I got some interesting comments on mentioning my piece on Bush, notably from Tim Dunlop and, in email, from Jeff Hauser so I thought I’d post the whole thing:
One of the striking features of the aftermath of September 11 in the United States has been the absence of any significant upsurge in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. This contrasts sharply with the success of anti-immigrant parties elsewhere in the developed world.
American participants in the continuing ‘culture war’ between the US and Europe have been quick to seize on this point as proof of American cultural superiority. But even a cursory look at recent history shows that America is no more immune to racism than any other country. Contrary to the quasi-Marxist view that individuals make no significant difference to historical developments, the best explanation is one that gives a lot of personal credit to George W. Bush.
Not all aspects of Bush’s performance in office are creditable. Much of his campaign platform has turned out to be bogus. He ran as a self-made businessman, but owed his success to a combination of politically-motivated favours and dubious deals. His ‘compassionate conservativism’ has shown more compassion for the very rich than anyone else. But, despite campaign mis-steps like his appearance at the separatist Bob Jones university, Bush’s commitment to ethnic diversity and mutual tolerance appears to be quite genuine.
The Bush Cabinet includes two blacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as Hispanic Commerce Secretary Mel Martinez. Bush himself speaks Spanish well enough to take questions on the campaign trail. (There is, inevitably, dispute over whether his Spanish is fluent, or merely adequate, but then, there is a similar dispute about his English).
All this might be regarded as tokenism, the product of political calculation. The tradition of assigning Cabinet and other positions to members of electorally powerful groups is as old as democracy itself. And with millions of Spanish-speaking voters to be won, a few phrases in a second language are not much of a price to pay.
But the fact is that the US Republican party has generally made the opposite calculation, preferring in the immortal words of Pat Buchanan (then an advisor to Richard Nixon) to “cut … the country in half” in the belief that they would be “left with the larger half”. The fruits of this policy of “positive polarisation” may be seen in the Republican delegation to Congress. Out of 250 or so members, only one is black (JC Watts of Oklahoma), and he has announced his retirement, largely because of disillusionment with his Republican colleagues.
Similarly, while Bush pitched for the votes of Spanish-speaking immigrants, fellow-Republicans like Pete Wilson, former governor of California, ran hard on border protection and preservation of the status of English as the dominant language. Wilson’s successful campaign in 1994 was based on ads showing grainy video footage of ‘illegals’ crossing the Mexican border, with the voiceover, “They keep coming.” Wilson hoped to ride anti-immigrant sentiment all the way to the White House in 2000, but, thankfully failed.
Leadership is a much-abused word. But the fact is that racism and prejudice are issues on which leadership, or the lack of it, can make a lot of difference. In most countries, hard-core racists make up a small part of the population, perhaps 10 per cent. At the opposite pole, perhaps 20 per cent of the population is consistently opposed to racism. Between these poles, most people basically agree with the idea of a multicultural and discrimination-free society, but are nonetheless prone to varying degrees of prejudice about other people who look different, speak differently and have different religious beliefs and cultural practices.
The current world situation is one in which appeals to such prejudice can yield significant political payoffs, at least in the short run. For a variety of reasons, this kind of appeal is easier for parties of the political right. The leaders of these parties are therefore faced with the temptation of making such appeals themselves, or of colluding with racist political forces. Sadly, the majority have succumbed. Apart from Bush, Jacques Chirac in France is the only significant right-wing leader to stand firmly against collaboration with racism. Many on the left have either failed to take a firm stand on these issues, or capitulated completely by adopting ‘me-too’ or ‘small target’ positions.
Some aspects of the Bush administration’s response to September 11, such as its unilateral approach to international action, and the cavalier treatment of civil liberties have been less than constructive. But in this crucial respect, Bush has set an example of leadership that others could well follow.