In the coming weeks, close analysis will tell us a number of things about the meaning of this election that we don't, or can't, understand now. For example, I suspect we're going to find out that initiatives aimed at guaranteeing that marriage be between a man and woman wound up bringing out a surprising number of voters for Republican candidates in general and George Bush in particular. At the moment, though, there seem be at least three things we can take away from this exercise. I will try to put them into words.
Rational discourse is all but dead as far as American politics are concerned. By any rational measure, George Bush's first term was a disaster. There is the mismanagement of the economy, turning a federal budget surplus into a stultifying national debt. And the bending or breaking of federal regulations concerning the environment and public health in order to reward campaign contributors. If these things weren't bad enough, try going to war under false or mistaken pretenses on for size. Thousands of people have been killed for reasons that have yet to be explained.
But wait. An explanation has been given: That explanation is that George Bush is an instrument of the Lord's will. That's right. America is God's country and George Bush is doing His work. Much to the delight of many of our fellow citizens, George Bush has methodically and openly worked to break down the barriers between church and state that were created by this country's founders.
Products of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which celebrated the human individual and the power of the mind to create a society based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, America's Founders took pains to create a rational form of government here. They had seen how religion could be abused for the sake of concentrating and exerting power in a secular world. And so, while they reserved the right for people to worship in a variety of ways, and, based on their own generally Christian orientation, expressed their recognition of the spiritual in Christian terms, they were careful to structure governance as a decidedly rational undertaking based on representation, education and open debate leading to reasoned problem solving.
They would have been appalled to find evangelical Christianity being used as a cover for the creation of self-serving or inept public policy.
Unfortunately, so long as a critical mass of Americans see empiricism as an obstacle to the creation of policy, preferring unwavering faith to rigorous analysis of the realities on the ground, rational discourse is rendered moot.
And I haven't even mentioned the effects of mass media image-making on this society's collective subconsciousness.
By now it should be clear that the red and blue state designations used on electoral maps describe more than voting preferences or political tastes. They actually describe two distinct societies that might as well be different countries.
The fact is that, culturally, the United States has never been all that united. We have always been a hodge podge of values, united by pragmatism. But it becomes increasingly clear that what we have here is now better described by conflict than commonality. This is not the time or place to try to identify the differences that put us asunder. My guess is that anyone reading this can probably make a pretty effective listing of their own, starting, let's say, with abortion rights (or wrongs) and working out from there.
The point is that this election has driven us closer toward the time when we must own up to the impossibility of any kind of national reconciliation. Rather than a government effort to impose what Ronald Reagan liked to call "a community of shared values" upon us, perhaps it will better for us to seek some kind of cultural divorce. Why should people whose experience and aspirations predispose them toward an urban life based on cultural pluralism and a worldly approach to education have their lives and livelihoods circumscribed by others who distrust or disdain those things?
Finally, while new technologies have suggested that people crave interactivity and participation, this election demonstrates that a majority of us prefer to be spectators. Much has been made of this year's increased voter registration but think about it: in the end our politics persists in being conservative, authoritarian and based on command and control. Thousands of people die in Iraq and rather then moral outrage we see acquiescence.
Michael Moore and kindred activists on the left would have us believe that America is a roiling kettle of progressive feelings just waiting to find expression. They complain about a government that persists in acting against not just the best interests of the people, but the peoples' wishes. Yet, faced with the chance to deliver a sound rebuke to what is surely the most crony-driven, elitist, dishonest and inept administration in 100 years, the American people appear to have chosen to award that administration with a vote of confidence.
Kurt Vonnegut has said that Americans have confused watching TV with democracy. He's right.