Bush Can Be Beaten

Susan J. Douglas

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Let’s face it: For now, Team Bush has won. What happens in Iraq over the next months and years is, of course, up for grabs, but whether most Americans will care remains to be seen.

Polls indicate that most don’t mind if any weapons of mass destruction” are ever found, even though their elimination was allegedly one of the big reasons the United States invaded in the first place. The Team Bush propaganda machine worked nearly flawlessly: It convinced most Americans that Saddam Hussein was complicit in 9/11. The war as telecast in the United States was a highly sanitized affair culminating in grateful Iraqis kissing the Marines. Bush, whose popularity has once again soared, is seen going to church with recently released POWs and speaking only to cheering military crowds. The Democrats are depicted in the press as totally cowed, already beaten in 2004, utterly unable to counter the Bush juggernaut.

But no victory, as history reminds us, is ever complete. And while many on the left, and liberals as well, feel they have never lived in worse times politically, others — one thinks especially of the indefatigable Michael Moore — are rallying the troops and urging hope, optimism and resistance.

So how do we in the opposition counter this seemingly triumphant hegemony? First, we need to remind ourselves of the broad conception of America that Team Bush has been selling, both before and after 9/11. And then we need to expose this vision’s weaknesses because it is, in fact, too radical (or should we say counter-revolutionary?) for the great majority of Americans.

Ronald Reagan and the New Right took on the not-insignificant project of dismantling the welfare state, such as it was in the United States. The federal government, Reagan insisted, was too big and wasteful, larded with unnecessary and spirit-crushing bureaucracy, and its mission to protect citizens from the vagaries of capitalism was obsolete. It was pissing away your money on lazy people who didn’t deserve free handouts, while thwarting the very competitive spirit that made America great. At the same time, in the wake of Vietnam and the revolution in Iran, the Reagan Team sought to remasculinize foreign policy. In other words, Reagan offered a vision of renewed American greatness that could only be achieved by casting off the recent past and reverting to the cultural icon of the rugged (white male) individual. While it was obvious that Reaganism benefited the rich, the Reagan Team insisted it benefited everyone, especially the hardworking, tax-paying little guy.

This was a radical redefinition of the role of government in American life, and it took hold. But Team Bush seeks to take this vision of the nation to the ideological antipodes. And we in the opposition must counter their vision and offer competing images of the future of the country. The Democrats have done this only in fits and starts. Now is the time to begin.

Prior to 9/11, Team Bush, without much success, was trying to sell Reaganism with the fig leaf removed. Their vision for the future: the government should only serve the rich, the environment exists solely for corporate plunder, sexuality (especially female) must be closely regulated by the state, religious groups should take over the duties of government agencies, nearly everything the government does should be kept secret. After 9/11, of course, this agenda was eclipsed by one more Americans could embrace: The United States had to punish and eliminate the world’s terrorists.

Team Bush is now trying to use the self-image of a violated and noble America that is only interested in promoting democracy to sell another totally contradictory, and less appealing, self-conception: America will bully anyone it feels like abroad (and at home) and return to the project of converting the federal government into the sole tool of corporate America and the religious right, while abrogating as many civil rights as possible. The majority of Americans buy neither one of these visions. They are, after all, profoundly un-American.

Any successful opposition has to offer an equally broad, compelling counter-image of the future nation. And it must expose the one the Republicans are selling as fraudulent and dangerous. Many people are waiting to be enlisted in a different project, one that makes them feel noble about protecting the environment, about really, once and for all, transforming public education, about providing health care for everyone, and, yes, about putting forward a humane foreign policy.

In a classic case of history coming back to bite you in the ass, the transfer of responsibilities from the federal government to the states that the Republicans championed so incessantly has proven to be a disaster. Schools are closing early, poor kids are being denied medical treatment, libraries are shutting down, firefighters are getting laid off, police are selling ad space on their cop cars to make ends meet. The catastrophic condition of state budgets, now that Iraq is receding, is becoming major news. The new federalism” is a failure. Every Democrat should say so.

Opposition leaders need to offer utter ridicule of Bush’s claim to be compassionate.” And then they need to paint a picture of America as a community very different from the pugnacious, let-them-eat-cake vision Team Bush is hawking. What passes for our national common sense” is not fixed, not even now; it is fashioned day in and day out. The successful opposition leader will need to fashion another common sense, one that combines self-interest with the desire to be noble, one that is already out there, waiting, rustling in the bushes. 

How do we in the opposition counter this seemingly triumphant hegemony?
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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