Since its Monday, and also before a holiday, I decided to start some trouble. If the following makes you debate, discuss, argue or feel uncomfortable, I have done my job.
The Republicanization of America: An African?s Observation on the 2004 U.S. Elections
by Dr. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza
The U.S. elections are now over and President Bush has been re-elected with a decisive electoral majority and the Republican Party has increased its seats both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Democrats are in a state of shock and much of the outside world is surprised by the results. Many had thought that the Bush administration would sink under the weight of disastrous policies abroad and at home, especially a foreign policy mired in the quagmire of Iraq and misguided unilateralism and an economy skidding from anemic job growth and exploding budget deficits and national debt. Instead, President Bush sailed to what by American standards was an impressive victory (51 percent of the popular vote). How does one explain this?
As an African watching the elections with its intransigent electoral patterns among the “red” and “blue” states, voting irregularities, and gerrymandering (the drawing of voting districts by the majority political party rather than by a nonpartisan body) I could not but be amused wondering what American commentators would say if this were an African election: I bet they would bemoan the regionalization of voting as a reflection of Africans incapacity to transcend primordial loyalties based on “tribalism” and “regionalism,” voting misdeeds would be ascribed to the propensity of African governments for vote rigging and the ignorance of “illiterate” voters unaccustomed to democracy. The U.S. elections clearly show that the notion of “mature” democracies is a myth; democracy is still a work in progress around the world.
The popular mandate of the Bush administration is often attributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which galvanized the nation behind its lackluster president, and many have argued that in this election the nation was simply unwilling to change leaders in the midst of a war. The impact of the September 11 on the American national psyche is indeed critical to understanding current American politics, but it does not adequately explain the right-wing drift in American political culture, which has scaled to new heights and dates back, in its current phase, at least three decades.
It seems to me that this drift, what I would call the republicanization of America, can be attributed to the complex and combustible politics of race, empire, and globalization. The triumph of the Republicans rests on their ability to manipulate the strains and stresses of civil rights struggles and the uncertainties about America’s place in a rapidly changing world. In short, the republicanization of America is rooted in efforts by conservative forces to roll back civil rights at home and project untrammeled imperial power abroad.
Many commentators note that the Republicans have succeeded in monopolizing and manipulating the discourse on cultural and moral “values.” The issues concerning Iraq and the economy featured high in the election, indeed energized supporters of Senator John Kerry, the Democratic challenger, but they were trumped by the question of “values” which mobilized an even larger number of supporters of the Republican Party. An administration that had started as a fluke in 2000 from the hanging chads of Florida, and was propelled into office thanks to a controversial Supreme Court decision, received an extraordinary mandate in 2004.
However, the racial dynamics of the discourse on “values” are often left unstated. Race is the bedrock of American society that frames and explains a lot of the country’s political, cultural, social, class, ideological, and intellectual dynamics. The cultural values trumpeted by the Republicans and which find so much resonance among millions of Americans primarily tap into the racial codes of American life and are driven by the desire to unravel the civil rights settlement of the 1960s that sought to enfranchise and empower African Americans and other racial minorities.
The enactment of civil rights laws by President Johnson’s Democratic administration led to a crucial realignment in American politics as Republicans adopted a strategy to capture supporters and states, especially in the South, alarmed by the dismantling of legal segregation. Many whites in the Southern states bolted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, which articulated its racist politics and policies in a variety of coded messages against “quotas,” “reverse discrimination,” and “welfare” and for “law and order” and “traditional American values.”
The civil rights movement led by African Americans spawned other movements including the feminist movement and, more recently, the gay rights movement. These movements not only drew on the struggles and symbols of the civil rights movement, they also inherited and incurred the opprobrium and opposition of conservative forces and their respective signature issues ? abortion and gay marriage ? joined the litany of infamy allegedly undermining American values.
Collectively these movements reinforced each other and became central to the progressive agenda in American politics, and as such the target of radical conservatives who used every arsenal at their disposal from radio to religion, from broadcasting station to pulpit, to wage “cultural war.” The politics of race ensured unity on the Republican side in this “war” (the party remains predominantly white and in the recent election attracted no more than 10 percent of the black vote), and dissension on the Democratic side as different identity and social projects competed for primacy (as can be seen in the heated debates about gay rights in the African American civil rights community).
Ethno-racial polarizations have bedeviled progressive politics in the United States for a long time and partly explain why leftist parties on the European model have never had much traction. Race and racism tend to override class interests and solidarity and facilitate the framing of the national dialogue in cultural terms especially as “culture talk” increasingly became a substitute for “race talk.” This might illuminate the apparently strange spectacle of poor and working class whites (many prefer to call themselves middle class ? a much beloved term in American popular discourse that serves to mystify class identities) in the so-called American heartland of small towns and rural areas voting with their cultural hearts for the republican capitalists rather than with their economic heads against them.
The politics of race is further fueled by the country’s changing demographic composition as the share of the white population decreases and that of minorities increases. Some welcome the prospect of a more multicultural and multiracial America, while others fear this will lead to “national degeneration.” In a recent book, the influential policy wonk Samuel Huntington (he of the “clash of civilizations” notoriety) is contemptuous of multiculturalism and alarmed about the recent waves of immigration and the failure of Hispanics (a rather amorphous minority) to integrate into America’s supposedly Anglo-Protestant culture (where are the African Americans?) and forecasts the emergence of a movement of white nativism.
Such a movement already exists ? it is called racism and white supremacy ? and it has many institutional and political homes. To be sure, race has been appropriated by the different political parties at different times. African Americans identified with the Republicans (the party of Abraham Lincoln) even if most of them could not vote until the era of President Roosevelt’s New Deal when they began to gravitate to the Democrats, an affiliation consolidated during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Since then the Republican Party has been concentrating its appeal to whites notwithstanding periodic gestures to minorities in hotly contested districts. For its part, the Democratic Party is increasingly becoming the party of minorities.
The Republicans are better placed than the Democrats to promote both the project of white supremacy at home and imperial supremacy abroad. During the Cold War the Republicans portrayed themselves as the robust guardians of national security and the fact that the former Soviet Union collapsed when the United States was under a Republican administration could not but bolster this image. Some ideologues even credit President Ronald Reagan’s resolute anti-communism and increased military expenditures for the fall of the Soviet Union.
The extinction of socialism and communism in central and eastern Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia in the 1990s was accompanied by two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, the world witnessed a new wave of democratization and on the other systemic options narrowed as political parties rushed to a center that was drifting rightwards. Some even proclaimed the emergence of “third way” politics. In effect, this represented the retreat of leftwing and social democratic parties to the right.
In the U.S. where ideological space has historically tended to be narrower than in western Europe, the ideological gap between the two major parties virtually disappeared except on the question of “values” as increasingly defined by the right. The administration of President Bill Clinton did not fundamentally challenge the rightward drift of American politics; instead it appropriated Republican economic and social policies notwithstanding populist rhetoric to the contrary and Clinton’s own personal popularity among various Democratic constituencies including African Americans. The ideological disarmament of the Democratic Party ? its failure to articulate policies fundamentally different from the Republican Party ? left America’s politics open to appropriation by the true proprietors of the conservative agenda, the Republicans. Why purchase a copy when you can get the original at the price of the same vote?
From the 1990s the United States became the lone and increasingly lonely Superpower. The restructuring of the world system was captured in the rather fuzzy concept of “globalization,” that a new era had emerged characterized by the rapid flows of commodities and capital, ideas and individuals, and values and viruses. Above all, globalization was seen as an economic and technological phenomenon that threatened to erode the sovereignty of the state and the sanctity of local cultures and identities. Much of what is said about globalization is “globaloney,” more a projection of contemporary anxieties and aspirations than a description of the actual processes of global interconnectedness. But there can be little doubt that a kind of global reflexivity has emerged fanned by the media, international migrations, and the propensity of politicians to blame national problems on malicious or uncontrollable foreign forces.
The possibilities and perils of globalization have engendered transnationalisms and nationalisms everywhere. For the U.S. globalization gave cause for celebration and concern, celebration in so far as its industries and institutions were among the major benefactors and beneficiaries of globalization, and concern in that it promised to shift the measure of global power from military prowess to economic competitiveness. The burst of the dot.com bubble and onset of recession at the turn of the new century reinforced these fears, and was articulated in the recent election in terms of “outsourcing our jobs.”
Then there was September 11. Much has been written about how the Bush Administration squandered global goodwill expressed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks by embarking on a policy of haughty unilateralism that alienated many of its western allies and provoked unprecedented hostility in many parts of the world. This imperial hubris, to use the title of one of the many books by thoughtful American commentators that has attacked the Bush administration’s dangerous and deluded war on terror, served the interests of an administration desperate for legitimacy after the botched elections of 2000, as well as of the neo-conservative cabal bent on recapturing the military glory of US imperialism buried in the killing fields of Vietnam.
It could also be said that terrorism became a substitute for communism, a new enemy essential for a permanent war economy and necessary to produce nationalism and promote patriotism in this new era of “globalization.” For a country that spends nearly half of the world’s military expenditures enemies are essential and the more ubiquitous they are the better. The association of terrorism with Islam rests on and rekindles deep-seated anti-Islamic memories in Western culture and the fact that the threat is largely seen as stateless (following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan) reinforces the notion that this is indeed a clash of civilizations that antedate modern states.
This serves to particularize and primordialize global terrorism, depicting it as an upsurge of evil that has nothing to do with the policies of successive U.S. governments, including those of the current Bush administration. It encourages Americans to ask the question: “Why do they hate us?” The obvious self-serving answer: “Because of our way of life, our freedoms, our wealth; in short because of who we are.” And so the despicable war in Iraq is portrayed as a heroic effort to bestow democracy upon a long-suffering people (forget the previous justification about weapons of mass destruction). Spreading democracy and freedom as an alibi for a country that has difficulty running its own elections and has historically not respected the democratic rights and civil liberties of its minorities.
It is hard for outsiders to understand how so many people in the world’s most powerful nation with a massive media industry and intellectual resources can be so fooled. But perhaps it should not be if the astonishing monopolies of power in the U.S. political economy are understood. There is less diversity of opinion in the American media than in many African countries, for example, because of concentrations of media ownership. The sycophancy of the mainstream American media would shock many of the courageous African journalists who mercilessly attack their governments. Imperial supremacy requires the constant production of the rhetoric of righteousness and when that power is a settler society with populations from around the world such cruel fictions also serve to produce and police citizenship. The languages of empire abroad and race at home are interminably linked: Having domestic racial others who have been abused for centuries has provided the United States with the vocabulary of derision for foreigners. It is not a coincidence that the loudest supporters of white supremacy and imperial supremacy are to be found among Christian fundamentalists, a key voting bloc in the Republican Party. They would like to roll back many of the gains of civil rights and any perceived threats to American global power.
President Bush’s second term will attempt to do the first through anticipated judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and other domestic policy initiatives and the second through a savage war in Iraq and renewed threats against the so-called “rogue states.” But the aggressive pursuit of these objectives offers the possibilities of reversing the republicanization of America as the forces that have arisen in opposition to this decades-long process and project are galvanized and strengthened in the coming years.
Dr. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Professor of African Studies and History at Pennsylvania State University, former Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois (1995-2003), author of various books and recipient of major awards. A successful institutional builder, with personal research and institutional grants since 1995 at $4,124,000, he is also the 1994 Noma Award winner for publishing A Modern Economic History of Africa and, in 1998, a Special Commendation of the Noma Award for Manufacturing African Studies and Crises.