It is customary for election results to be followed by an onrush of belated wisdom. This is particularly so when the outcome defies the profundities of the editorial classes. The 16-hour all-American saga that finally led to President George W. Bush securing a second term was much more than a nail-biting finish to a spirited democratic exercise. It was one of the concluding chapters of a civil war that has divided Americans emotionally and elevated America to the pinnacle of demonology.
What the entire world witnessed on Tuesday was no ordinary election involving two individuals bound by a broad consensus. It was a frontal clash of the values of nationhood and a confrontation of ideologies. On one side was an entrenched liberal America, the America of the rarefied Upper West Side and the gay bars of San Francisco ' a multicultural, liberal America speaking the language of political correctness. On the other side was the America of the churchgoers, the small towns and the clever young things who make up the ever-growing counter-establishment.
It was, of course, a clash over strategies to confront terrorism. Should America do what is right, regardless of realpolitik' Or should it retreat to the comforts of traditional diplomacy, with engagement taking precedence over action' At the same time, as the exit polls so clearly indicated, it was a clash over moral values, between very sharply divergent attitudes of what constitutes right and wrong. It was a clash between the certitudes of Christian righteousness and the moral relativism brought about by the secularization of public life. It was an election where world opinion was decisively behind Senator John Kerry and the American heartland solidly behind President Bush.
This was an election where Bush prevailed far more decisively than the narrow difference of electoral college votes suggest. Not only did he secure a clear plurality of 3.5 million votes in a high turnout election, his tally was the highest for any candidate of the American Right. In purely statistical terms, Bush out-performed even Ronald Reagan.
The unambiguous victory of Bush, despite all-pervasive doubts over the wisdom and efficacy of the war in Iraq, has served to confirm what many observers have long detected ' the marked lurch of the American electorate to the Right. The description of the US as the 'Right Nation' invigorated by its own exceptionalism may have seemed an over-statement in the Clinton years but now seems a reality. The prevailing eastern stereotype of America heading a decadent West gripped by moral laxity, mental disorders, eroding patriotism and falling productivity may have to be tempered. To use an analogy popularized by the ever-effervescent US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, there is now evidence of a sharp mismatch between the values of an 'old Europe' and a resurgent America. There are irreparable cracks in the structure we had become accustomed to calling Western civilization.
America is in the painful throes of reinventing itself. Politically, the process may have begun with the disastrous candidature of Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but the process really gathered steam during the Reagan presidency and the victory in the Cold War. With the re-election of Bush, following an unapologetic campaign centred on conviction, it has reached a point of maturity, verging on hegemony.
The phenomenon is, of course, marked by a formal adherence to laissez faire economics ' particularly lower taxes and a dilution of the welfare state. However, it is not economics that is the distinguishing feature of the Right Nation. The neo-conservative fringe, many of whose early stalwarts were Trotskyites in the Thirties and Forties, is, for example, not so insistent on attacking welfarism and state involvement in the economy as are the devotees of Milton Friedman. Indeed, there is considerable disquiet among right-wing economists at the consistent failure of the Bush administration to control the very high federal deficit.
Economics was the leitmotif of the Old Right. For those involved in the Right Nation project, the buzzword is pragmatic capitalism.
Central to the concerns of the three lakh or so volunteers who effected the silent counter-mobilization of Bush voters on Tuesday are culture and moral values. This may seem surprising to those accustomed to viewing America from the vantage points of New York and San Francisco but this election has revealed the sheer magnitude of people who are motivated by passionate opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research. America was always a deeply religious nation. The individualism that marked its frontier spirit was always moulded by a sense of Christian righteousness. Today, this has been translated into organized evangelical networks that are in a position to call the shots politically.
The certitudes of religion are playing a monumental role in resisting the secularization of society. When Bush, in answer to a question, said that Jesus Christ was his most potent inspiration, he was not proffering a politically expedient reply. Middle America sees itself as nurturing a resurgence based on Christian values and ethics. It is a fanatically held conviction and it is this moral steadfastness that has given the nation the resilience to cope with the ferocious terrorist assault on its way of life.
It is interesting to contrast the different responses of Europeans and Americans to terrorist challenges. In Spain, to take one example, a train bombing in Madrid on the eve of the general election last March, cost Jose Maria Aznar his job. Choosing discretion over valour, the new government withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq and bought peace from the terrorists.
Osama bin Laden's infamous video broadcast on the eve of the November 3 election had a curiously different response in America. His message to Americans that 'your security is in your own hands' brought a united we-will-not-be-cowed-down response from both candidates. Kerry's natural constituency may believe that Iraq is a monumental misadventure and that the US should simply cut its losses and run. However, it was simply unacceptable for the senator to say so publicly. The American middle ground has shifted.
For America, the war in Iraq has been diplomatically counter-productive. It has alienated the country from Europe and even imposed strains on its special relationship with Britain. At the same time, it has conveyed an impression to the Muslim world that Bush is playing out a clash of civilizations.
The consequences of waging an unrelenting war on terrorism have been difficult. However, it is important to understand the impulses that are driving the world's only superpower. It doesn't stem, as celluloid propagandists would have us believe, from Texan corporate greed. It is a product of a deeply-held belief that the decent, godly virtues of the American way of life are under attack and that it is fundamentally un-Christian to compromise with evil. Americans, contrary to European mockery, are not fundamentally stupid. Their national outlook is shaped by a deep commitment to values and a fierce sense of nationalism.
The presidential election succeeded in raising hysterical passions among those who believe that Bush is a threat to civilization as we know it. Following his re-election, this anger is likely to translate into passive endorsement of the suicide bombers and a smug they-had-it-coming jubilation. The responses are not merely perverted. They arise from an inability to understand the dynamics fuelling the Right Nation.
In a world overwhelmed by technological daring, anarchic individualism and the fragmentation of social structures, America is positing an alternative vision. We may not appreciate all its ramifications but we can scarcely avoid comprehending it first.