Sunday, November 19, 2006

American Elections and Alternative Visions

Republicanism fails. At least this is the point I tried to make in my last post. It fails not because it provides some sort of cover for what is really a covert imperialist project (although it might do this, too). It fails because it cannot deliver what it promises. What it promises, it seems to me, or the ideas it claims to support, are not illegitimate. Some of the stuff the lurks beneath the covers of Republicanism might be illegitimate. To be sure: there are bigots, rednecks, intolerant people, anti-gay people, xenophobes, etc., who vote for the Republican party and who like George Bush, Jr. They are not the average American. And, to be honest, they don’t really concern me. I’m never going to convince, say, someone who is vibrantly anti-immigration to change their views. I’m never going to convince a racist that she or he is wrong. What concerns me is the mass of average, ordinary working and middle class Americans who are not like this.

What are those concerns that are so legitimate? If you go through all the different planks in the Republican platform, the basic focus (whether in political, military, international, or cultural or economic, etc., policy) is on security. Republicans believe America is under siege from either internal or external enemies. These enemies make America soft; they question the integrity of its institutions, they question its traditions, they threaten the safety of its citizens. The idea of security is much more than a wall along a border or helicopters patrolling the boundaries of Saskatchewan wheat fields. Security is about knowing your kids can walk to school without problems; that your niece who is travelling Europe after finishing college is OK. Its about knowing your job is going to be there next week or next month or next year. Its about having enough money to pay for groceries. Its about the air we breath and the water we drink. Security, IOW, is about a series of intensely human concerns that are entirely legitimate.

Republicans took this legitimate concern with security and spun it in a negative and defensive way. In addition to being a complete policy failure, the other big problem with the security agenda is its inwardness. And, I think this is another thing that came to the fore in the recent American mid-term elections. At least a section of the American public is expressing increasing concern about the inward-looking conception of security mobilized by Republicans. They are looking for something else. In what is really a two-party system, this means voting Democrat. It is not clear, however, that the Democrats have isolated what the American public is actually looking for, nor that they are the people to develop constructive policies that address public concerns. The lesson of this election and the previous ones is that they should or, very quickly, they will find themselves on the outs again.

This is why. The American public in voting against Republicans voted against a conception of security and vision of the future that was static. What the Republicans look to do is make America secure. And, they aim to do this, by and large, through force of arms, advanced technology, assertions of traditional values, and dissembling the institutions of the welfare state that empowered previously marginalized people. By its very nature, the security agenda seeks to protect what Americans already have. This is precisely its problem. It seeks to preserve and conserve. It does not seek to expand and develop. The great weakness of Republicanism, other than the fact it is a policy flop, is that it offers nothing beyond “security”, even rhetorically. The Republican project for the US is to preserve “our way of life” from threat.

Let me suggest that this is not enough. Historically, the American project of nation stood for so much else. It meant a lot more then keeping what one had. We can all acknowledge that the ideal of America has been compromised in practice, but what it stood for was important both inside and outside the US. The American project of nation was to build a different kind of society. It was not just to preserve what one had but to make something new, something better, something more fair, something based on principle rather than history. The American revolutionary tradition is nothing to sneeze at. Its an important intellectual trajectory that expressed -- in its classic formulation -- some complex and important ideas. The “founding fathers” were looking to see the creation of a new society based on balancing political and economic imperatives, on a commitment to equality, on democracy, on justice that was not arbitrary. They were interested in the transparency of government and its accountability.

Since that time, other ideas have been added to this tradition as other revolutionary thinkers have contributed to the American intellectual tradition: ethnic and racial equality, legal equality of all before the law, state action to help the poor, universal public education, religious pluralism, among others.

In my view, the American intellectual tradition is at its best when it is not defensive. It is at its best when it is expansive, when it is looking to be dynamic, and when it is acting on principle to make something new. This is, I think, the real problem with Republicanism: it can’t do this. It can’t offer Americans anything new. It can only offer them a protected past. A Republican who offers something new -- stem cell research, equality for gay people, socialized medicine, gun control, bilingualism -- won’t be a Republican for very long. They won’t even get past the primary. Republicanism, then, by definition is not about American living up to its highest ideals. Its about a garrison mentality that preserves what one has -- and, to be sure, this is worth preserving -- from a hostile world.

The mid-term election results suggest that the American public is looking for something like the type of alternative vision on which the United States was founded to be again articulated by the Democratic Party. They need to do it. The Democratic Party has, rightly, be shot down by pundits for its failure to have much in the way of policy. Instead, it has tried to “moderate” its liberalism, taking a few planks from the Republican policy platform in order to win government. It should stop this. The mid-term election results did not produce Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress because Democrats took a fine lines from George Bush’s defensive vision of America. It won because people want something else. I believe the Democratic Party should start articulating that something else and it should begin with foreign policy.

What can/should a new American foreign policy entail? A number of things. First, a commitment to military disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that the US will have to negotiate with the very people it (and, its allies like us in Canada) are trying to hunt down and kill. This is going to be hard. Its going to be painful. Its going to provoke accusations of “treating with terrorists” and “soft on terrorism” from the American right. My advise to the Democrats: tough it out. Trust the American public to understand what you are trying to do: establish real security through peace. Negotiated peace in Afghanistan and Iraq is going to take a long time, but the US needs to indicate to Iraqis and Afghans that it will discuss peace with the people who they support and who represent them. Like it or not, the “insurgents” in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan have a popular base. Talks will need to begin. Second, the US needs to begin one on one talks with North Korea. This will be a PR victory for North Korea but who cares? North Korea is a totalitarian state. Everything is a PR victory for North Korea within that country. Outside of it, no one is tricked by that propaganda. By beginning these talks the US can find out exactly what the North Korean government wants. And, it might be able to address some of its concerns in return for a return to non-proliferation.

Third, the US has to stop building a security wall along the Mexican border. This plays so poorly internationally and comes so close the dystopic sci-fi models of a gated American (see Handmaid’s Tale) that it is not funny. Instead, the US should work with Mexico and other Latin American countries to establish reasonable rates of migration to the US and naturalization processes for those who are already in that country.

Fourth, the US has to stop supporting Israel no matter what it does. It needs to recognize the legitimate government of the Palestinian Authority (Hamas) and it needs to stop providing aid and arms to Israel as long as it continues its policy of violent attacks on Palestinian citizens. Republicans in the US periodically ask “why do they hate us?” The one thing that could convince a whole bunch of “them” that the US is not that bad is to have a reasonable two-state policy solution for Palestinians. By recognizing and dealing with Hamas the US will indicate to Arab peoples that it respects democracy, even if democracy produces election results it does not like. Right now the US looks (to Arab peoples) like hypocritical nation. It preaches democracy and supports Israel because it is “democratic” but doesn’t do the same thing for Arabic-speaking peoples.

There is a lot more that could and should be done as well, but this is a good start. All of this can be done under the name of a new foreign policy, let’s call it “the new human security agenda.” Those who are defensive and static minded -- current Republican supporters -- won’t like any of this. To them, it will be the equivalent of supporting terrorism. It is, however, the only way: (1) the US can promote real peace and security, and (2) the only way it can establish its project of nation as a new and powerful democratic ideal.

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