Whenever one gets unduly depressed about British politics, it is always worth glancing across the Atlantic to see how bad things can really get. Quite what was going through Tony Blair’s mind last week when he rang up to congratulate George W Bush on the latter’s much-disputed achievement of the presidency may not be known until he writes his memoirs. But it is a fair guess that he had to swallow hard before he picked up the phone. In Britain, Blair is routinely berated by the right-wing press as a superficial lightweight, but, by the side of George W, he is a towering intellectual giant. Sadly, by the side of George W, a frightening number of people are.
What is to be done about the United States of America? Put another way, how much of a jackass does a man have to be before he’s stopped from being president?
For a little over a month, from the inconclusive ending on election night to the Supreme Court’s narrow decision in favour of Bush, the rest of us watched in disbelief as the nuts and bolts of American democracy came apart before our eyes. One had known that the system was gridlocked – awash with unreformed campaign finance, in thrall to business lobbies and focus groups, obsessed with trivia, incapable of generating an intelligent debate on serious issues: all this is the stuff of conventional wisdom about US politics.
But what the daily news from Tallahassee revealed was that the world’s most technologically advanced nation can’t even get its voting machines to count accurately. And that counting by hand might be unconstitutional – which is rather like outlawing running as a sport because nowadays everyone drives. And that the entire chad fiasco was just one of several ways in which the votes of many Florida citizens (in particular, those likely to be at odds with the state’s Republican rulers) seemed to have been fixed and fiddled out of existence.
In a country that regards itself as the exemplar of the free world, this is strange stuff indeed. Whatever voting system you use, there are certain basics that a modern democracy cannot do without. First, universal suffrage must mean what it says; second, everyone with a vote should be entitled to cast it and have it accurately counted; and third, the person with the most votes should win. On all these tests, American democracy failed. One might think it can’t get much worse than that, but it can and probably will.
This is because the almost certain conclusion of the whole extraordinary saga will be – absolutely nothing. George W Bush will proclaim, on numberless occasions, “God bless America”, much nonsense will be spouted about healing a dividing nation and the US will settle down to a festive season of low-IQ Hollywood movies, in which Americans in various guises routinely vanquish the rest of the galaxy, with Floridian gerrymandering and dimpled chads a rapidly fading memory. It is in the nature of gridlocked systems that they cannot easily unjam themselves.
What does this mean for the rest of us? One of the less edifying aspects of the Florida interregnum was the way the British news media, notably the television bulletins, treated it as comic relief. It was a reaction, one is tempted to remark, that revealed the media’s growing incapacity for joined-up thinking, because what happened in Florida was absolutely no joke. It was the political equivalent of exploratory surgery – the opening up of the body politic to searching internal examination. Inside, disease was found to be rampant. And if it is fair to call George W Bush the symptom of that disease – certainly it produced him and he has profited from it – we are all among the sufferers.
If you consider that alarmist, think back to the damage inflicted on the planet by another “regular guy” who made it to the presidency recently, on the strength largely of a telegenic manner and corporate backing. Forget the forces of globalisation that so-called Reaganomics helped unleash in the 1980s; remember only the wound Ronald Reagan’s views on family planning inflicted on US funding for UN population policies and, by extension, the lives of millions of people in the developing world.
Twenty years later, the global dimensions of the US presidency are more pronounced, the issues more critical. Not only is Bush keen on reinventing Reagan’s Star Wars missile defence system, a move that at its worst could kick-start a new cold war. It is also said that he discounts global warming. And here we are on very dangerous territory indeed.
Global warming may now be the single biggest factor shaping the destiny of the planet. It straddles nations and national political issues. It affects all of us – for many, it is an issue of survival. This is partly because it undermines life-support systems, such as food production and the availability of fresh water, and partly because it is a potent generator of disasters – flood, drought, fire and therefore famine. In the southern hemisphere, it promises to extinguish entire, albeit small, island nations.
These facts have been known for many years, but this year they have become far more widely known. And this knowing, and the emotions and reactions it will trigger, may have great political significance. Indeed, this is what happens in revolutions – more and more people come to know and feel in a particular way until at some point a critical mass or threshold is reached; some small event then sets off an earthquake.
In the case of global warming, a developing world long fearful of the effects of climate change made common cause with a Europe newly sensitised to it by the worst floods in memory. The conjunction occurred at the climate talks in The Hague last month, where American culpability was widely proclaimed (4 per cent of the world’s population, but 26 per cent of its oil consumption), yet American corruption proved inescapable. In effect, American democratic gridlock – the impossibility of selling emissions cuts to an American public addicted to carbon-rich lifestyles, American businesses that supply those lifestyles and an American Congress financed by those businesses – went global. The talks failed: it became everybody’s gridlock.
Under a Gore presidency, we might have hoped for progress on climate change. Under Bush, we might as well forget it. However, we won’t. We will, almost certainly, get very angry. We will start to scrutinise the US with a colder eye. And what we see won’t please us – not one little bit.
We may have already concluded, for example, that George W Bush is a walking metaphor for the warping of American democracy. We may see, in his resistance to the idea of global warming, something of the insularity and greed of the American public. We may start to wonder what, precisely, the US stands for. What good comes out of it? How does it benefit the rest of the planet?
Such questions can yield surprising answers. Critics such as the American academic Noam Chomsky have been asking them for decades. So have many people, and nations, in the developing world. For them, Uncle Sam symbolises colonialism and exploitation. We used to ask these questions ourselves – Dickens, famously, visited the US and found it an uncouth, unformed, childlike society where everyone spat a lot, thought about little other than making money, yet had a remarkably high opinion of themselves. But since the US, reluctantly and belatedly, came to the aid of European democracies in two world wars, the myth of the special relationship has been fashioned. We hear Americans speak a version of English and believe it signifies a shared experience. Our politicians have found it expedient to hang on American coat tails – not least because Britain has become a convenient landing-stage for US industry in its conquest of the world’s richest market, Europe.
The United States, in reality, is an immigrant culture with two of the defining characteristics of such cultures: an overwhelming desire to make good, economically; and a coarseness of public debate that makes it easy prey to the marketing men, and to calculating politicians masquerading as regular guys. It treats the rest of the world as, variously, playground, plantation, storehouse and sweatshop. It locks away and executes as many people as the most unreconstructed autocracy: a disproportionate number of these victims are black. It is addicted, fatally, to violence. It hasn’t had a decent president since Franklin D Roosevelt, regards “liberal” as a term of abuse and managed to convert an elderly, indolent and dim-witted film actor into, first, a state governor, then a president and, finally, a kind of secular saint. It is an empire, but whereas the Greeks gave us culture, the Romans law and the British, arguably, a sense of fair play, history may well come to view the American empire’s defining triumph as the export of junk to the rest of the world – from genetically modified food to burgers, bad films and worse television. Not for nothing is American imperialism known as Coca-Colonisation.
There are many good points to American culture. The issue is whether the good outweighs the bad – and what answer the overwhelmingly non-American majority of the world’s population now gives when they ask themselves this question.
It doesn’t, for example, take much of a shift in perspective to see US foreign policy, since the war, not as a defence of the “free” world, but as oppressive and brutal and governed by economic self-interest. Or to see the US today as an enemy of the planet – an “evil empire”, to borrow Ronald Reagan’s phrase for the Soviet Union.
And in that sense, the past two months of the year 2000 may prove a turning point – the moment when the scales fell from our eyes.
The question is – what can we do? We don’t have votes in US elections, even if they weren’t rigged. We cannot, in Britain, expect governments to act – British politicians, in the manner of client states, have a doglike attachment to the special relationship. We do, however, have a powerful economic weapon – our wallets, credit cards, chequebooks, patronage, custom and compliance.
A consumer boycott of the US wouldn’t be easy – its goods and services and cultural effluvia have wormed their way into our lives. But as the recent campaign against GM foods and Monsanto demonstrated, it could be enormously effective; it would also be peculiarly appropriate. If George W Bush is indeed a corporation disguised as a human being, as the green campaigner and presidential candidate Ralph Nader put it during the election campaign, then the US is a corporation disguised as a nation state.
While governments, in between elections, can be hard nuts for citizens to crack, corporations are easy – they hurt very quickly, in that area Americans call the bottom line. For those who might jib at such a display of overt anti-Americanism, there’s a further powerful argument in its favour. By boycotting America and its products, we might start making Americans think – which at present they are not showing much sign of doing. We might act as a catalyst to unjam their own domestic gridlock.
We might, in other words, be doing the US a bigger favour than it could ever imagine.