In his book, High and Mighty, denouncing the insanity and corporate glad-handing behind the rise of the SUV, Keith Bradsher tells the story of a North Carolina woman involved in a side-on collision between her Chevrolet Blazer and a Toyota Tercel.
The Tercel driver was rushed to hospital and died three days later, but the woman in the Blazer suffered no more than a minor shoulder injury thanks to the sturdiness of her vehicle. She might have felt a twinge of guilt at the other driver’s death, or reflected on the unintentional havoc that SUVs like hers wreak by causing smaller vehicles to crumple like tinfoil on impact. But she did neither of these things. Instead, she went out and bought an even larger SUV, a Chevrolet Tahoe, so she would feel better protected next time.
Is it such a stretch to see this story as a microcosm of what just happened in the presidential election? We’ve heard a lot about the importance of moral values and religion to the rural and small-town voters who swung the race for President Bush. But really, these were a manifestation of the insecurity and fear that have run rampant through this country since September 11. People voted for Bush not because he has made them safer, but because he makes them feel safer. In this regard, he truly is the SUV President: steadfast and sure in outward appearance and marketing strategy, even as he proves in reality to be unreliable, wasteful, overdependent on Middle East oil, a creature of corporate influence, downright dangerous to those who cross his path, and prone to catastrophic failure.
The predatory, reptilian streak that the Detroit marketing consultant Clotaire Rapaille has long sensed in American SUV consumers can also be detected in the country’s voters. As Rapaille told Bradsher regarding their car choices, people do not tell themselves they want to live in a safer world. What they say is: “If there’s a crash, I want the other guy to die.” Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is merely a more forthright, and more public, expression of the same sentiment.
There is a name for this impulse, especially in the context of a country whose legendary self-confidence has been shaken by a devastating and wholly unexpected attack on its soil. That name is nationalism – the tendency not only to stand by one’s flag and one’s country in times of trouble, but also to rally around a chauvinistic, narrowly defined sense of national identity and lash out against anyone who appears to dilute it, deviate from it, or threaten it head-on.
The “values” question in the election campaign was a perfect illustration of nationalism in action. It was about identifying and stamping out the enemy within – gay marriage, sexual deviancy, abortion – as a substitute for grappling with the far more evident, but also more nebulous, threats America faces from the outside. On one level, of course, this is scapegoating, pure and simple. But it is also about giving people, especially those humiliated by straightened economic circumstance, a sense of empowerment in the face of daunting hardship. Heartland voters may not have understood why the World Trade Center was destroyed, or by whom exactly, but they do understand the rhetorical call to stand strong for “American values.” Al Qaeda and the growing chaos in Iraq may have left them fearful and clueless, but gay marriage they can do something about – especially when a state constitutional amendment on the matter pops up handily on their ballot.
The Bush administration has developed a sure instinct for the electorate’s insecurities and become remarkably adept at manipulating them. The war in Iraq was successfully sold, among other things, as blood revenge for September 11, even though there was no causal link between the two. Terrorists (and Bill Clinton) were blamed ´´ for a wobbly economy and a plummeting jobs market, even though economists saw the September 11 attacks as having only a temporary effect on the business cycle lasting no more than one quarter. In the final run-up to Election Day, America’s need to assert a straightforward moral sense of its own righteousness became – suddenly, mysteriously – more important than the divisiveness and rank incompetence of the Bush White House.
Granted, this was a close election, and well over 50 million people refused to take the administration’s bait. Still, confusion was evident across the political spectrum, particularly over the question of Iraq. Many people I spoke to, including hardcore California Democrats, found it hard to believe that last year’s invasion could have been bereft of even a single defensible motive. They clung with remarkable obstinacy to the notion that if the United States was involving itself in this ambitious foreign entanglement, there must be some honorable reason to do so.
This abiding belief in the goodness of the United States – in the evangelizing mission of bringing democracy to the most benighted corners of the earth – is a strain of nationalism we have seen many times before. During the Cold War, it justified Korea and Vietnam and the proxy Central American wars of the 1980s, among others. In this election, it was used not only to crimp debate on the Bush administration’s imperial follies, but also to slime John Kerry as a traitor because he dared to return from fighting in Southeast Asia and speak out against what he had seen.
Nationalism is a term more usually associated with 19th century Europe or Balkan quagmires than it is with the United States. And yet it is really the key to understanding what has happened to this country in the past three years. In his brilliant new book, America Right or Wrong, Anatol Lieven traces two distinct roots of American nationalism: the liberal tradition, going back to the Founding Fathers, which embodies all the ideals and lofty aspirations of American exceptionalism; and a more sinister, virulent strain going back to Andrew Jackson’s vicious military campaigns against the Cherokee Indians and encompassing all of the hurt, resentment, and humiliation of the Deep South in the wake of the Civil War.
It is this second nationalism which has been taken up with gusto by the Bush administration. Like all virulent nationalisms, it teaches its supporters that individual and family devastation – job insecurity, lack of access to health care, general social alienation – are unimportant next to the grand project of defending the homeland and defeating its enemies. In fact, any personal sense of defeat feeds directly into the nationalist ethos and is often a powerful recruiting tool, which explains why the administration is so happy to rewrite the tax code, bleed the budget dry, and slowly eviscerate the middle class.
This is the ideology that September 11 has unleashed. In a country with less robust democratic traditions, it might already have proved overwhelming. As it is, John Kerry’s campaign offered some resistance to the nationalist tide but, in the end, failed to articulate a compelling alternative. His pragmatic appeals for socio-economic fairness couldn’t cut it against nationalistic and religious fervor. After all, what’s poverty and corruption when Jesus is on your side and there’s a semi-automatic in the basement? Welcome to the 21st century.
© 2004 LA City Beat