Will the real America please stand up?

Ever since Bush was reelected, it's felt like someone switched countries on us when we weren't looking. On Tuesday, we have the chance to start taking it back.

Published November 7, 2006 12:54PM (EST)

If the Democrats don't grind the Republicans into the political dust Tuesday, I'm moving to Transylvania. I really don't want to spend my waning years in Karl Rove's remake of "Night of the Living Dead," a doomed member of the reality-based community besieged by hordes of flesh-craving zombies. I'd rather take my chances in the land of Vlad the Impaler.

It may seem harsh to accuse those who plan to vote for the GOP of being uncoordinated, shuffling cannibals who won't stay dead. But it's difficult to come up with any other explanation. Because this election, in the immortal words of Dick "waterboarding in defense of liberty is no vice" Cheney, is a no-brainer.

Let us review our choices. In one corner, we have the worst president in American history, a feckless know-nothing whose résumé includes launching a disastrous war for no reason, illegally spying on Americans, trashing the ancient writ of habeas corpus, ignoring the catastrophe of global warming, running up a ruinous national debt, pouring billions into the pockets of the super-rich, severely weakening the military, doing a heck of a job in New Orleans, and making America more hated abroad than at any other time in its history.

In the other corner ... well, actually, who even cares who's in the other corner? Unless the Democrats were Satan himself and his minions, the choice would be obvious. Come to think of it, even then it'd be an easy call. After all, say what you will about the devil, he knows how to get things done. With Lucifer at the helm, the Brownies, Rummies, Wolfies, Bremers, Tenets and other colossal Bush administration failures would not be praised, given Presidential Freedom Medals and sent off to head the World Bank. They'd be basted with jalapeño butter and roasted slowly (actually, eternally) on a mesquite grill.

So anything short of a major GOP defeat will raise serious questions not just about the American people's political beliefs but their sentience and even their species. It is true that certain animals have been known to engage in self-destructive behavior, but a Republican victory in the midterms would go well beyond all previously recorded examples and could force scientists to consider the possibility that many apparent humans in North America are, in reality, disguised ferns or other biological anomalies.

Since that is unlikely, a Democratic landslide would seem to be all but certain. But there's one little problem: the 2004 election, an event that cast more doubt on the theory of evolution than a million Bible-thumping sermons.

Just two years ago, Americans went dutifully to the polls, closed the curtains, and in the sacred privacy of the booth voted for ... four more years of the same idiot who had already surpassed such luminaries as Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding to establish himself as the biggest dodo ever to sit in the Oval Office.

If they did it once, could they do it again? Even though these are the midterms, and Bush is on the ballot only symbolically, the possibility seems insane. But it seemed insane two years ago, too.

It's true that 9/11 was a serious anomaly, a massive thumb on the political scales. The 2004 elections can't be understood without understanding that people do weird things after they've been mugged, especially if they don't know who mugged them. And it's also true that in 2004 Iraq had not yet descended into total hell, and Katrina had not yet swept away the idea that Bush might possess some minimal competence. Nonetheless, by November 2004, it was amply clear that Bush was an unmitigated disaster.

It was already obvious that Bush's administration had lied its way into Iraq. And the war had turned irrevocably south. The dual uprisings in Najaf and Fallujah had made a mockery of the administration's claims that the insurgents were just a few Baath Party "dead-enders" or foreign jihadis. The appalling Abu Ghraib story had broken. The Middle East was melting down. Osama bin Laden was still at large, and the Taliban were creeping back in Afghanistan. At home, Bush's invasion of Iraq and the Machiavellian tactics of his political mastermind, Karl Rove, had left the country more bitterly divided than at any time since World War II. Domestic initiatives? Besides huge tax cuts for the rich, an easy-for-Leonardo Medicare reform and some desultory gay-bashing aimed at the GOP's troglodytic base, zilch.

And on the second day of November the American people looked upon what Bush had done, and they said it was good.

Bush's reelection was the most depressing political event in the postwar era. It was close, but that only made it more painful. Most of the people I know still haven't gotten over it. We felt like some perverse deity had switched countries on us when we weren't looking. And we were filled with deep anger not just at Bush but also at those Americans who reelected him.

You can deal with loathsome politicians. It's not so easy to confront the fact that a majority of your fellow citizens voted for them.

Despair over, or contempt for, one's fellow Americans is one of those subjects that journalists avoid airing in public. Like politicians, journalists are loath to ever publicly criticize the American people, no matter what they do. The days when H.L. Mencken would savage the "booboisie" for being stupid and gullible are long gone. And so after the election, few liberal commentators expressed outrage at what their fellow citizens had wrought. Instead, many pundits spilled rivers of ink about why it was the Democrats' fault. Kerry should have talked more about morality. Liberals weren't religious enough. A consensus developed that Bush won the election because solid, God-fearing Middle Americans rejected the secular, elitist values of smug, latte-sipping liberals.

This conventional wisdom may have contained a grain of truth, but it was mostly wrong. The 2004 election wasn't primarily about family values, heartland virtues or Christ-denying coastal elites. Bush won by using the tried-and-true techniques of right-wing hacks everywhere -- fear mongering, accusing his opponent of being a traitorous wimp, and waving the flag. It was patriotic dog food -- and the disheartening point is that more Americans lapped it up than didn't.

Elections hold a mirror up to a society. And the reflection we've been looking at for the past six years is a scary, Elephant Man-like visage.

So for a lot of us, there's more at stake in Tuesday's elections than simply whether the Democrats will take control of the House or the Senate. It's a question of national identity, of finding out who we are -- and if we're a "we" at all. For six years, we've been waiting for the America we thought we knew to come back. And now, as we wait for the spinning windows in the great democratic slot machine to stop, we're torn between hope that it'll display the country we thought we knew, and fear that it'll show something else.

We thought America was conservative enough not to trash its most cherished traditions just because of one terrorist attack. We thought America was liberal enough to try to understand why others might hate us, not just to lash out self-righteously. We thought America was wise enough not to start an unprovoked, immoral and highly risky war. We thought America had enough self-respect not to let itself be ordered around by a shameless, lying bully.

We were proved wrong. But we haven't given up. Now our hopes are more modest. Now we're simply hoping that those of our fellow citizens who let us down so badly two years ago throw the bums out. That good old American common sense will prevail. In short, that we haven't completely lost it.

This is no time for false optimism. Even if the Democrats clean up, it won't be clear how much the country has really learned about the Bush administration or its ruinous "war on terror." The education of the American people has been more pragmatic than profound; more like a cat burned on a hot stove than a Socratic dialogue. People have not turned against the Iraq war because they have learned about how U.S. Mideast policies feed Arab and Muslim rage, or have come to question the morality of preventive war, or the limits of even America's vast military power. They have turned against it because they know it's not working, and they know they were lied into it.

That's a start, but it's a long way from wisdom. It leaves unexplored the assumptions, and the knee-jerk emotional reactions, that allowed the war to happen. So whether the Democratic Party wins Tuesday or not, its politicians need to begin educating the American people -- and educating itself. America must never again find itself in a situation where a demagogic president, surrounded by ideological zealots, can use the emotional response to an attack on U.S. soil to push through an unplanned and unjustified war. The Democrats, so intimidated they have not even challenged the very idea of a "war on terror," bear as much blame as the American people do for allowing this to happen, and they have to understand why and make sure it doesn't happen again.

This isn't just about controlling Congress, or eventually winning back the White House. The stakes are much higher. It's about what kind of country we want to be. A country of laws, not men. A country that doesn't spy on its citizens, or create secret prisons, or torture people. A country whose media has the guts to stand up to a mendacious administration even in times of war hysteria. A country that will not allow powerful wrongdoers to hide behind a cloak of secrecy. A country that cares about its poor and its minorities. A country that wants to be a good neighbor to the world, not dominate it. A country that has a soul, not just a flag.

Are we still that country? Were we ever that country? And can we learn to become it? On Tuesday, we'll get some answers.

And if we don't like what we hear, Transylvania is supposed to be beautiful this winter.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2006 Elections Iraq War