“… it is the historic glory of the intellectual class of the West in modern times that, of all the classes which could be called in any sense privileged, it has shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below it in the social scale. Behind the intellectual’s feeling of commitment is the belief that in some measure the world should be made responsive to his capacity for rationality, his passion for justice and order: out of this conviction arises much of his value to mankind and, equally, much of his ability to do mischief.” -Richard Hofstadter, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.”
It was perhaps serendipitous that leaks of George W. Bush’s memoir of his presidency, “Decision Points,” emerged during the week that the Democratic Party received a drubbing at the midterm elections in November 2010. Riding on a wave of popular disaffection with the state of the American economy and its relatively high unemployment rate, the Republican Party and its Tea Party surrogate seized control over the House of Representatives and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate. It was good news for a Republican Party that had suffered a crushing defeat in 2008 when the Democrats swept to victory in the polls for the presidency and both Houses of Congress. The news of the former president’s memoir and the reported admission in the memoir that he had authorized torture during his period in office(1) was overshadowed by the evidence of his party’s electoral revival two years after his humbling exit from the White House.
However, the former president’s re-emergence in the public eye was an unfortunate reminder of the crisis of legitimacy that has overtaken American politics since the flawed election of November 2000, which had elevated Bush to the presidency. That election had to be resolved through the intervention of the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision after the Florida poll results became a long-running dispute between the two major parties. The Supreme Court provided a constitutional patch for resolving the election dispute, but the decision raised questions about the purpose and effect of the court’s intervention. The majority on the court decided the election in favor of Bush, and his presidency was thereafter tainted by his inability to claim a decisive electoral mandate.
It was an inauspicious start for a president who, over the course of his eight-year tenure, faced questions about his temperament and political judgment, his intellectual preparation for the office and his choice of colleagues and advisers. Over the course of his administration, these concerns were amplified by the decision to pursue wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the effort to arrogate unprecedented power to the executive branch under the guise of mounting a War on Terror against radical Islamist factions across the Muslim world. The turn to conventional war against threats from transnational terrorist groups proved to be a recipe for frustration and failure as the military response has proven to be a financial drain and diplomatically counterproductive. In turn, the attempt to concentrate power in the executive branch proved to be a serious blunder as the claim to a larger constitutional role exacerbated concerns about the intentions and competence of the administration. While Bush was able to win re-election in 2004, his claim to a mandate remained contested as the electoral irregularities in Ohio that year were as damaging as the Florida fiasco in 2000.
In 2005, the Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast and, especially in New Orleans, provided concrete proof that the Bush administration was incapable of effective crisis management. After Katrina, the Bush administration unraveled and the Democratic Party in 2006 was able to win control of both Houses of Congress and large numbers of state legislatures and governorships across the country. By 2008, when the Wall Street meltdown occurred during the summer of that year, the Bush administration had imploded as it became evident that its fiscal policies and general mismanagement of the economy had triggered the most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Bush had entered the presidency in 2000 under a cloud about the legitimacy of his electoral mandate and ended his tenure discredited by reaping the fruits of profligate spending, futile wars, massive deficits and an unprecedented record of constitutional overreach by the executive branch.
The Bush presidency marked a serious deterioration in the image of the American presidency both at home and abroad. While there has been a tendency to focus on the foibles of Bush as president, there was a larger political context that suggests that the United States had entered a period of profound crisis in 2000. Bush had inherited a White House that was badly damaged by the rise of the “rabid” right in American life that gained momentum during the Clinton administration. The Republican victory led by Newt Gingrich in the 1994 midterm elections had brought to prominence a new generation of Republican leaders, who mounted an aggressive campaign to redirect American politics toward the goal of discrediting and dismantling the New Deal State that had been the fundamental framework of American governance since the Roosevelt administration. The 1995 shutdown of the federal government by Gingrich and his allies was the first serious demonstration of their determination to remake the American political order – even as an opposition party. That burst of enthusiasm proved unproductive as President Clinton was able to use the shutdown to win re-election in 1996. However, Clinton’s respite from the Republican assault was brief, and the effort to impeach him over his escapade with Monica Lewinsky demonstrated the Republican fervor in pursuit of a politics of polarization, which set the stage for the 2000 election fiasco.
During the 2000 presidential election campaign, Bush had invoked the importance of his midlife encounter with Christianity as a factor in his political and intellectual career.(2) When he entered the White House in 2001, he was clear about his intention to pursue a “faith-based” political agenda that marked a decisive shift in contemporary American intellectual culture and political life. Bush had carefully positioned himself during the presidential campaign in 2000 as a symbol of Christian nationalism in a society that had been established with the separation of church and state as a cornerstone of its political order. In effect, in a society that had been established upon principles derived from the European Enlightenment and its efforts to break from notions of the divine authority of monarchy as the basis of political authority, the Bush presidency represented a search for a political order explicitly committed to the adoption of a Christian sensibility as the ethos of American governance. It was a signal departure from the commitment to secularism as a cornerstone of American political and institutional life since its founding as an independent republic in the late 18th century.
This turn away from the notions of secular government had immediate policy consequences. It was demonstrated in the decision by the Bush administration to establish limits on the use of stem cells for experimental and research purposes; the emergence of various efforts by religious conservatives in the educational system to expand the study and teaching of “Creationism” as an alternative to evolution in the curriculum of K-12 schools; and, finally, the turn to a faith-based rhetoric in defining American identity and culture. America under Bush had reopened a debate about religion and science in American intellectual life and, as a consequence, the appeal to faith as the basis of political authority by political leaders had become an indispensable rhetorical device in national life. In real terms, America was turning away from its Enlightenment heritage.
One early sign of this shift in American political life was the campaign by the Republican Party to dispute and discredit the idea of global environmental change as an emerging threat to global human society. While early concern focused upon the impact on job creation if global environmental change concerns were addressed, under the George W. Bush administration there was a fundamental hostility to reason and scientific research and analysis. According to David Remnick:
In the 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush mocked Gore as “ozone man” and claimed, “This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme we’ll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American.” In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush cracked that Gore “likes electric cars. He just doesn’t like making electricity.” The younger Bush, a classic schoolyard bully with a contempt for intellect, demanded that Gore “explain what he meant by some of the things” in his 1992 book, “Earth in the Balance” – and then unashamedly admitted that he had never read it.(3)
Bush the elder was focused upon seeking re-election in 1992 in the midst of a recession, and his comments may have been the product of political expediency. However, Bush the younger, revealed himself to be unable to grasp the complexity of the issue.
Soon after entering office, his administration decided to distance itself from the Kyoto Protocol that had sought to establish a global regime for managing the human contributions to environmental degradation and which had been signed by the Clinton administration.(4) It was a decision that would signal the ability of the George W. Bush administration to inflict damage upon itself as a result of its willingness to disregard an emerging scientific consensus among the major economic powers:
The determination of the nations of the industrialized world to hang in and negotiate a binding treaty even after it had been nixed by the “indispensable nation” suggests that we may have entered a new era in international affairs. And that it will be an era in which the U.S. will no longer be automatically granted the leadership role among Western nations it established during the Cold War.(5)
The subsequent decision by the Bush administration, in collaboration with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to pursue the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 – without the approval of the United Nations Security Council – contributed to the further erosion of American leadership within the international system, and intensified the crisis of domestic legitimacy for the Bush administration as the war dragged on throughout the remainder of his presidency.
Bush’s memoir and its justifications for his policies will inevitably become part of the ongoing debates about the progress of the Obama administration in overcoming the legacies of George W. Bush. The outcome of the recent midterm elections has already served notice again that the American populace is in a volatile mood. The drubbing that the Republicans received in the elections of 2006 and 2008 was a reflection of popular discontent, and the 2010 midterm election shows that the popular mood has not changed. For Republican leaders, the 2010 election can be read as vindication of their strategy of paralyzing the Congress.
With a majority in the House starting in 2011, they may be thinking in terms of pursuing a similar strategy over the next two years in an effort to paint the Obama administration as ineffective in the 2012 presidential election. It is a gamble that they may well take since they have few policies to appeal to a broad coalition of interest groups across the society that would allow the Republican Party to become the majority party in American politics. The mobilization of discontent is not a sound strategy for stable governance by any party, and the electoral swings that have taken place since 2006 should suggest a measure of caution. However, the Republican leader in the Senate indicated in the aftermath of the recent election that his priority is to ensure that Barack Obama should serve only one term as president.(6) It is evident that the Republicans have yet to understand that the politics of polarization pursued by Gingrich in the Clinton era and by George W. Bush and his allies set the stage for the American decline in recent years. Future Republican leaders may fare worse than George W. Bush should the Republican Party fail to transcend the politics of polarization.
For Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, the threat of more electoral losses loom in 2012 if the economic situation does not show marked improvement. The Tea Party’s success in mobilizing both popular discontent and racist sentiment in their campaign against health care reform in 2009 and for the midterm elections in 2010 should serve as a warning to an administration that underestimated the ease with which racial resentments could be exploited in a “post-racial America” for political gain by the Republican Party. The Tea Party campaign in 2009-2010 has awakened the ghosts of white supremacy and its analogue, white Christian nationalism, that have historically animated groups like the Ku Klux Klan; the Southern “Dixiecrats” led by Strom Thurmond, who ran a presidential campaign in 1948; the John Birch Society from 1958 onward; and the Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964.
Among the Tea Party-backed Republican candidates in the next Congress will be Rand Paul of Kentucky, who, in May 2010, was forced to repudiate his public statements in opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.(7) The Goldwater presidential campaign and his vote against the Civil Rights Act that year, opened the way for Southern conservatives like Thurmond and Jesse Helms to leave the Democratic Party and to embrace the Republicans. The latter had decided to abandon the reputation for being the party of Abraham Lincoln and that made it possible for the Southern segregationists to change their party affiliation. Paul’s original statement, despite his subsequent retraction, should be recognized as a statement that the new generation of Southern conservatives in the Republican party are cognizant of the need to genuflect before the altar of Jim Crow – even if they recognize that reversing the Brown v. the Board of Education decision (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) would result in America being treated as a laughing stock in the wider world. For the Republican Party, the appeal to white supremacy remains a potent force in electoral politics. It can be used to enforce ideological conformity within the party and it can also be used to “tar and feather” vulnerable Democrats who represent districts where racist appeals can determine the outcome of elections. It was striking that one consequence of the 2010 midterm elections was that the number of “Blue Dog” conservative Democrats in the Congress was reduced to 23 from 54 before the elections. In effect, the shift to the right in American politics under the impetus of the Tea Party campaign has further polarized the country by removing a large number of conservative Democrats in the new Congress – a development that bodes ill for efforts to address institutional and structural inadequacies in the economy.
Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 will become a measure of the Republican Party’s ability to use the politics of racial resentment among disgruntled whites to paralyze the Congress and to win the presidency. Like his predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1994, Barack Obama has a chance to reframe American politics in 2012. As the first African-American president, he will also have the opportunity, like the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960, to prod an increasingly pluralistic society to transcend its historic deference to white Christian (read Protestant) nationalism and its attendant provincialism.
George W. Bush’s failure to engage the wider world and its growing dependence upon science and reason to address the challenges facing humanity led to his administration’s blunders in both foreign and domestic policies and its loss of legitimacy. If America is to return to its Enlightenment roots, it will require its leadership to elevate itself beyond the depths to which the country’s political life has sunk over the last decade. Quite simply, the flight from reason, from science and the rejection of intellectuals as keys to the future evolution of the contemporary world, have all sown the seeds of American decline. Perhaps, Bush’s forthcoming memoir will allow readers to understand how America embraced a president who was both symbol and product of the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter had explored in his seminal work.
1. R. Jeffrey Smith, In new memoir, Bush makes clear he approved use of waterboarding, The Washington Post, November 3, 2010.
2. Steve Benen, “Role Of Religion Hits New Heights In Campaign For White House, Congress.”
According to Benen: “Just two days before Election Day, George W. Bush’s campaign was looking to rally the troops in Florida, where polls showed the state’s 25 electoral votes could go either way. The Republican candidate thought a little religious intervention might sway some voters so he sought and received assistance from one of the most recognized religious figures in America, the Rev. Billy Graham. At a church in Jacksonville, Fla., Bush was clearly delighted to share a stage with Graham, a man he credits for his religious conversion and more importantly, pick up a near-endorsement from the widely respected evangelist.”
Graham, noting that he’d led Bush’s gubernatorial inaugural prayer in 1995 in Texas, said, “I don’t endorse candidates. But I’ve come as close to it, I guess, now as any time in my life, because I think it’s extremely important.” He added, “I believe in the integrity of this man.”
6. NationalJournal.com, “After the Wave,” Friday, October 29, 2010, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) speaks during a press conference, stating the only plan McConnell had was to make Obama a one-term president.
7. Krissah Thompson and Dan Balz, Rand Paul comments about civil rights stir controversy, The Washington Post, May 21, 2010.