Jonathan Raban: America's reality check

Bush is adept at spinning watertight fictions to justify his policies to a public that believes in faith, conscience, vision, and consistency more than it believes in untidy realism
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The Independent Online

Seattle. Most people I know are sick with anxiety about the outcome of Tuesday's presidential election. They have the look of patients awaiting the result of hospital "tests", steeling themselves for the worst, hardly daring to hope for the best. On the dot of 5pm Eastern Time, they race toThe Washington Post website to check the daily tracking poll. If Kerry's down a point (he was on Friday) the certainty hardens: we're for it. It's not as if the prospect of a Kerry presidency betokened the dawn of a new age of sweetness and light: the best that can be said of Kerry's stated positions on the war on Iraq and the "war on terror" is that at least he treats them as two different wars. It is that the prospect of a second Bush administration inspires, among urban liberals, something close to the fear of death itself - the death of America as a civilised and civilising presence in the world. It is that heartfelt. More than any other election in recent history, this one has become a referendum on what it means to be American, and half of the country detests the idea of living in the other half's America.

In Bush vs Kerry, two powerful national traditions are in conflict: idealism and realism, with zealous Platonists in the White House and messy, long-winded Aristotelians in the Kerry camp. For the past two weeks, the realists have been choking on a remark made by a Bush aide to Ron Suskind, the author of a revelatory piece about the administration that was published in The New York Times Magazine on 17 October:

The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we call the reality-based community", which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works any more," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out..."

The unnamed aide would have made Plato proud. The "created reality", painted in primary colours and broad-brush strokes by the Bush administration, looks like a nice place to be: freedom and democracy are on the march in Iraq; terrorists are being fought abroad so they cannot harm us at home; everyone's happy with their tax cuts; global warming is a left-wing myth; each month sees a flood of new jobs; the US is in the safe hands of a strong and resolute leader.

To quibblesome Aristotelians, every statement is an audacious lie. The occupation of Iraq is a catastrophe that grows worse by the day, and has turned the country into a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism. The security of the homeland has been dangerously neglected, except insofar as it has provided opportunities to infringe on civil liberties and turn America into a surveillance society. The tax cuts in effect make the poor subsidise the lives of the extremely rich. Environmental policy is being written by the CEOs of the energy corporations. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to end an administration with fewer net jobs than existed when he came to office. The "strong leader" is merely the amiable front man for a gang of hard-right ideologues, both secular and religious.

There's no negotiation between the two positions. Each cancels the other. You cannot live in both worlds. Yet realists labour under the benign illusion that facts will out, that if you expose a created reality to the corrosive drip of hard news it will eventually rust away. So for the past year and more - since the fiery rationalist Howard Dean took his campaign on the road - Democrats have relied on events to prove their case for them and to destroy the blithe fiction of the God's-in-his-heaven-all's-right-with-the-world rhetoric of the administration. There's been no shortage of events - the spread of the hydra-headed Iraqi resistance, the bloody kidnap-murders, the obscenity of Abu Ghraib, the mounting death toll of American soldiers, the sham of "sovereignty". This last week alone has seen the scandal of unguarded explosives at al-Qaqa'a, the FBI investigation into Halliburton's shady dealings with the Pentagon, Ramadi's descent into chaos, the re-emergence on video of Osama bin Laden looking like the cat that ate the cream and the report suggesting that 100,000 Iraqi civilians - and not 13,000, as previously estimated - have died as a result of the invasion and occupation. Yet the polls have hardly budged - and, if anything, they've budged in Bush's favour.

Democrats despair. Believing as they do in the power of empirical evidence to change electoral opinion, they feel they should be looking not at a likely tie, to be fought through the courts for weeks and maybe months after Tuesday's election, but at a landslide triggered by the - to them - self-evident and catastrophic failure of the Bush presidency. Some of this discrepancy has to be blamed on the candidate: John Kerry's style of sonorous gravity, his lofty patrician airs, his fluency in French, his otiose qualifications and dependent clauses grate badly on an electorate accustomed to the easy demotic manners of Reagan, Clinton, and George W Bush. He bores even his supporters. He certainly bores me.

But the poll numbers testify far more to Bush's strength than to Kerry's weakness. Bush, as he tirelessly reminds his listeners, has something more to offer than mere facts: he has "faith", "conscience", "vision", "consistency"; he has "convictions" that are "steady and true". "You know what I believe," he likes to say. "A President cannot blow in the wind. A President has to make tough decisions and stand by them." (These quotes are from a speech he gave on Thursday in Saginaw, Michigan.) Such key words and phrases play well with the Republican base of Christian fundamentalists, but they have an even more important secular application. A "created reality", like a novel, depends above all on its internal consistency, and as Plato recommended to his philosopher-kings in The Republic, the ideal state is necessarily dependent on a framework of "noble fictions" or "useful lies". No one is likely to mistake Bush for a philosopher-king, but he's adept at spinning watertight noble fictions to explain and justify the policies of his administration to a public that believes in faith, conscience, vision, and consistency more than it believes in untidy and time-consuming realism. And policies like the Wolfowitz plan for the forced democratisation of the Middle East owe a lot more to Plato (by way of his disciple Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago) than they do to Jesus. What Bush articulates on the stump is a vision of a created reality so nearly seamless and so internally coherent that it effectively displaces and supplants the unpleasant nether world inhabited by his Democratic opponent. All Kerry can do in response is produce a litany of what Bush trivialises as his "complaints" - and Americans tend to take a dim view of complainers.

"Human kind," wrote T S Eliot in "Burnt Norton", "cannot bear too much reality," and around 50 per cent of voters would understandably prefer to live inside Bush's noble Platonic fiction than in Kerry's work of low mimetic realism. We've been here before. Mark Twain liked to blame the Southern confederacy on its peculiar addiction to the romances of Sir Walter Scott: the South was lost in a storybook dream of its own aristocracy, regarding the industrial North as a base, money-grubbing, profane society, bereft of the high ideals that sustained the Southern slave owners. The Mason-Dixon line is drawn differently now - it pits the unbelieving cities against the godfearing countryside and outer suburbs - but the essence of the division remains. Who's for romance? Who's for realism? Who goes with God and Plato, who with crabbed and sceptical Aristotle?

We may, if we're lucky and avoid the bogs and sloughs of long-drawn-out electoral litigation, get an answer late on Tuesday (breakfast time on Wednesday for you). In the meanwhile, it's 2pm Pacific, 5pm Eastern, just time enough to check the latest tracking poll before my deadline... and it's as I feared - Bush up a point at 50, Kerry down one at 47. As we go into the weekend, the creators of reality have the edge on the reporters of reality - the hapless messengers who get shot for bearing bad news. One can only pray that on Monday morning sobriety will return, and, with it, a regard for the grim facts of the case - and that the chastened mood will last through Tuesday. Fingers crossed.

Jonathan Raban is the author of 'Old Glory'. His latest novel is called 'Waxwings'