Bush and the Cowboy Soul
"There is a very narrow concept of strength in this country, says David Paletz. Strength is something between Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwartznegger and has a clear connection to militarism, killing animals and chopping down trees with the axe.."
BUSH AND THE COWBOY SOUL
Final Round in the US Election Campaign
By Lennart Laberenz
[This article originally published in the Berlin Freitag 44, October 22, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2004/44/04440701.php.]
The writer Louis Begley rightly says that the presidential elections on November 2 will be "the most important in the history of the republic". The polarization is obvious and culminates in the question which candidate adequately embodies the qualities of a "leader". In contrast to parliamentary democracy, the presidential system involves a much stronger focus on "persons", says professor David Plotke, director of the political science institute of the New School for Social Research in New York.
The US president is usually seen as the most powerful man of the world. Alongside the constitutional dimensions, his power also includes myths. Beside his political function, a cultural mission is assigned to him by society. He must embody the community elevated to a sacral reality. He must protect the community from external enemies and give the community a sense of leadership. The call for "leadership" unites all political camps. Where the leader leads is regarded as a comparatively secondary question.
Contrary to their traditional election promises, the republicans under George W. Bush created the largest and most expensive bureaucratic machine in US history next to the military, the Homeland Security Department under Tom Ridge. The Homeland Security Department has become the synonym for a schizophrenic attitude to the state. "When we should pay taxes and restrict the gun law, the republicans cry that the state treats them like children. But everyone appeals to the state as a standardizing authority when individual, religious or economic convictions should be enforced."
The Homeland Security Department also functions in the election campaign. Nearly every time the democratic challenger has positive headlines, Tom Ridge or another official can declare a terror warning in a countermove - always without exact details. When John Kerry in August proposed the importation of cheaper medicines from Canada, an assistant secretary warned Al Qaeda would "poison imported food or medicines".
The constant anxiety around national security is the achievement of the "leadership" of George W. Bush and his decision to combat the terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Tom Ridge declares untiringly. Spreading fears of an external threat again and again is obviously part of a concerted strategy of the government with its one message: the president is the incorporation of security. The united people flock behind such a leader.
In reality, the bumper stickers with the inscription "United We Stand" below the American flag pasted on busses, cars and newspaper stands after September 11, 2001 have faded. The community leaves a stale taste. The greater the distance to the metropolises shocked by terrorist attacks and the greater the distance to the urban centers, the more radical seems the nationalistic pathos with which citizens surrounded themselves when they put stickers on their cars and decorated their front lawns. Screening themselves from the outside right after September 11, 2001 reflected the tendency to segregation. "Upright Americans" set the tone while the Homeland Security Department worried about deviationists.
From a social perspective, "United We Stand" proved to be a farce since 35.9 million Americans have little or nothing for life even though they are working according to statistics from the National Agency for Population Studies published in August. Poverty strikes black families, single mothers and migrants from Latin America especially. They wander through former citadels of affluence including those suburbs that were the central symbols for a life of increased mobility and social development in the fifties.
The closer November 2, the more aggressively is George W. Bush put on the stage as the central hero and guarantor of security and stability and defender of democracy and prosperity. Bush is the "manly man", the lumberjack surrounded by the military. He promises to help overcome the threatening fears conjured by the government, the economy and the media. The democrats are stylized as the "threat from inside" because they are weak. The "international terrorist networks" are seen as the threat from the outside because they are incalculable and brutal. The New York Post, the high-circulation paper from the house of the politically transparent Rupert Murdoch had the title amid the recent hurricanes in Florida: "Francis begins its deadly surprise attack on Florida." In the middle of this edition, George W. Bush was seen bringing security, coffee and fruit to car-drivers.
"Our enemies want the democratic candidate to become president", the local member of Congress Steve Pearce exclaimed during Bush's election campaign swing through New Mexico. In the commentaries of the serious Washington Post, the question is raised who Al-Qaeda prefers as the next president of the United States.
"There is a very narrow concept of strength in this country", says David Paletz, professor at Duke University. Strength is something between Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarznegger - "and has a clear connection to militarism, killing animals and chopping down trees with the axe". Both candidates try to mirror this metaphor with all their power. Bush has a striking sense for martial poses. Kerry appears among authors and tests himself in all kinds of trendy sports. This understanding of strength, as Paletz discovered in a poll, is present even among women. "Republicans are men and democrats are gay", Katha Pollit, a respected columnist, outlined with that charged symbolism used by republicans in their election campaign. "The campaigns of both candidates aim at the manly. Bush cannot do anything else. Kerry makes a tactically obscure decision. Eleven percent more women voted for the democratic candidate Al Gore four years ago. Today liberally-minded American women read between the lines and know that Kerry stands for the right to an abortion even if he doesn't say this expressly", Pollit explains.
Neither of the candidates seems helpful to the large majority that certainly includes a political indifferent women. Pollit lists themes that Kerry must address to change that social injustice resulting from the patriarchal structure of American society. Unfortunately before many women's organizations in the primaries, candidate Kerry said he wouldn't support any "special interests". "Since when", Pollit asks, "do women - 51 percent of the population - represent a "special interest"?
The figure of the hero, who - a little disadvantaged intellectually - is not immune from failures but is always underway to redeem himself and save the community, appears as an awkward white man from the Western milieu who doesn't guzzle away his good core and at the right time saves the small town - literally the community - from the threat of the wicked Indians. That this community is basically good is assumed as an axiom. The US is "God's own country"; this is God's will.
No western country is as diligent and explicitly occupied in prescribing its belief in itself to the world as a norm and if necessary enforcing this with military means. Immanuel Wallerstein, professor at Yale University, refers to the religious origin of this attitude rooted in the belief of being rewarded by God through wealth while other regions must endure poverty. The wealth in natural resources, economic power and political importance is regarded as a sign of providence. "We are better, we were better, we must be better." So Wallerstein describes the credo of the nation in his essay collection "Den 11. September".
This meta-narrative can completely deny irony and ambivalence. It shines with simplicity and lives from the hunger for heroes (particularly after September 11, 2001). This narrative gives the president a simple strategy. Playing skillfully with the "cowboy soul of the US" is crucial.
"The economy is developing very well", Bush likes to exclaim in denial or ignorance of the facts. He looks serious in the hall. Problems will be mastered through the common effort of everyone. In New Mexico, Bush preaches this in a blue shirt, without a tie and with rolled-up sleeves. Soon the recession will be overcome. "Wonderful things are happening in Iraq and in all of the Middle East," he assures the crowds. Democracy and freedom are advancing. Even the educational system is developing marvelously. Still "the evil" has not been completely defeated. "We have persevered and achieved many things in the last four years.. This will help us decide who can be4st lead us."
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