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This is now a Bush era

By Jonathan Freedland

Put plainly, the U.S. is moving steadily and solidly to the right.

ONCE IT looked like an aberration. Now it is an era. George W. Bush's tenure in the White House was born in 2000 to an electoral quirk, the fruit of a Florida fiasco, the arcane algebra of the United States electoral system, and a split decision of the Supreme Court. It seemed to be the accidental presidency, one that would stand out in the history books as a freak event. On November 3 that changed, changed utterly. President Bush and his Republican army recorded a famous victory, one that may come to be seen as more than a mere election triumph — rather, as a turning point in American life, a realignment.

For 12 hours that fact was obscured by the fate of Ohio, and the desperate Democratic desire to see if that pivotal State might be wrested from Republican hands. By late morning the challenger, John Kerry, realised it was a vain hope. This was no Florida 2000. For Mr. Bush had done more than rack up the requisite numbers in the electoral college. He had done what he signally failed to do four years ago, win the popular vote — and not by a sliver, but by a 3.5 million margin.

Mr. Bush also achieved what no one had managed since his father in 1988, winning more than 50 per cent of the vote. Under Mr. Bush, the Republican Party has also won clear control of both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. Government — with a mandate whose legitimacy no one can doubt.

But the Republican revolution will not stop there. A subplot to this week's drama has been playing out at the Supreme Court, where the 80-year old Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, has been incapacitated by thyroid cancer. Few expect him to serve for much longer, giving President Bush the chance to appoint a successor. A social conservative, such as White House counsel Alberto Gonzales is a likely nominee. Other vacancies are imminent. Once filled, Mr. Bush will have overturned the court's wafer-thin moderate majority. The court could set to work unravelling a 50-year settlement that has asserted the rights of women, black Americans and, more recently, homosexuals. Opposition to affirmative action or abortion rights has been a minority position in America's highest court. That could change. And the conservative takeover would be complete.

For four years, many hoped that the course charted by President Bush — a muscular go-it-alone view of a world divided between the forces of darkness and those of light — would prove to be a blip. Come November 2, 2004, they wanted to believe, normal service would be resumed. Now that fantasy will be shelved. The White House is not about to ditch the approach of the last four years. Why would it? Despite the mayhem and murder in Iraq, despite the death of more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers and countless (and uncounted) Iraqis, despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction, despite Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration won the approval of the American people. If Mr. Bush had lost, the neo-conservative project would have been buried forever. But he won, and the neo-cons will welcome that as sweet vindication.

Mr. Bush's victory also signalled a shift in America itself. It has been under way for several decades, but now it is revealed in all its clarity. The electoral map showed it in full colour: "blue" coasts where the Democrats won, vast "red" swaths of the Republican heartland everywhere else.

Democrats need to stare long and hard at that map and at this comprehensive defeat. Many Bush voters admitted their unhappiness on Iraq and confessed to great economic hardship — two issues which ordinarily would be enough to defeat an incumbent. But these voters backed Mr. Bush, because he reflected something they regarded as even more important: their values.

Those values can be boiled down to issues — abortion, guns, gays — but they represent a larger, cultural difference. One Republican analyst asks people four questions. Do you have a friend or relative serving in the military? Do you have any personal ties to rural America? Do you attend religious services on a weekly basis? Do you own a gun? Answer yes to most or all of those, and you are "a cultural conservative" and most likely vote Republican. Answer no, and the chances are you live on the east or west coast and vote Democrat.

In 2000, this cultural split was dead-even: 50-50 America. This time it was 51-49 America, with the conservatives in the majority.

Put plainly, the U.S. is moving steadily and solidly to the right. That poses a problem for Democrats, who have to learn to speak to the people of those red states if they are ever to hold power again. But it also poses a problem for America, which has somehow to house two radically diverging cultures in one nation. And it may even pose a problem for the rest of the world's peoples, as they watch the sole superpower, the indispensable nation, chart a course they fear — and barely understand. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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