The re-election of George W. Bush shows that the American political landscape has changed significantly. There is a slightly altered coalition of conservatives and Christian fundamentalists with significantly altered political attitudes. The rise of the Christian fundamentalist bloc has been gradual, but a tipping point has been reached. The 9/11 attacks have also triggered an irrational perception about Arabs.
Exit polls suggest that the Bush voters comprise of three major groups. Among all the voters in the 2004 elections, 23 percent were white evangelical Christians, 78 percent of whom voted for Bush. There was a cluster that considers Bush as an effective defender against terrorism. They regard the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism and consider the American progress in Iraq to be satisfactory. In addition, there are the rich and the rising. These three groups overlap, but only moderately.
In ethnic terms, the United States remains somewhat polarized, with 58 percent of whites supporting Bush and 88 percent of African Americans supporting Kerry. Hispanics and Asians are divided more evenly between the two candidates.
Fundamentalist families have more children than other American families and individuals. This has been true for many decades. In the past, a percentage of these children would convert to mainstream churches. In recent decades, that percentage has declined sharply, and fundamentalists are fully retaining the faith of their children. Hence, their numbers are slowly rising. White fundamentalist conservative voters formed 17 percent of voters in this election, up from around 12 percent in 2000. Significant numbers of religious and socially conservative Hispanics also contributed to the Bush victory. Sharply increased fundamentalist turnout accounts for most of the increased overall voter turnout. These are mostly lower middle class persons willing to overlook the adverse impact of Bush economic policies upon them. This makes them ideal partners of the upper classes.
American religious fundamentalists have quite a different social project than fundamentalists in other parts of the world. They are trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. Most Americans today hold quite different personal desires and values than Americans did six decades ago. It is impossible to turn the clock back on American society. But the fundamentalists will give it their best try. Bush is very likely to heed fundamentalist wishes in nominating Supreme Court justices. It is reasonable to expect that the Supreme Court will withdraw the constitutional protection of abortion rights. Days after the election the Court did step in to stop the Administration from continuing to deport non-citizens who drive drunk. Nonetheless, the combination of a determination to fight terrorism by not the most effective means, and a more conservative Supreme Court will lead to a further decline in immigrant rights.
Wealthier Americans and those who gained from Bush’s tax-cutting measures voted for him. Now they are pushing for even lower taxes and lax regulation, but would gain very little even if they do succeed.
There have been some strong points in the Bush economic program. He has maintained relatively free trade despite criticism, and this has led to sharp productivity growth. Even employment has begun to grow respectably in the last year. Nonetheless, the Bush administration has refused to provide the poor and middle class with the support needed to insure them from degradation due to the vagaries of the market. Even the rich gain little or lose by keeping the rest of society in this condition. Bush’s policies have also done little to meet the fundamental economic challenge facing America: building competitive advantages for exports to Asia. Instead, Bush has coasted on a massive financial bubble—the high value of the dollar despite large deficits in trade and other international transactions.
Four of five who listed terrorism as their top concern voted for Bush. When asked if the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, 55 percent of voters answered yes. And 81 percent of these voted for Bush. Among those who answered no, 88 percent voted for Kerry. Of course, many al-Qaeda supporters have entered Iraq since the U.S. invasion. But that is not what Bush meant during the campaign when he repeatedly connected his actions in Iraq to 9/11–style terrorism. Most likely, these 55 percent of voters are engaging in the historically common fallacy of assuming one’s various enemies are united. Still, there are some reasons for voters to appreciate Bush’s efforts. No second attack has taken place since 9/11. Bush’s immigration restrictions and other domestic security measures may have disrupted some actual or potential terrorist conspiracies, even if they imposed injustices on numerous non-terrorists.
In foreign policy, the second Bush Administration is likely to learn some lessons from the first. The strain on the capacity of U.S. ground forces in Iraq is the best restraint for further military operations. Indeed, while it lasts, the quagmire in Iraq may well lead to a less assertive U.S. policy elsewhere. Arguably, this has already happened in Pakistan, which remains a hotbed of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and in North Korea, which continues defiantly with its nuclear weapons program. Policy toward Iran is more likely to resemble that toward North Korea than toward Iraq.
Within Iraq itself, new information suggests the civilian death toll, mainly from U.S. firepower, is much higher than previously thought. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University have surveyed Iraqi families. They conclude that there is a 90 percent probability that over 40,000 persons have died due to the war, and an even chance that over a 100,000 have died. The new American political order does not appear to be very sensitive to these findings.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.