The Republicans lost the mid-term American elections. What does this mean. Media commentary has focused on what a shift in American political culture and concern about the war in Iraq. I think both of these points are right but I think something else is going on here, too. I think -- or, perhaps, I hope -- Americans are expressing some concerns with the entire Republican "homeland security" agenda. If they are, this is a good thing ... and for a variety of reasons.
There are serious problems with the homeland security agenda and with Republican approaches domestic and foreign policy. The most evident concerns are those expressed clearly by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky: homeland security and the Bush doctrine represent and necessarily failing effort to secure American international hegemony. Chomsky’s argument is that the problem with the Republican agenda is that it cannot promote the vary things it claims to champion (security) and is built upon deception, in particular of the American public. In looking to impose, more exactly, American hegemony on the world it guarantees on-going conflict while ignoring potential solutions to international problems.
This may be true but I see another problem with it. The Bush agenda is entirely defensive. I don’t mean in a military sense of the word. It is designed to maintain the status quo in terms of political-economy. It expresses deep concerns not just about the international environment but about ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity, about social welfare programmes that empower the poor, about women’s right to control their bodies and equality across sexes, about equality for gay and lesbian people, and about a host of other things. None of this should surprise us. Republicans claim to be conservatives and so the fact that they want to conserve things is hardly shocking. It is, I’ll suggest, this attitude more than any specific policy stance that ties together the disparate dynamics of Republicanism in this new century. Those who subscribe to the Republican order look on the world with a mixture of concern and fear. The see threats from “terrorists” everywhere. They see threats to society and to religion and to culture in linguistic diversity and gay equality and ethnic diversity. What unites Republicans is their desire to resist these changes, perhaps even to “turn back the clock” in some instances.
Let us be fair to this perspective. The proponents of “homeland security” in the United States have the moral upper hand, and this is something that the American and Canadian left (or, even liberal voices in Canada and the United States) have been very slow to recognize, if they recognize it at all. Here is the truth: it is very hard to argue against “security”. The proponents of homeland security in the US have the upper hand because, frankly, it is completely legitimate to be concerned about security. It is completely legitimate to want one’s family to be safe; to want to be able to travel to other countries in peace and quiet; to want our kids to be able to walk down the street. In my view, there is nothing wrong with these concerns and these desires. The “homeland security” agenda of the American Republicans works with these legitimate desires. The Democrats in the US and Canadian critics of Republicanism have tended to dismiss these desires and concerns as they were Republican tricks: a way of duping the population. They aren’t. A lot of Americans vote Republican -- and have voted Republican -- not because they are a bunch of hicks and rednecks but because the desire for peace and security is legitimate and the Republicans are the only ones talking about it.
Republicans have also had the upper hand over the last eight years or so because their opponents have not been able to answer the “what if” question. I can say all I want that there are no imminent threats to the US from terrorists or, if their are, there are better ways of dealing with them than building security fences and militarizing the Canadian/American border. But ... what if? What if I am wrong? Is it worth the chance? This is not just a 9/11 issue. This is an issue that seems to go directly to the heart of concerns about security and safety. What if I am wrong? Someone dies. The opponents of Republicanism have, until recently, failed to make their case before the American public because they cannot just reject the security agenda as a so much political smoke and because it makes them look crass. It makes them look like they are playing with people’s lives or, at least, not doing all they can to protect people’s lives.
What those of us who oppose the current American government’s security agenda need to do, then, is several things. First, we need to acknowledge the moral power of the security agenda argument. It is not just political smoke but plays into legitimate concerns about the welfare people’s families, homes, and communities. Second, they also need to acknowledge the power of the “what if” argument and address it. They only way they can do this is by: (1) articulating an alternative vision that addresses these concerns, (2) expose the weaknesses of the security agenda arguments, and (3) put forward a series of specific policy recommendations that can implement that alternative vision. I’ll deal with the international ramifications of an alternative vision in a future post. For now let me comment very briefly on the weakness of the the Republican position and the need for an alternative vision.
There are serious problems with the Republican vision. On some points Chomsky is right. One key problem with the security agenda is that it cannot deliver the goods. The Republicans have had uncontested control of the American federal government (until recently) since the election of Bush (they had control of both Houses of Congress before that). Is the US a safer place today than it was before? I’m not asking for miracles here. I know that good policy takes time to implement and that results take time to show. In fact, I’m going to argue precisely the need for long-term solutions when I address foreign policy in another post. But ... after six years of uncontested control of government we would expect to see some results. Consider the comparator case: Chretien in Canada from 1993 to 1999. This was hardly a perfect government but by 1999 we clearly saw some results: the national deficit had been eliminated; modest repayments on the national debt had started to be made, new policies had been introduced to address the separatist movement in Quebec (whether one likes these policies or not); there had been a massive re-organize of the government bureaucracy; unemployment had modestly declined and inflation was low. This is not an exhaustive list and one can have whatever opinion one wants on these things. The point is not whether or not these were good policies. The point is that by the criteria that they had set for themselves, Chretien’s administration had used its control over government to implement its agenda and results were showing.
The same thing cannot be said for the Bush administration. Its domestic policies have not reduced poverty, they have not made the American streets safer, they have not protected American allies internationally or produced the type of “regime change” the current administration might like to see, or defeated the “axis of evil.” The American economy is no more stable today than it was six years ago; in fact, the massive debt created by Bush’s “war on terror” and “regime change” policies are in the process of creating serious long-run problems. A greater percentage of Americans do not have health care today than was the case six years ago. There have been no improvements is quality of education or standard of living. Ecological problems are, if anything, worse.
None of this is intended as criticism of Bush and his administration. It is intended to point out the weakness of the Republican agenda: it fails to produce effective policies that address the very legitimate concerns and desires that it embraced (security, in particular) in the first place. Said differently: the Bush administration is a policy failure. They may have some of the right issues but they simply don’t have the pragmatic policies that can make a difference. The Republican vision -- however this might actually be defined -- is, for the average American, compromised in practice.
I think that this is one of the messages of the American mid-term elections. These elections were not just a “referendum on Iraq.” They were a referendum on the Republican vision. Americans looked at this vision and did not (if polls can be believed) completely reject it. Instead, they raised concerns about the ability of Republicans do make their world -- and the world -- a better place. This is how I would interpret this election. It is an expression, on the part of a fairly wide section of working and middle class America, that there are problems with Republicanism. These Americans voted to put a break on the current administration. They did not vote for simplistic solutions. I doubt they believe there are any. What they voted for was something different. It is up to the Democratic Party to articulate what that might be and to concrete policies to make their vision a reality.