Reflections on the 2004 American Presidential Election by Goenawan Mohamad

Copyright: Tempo
Translated by Jennifer Lindsay
November 2004

imageNovember is the beginning of our winter of hope, because 2004 was America's year of decision. Here is a country now so important that it looms over us as a center making us nervous. Living thousands of miles from the United States, we look over there anxiously: what will happen now that this November the majority of Americans have continued to support the power of President Bush?

We had no right to vote, and yet we too are crushed. We are part of another country, and yet we are disappointed and angry, and ask of millions of voters from Hawaii to Alaska: What is going on with you?

Yes, we know that the words "September 11" have become signifiers of victims and fear, after thousands of innocent people were killed by terrorism. We understand that there is anger and revenge in those words, because for years and years, thousands of people in other parts of the world were also wiped out by the same brutality. But it depresses us that this does not make Americans feel part of the same fate as others: Why is it that what follows is arrogance towards the rest of the world? The same arrogance that led to the invasion of Iraq with no clear, valid, justification, and to the deaths of thousands of people, including children? Has this really made Americans secure everywhere? Why can't they see that on the contrary the plague of violence has spread?

Bush got his mandate and will go on with his crowing, and none of these questions will be answered. In America itself, these questions have virtually divided the country. War, paranoia and rhetoric of no retreat have spread everywhere. From the White House and the Pentagon, a political life loathe to compromise has been born.

Why? Probably because of God and victory.

After the end of the Cold War, when America emerged victorious, it seemed only one conclusion could be made: God had chosen America in history. God had given America an amazing strength. And power was born from there, and that power has no need for negotiation, let alone the agreement of others. To be moderate means indecision. Politics is no longer carried out in the likelihood of seeing one's own shortcomings, and therefore enabling compromise. Politics, both domestic and foreign, is imperialism. Difference means hate, victory means conquest.

It seems that America has not been as deeply divided as it is now since the Vietnam War forty years ago.

And in that division, we know of course that not all Americans voted Bush back in. The decision of a nation does not mean the final sign of a consensus. The general election is a complex machine with simple results: like a snapshot. What is visible actually hides what is in process - there is yesterday, today, and tomorrow, with other kinds of possibilities. In the end, a political consensus is a form of hegemony - one type defeats and masters the other - but no hegemony is ever complete and is always temporary.

We know all of this. Not all Americans are wrong. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who strove to ensure that Bush would not be voted back in. But at the same time, we can ask - now, after the elections, how will those who did not vote for Bush react?

Democracies that have been around for a few decades need decorum: the defeated must acknowledge their loss, like in a tennis tournament. John Kerry has done this. Implicit in this decorum is the view that the general election is a machine that works in a neutral, routine fashion, without there being any predetermination that its results will be "good" or "bad" for people.

Little by little, people come to see that in the political process, "good" and "bad" are temporary matters, they do not have to be attached to abiding values, they do not have to be held on to tightly forever. Difference, competition and dispute get tamed. Eventually, all of this is considered merely a matter of choice. And that choice, as just happened in the US, is symbolized in the persons of two figures. Neither is intended to be a model of perfection. Democracy proceeds from the view that there is no side without sin.

But what happens once politics tends to see the other as sinning - particularly against God and country - and rejects the middle path? And when society becomes so divided because what is "good" and "bad" is so stark and deep? Can the defeated then say that all of this is just a routine, normal competition?

2004 is the American year: at stake are not merely issues of how to improve the economy, to end the war, and to spread education. What is at stake are things that will affect the entire world for the future of democracy: how far may liberties be trampled upon in order to make people feel secure? Can law operate differently for foreigners and the enemy? Is America really an exception graced by God, and thus its imperialism held up as exemplary? Can mankind claim positions like this, and turn God (or the version in his head) into judge in the midst of a diverse world?

The Bush government represents those who, with conviction, answer "yes," and want to change the world with that "yes".

And he was voted back in, and this November a depressing winter will begin: the sun will no longer shine for those who believe that democracy is nothing to worry about, because democracy holds within it a humility, for it admits that its actors are people and agenda that are never perfect.

That democracy now in America - already two hundred years old - makes us so nervous, is in itself something for us to be nervous about.

*Mohamad was a presenter in the recent symposium of the Brandeis International Fellowship Program 2003-04, "Re-Imagining Self and Other: Creativity and Ethical Action in the Aftermath of Violence." Director of the Institute of the Free Flow of Information, Jakarta, Indonesia, Mohamad is also an essayist; poet; and founding editor of the weekly newsmagazine, Tempo.

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