A failure of American liberalism

That President George W Bush should indeed win re-election says even more depressing things about America's mood than did his first election in 2000. At least it could then be said that Al Gore had won a majority of the popular vote, that the turnout was low, and that Ralph Nader had seriously eroded the Democrats' vote. None of those reservations applies this time. Perhaps, in the coming days, allegations of large-scale rigging will grow: for weeks before the election, the US radical press warned that the widely used electronic voting machines, many of them programmed by companies allied to the Republicans, were open to systematic fraud. It also seems curious that the world's greatest power cannot arrange for people to vote without their having to queue for hours in the pouring rain.

But without clear evidence, it is best not to hide behind cries of "foul". The probable truth is that Americans have voted (or not voted) with their eyes wide open. John Kerry may have been an uninspiring candidate whose foreign policies would have been little different from those of President Bush. None the less, the incumbent has taken his country into a murderous war on false pretences, alienated numerous international allies, presided over a hopelessly incompetent postwar occupation, failed to safeguard dangerous weapons and materials that could fall into terrorist hands, and dumped centuries-old civil liberties.

He also proved remarkably insouciant about the torture of Iraqi prisoners, and that alone persuaded many traditional Republicans to desert him. Moreover, during Bush's first term, millions of ordinary Americans lost their jobs while the rich grew fatter on his tax cuts. If ever an incumbent president deserved to lose, it was this one.

Over the past four years, some radical US commentators have claimed to detect an awakening among the American people, particularly the young, as they grasp the true nature of how their country is run and how it treats the rest of the world. If there has been any such awakening, it was not apparent on 2 November. One is tempted, echoing Brecht, to observe that the people have failed.

The reality is that American liberalism has failed. Blame, if you like, a supposedly democratic system that, in effect, allows only millionaires to run for office. Blame a media in which the dominance of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and radio shock-jocks takes views that were previously confined to saloon bars and turns them into a part of family life. Blame mediocre education, too many hamburgers or Osama Bin Laden's video. The Democrats, however, would do best to look at themselves. Can anyone say, hand on heart, that they really understood what Senator Kerry stood for, beyond some sort of manly decency? This defeat may prove as damaging for the US Democrats as the 1992 defeat was for the British Labour Party. The latter led to profound soul-searching and then to new Labour. But now the Third Way has been and (some would say) gone.

As Thomas Frank argues in his fine book What's the Matter with America?, the Democrats have taken their economic critique of society off the table. They have thus allowed the right free rein to do what it is best at: stoke paranoia and resentment against internal and external enemies. No matter how badly its leaders perform, the right will nearly always win elections that are fought on national security issues. Until the Democrats understand that, they will most likely continue to lose. And the world, not just Americans, will pay a heavy price.