What We Learned from the US Presidential Election

What We Learned from the US Presidential Election


The decisive re-election of President George W. Bush –with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress– confirms that the United States is a centre-right country. Nevertheless, the country remains divided. Indeed, the campaign highlighted cultural divisions within American society that in many ways reflect the source of the current tensions in trans-Atlantic relations.


Although the presidential campaign was shaped primarily by terrorism and the war in Iraq, at its core the election was about moral values: one-fifth of voters said they cared most about moral values –just as many as cared about terrorism and the economy– and 8 in 10 of them voted for Bush. Indeed, the 2004 presidential race marked a watershed in American politics: John Kerry was the first presidential candidate in US history to possess a fully post-modern world-view. By stark contrast, the traditional conservative perspectives of George W. Bush are rooted in an essentially modern outlook. While voters decided to stick with the perceived moral and religious certainties offered by Bush, the American public is in fact evenly split on cultural values. Indeed, the so-called culture wars in American society reflect the gradual ascendancy of a post-modern world-view –one marked by secularism and moral relativism rather than the traditional absolutes associated with the Christian roots of America’s early beginnings– that is already the norm across Western Europe but is only now emerging as a significant factor in American politics. Without question, the United States is currently engaged in a multi-generational struggle over moral values as the culture gradually moves into post-modernity. Moreover, the process of cultural evolution in the US is a microcosm of the forces at work in the larger sphere of contemporary international relations. Indeed, the root cause of trans-Atlantic tensions –as well as of the larger war on Islamic terror– essentially involves a clash of world-views as pre-modern, modern and post-modern states encounter each other in an increasingly globalised world.


The Election Results: Not a Landslide…But a Clear Mandate
George W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election by a solid 51% to 48% vote. Bush received a record total of 58 million votes, the most votes for any presidential candidate in US history. Bush won about 8.7 million more popular votes than he did in 2000, and was re-elected with a margin of 3.5 million votes, in the first presidential election in modern history with an equal turnout of Democrats and Republicans. Bush became the first presidential candidate to win more than 50% of the popular vote since his father did in 1988, and he received a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democratic candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Republicans also improved their unified control of the federal government, making significant gains on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate where the political landscape has been dramatically altered. Not only did the Republicans reap a net gain of four seats in the Senate, but Tom Daschle, the minority leader who has been the public persona of the Democrats in the Senate for a decade, lost his bid for re-election; he was the only Senate incumbent to lose on November 2.

When the new Congress convenes in January, the Senate will effectively be split 55 to 45. Republicans will still be short of a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority but will probably find it much easier to assemble the coalitions needed to override any resistance. In fact, Senate Republicans are already making plans to expand their margins on important committees to two votes from one, making it easier to advance legislation. Indeed, the emboldened and more conservative Republican majority should make it easier for the party to pursue the economic, environmental and social agenda they favour, an agenda they blame Daschle for helping to block.

In the House, Republicans expanded their majority by at least two seats; they were helped by a gain of five in Texas alone as they took advantage of a new Congressional district map to defeat four Democratic incumbents and win another seat without a challenge. Although House Democrats scored some victories, they were not able to defeat most of the Republican incumbents they had gone after.

American conservatism has three main blocs: religious traditionalists, opponents of big government and foreign policy hawks. The Bush Administration likely will cater to each of these groups and although following his re-election Bush said he would work to unite the country, Republicans are unlikely to pursue a compromise centrist route. Given the election results, especially in Congress, Bush has positioned himself and his party to push through a conservative social agenda in Washington over the next four years. Moreover, the White House is likely to continue to pursue a vigorous, interventionist foreign policy.

Moral Values as a Defining Issue of the Election
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of religion in American politics. Opinion surveys show that Americans are broadly religious: 90% express some belief in God and up to 30% of Americans describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Gone are the days when a candidate’s beliefs were considered largely private by the media and voters. Now presidential aspirants are expected to articulate their views on faith as routinely as on tax policy or healthcare reform.

And although Bush appealed to many voters on terrorism and national security, what gave him the edge in the election was a perceived sense of morality and traditional values. Bush has been the most openly Christian president in a generation, and that endeared many Christians –Catholics and Protestants alike– to him: of those voters who considered moral values their top issue, 80% voted for Bush. One-quarter of the electorate was made up of white evangelical and born-again Christians, and they voted four to one for Bush. Bush beat Kerry in almost all religious categories except among Jews, three-quarters of whom favoured Kerry. But they made up only 3% of the electorate. Bush did especially well among white Catholics, winning 56% of them compared with Kerry’s 43%, despite Kerry’s being the first Roman Catholic nominated for president since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Church attendance was a strong indicator of political preference. Of those who attend church more than once a week, 61% voted for Bush and 39% for Kerry. Of those who never attend church, the numbers were reversed.

Another factor was that proposed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage increased the turnout of socially conservative voters in many of the 11 states where the measures appeared on the ballot. The amendments, which define marriage as between only a man and a woman, passed overwhelmingly in all 11 states, clearly receiving support from Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. The ballot measures appear to have acted like magnets for thousands of socially conservative voters in rural and suburban communities who might not otherwise have voted. And in tight races like the one in Ohio, those voters –who historically have leaned heavily Republican– may have tipped the balance.

In fact, it appears as though Kerry’s reluctance to speak about his religious faith in public may have cost him the election.

The US Culture Wars: A Move Towards Post-Modernity
The debate on moral values that surfaced during the presidential campaign is actually the subtext for a much larger cultural trend that is taking place in the United States today. Divisions in American society have been defined in many ways: liberal versus conservative, blue versus red, north versus south, retro versus metro. La Vanguardia, the Barcelona-based daily newspaper, recently tried to explain the split in American society by reporting that Democrats take their coffee at Starbucks while Republicans enjoy theirs at the local deli where they can get free refills, an assertion that would probably surprise most Americans. All of these definitions fall short of the mark.

Most political observers in the United States do agree, however, that religious belief has become a reliable and important indicator of how America votes. Indeed, both the ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ voting blocs are growing increasingly distinct: regular churchgoers are becoming more Republican while the unchurched are becoming more Democrat.

This largely tracks with a profound cultural shift that is taking place in western society as a whole: the rapid movement from modernity into post-modernity. Post-modernity is a cultural shift in world-view, away from the previously held world-view of modernity. World-view changes are extremely infrequent and the last one was the Renaissance, which occurred 500 years ago and marked the beginning of modernity.

The essential difference between the modern and post-modern world-views boils down to one fundamental question: can truth be absolute? The modern world-view maintains that truth is objective and absolute while the post-modern world-view holds that all truth is subjective and therefore relative. Post-modernism states that what is true for you may not be true for me.

Moreover, the modern world-view is fundamentally about creating order out of chaos. George W. Bush was re-elected in part because of his repeated use of a clear, concise message on the need to win the war on terror. Bush appealed to a wide spectrum of voters who divide the world into two camps: good and evil, right and wrong. He said repeatedly: ‘The people know where I stand’.

This also explains why Bush uses grand narratives, like the one that democracy is the most enlightened form of government, and that democracy will lead to universal human happiness. These moral absolutes form part of an essentially modern world-view. Indeed, the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States –and the political power it wields– is a direct reaction to the influence of post-modernism in American society and is a form of resistance to the questioning of the grand narratives of religious truth.

By contrast, Kerry made so little of his religion that a survey in July by the Pew Research Centre found that only 43% of Catholics even knew he was a Roman Catholic. And the few statements Kerry did make about his religious beliefs revealed a fully secular, post-modern worldview: ‘I believe in science’, Kerry said at one point. While Bush framed the sensitive issue of embryonic stem cell research as a moral dilemma, and summoned members of the clergy and ethicists, as well as scientists, to counsel him, Kerry framed it as a matter of clinical science, and surrounded himself with university researchers and doctors in white laboratory coats.

On another occasion, Kerry said: ‘I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith’. This moral relativism –a nuance that is quintessentially post-modern– gave Bush an opening, day after day, to attack Kerry as a ‘flip-flopper’. Indeed, Kerry’s inability to articulate clear and consistent convictions bore out Bush’s argument that Kerry was too indecisive and vacillating to lead the nation.

President Lyndon B. Johnson once said that Democrats are ‘in favour of a lot of things, and we’re against mighty few’. The outcome of the 2004 election suggests that a key challenge for Democrats as well as for Republicans in future races will be to field candidates who are comfortable talking about their faith, and are able to address moral issues with conviction.

America has one of the oldest constitutional regimes in the world, yet it is the only developed country never to have had a left-wing government. Given the country’s broad and deep conservatism, the United States will probably retain a modern world-view for well into the foreseeable future.

What’s Next?
On the international level, some political commentators have said that Americans seem to be from Mars and Europeans from Venus. In reality, Americans are modern while Europeans are post-modern. Most Americans see the world in black and white, while Europeans prefer grey. This will not change during the next four years.

But the 2004 election reaffirmed US pre-eminence in international affairs. No American election in recent memory has elicited such intense interest abroad, nor has its outcome been such a matter of concern for the entire world. Some American neo-conservatives have already said that Bush’s re-election vindicates his policy of pre-emptive action against potential sponsors of terrorism. ‘The world saw this as a referendum on the Bush Doctrine, and I think the world was right’, said a neo-conservative commentator one day after the election. Indeed, Iran may be the next target for US military intervention as Washington seeks to dismantle Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Bush may have convinced both adversaries and allies that the United States means to transform the political order in the Middle East, to transform pre-modern states into modern ones. And many Americans have been persuaded by the Bush Administration’s approach to foreign policy, replete with images of moral certitudes and of generational struggle to defeat a new enemy while transforming an entire region. But a post-modern and post-religious Europe remains puzzled by a nation where grace is said at half the family dinner tables.

Some Europeans may feel they are ‘spectators at the unfolding of their own destinies’, as a leading German politician said. But many other Europeans understand that the main differences between the United States and Europe are systemic and they are determined to keep the Atlantic Alliance strong. In the final analysis, anti-Americanism is a ‘lose-lose’ proposition for Europe and for the United States.


Although George W. Bush was re-elected by a solid margin, and Republicans have increased their control over all three branches of the federal government, the United States remains evenly divided on many issues. Moreover, Bush remains a polarizing figure both at home and abroad. But his administration is unlikely to move to the centre and his supporters are already staking out mandates for an ambitious agenda of long-cherished goals at home and abroad.

Soeren Kern
US foreign policy analyst and former managing editor of Arms Control Today