Let's hope for an end to the U.S.'s polarized hostility

  • November 20, 2006

The campaigns that precede U.S. general elections are always wonderful events. Speeches ring with high melodrama and gaudy patriotism, every pundit with anything to say (and many with nothing to say) are continuously paraded in front of television's bright lights. Accusations of villainy fly from every corner, and every candidate presents himself or herself as the saviour of a nation descending into ruin.

Then comes the first Tuesday in November. And, somehow, democracy always works, and the American republic gets political leaders who are at least as high-minded as the common run of humanity, and perhaps a little more so.

This November, the usual spectacle of the campaign season ended with an outcome that was widely expected, but was nevertheless sobering.

For most of the last six years, and especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been exposed to a style of governance that is unusual in the country's political culture. Under George W. Bush, that style has been, more often than not, bitterly partisan and unilateral, and often downright vengeful. The Republican congressional majority, the White House and their allies in the mass media have often dealt with political opponents and critics as if they were traitors.

Then suddenly, on Nov. 7, the tables were turned, or at least adjusted, as moderate Democrats gained dominance of both houses of Congress. Only time will tell whether these Democrats will wisely use their majority to help restore a measure of civility and mutual respect to American public life. But since the election, the mood, at least in the media, seems hopeful for such an outcome — for a return, that is, to a more familiar and ultimately more productive way of conducting the affairs of the American nation.

If such a change takes place — as I hope it does — it will almost certainly spell the decline of the key policy-makers and intellectuals who rose to high positions of power and influence under President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. I am speaking here of those ideologues referred to, not quite accurately, as neoconservatives. For the most part, these are former post-war liberals and leftists who, during the latter years of the Cold War, became staunch anti-communists, and who, after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, found a new mission: the encouragement of American economic and political hegemony throughout the world, by force if necessary.

The enemy to be conquered in this new "clash of civilizations" — such imperial ideology always requires an enemy — became the new anti-Western militancy in the Islamic world. The idea that democracy and enlightenment can be spread at gunpoint is, of course, an old one, dating back to the French Revolution. In its neoconservative incarnation, it now stands directly behind the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not one believes that this 2003 invasion was a good thing for America or the world, the neoconservative thinking that motivated it is nonetheless radical in ways that are, in my view, foreign to American culture. This culture tends to be, at its best, pragmatic and realistic, pluralistic and tolerant.

At least since the darkest days of the Cold War, Americans have been notably averse to the demonization of opponents — which is one reason the Republicans' contemptuous treatment of Democrats for the last six years has seemed so odd. Democrats are quite obviously not traitors. They never were. They represent (among other things) the views of an American majority who believe they were misled by neoconservative dogmatists into an ultimately pointless, damaging foreign adventure in Iraq, and were distracted by the Bush White House from pressing domestic issues, such as the soaring federal deficit.

If the new Congress accomplishes nothing else, it will do well to overcome the polarized hostility, and heal the ideological alienation from reality that have characterized public discourse in America for the last several years.

(Mays is a Toronto writer and journalist.)