A special odium

Posted: Jun 22, 2004 12:00 AM
The virulence of the anti-Bush movement feeds on itself, and of course is fed by bad news. The most copious source of this is the Middle East. The mode of execution of Paul Johnson had the effect the terrorists wanted. If he had simply been shot, repercussions would have been formalistic. The announcement that he would be killed, followed quickly by the execution, followed by the posting of photos of the event, had the special effect.

It may help to recall that beheadings were conventional within living memory. They were the standard means of capital punishment in France, for instance, up until World War II. Even so, the sanguinary exercise chills the mind, and we are asked, however indirectly, to blame George Bush for it, as for practically everything else going sour in the world.

A broad search of anti-Bush Web sites suggests the scope of festering animosity toward Bush. We have, e.g., BartCop, described by a compendium of Web sites as "Dedicated to hammering Bush and right-wing hypocrisy, featuring cartoons, daily news update." The Smirking Chimp gives "news, rants, activism and other things anti-Bush," while the utilitarian Wage Slave Journal gives the George W. Bush Scorecard of Evil. BushAndCheneySuck.com is modestly "dedicated to licking Bush in 2000 and beyond."

That last brings to mind the temper of dissenters in the period of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was a take-it-to-bed relief, after the disastrous defeat of Alfred Landon in 1936, that at least the two-term convention established by George Washington would mean an end to FDR in 1940; but of course he decided to run for a third term. Then Pearl Harbor happened, and there was distraction in the critical community, which paused to fight a war. By the time 1944 came around, re-electing FDR had become something of a routine, and the world went on.

As it will in 2005, with the re-election of George W. Bush?

History tends to reassure us on this point. Elections have assimilated American dissent since 1860. The mark of democracy is submission to the majority. But this time around, if the current figures hold, the rupture will be deepened. As of yesterday, the polls were showing Kerry, 48; Bush, 44; Nader, 6. The first two of these data are not striking; a seesaw between the two principal candidates happens frequently. The Nader factor is troubling, however, because if Bush defeats Kerry by a margin less than the nick taken by Nader, the anti-Bush political community will think itself robbed yet again. It happened to us in 2000, they will be saying, when Gore had the popular vote and we lost by a judicial caprice. Now, if Nader is responsible for a fresh loss, we have to wonder about the reliability of democratic practices.

The kind of people who generate BushAndCheneySuck.com don't make up dissent at an institutional level. If Bush wins, even on account of the Nader factor, it is not likely that the United States will stampede for a Constitutional Convention jettisoning the Electoral College. Such an amendment couldn't get by the states that would be disfranchised on account of it.

But there is a special odium at large in the matter of George Bush. It will seek to release itself by a rabid campaign against him, a campaign which, of course, could be victorious. But there will need to be a tranquilizing factor in the campaign. If, for instance, Bush handles Kerry confidently and dispositively in the three debates, that could provide a sense of democratic vindication. If real progress in Iraq under native rule pivots the scene slightly, but substantially, toward stability, Bush could legitimately profit.

In the absence of such developments, the anti-Bush diehards are headed for a disillusionment likely to affect the democratic culture. What matters, in democratic elections, is not only submission to the majority, but also civil relations.