cork and oxford—My friends in the U.K. and Ireland all asked the same question (or else it’s the opposite question, which should tell you something about our American global partners’ attitude toward the American election, just coming up on the horizon): “Do you think Kerry might actually win?” approximately half asked me when I was visiting Cork and Oxford in June. “Do you think Bush might actually win?” several others wondered.
I don’t have many Republican-leaning friends outside the country – that I know of. So, I conclude from these questions, and from the dismay expressed along with, that a lot of America-interested, English-speaking, far-western-Europeans are worried about our election, see it as opaque, fear that President Bush will be returned, feel confused and apprehensive about what “America might do” next in the wider world, and generally see their idea of America as a colossus capable of lurching this way and that, often producing good effects as well as not good ones – that all of that’s turning to bad, toward de facto imperialism, toward increasingly confused, contradictory and deceptive diplomatic initiatives, toward calamitous environmental non-alignment, and toward increased (not decreased) global terrorism specifically endangering Europe. A different kind of city, on a different kind of hill.
It’s bracing, of course, not to have a very good answer to my friends’ questions – not that I ought to know who’ll win a close election that’s still three months off. But bracing (as though a drafty window were left open) to know that as our party conventions approach, like a second-rate circus lumbering into town, Europeans feel they’re facing a sense of radical consequence about what “we” do; feel (with justice) that they can’t control very much; yet display a grasp of “our issues” subtler than most of my fellow citizens’.
In America, the one I live in, you essentially don’t have conversations on these subjects with people you might not agree with, so divided and stifled are we about our nation’s dubious moral course and disingenuous leadership. The impression persists, here at home, that no one’s listening to anything they haven’t heard before, and that the election – once imagined as a unifying civic sacrament – will again produce stalemate in a country where only half of us vote, and the contest is all about a narrow band of even more confused “swing voters” who apparently make up their minds with a hasty cigarette in the parking lot outside the polling place. This election doesn’t feel like a unifying civic sacrament, or even much of a real election, even though the stakes are high, high, high.
“Well, I don’t know,” I say to my Europeans friends on the subject of the election and who’ll win. Most of the politicking you see now is just kind of a softening-up business, an issue-try-out period when candidates’ vulnerabilities are identified before the real strategizing and vote-mongering that’ll go on in the torrid days after the conventions, the two-and-a-half-month, whose-lie-is-bigger, free-fire zone when the election really can be won or lost, and probably will be. This period will certainly see the Republicans seek to further anaesthetize the uncommitted 12 to 21 percent (the swingers) by poisoning them with wildly inaccurate, highly incendiary claims about the Democratic candidate (presumably Senator Kerry, alas), claims they hope will linger around him like a sulphurous odour, just long enough to suppress support before the truth filters out.
The Democrats, for their part, will be setting out upon the long journey to jumpstart The Senator (à la Iowa), distinguish some issues the Republicans haven’t already prevaricated into oblivion, seize on whatever fresh “Bush blunders” they might fall heir to, while hoping the Grand Old Party’s character assassins haven’t figured out some new way to cover the Democratic candidate in some cocked-up infamy (the long favoured dead girl/live boy gambit). Indeed, the Democrats have the specific and perhaps untotable burden to bear that they ought to win; that the incumbent isn’t popular; that even some Republicans don’t like him, that most Americans, like most Europeans, feel things are going badly, and that more voters voted Democratic last time than voted Republican – even before Bush displayed his peculiar leadership skills (and after stealing the election). In other words, this election is the Democrats’ to lose, which never makes Democrats feel good, and in fact makes them all the more likely to screw up.
The actual prelude to the party conventions, now in other words – I tell my friends – when the trial balloons come down and the bandwagon construction begins, this time seems electorally static to us out here waiting to vote, or not vote. Reagan’s pompous funeral took our minds off things. The Lakers and the Flames both lost. Wimbledon’s just past. The Sopranos is over. Plus, the big choices are as good as made. All that’s left is the unlikely switcheroo whereby Bush concludes Cheney’s a liability, and orchestrates another “heart attack” for him.
Though there’s also an ominous feel to American life this summer. We’re busy prosecuting a murderous guerrilla war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re redrafting important dictionary definitions for several, standard English phrases: “sovereignty,” “staying the course,” “democratic institutions”; we’re trying shamelessly to euchre the UN into cleaning up our big mess, we’re going on bullying Europe into believing it “needs” to see more things our way. And all the while we’re advertising the just-us-folks, business-as-usual character of our national election cycle. (Bush in a golf cart, Kerry in . . . well, Kerry out there somewhere.)
Americans are very good and practised at making as much as possible that goes on inside our boundaries seem “normal.” Remember how relieved we were when the stock market re-opened the Monday after 9/11. (“Whew! At least that’s still working.”) Business and business as usual is our motto. It’s why we’re hard to alarm, why so few vote (we’re busy being busy), and why we responded so extremely and personally and egoistically to the Trade Center attacks: “We don’t want to be bothered that way again, and have to have our government wake up and get all involved in our personal lives.” We like to be left alone; and you just have to understand that. . . .
Most of my European acquaintances, of course, do understand that, and all the rest of what I’ve said, and much more – more probably than Americans do in our benighted summer’s doze. What they understand just doesn’t make them feel very confident. Or safe. Or at all good.
“What’re you going to do if Bush is re-elected?” is, of course, the private subtext to any seemingly disinterested wonderment about the U.S. national election, a wondering that seeks fellow-feeling with an American, some gesture that acknowledges that we’re in the same boat here and that something’s possible.
“Oh, we are,” is what I say back, “We’re definitely in the same boat, whether any of us over here admits it or can find a way to behave that’s (as the unhappy phrase now goes) pro-active.”
I don’t have much more than fellow-feeling to offer back. And what I have is vitiated, of course, by the fact that I’m an American, and I’m not leaving, and it’s my country that’s coping so badly with the great moral dilemmas of our new age.
Plus, I’m one of the “liberal compromised,” those who need Bush to do worse so that our side can win and, naturally, do better. It feels odd to be an American right now, don’t let anybody kid you. Republican and Democrat alike – nobody likes how this skin feels today. And most of us on both sides love our country and think it has promise. Finally, you have to take encouragement where you can find or invent it. And I take my skimpy measure from this same wan, williwaw feeling of unease that we all feel here – bearing inwardly, as it does, the profound presumption that we won’t go on this way, that we have to do better rather than worse, and that beneath the thump, thump, thump of those campaign drums, there’s a decent and strong and steady heartbeat. It’s an election year. There’s a chance.