An unmannerly pre–Election Day splenetic
by Tony Kushner
Everyone knows everything and yet here we are. This is a transparent election. The Bush administration is red-meat reactionary. We all know that; and we all know the Kerry administration will be as liberal as the senator himself has always been, more often than not inclined to be progressive, and what an inexpressible relief and joy that will be! At times Kerry will disappoint and behave like a “moderate,” which means that he will on occasion pursue an agenda barely distinguishable from the sobersided Republicanism of long-gone days of yore, when the GOP was an upper-middle-class white man’s civic organization/chamber of commerce. That version of the GOP vanished after the Reagan counterrevolution shoved sobriety aside and initiated our current era of orgiastic reaction. Today gray bankers cast off their suits and behave like pit bulls let loose in a slaughterhouse, and no one is surprised.
Today the separation of church and state is plowed under, today the coherence of the Constitution is sacrificed to provide a gewgaw for fundamentalist bigots, today the lives of thousands are sacrificed to a half-baked adventure foisted upon the world by a man who slid into the White House with a résumé stained by a ruined school system, gun control laws curbed so that people can carry concealed weapons in churches, and of course his nasty gigantic appetite for execution. Who would have dreamed anyone would ever feel nostalgia for anything Republican? But some of us remember when the party did not appear to be driven exclusively by ambition, meanness, and a greed you’d call swinish if pigs weren’t undeserving of the association.
No one ever believed that the “big tent” GOP of George W. Bush actually intended enfranchising gay people or embracing the struggles of any minority group or community of the oppressed or anything beyond spewing balloon juice about “opportunity” and “ownership” and how these platitudes matter more than laws that protect minorities and courts that enforce those laws. No one was ever credulous enough to think that “compassionate conservatism” was more than a punch line to a nasty Orwellian joke. No one ever really thought that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Saddam Hussein, the hideous dictator and former prop of the aforementioned Reagan counterrevolution, possessed the military capability of attacking the United States. No one believes that anyone other than Bush would have landed us in the quagmire in Iraq in which we are steadily sinking—no Democrat and not even another Republican, McCain for instance, would have attacked Iraq, would have committed U.S. foreign policy and our armed forces, as Bush has done, to the fantasies of an arrogant gang of dangerous delusionals from right-wing think tanks—the consequences of which appear to be living down to the worst anxieties of geopolitical destabilization expressed by opponents of the war way back when this gathering catastrophe was absolutely and easily avoidable.
No matter who wins in November, he’ll win by a hair, and that means around 50% of Americans who vote will have voted for Bush.
Some Bush supporters are decent and intelligent, and yet they’re knowingly returning to the White House an embarrassingly inept, ignorant, incurious, and unfeeling figurehead for the worst conventicle of religious nuts, plutocrats, and petrochemical bagmen ever to lay hold of our federal government. Imagine! Decent and intelligent people will pull the lever for a dull-witted, low-minded puppet of scaly machiavels like Rove and Cheney, of frightening antidemocratic authoritarians like Ashcroft and Rumsfeld. People who know what they’re doing are going to do something dreadful. And they know. You don’t need to read the liberal and progressive media or to have read the 10,000 books published in the last two years cataloging Bush’s complete failure as a president, his failed and child-abusive education policy, his fake health care policy, his wicked environmental policy, his massive giveaway to the rich disguised as a failed economic policy. You can barely escape the bad news even if you only read, with a little skepticism and discernment, The Economist or The Wall Street Journal as these conservative publications report the findings of Bush’s own intelligence people, his generals, and even his own nominee for head of the CIA. You can be a decent, sober, intelligent Republican averse to all hyperbole and still hear what’s blowin’ in the wind: “DISASTER! THIS CLOWN IS A DISASTER!”
Everyone knows everything! Dear God, even the Log Cabin Republicans have given up on him!
It’s not a mystery that the stupid and the godforsaken are voting for Bush—he’s their ideal candidate. The mystery is that a few million intelligent and decent Republicans can ignore the collective cringe and shudder Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ike are doing in the sweet by-and-by. The mystery is why senators Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee still call themselves Republicans. The mystery is what happened to John McCain’s honor, dignity, and self-respect.
One explanation for why the nonidiotic portion of the American conservative community has chosen to swallow its disgust and vote for Bush is this: These people think they can elect him and then control him. This is a mistake the nonidiotic element in conservative communities always makes. The last four years should have taught us all: You shouldn’t elect someone you know is a schmuck. Elect intelligent and decent people, not necessarily geniuses or saints, just intelligent and decent people. The Reagan counterrevolution antitax ego-anarchists succeeded in slandering the very idea of governance and in the process downgrading the standard of leadership low enough to admit the likes George W. Bush to the realm of plausibility, where he clearly doesn’t
As you can see from the preceding paragraphs, I’m too angry to write about this election. The calumny of this administration far exceeds anything I’ve experienced in my 48 years as an American citizen (or rather second-class citizen; I’m not fully enfranchised). The sheer destructiveness and recklessness of domestic and foreign policy in the last four years exceeds anything I’ve read of American presidential history. But I think what’s really driving me nuts is that 50% of my fellow citizens are going to vote for Bush, and I don’t understand it.
I’m regularly called an America-hater by right-wing types, but that’s entirely untrue. I don’t much like the word patriot because the worst people use it as a lead pipe to silence dissent, but I am a patriot—a progressive leftist patriot with big internationalist dreams (in the tradition of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton). I think America frequently fails to live up to its best ambitions, but its best ambitions are among the best ambitions a country can have: democracy, justice, freedom, peace. I see luminous occasions for hope in our past, present, and future. I’m a gay man, a sexual minoritarian, so I know that, because of the hard work of my comrades on the left, from radical left to liberal, American democracy has brought me a degree of freedom from oppression, and if I keep my eyes on the prize and work, work, work, it will bring me some reasonable measure of social justice and as much freedom as any other citizen has or can
expect to have unless she is an anarchist—quite a lot of freedom, it seems to me. I even believe America can achieve a reasonable measure of economic justice and can reclaim meaning for words like spirit and community—once again, with determined struggle. I believe more than two centuries of democratic striving has produced an electorate capable of this struggle.
So why is one half, more or less, of the electorate voting for Bush?
Fear and greed and theocracy seem to be the toxic ingredients in the answer. There’s post-9/11 war fever. There’s the gluttony caused by spiritual, intellectual, and ethical malnutrition, growing weedy-wild after 30 years’ proselytizing of an ideology of sunnily upbeat amnesiac mean-spiritedness. And there are the frightening incursions Christian fundamentalism has made in its crusade against the secular civic rationalism that has been the historical basis of our country’s democratic coherence. There are the wars it has waged against pluralism, the modern egalitarian descendant of our originary Enlightenment principles. These lead to a solid 47.5% for you-know-who.
There’s a line from Yeats’s poem “The People” that always moves me, exactly the way it moved Yeats. He’s kvetching about how all his work for the Irish Republic has earned him only “the daily spite of this unmannerly town” and Maud Gonne reproves him. She too has suffered villainy. “Yet never have I, now nor any time,” she says, “complained of the people.” Yeats admits that his heart “leaped at her words” and years later, recollecting them, he still feels “abashed.”
How can a democrat complain of the people? So I recite the punch line of “The People” when I watch, on CNN, a woman in Keokuk or Terre Haute announce she’ll vote for Bush because he opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. “If I elect a Christian,” she says, “the economy and the war will take care of themselves.” How not to complain of the people when the people, at least half the people, vote for Bush?
The wisdom of the moment holds that the unprecedented hatred for Bush felt by people like me has helped create a campaign in which his opponent, an estimable and worthy candidate, has been rendered invisible. This apoplexy, however appropriate to the repulsiveness of its catalyst, is surely fueled by powerlessness. The Left, in which I proudly include myself, since the end of its successful revolution in the ’60s, has spent its time doing invaluable local actions while wandering down byways of revolutionary dreams, ignoring the electoral processes by means of which real defensible progress can be made in a democracy. We can do better. If we represent an enormous minority, we have the power to sway elections, if not to persuade. And a few successive Democratic administrations, alongside a Congress controlled by Democrats, together with judges appointed by Democrats, in a democracy populated by grassroots activists can, by means of determined concerted struggle, persuade a plurality of the people to abandon the politics of terror and orgiastic reaction for the politics of progress.
So I will muzzle myself and explain what I hope will be gained by a Kerry presidency.
John Kerry will be a good president, maybe a very good one, if we push him hard enough. He is an intelligent, honorable man with a distinguished career of public service behind him—the sort of record that used to be deemed essential for anyone aspiring to occupancy of the White House. Kerry has served his country his entire adult life, as a soldier, a dissenter of conscience, and a senator. He will doubtless bring back to the executive branch many of the decent, intelligent people who did a reasonable job running things under Bill Clinton. Kerry served for 19 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so one imagines he will send Condi Rice a big fruit basket as she heads back to her former undistinguished academic career; one imagines Kerry will seek the counsel of real diplomats to try to earn a repeal of our current status as the world’s scariest rogue nation. One imagines him working to build a genuine and meaningful international consensus with our former allies—remember having allies? I mean actual countries, not just a disgraced British prime minister and an Italian crypto-fascist bazillionaire. One imagines Kerry convincing our former allies that we have regained our senses after a four-year collective national nervous breakdown.
One imagines a Kerry administration pursuing serious negotiations to craft not only a nonholocaustal exit strategy in Iraq but a participatory role for America in the construction of a sane world order in which “democracy” might once again sound like a good idea rather than a mad-dog cowboy war whoop. Maybe President Kerry will resume America’s critical role in pursuing a Mideast peace; maybe he’ll even find the guts to do better than we did back when we were bothering, back before Bush. He will, hopefully, stop the drive to make Bush’s antitax Mardi Gras permanent and heal the fatal wounds dealt in the last four years to economic justice and the social net. He might, if he doesn’t obey the pollsters and decides to behave like a president, even raise taxes for the undertaxed rich and cut corporate welfare and corporate loopholes so that we can have decent public education and child care and health care and a functioning country in a world of growing equality instead of deepening inequity. We might face a plausibly desirable future.
I do not know that Kerry will win, only that he can win. He can win if we participate, each of us, every day till Election Day. We are being outspent, so give till it hurts. We are being out-organized, so organize, volunteer. If every one of us commits her- or himself to what has, sadly, become for us uncharacteristic behavior this time around, if we abandon our comfortable accustomed posts, we backseat drivers, we sharp-eyed immobilized media critics, we the padded powerless doubters of the American left, if we put our talents behind Senator Kerry, and then stay ready to keep him honest after he receives his power from us…
Well, it’s worth a try, and as they say, it beats the alternative.
Tony Kushner is the author of the play and HBO film “Angels in America” as well as “Homebody/Kabul” and “Caroline or Change”.