Why a Kerry victory matters so much

Those who think a John Kerry presidency would lead to an era of sweetness and light in US foreign policy are surely wrong. It is not even certain that President Kerry would be quicker than President Bush to extricate US troops from Iraq, since he would be more desperate that nobody should see him as a wimp. Democratic presidents took America into Korea, Vietnam and ex-Yugoslavia and have been as ruthless as Republicans in maintaining the US grip on Central and South America. Both parties have interventionist and isolationist traditions (though Democrats prefer multilateral to unilateral intervention) and, if anything, Republican isolationism is in a healthier condition. Better, in any case, some would argue, for the American behemoth to be seen in its true light - an aggressive, imperialist Great Satan, brutal in asserting the interests of the rich and powerful - than for it to be sugar-coated by a President Kerry. At least now, just about the whole world is united in anti-Americanism, as many of our contributors to this special issue ruefully acknowledge.

Yet this is exactly why we should wish fervently for a Kerry victory. For most of the 20th century, humanity had two great secular hopes, one embodied in the Soviet Union, the other in America. The first god failed; to lose the second may be more than the human psyche can bear. If the US mission for liberty, democracy, law, tolerance and self-determination (a flawed mission, but so was the Soviet mission for socialism) were to collapse, we might as well write off the past 150 years of political history and accept that the future lies with various forms of religious fundamentalism, most of them allied to plutocracy, as the Christian and Hindu versions are and even, to a more limited extent, the Muslim version.

This may seem a large claim, and a ridiculous one, when Washington supposedly strives to spread liberty and democracy across the world. But this is a peculiarly snarling, intolerant idea of liberty, and we should know by now that the grandest rhetoric can hide the basest practice, even from the authors themselves. Consider how thousands of aliens have been swept off US streets and held, without evidence, trial or access to counsel, for months, even years; the extraordinary illegality of Guantanamo Bay; the justification of torture from leading lawyers, some in high positions in Washington, DC. Consider also how the tax burden is shifting from capital to labour and how President Bush next plans to privatise social security. Some neoconservatives say America should ditch the legacy not only of Franklin D Roosevelt, but also of his predecessor and namesake Theodore, thus returning the country to the 19th century or even, as Dan Rosenheck suggests on page 53, to the feudal era. Consider finally the growing intrusion of religious language and imperatives into the political arena, dictating hard lines on abortion and gay rights and perhaps eventually threatening the long-standing American determination to keep God out of schools.

As the aftermath of the Thatcher era in Britain showed, a political climate, once created, can be hard to change. That is all the more so in the US, where decisions about what is acceptable - in social mores, civil liberties and democratic practice - rest ultimately with the nine judges on the Supreme Court (see Andrew Stephen, page 20). These are appointed by the incumbent president, as judges retire or die. Currently, four are aged over 70; their replacements will have an incalculable influence on the America of the next generation. If the presidential election goes the wrong way next month, it may not be the America that millions across the world have known and, for all its faults, admired. The stakes are that high.

Revolution postponed again

The report on 14-19 education, commissioned by ministers from Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, is a scandalous waste of public money. Not because Mr Tomlinson produced a bad report: on the contrary, it is a very good one, acclaimed by the vast majority of heads and teachers and largely welcomed even in the universities. But ministers now look set to tinker with his proposals enough to ensure that, far from the exam system getting the revolution it needs, nothing will really change.

We have been here before, many times. Everyone in schools agrees that A-levels, with their narrow subject focus and elitist image, need to be swept away; that we should not continue putting 16-year-olds through so many exams; and that the artificial divide between academic and vocational study should be bridged. Mr Tomlinson's solution is to end both A-levels and GCSEs and replace them with a single diploma at four levels. To get the diploma, all pupils would have to pass tests in "functional" literacy, numeracy and computing. In addition, they would choose from 20 "lines of learning", some academic, some vocational. If they wished, they could mix the two types. Wisely, Mr Tomlinson bought off the universities by proposing two new top grades, so they can more easily pick the ablest young people.

Ministers, however, say the names A-level and GCSE will survive. This may sound like a matter of mere nomenclature, but it is not. Every previous reform of the exam system - worked out by people who deliberated as long and as expensively as Mr Tomlinson has - foundered because governments insisted on preserving links with the old system. So we still have A-levels, with all their weaknesses, and have never quite shaken off O-levels, which supposedly ended in the 1980s. The argument is circular. Ministers say the public lacks confidence in new qualifications. It will indeed lack confidence as long as ministers cling to the old ones.