[A-List] The Referendum

Bill Totten shimogamo at attglobal.net
Mon Oct 18 00:58:34 MDT 2004

by Immanuel Wallerstein

Commentary Number 147 (October 15 2004)

Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University

The US elections on November 2 will be a referendum on George W Bush and the 
war in Iraq. If the entire world had a vote, Bush would lose overwhelmingly.
He'd probably get a maximum of 20% of the vote. Even in countries where the
governments have supported US policy - Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Pakistan -
the majority of the population thinks the war was at the least a serious error
of political judgment, at worst an illegal and immoral act. Bush would no doubt
lose in Iraq itself.

But of course, the whole world does not have a vote. Only US citizens do. 
And they are far more equally divided than the rest of the world. When the US
invaded Iraq in April 2003, a good majority of the US population supported the
government. But this support has steadily eroded since, and today, a majority 
of the population (but only a narrow majority) think Bush made a bad mistake.

Actually the polls show a curious feature. If one asks a question about Iraq,
Bush does not do well and is doing worse each day. But if the pollster asks
instead about the "war against terrorism" or about so-called homeland security,
a majority think that Bush is doing well or at least would do better than his
opponent. So what are the polls measuring?

When the question is about Iraq, the pollsters are measuring a concrete
phenomenon - Iraqi stability, the strength of the insurrection. And what 
the US public sees is that each day US and Iraqi lives are lost, and there 
is no clear indication that the situation will improve in any short horizon.
Even the Bush administration admits this, saying only that, although the
situation in Iraq may get worse still, it will eventually get better. But 
when the poll questions are about terrorism, what the answers measure is not
something concrete but rather an amorphous fear about an ogre out there, hard 
to pin down, called Islamic fundamentalism, or Al-Qaeda, or just "terrorists".
And since it is amorphous and for the most part hidden, reaction to it is 
based more on emotion than on careful analysis.

When the pollsters tap US fears, many (perhaps most) respondents are answering
not in terms of solving real problems but in terms of giving expression to their
psychic desperation. The newspapers each day may indicate that the Iraq war has
not in fact weakened Al-Qaeda significantly but has probably strengthened it.
Nonetheless, this doesn't seem to hurt Bush as much as one might expect. Bush
banks on support for his macho, black-and-white portrait of the situation. He
seeks to exude unbudgeable strength, and a portion of the electorate responds 
to that stance.

Listening to the two candidates debate the issues, it is clear that they are
talking to pervasive fears about the future. What Bush underlines is fear of an
enemy. And he justifies everything he does as the way to respond to that enemy.
What Kerry underlines is fear of decline. He argues that Bush has diminished 
the status and power of the United States in the world by his incompetence in
foreign policy, by "fighting the wrong war at the wrong time and the wrong place". 
He argues that US jobs are disappearing, especially for those in manufacturing,
pointing out that Bush is the first president in seventy years (that is, since
the 1929 depression) during whose term of office jobs have actually decreased.
He argues that Americans need to fear for their pensions and that Bush's
proposals on social security will make matters still worse. And he argues 
that Bush's fiscal irresponsibility endangers the country's solvency and the
future standard of living of the children of America.

To all of this, Bush responds by saying that he is optimistic about the "march
of freedom throughout the world".  But having said that, he returns immediately
to the theme that the US is in great danger, a danger whose solution lies
primarily in US hands, and that Kerry will be weak in facing the dangers.

So, it's fear, fear, fear. With so much smoke, is there fire?  The last time 
the American people were so afraid was during the depression that started in
1929. And when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, he famously said in 
his inaugural address in 1933: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself". 
Roosevelt offered a New Deal, a welfare state, a legitimation of trade-unions, 
a "good neighbor" policy in Latin America. And when the US was attacked at 
Pearl Harbor and entered the Second World War, he offered the "four freedoms"
which included the "freedom from fear".

In this period the American people recovered its self-esteem, and once again
felt good about itself and its role in the world. This lasted through the
presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the first years of Lyndon
Johnson. The Vietnam War was the shock it was both because the self-image of 
the United States came under attack from within the US and because, with all 
its military power, the US couldn't seem to win the war. There followed thirty
years of uncertainty and introspection by the American public, which it found
difficult to handle. Carter expressed this uncertainty publicly and he was
rejected for the smiling Ronald Reagan who spoke of "the city on a hill" - 
the dream once again of a pure and morally triumphant America.

The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to verify that dream. But it was quickly
followed by the defiance of Saddam Hussein and ethnic purifications in the
Balkans and Africa which, despite US unquestioned military power, it couldn't
seem to contain effectively. The fears were already rising when Osama bin Laden
successfully attacked the US at home and Bush seized the opportunity to pursue
the long-planned drive of the neo-cons to invade Iraq. The expectation was that
this invasion would restore unquestioned US hegemony in the world-system. In
fact, it has weakened it further. And the US public senses this, if murkily.

So, what can Americans do? They do not know, but they will vote. And it will be
a vote either for Bush or against Bush. We shall see.


Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to
download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on
non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and
the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed
and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact
the author by fax at 1-607-777-4315 or electronic mail at 
http://fbc.binghamton.edu/mailto:immanuel.wallerstein@yale.edu>immanuel.wallerstein at yale.edu

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on
the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate
headlines but of the long term.

Please also see "Bush's appeal to America's underclass" by Serge Halimi, 
Le Monde diplomatique (October 2004) http://mondediplo.com/2004/10/02usa

Bill Totten     http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/

More information about the A-List mailing list