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BYLINE BY M.J. AKBAR : The White Revolution
The relevant question about Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, who took their revenge upon liberal hectoring and New York Times bestseller lists by electing George Bush, is not whether they are white, or whether they are men, but whether they are stupid.
We know they are white. 77% of the American electorate in 2004 was white, and 58% of this group voted for Bush, with only 41% going for Kerry. You can already see where the election was lost. Since this is a national statistic, the percentage of white men voting for Bush becomes significantly higher in the states where he won, some of them by lopsided margins. A parallel fact: 88% of black voters supported Kerry, as against 11% for Bush. Now cue in the most interesting observation about this election that I have seen. Place a map of pre-civil war America over the electoral results of 2004, and you discover that Bush won in every one of the slave states and the territories open to slavery, while all of Kerry’s victories came from the free states. Bush is President because he picked up Iowa and Ohio from the free states.
We know that they are men, a three-letter word that defines, more or less, that species of the American male which, like Mao Zedong, believes that power grows from the barrel of the gun (and which he once used to eliminate Red Indians and terrorise slaves). He has a strong code, partly moral, partly secular, that treats abortion as sin; sneers at gays and is shocked at gay marriage; equates morality with prayer in schools and church on Sundays; and prides himself as a tough, silent guy (on the weekend before the election a CNN poll reported that mustard lovers wanted Bush over Kerry by a margin of four points). A number of such men also believe that Jesus was white (possibly with blond hair) and spoke English, which reinforces their self-confidence. Statistics show that, across divisions of ethnicity and colour, 51% women voted for Kerry as against 28% for Bush; and that 78% of "white evangelical or born-again Christian" voters cast their ballots for Bush against only 21% for Kerry. For 22% of voters, the largest bloc, the issue that mattered most was ‘moral values’, and 80% of this segment rallied to Bush, with only 18% voting for Kerry. Such moralists are not necessarily ethical, or logical. The anti-abortionists, for instance, will change a government to save an unborn American life, but happily support a man who has destroyed 100,000 human lives in Iraq.
But are they stupid?
It is difficult, and even presumptuous, to dismiss a group that has just elected the most powerful man in the world as stupid. I know the old jibe authored by the ranking American cynic, H.L. Mencken that no one "has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people". There is evidence that Bush never lost any votes by doing so. It takes chutzpah to make the jobless support tax cuts for the rich. Merciless disinformation, unwavering propaganda, and an unblinking determination never to be distracted by facts, help. That is why 75% of Bush supporters are convinced that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was an ally of Osama bin Laden or was directly involved in 9/11. On another level, during the campaign, a member of the Bush Cabinet, its commerce secretary, Don Evans, dismissed Kerry as unreliable, and possibly more, because "He looks French". There is clearly no sharper insult in redneck America.
Investing in the "stupid" vote does not make Bush himself necessarily stupid. It might, as the results have shown, be the smart thing to do. But in dismissing the majority of the 77% of America that is white and votes, as "stupid" we may be missing the point.
The circumstances that have re-elected Bush owe their origins to decisions made and attitudes shaped in a process that began four decades ago, in the presidential elections of 1964 and 1968. Bush should first thank a fellow-Texan, Lyndon Johnson. When he was elected in 1964, America was riven by another of its many revolutions, the challenge from the blacks for social, cultural and economic equality. The inspiration came from Martin Luther King but non-violence as a political weapon collapsed after his assassination. Ideologues like the Black Panthers radicalised the community. Johnson’s answer lay in wide-ranging economic liberalism that has not only lifted blacks but also eliminated the harsher levels of poverty among whites, particularly in the South and Midwest.
Four decades later the poor are not an electorally significant demographic, which is why Kerry was constantly appealing to the "middle class". Such upward mobility is never only economic. With housing and social stability also comes a shift in values, or, if you like, "morality". While Kerry understood the economics of this change, Bush appealed to the more nuanced, more emotive and ultimately more powerful values. Prosperity is so often a relative term. Those who face hardships in an economic slump might yet consider life to be better than what it used to be. In any case, their prime area of self-definition is an assertion of values, for this, they believe, is what makes them legitimate members of a higher rung on the ladder of upward mobility. It is perfectly reasonable for them to resent an assault on these values, particularly when it comes from a more prosperous elite that displays more concern for gays than for God. At least one liberal (coincidentally, a gay) understood this. Wrote W.H. Auden in 1941:
To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word ‘intellectual’ suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.
And so to the second politician from that era who deserves a thank-you note from Bush. Spiro Agnew, like Johnson, is dead, although his critics will still tell you where to address a note to him. Agnew was crude and unknown when Nixon put him on his ticket in 1968. Agnew launched an unprecedented counteroffensive against liberals, with the "nattering nabobs" of the eastern media as his core target. Agnew drowned in his own sleaze; the poor little boy from the heartland was not averse to some old fashioned bribery. But his assault lived after him. Some 36 years later, despite the relapse of the Clinton era, the spirit of Spiro Agnew has become mainstream America.
In the 1960s America witnessed the Black Revolution. This is the White Revolution.
There is a new American civil war in progress, which is one reason why the divide is so bitter, why passions are so high, and why the queues at the voting booths were so long. The two Americas have separate media, separate geography, different icons, divergent values, conflicting convictions and a single White House. If the New York Times is the voice of liberal, intellectual and world-friendly America then Fox News and the God channel are the trumpet and saxophone of the self-centric, hamburger-driven, aptly-described heartland. Life might have been simpler, especially for us in the rest of the world, if America had two governments, as it had during its first civil war.
You recognise the paradox, of course. Closed minds need each other. There has been much speculation about Osama bin Laden’s motives in releasing a videotape on the eve of election day. Apart from confirming that he is alive, well and out of reach, what did Osama want to prove? Osama bin Laden is not a Stupid Brown Man. He knows what he is doing. One British diplomat put it pithily when he described Bush as Osama’s best recruiting agent. Equally, Osama was Bush’s most effective vote-winner, and he knew it.
Therefore? Four more years of war? I am not so certain. The dynamic has changed in one crucial respect. Osama may have been Bush’s most effective vote-getter, but Bush no longer needs any votes. His last election is over. A second term provides the ultimate freedom for an American President — freedom from re-election. Bush divided America and the world to win. He would be foolish not to recognise the price his country and the world have had to pay for his personal glory. It has been a victory of zealots, but zealotry is not sustainable policy, not at home and not abroad. If Bush and his friend Tony Blair believe that their war can be won in Iraq, then they need to recheck the meaning of victory. The scars of the world will disfigure America.
Bush won because middle America rose against the sneers of the elite. If America continues to sneer at the world, Bush will lose. The election is over. The conflict is not.