyson’s litany of the Lincolnshire Farmer, New Style: property, private ownership, as the measure of all things.

Nostalgia for theocracy, the church embodied in the voice of the monarch, lies just under the surface of thin Republican skin in this election. The primal scene of American democracy seems very near, all of a sudden. What is a state without a church? Democracy in America, as de Tocqueville conjured with it, amounts to public religion, reverence for a Constitution in lieu of Articles of Faith. The institutions of the democratic state, with its carefully articulated balance of powers teetering on the judgments of a Supreme Court, are at odds with evangelical pronouncements of the apodictic authority of a Supreme Being. Yet this political season is rife with divine messages of an impending electoral victory for the godly. We are judged by our votes, and not only by our neighbors. So say our fundamentalist sooth-sayers, and they have been saying it since January. The smarmy Reverend Pat Robertson, an influential former Marine who saw combat in Korea, has lately come forward with doubts about the Iraq adventure, countering his early prognostications. He is being shrugged off by spokesmen for »mainstream evangelicals,« as though Robertson were not the main man of the mainstream. Sooth-sayers speak the truth only when it suits the political purposes of their masters, apparently.

There is real revulsion against such witless primitivism among cultural conservatives like Harold Bloom, the erratic but brilliant Yale professor. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, that bastion of conservative Correct Thinking, Bloom reminds us that Emerson, his own prototype, campaigned against the admission of Texas to the Union in 1845. It is a symbolically loaded denunciation of the president’s policies, crystallized in the place-name of heroic individualism. The politics of Marlboro Man elicits fear and trembling among those who, like Bloom, actually know something about the cultural story in this election: »American politics, right now, is increasingly marked by religiosity, mostly Evangelical, but also by the pronouncements of Roman Catholic bishops. . . Many among us fear, realistically or not, that a second term for George W. Bush will help bring about the commencement of an American theocracy, an eventual tyranny of the twice-born. Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? However these are to be answered among us, politics seems irrelevant to questions and answers alike« (WSJ 22 October 2004 A16). Politics irrelevant to the life of the mind? This deliberately anti-Platonic turn actually plays into the hands of the theocrats, among whom Bloom counts the Plato of the Laws. For the preachers and their flocks would like nothing more than to be rid of the nagging skepticism of the party of Rousseau, the anti-Texans. It is rising up within their own body in this election season, as the case of the righteous Reverend Robertson intimates. It remains to be seen whether his prophetic prediction of a Bush victory comes true, despite his troubles with Iraq. But perhaps he has short-circuited Divine Will by his born-again skepticism.

Bloom’s own voice is disturbingly prophetic, another sign of the times. This rhetoric of prophecy too reverts to Burke, our seer in the stormy night as Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium-Eater, called him. Bloom is a devotee of the Kaballah, but hardly of those masters of the prophetic, the National Socialists of the 1930s who foresaw a Thousand Year Reich. Carl Schmitt is the last man standing among them to get a hearing still. His work has been translated into English and is making the rounds in the universities, where Bloom’s desperation is unrelieved by hope for John Kerry’s prospects. Schmitt was a reader, in his earlier years, of Burke’s tract against the revolution in the 1793 translation of Friedrich von Gentz. He was in fact a sort of latter-day Gentz, a political publicist (Publizist, his own word) with connections. Martin Heidegger invited him to join the Nazi party; they did so at the same time. It is ominous to go there, but the politics of Heimat do head in the direction of apodictic certitude based on prophecy – the vision thing, as the elder Bush once called it. It was said forever after that he lacked it. His pragmatism was very like John Kerry’s, so much so that he lost his bid for reelection based on a change of course in tax policy, based on concerns about the federal budget deficit. This is conservative common sense, but it has gone missing altogether in the regime of the neo-conservatives, oblivious to the red ink, certain that the electorate could care less. Reagan proved as much, according to the incumbent Vice-President, Richard Cheney.

Perhaps he is right. But it is striking that Kerry’s caution should so resemble the policy of Bush the Father, while Bush the Son has no discernible macroeconomic policy at all. Even the conservatives wonder about it, but they are mostly keeping quiet, assuming that the lunatics running the asylum will be strait-jacketed after the Bush reelection they are paying so dearly for. Correct Thinking now means solidarity across the range of issues from Iraq to abortion, gay marriage, and the immorality of stem-cell research. But thinking is hardly the right word for it, for the herd mentality is at work in this caucus. Realpolitik will happen later, when these issues must be adjudicated among the principals to the incumbent’s re-election. Such an outcome is still in doubt a week before the election, with the Kerry camp encouraged by late polling in the key states whose electoral votes will decide the matter. There is speculation in Barron’s, the Dow Jones financial weekly paper, that he might win as Bush did in 2000, with a scant majority of electors, but without a plurality of the popular vote. Kerry is reported to be in the advanced stages of planning for the transition to a new national security team, including a new intelligence director to replace the president’s recent political appointment to the position. If Kerry should win, it would suit Wall Street types terrified of the monstrous deficit accumulated over the past three years, because a government split between the parties typically produces a more balanced account-book. Politics makes strange bedfellows still.

At a local supermarket, I overhear mumbled conversation between a young cashier and an older man of color, a working stiff. They are acquainted and the talk is cryptic, but the story is that the older man will be voting for Bush, to the shock of his friends. »It’s a Hollywood world, man,« he mumbles. Then he says the f-word: freedom. The race card is very much in play in this election; where is this coming from? How does an ordinary Joe see himself in George W. Bush? It’s identity politics, plain and simple. The southern evangelical tone affected by this president is familiar to him from church, and probably from a family background down south. This he knows. The patrician air of John Kerry is remote from his experience of the world. The complexity of Kerry’s views seems like political fudge to the black and white morality of the Baptist mind.

Who is John Kerry? Characterizing the subject position has been his problem from the start. As Senator from Massachusetts, the most urbane and elite state in the union, he is mainly defined by his background. In 1988 another Massachusetts liberal, Michael Dukakis, was unable to make it work for him, despite the Iran-Contra scandals of the later Reagan Administration. He was defeated by Bush the Father, former Director of the CIA with a pipeline to the Iran-Contra scam. The Connecticut Yankee prevailed over the Massachusetts policy wonk of Greek descent: the insider beat the outsider. Two weeks before this election, Kerry goes hunting in Pennsylvania to work on his profile as a war hero. It is so obviously a media wheeze that it becomes a late- night talk show joke. Video of the occasion shows his party rambling back with geese in tow, but Kerry’s hands are clean: no goose. This is duly noted by commentators, and the result is the opposite of the desired effect. All hat, no cattle as they say in Texas. His career in the Senate has been overshadowed by the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy, whose water he has often carried. Like Bill Clinton, Kerry shook hands with John Kennedy and never got over it. He affects the Kennedy look though his family background includes a grandfather from the stetl. His marriage to the wealthy widow of a Senate colleague, Patricia Heinz, confirms his establishment bona fides. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, pace Seinfeld, but her worldly air makes Mrs. Bush look like Little Mary Sunshine. Mrs. Kerry invites the comparison by charging that the First Lady has never held a real job. Such culturally loaded short-hand will work against her husband’s election in the heartland, where wives still stay home with their children, and where they vote in disproportionate numbers.

Michael Dukakis never solved the Great Democrat Identity Problem. Vice-President Gore failed to resolve it in 2000. His southern origins were pretty notional, considering his upbringing inside the DC Beltway, but he should have been able to win in Tennessee, his home state, and he did not. Democrat identity is hardly social democratic in the German sense, but it approximates it in some ways, and the troubles of the party are not unlike those of the SPD. It is supposed to have the interests of its working class constituency in mind, so it is the historical party of the labor unions. These are in decline, and they have not effectively connected with other constituencies, though they led the way in promoting civil rights for African-Americans. Women vote disproportionately for Democrats because of their advocacy for education and social programs. The identity position could be characterized as female, then, in opposition to Marlboro Man; as dark brown in complexion instead of ruddy; as northern instead of southern because the great factories depend on skilled mechanical labor, still mostly concentrated in the Great Lakes states that are at the center of this year’s contest. There is such a thing as an evangelical Christian who votes Democrat, but Roman Catholics make up a very significant cadre of party regulars. The rising party star fills puts a face to this profile. He is Barack Obama, a sure-thing candidate for an open US Senate seat in Illinois. Obama is the son of a Kenyan economist by a Kansas woman. He was raised in Hawaii and points west. This seems somehow typical of a party whose identity is a rolling identity crisis.

Why would anybody vote for John Kerry? This hostile question is put in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper a few days before the election. It is surprisingly apt. Voters in the Democrat primaries wondered the same thing before they faced the stark reality of the alternative, Howard Dean, ex-Governor of Vermont, another elite New England type with an all-too 1960s outlook. This was the face of angry defiance, and it would have gone down in flames with ordinary voters who wish their national identity to be affirmed, however badly the war seems to be going. Kerry’s is the face of the party’s past: east coast Brahman, expensively educated in Switzerland and at Yale, with French cousins and European connections. Who is one of us? Joseph Conrad’s literary take on subaltern affiliation, recycled by Homi Bhabha, the postcolonial theorist at Harvard, applies to le cas Kerry. Is he really American at all? He has said that he will have lunch on election day at the Union Oyster House in Boston. This ancient, popular resort, all dark brown oak inside, celebrates New England’s maritime past, its hard working life. But it is an exercise in living nostalgia, like Kerry himself. The war that he would preside over in Iraq would be more effective, he says on the eve of the election. This is the voice of the technocrat, not the visionary. It is no match for the evangelical tone of a political prophet, self-styled. Michael Moore will be voting for Kerry because he is not this false prophet. But progressives are under no illusions about his track record. Much of what George the Son says of him on the stump is quite true. He is not a leader, he is a follower, and if elected he will follow the course set by the current administration, as he did in his votes to authorize US military intervention in Iraq. All of his quibbles after the fact do not disguise the fact that he behaved as his Senate forerunners of the 1960s did when faced with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. They went along with a fabrication, in the interest of national unity. We never got over it, and the country is now divided, once and for all, between the passionate intensity that fills the Republican converted and the aging doubts of Democrats, a party of subalterns.

This depressing dialectic seems a neurotic huis clos as dawn breaks on a dreary election morning, with polls showing the race a dead heat. The commentators apparently believe this, but the public mostly does not. It is Kerry’s election to lose, according to John Zogby, the Arab-American pollster whose prognostications are the only ones trusted inside the DC Beltway. Writing in the Financial Times (London) on 1 November, Zogby casts his vote for Thomas Jefferson, who united the country in the wake of a 36th ballot in Congress to settle the awful election of 1800, contested by Aaron Burr for the Republicans. It’s an ominous sign of things to come, real visionary stuff. Michigan is right in the middle of this mess. The Kerry sign facing the dirt road I live on didn’t last twenty-four hours before somebody took it off my property. But a huge Bush sign has been up on Grand River Avenue, 100 feet away, for days, and nobody has touched it. Who will win here, and what will it do to us? Many thoughtful Democrats fear a Kerry victory as much as they fear the return of Bush the Son because the hostility of their neighbors will be politically disabling. Republicans feel in their hearts that they are the Elect, and anybody who gets in their ways is the enemy of Almighty God. It’s a case of the bully boy keeping the subalterns in line. The Reverend Kenneth Copeland and his hectoring righteousness will have to be fought to the finish, and not by the pathetic Osama, his Islamic brother in the wars of religion. Our ayatollahs are our problem, as he is theirs.

Zogby’s well-honed instinct tells him that the undecided vote will break against the incumbent. He is expecting an outright Kerry victory, and so are other credible inside sources. I am not. There is something in the messianic voice of Bush the Son that rises to the national Zeitgeist, and it is hard to believe that the faithful will not rally to it. He reminds us that our Puritan origins, remote as they seem, are impressed in our psyches. This is every bit as true of the Politically Correct as it is of her arch-enemy, the Southern Baptist. American feminism, 60s style, is a stink eye of envy and smug hostility – intolerant of Man in some primitive, atavistic sense. The visceral pacifism of the PC crowd is a consolation prize for the powerless. Our enlightened class finds reasons to avoid fighting for the rights whose sovereignty they proclaim because their strength is just an attitude. Disdain for this party, for the Hollywood crowd and Michael Moore’s antics, is rising in the gorge of Middle America. Proposals to ban same-sex marriage are on the ballots of a dozen states, and they will draw in voters determined to defend a prescriptive ideal of marriage. The fundamentalist preachers whose congregants’ marriages are, as a statistical matter of fact, an epidemic of divorce are now presuming to tells us who’s in and who’s out of the state of wedded bliss. The Puritans are back in town, and they will be voting for the devil they know.

Back in my odd corner of Middle America, closer to Canada than to Indiana, hope springs eternal. Lansing lost 14,700 jobs in September, second highest in the US after Detroit, an hour down the road, but Help is on the way, according to the Kerry campaign. Nobody really believes it, of course; the Cadillacs are still made here but the industrial future lies in developing countries, where labor is cheap. So why is Kerry a sure thing here? Michigan’s two US Senators are both welfare-state Democrats, and one of them is a local woman. She represents a labor constituency with deep roots in this industrial stronghold where auto manufacturing goes back one century to R. E. Olds and his primordial Oldsmobile. The area is mostly Catholic, with declining mainstream protestant congregations and noisy evangelicals bringing up the rear. The Moslem population is visible everywhere, and so are Hispanics, mostly Rio Grande Texans who came up after World War II to work in the great factories. Both groups will vote Democrat–the Arabs because of the Iraqi adventure instigated by the incumbent, for whom they voted as cultural conservatives in 2000; the Mexican immigrants as poor Catholics looking for help on immigration, education, and welfare. The indigenous population is a stolid 1950s story, however: natural Republican material, full of the usual class anxieties and social resentments. The students, 43,000 strong, belong to the 18-30 demographic that is expected to go for Kerry. If they can be moved to vote, they should balance out the local moss-backs.

This is not a cross-section of the Flyovers, as coastal types, east and west, call the expanse of red zone between New York and Los Angeles. It is not Grand Rapids, the Dutch Calvinist city an hour west of here, home of the Republican Taliban, as state moderates call their own Christian fundamentalists. It is not Grabill, Indiana, two hours south, where horse-drawn carriages ferry young Mennonites clad entirely in black through the rough streets of an unimproved town. Such people will be voting in droves on this day, stirred to action by the Republicans’ plan to reach constituencies remote from the usual media markets by working through church networks. Their concerns are moral more than economic or global, though their traditional cabinet-making businesses are impacted by cheap imports. They are out of sight of the political process in general but very much on the mind of Karl Rove, the incumbent’s electoral strategist. Such rural populations are expected to make a difference in swing states where the vote will be close, including Michigan, with its industrial cities and politically divided suburbs.

By evening it’s clear that the high voter turnout anticipated by both parties has come to pass. But the more interesting item is the buzz of rumor pointing to a Kerry victory. Exit-polling speculation begins on the web, spreads to Wall Street where stocks take a dive on the prospect, and then trickles down to network news. You can see it in the faces of commentators close to the action. They are Kerry types, most of them, looking forward to a change of air in the White House. By nine in the evening it looks like a done deal, with Florida turning out better than expected and Ohio headed for the Kerry column, like most of the Great Lakes states except for Indiana, a backwater that is consigned to the Bush column early on. It’s a pleasant surprise but not enough to shake my foreboding, and when I wake before dawn the sky has fallen, sure enough. John Kerry had retired to his Boston to write his victory speech, as the story falls together in the following days. He had rolled up sizable majorities in the cities of Ohio and felt sure these would keep the wolf from the door when the smaller precincts reported their polls. But the drumbeat of these results, massively Republican in southwestern Ohio, eroded his lead and left the state up in the air. By dawn on 3 November, Bush led in Ohio by 136,000 votes, and the number of ballots left to be counted meant there was no real chance to catch up. It was a stunning turn of events not only for the challenger but for the incumbent, who had left the Republican celebration party on the evening of the election to join his family at the White House in expectation of bad news. He claimed victory the next morning, plainly relieved at a narrow escape.

But in fact it was not so narrow. Unlike the 2000 poll in which he lost the popular vote, this one produced a popular lead of three and a half million, about three per cent. Not a landslide but a success, considering what expectations had been. The big story going into the election was the army of lawyers engaged by both sides–thousands of them, perhaps ten thousand by the Democrats–to see about any miscarriage of the sort that Florida perpetrated in 2000. The lawyers proved to be irrelevant to the outcome. What was not irrelevant was the decisive majority of church-folk who voted Republican: some seventy per cent, rising to seventy-five in the case of evangelicals, according to exit polling. These are forbidding numbers for Democrats, and they became the focus of the election post-mortem, which proved more enlightening than the presidential debates or the pitiful intervention of Osama himself into the proceedings. For they confirmed that the issue at the bottom of this election was the political authority of the US churches. The Republican Party at prayer, as these have been called by one of their own, with more than a trace of irony, showed that it rules the roost via the pulpit. How to speak to this bloc in a tongue that they will understand is the matter on the table as I write.

Bill Clinton won by relating openly to their ›crisis of meaning,‹ only to find himself impeached when it turned out that he was not a perfect acolyte. The proceedings against him showed his persecutors to be men with pasts, but their indiscretions were swept under the rug because they are Republicans: they genuflected appropriatel. Henry Hyde, an elderly US Representative from Illinois, got a nail into this political crucifixion when he smelled blood, only to suffer public exposure when his own womanizing was revealed. This did not prevent the good burghers of his district from re-electing him in 2000 (and again last week) against a moderate Democrat who did not enjoy the churches’ dispensation from crimes of what they call ›morality‹. Resistance to the chiseling of the church party is rampant in public, as letters to the editors of local papers show. But of course the churches are sovereign no matter how egregious their failures and hypocrisies. This too came clear in the wake of the November election, when public arguments about the outcome turned again and again to their role as fair brokers of US values. All parties are rallying to their defense, as though telling the truth about such bumbling busybodies would be too hard on Aunt Myrtle.

Clinton’s version of the truth came out right away, featured on front pages of newspapers everywhere. Democrats had made themselves look like space aliens by ducking moral issues like abortion rights during the campaign, he argued ferociously. Was this a warm-up exercise for his wife’s campaign for the Democrat nomination in 2008? He would like his party to compete head-on with poofy bishops and senescent sectarians like Bob Jones III, founder of an eponymous institution in South Carolina devoted to defeating the heathen at his own game – higher education. This worthy moralist wrote the re-elected President, congratulating him publicly on his victory over the Anti-Christ, John Kerry – a man who attends mass without making a public spectacle of himself. The White House tried to dodge the letter by intimating that George the Son had not read it, presumably because open identification with such bald assertions of theological hegemony would be bad politics. The parade goes around this way, with Democrats trying to cozy up to the church folk while Republicans struggle to keep a decent distance, fearful of public reaction against their arrogation of political power. The churches have invited the attention and they will suffer the consequences, as they did in the 1960s when their whole-hearted endorsement of the Vietnam War drove a generation away from their national theology. They lost their cultural grip and never recovered it. But that was the past, and it is a distant memory to the younger generation they are trying to recruit to their causes now.

The past shaded this election in other ways. Long-time observers of political trends will recall the way that Iran paraded US hostages through the streets of Tehran in the days leading up to the momentous election of 1980, when an earnest Ronald Reagan upset the accident-prone Jimmy Carter. The deliberate sabotage of his campaign provides a vivid precedent for Osama’s effort to pitch his program by intervening on video in the 2004 election. US politics as we know it now descends from an Islamist provocation, and it remains focused on the presumption of such tin-horn tyrants. Not that anyone here took Osama’s proclamation very seriously, but he reminds us who we are by evoking the living presence of the enemy in his caliphate beard. Democrats have special reason to despise this fancy upstart and his fanatical co-religionists. They nudged Reagan into power when he was still regarded as an upstart himself, and they provided an occasion for his failing acolyte, George W. Bush, to reassert the America First line of the Great Pretender. Reagan’s death this summer triggered a flood of memories of the man who stood up for America, returning us to the dignity of our condition high above the milling multitudes. In the end, John Kerry sensed that he had been undone by Osama’s sword-rattling more than by the machinations of the churches. The politics of paranoia carried the day for the incumbent.

A different outcome in 2004 would not have changed much in US foreign policy despite what European observers clearly hoped for. Theocracy makes sense to Republicans in ways that it does not to Democrats, as I have suggested, but our recent history confirms the native antipathy to high priests of mayhem. The Arabian mullahs have invited us to regard them as the enemy; this is the source of their identity, what they trade on. Michel Foucault, writing on the front page of Le Monde in 1979 at the moment of the Iranian revolution, took the Islamic turn to be an appeal to indigenous sources of cultural authority, against the example of the Shah’s neo-colonial state. He approved of such displays of resistance, in a spirit that could be called libertarian. His undifferentiated ideal of freedom has proved limited in this case as in others, however. Reaction formation is not liberation, it is subaltern behavior, and it leads to a politics of domination. Not all revolutions advocate personal freedom of the kind that Foucault embraced. Iranians who declared themselves enemies of the Great Satan may have been local heros, but their fight was a rearguard skirmish with modernity itself. The emerging culture of younger Persians points to a future that does not feature Grand Ayatollahs. Khomeini’s delusions of theocratic grandeur are turning into the Emperor’s New Clothes before the eyes of his own population.

A week after November 2, a Syrian journalist interviewed for US television said that he saw little to choose between Bush and Kerry. From his Middle Eastern trench, America appears one and indivisible, the enemy of his people. Yet this inside operative could not suppress a smirk in characterizing Bush as the strong man, Kerry the weak one by implication – the sort of politician who could be held hostage to fortune, as Carter had been in 1980. So long as this is the face of Araby, we will see Reagan and Bush, not Carter or Kerry in the White House. Osama and his band of brothers prefer to fight sharp-shooters who suit their crude stereotypes. It confirms them in their binary world-view, consolidates their theocratic certainty. They are as allergic to complexity as the fundamentalists among us who have been galvanized into crusade by an Islamist provocation. We have met the enemy and they are strangely familiar.