With Election Day almost upon us, it's not clear whether President Bush is running a campaign or plotting a coup d'etat. By all accounts, Republicans are spending these last precious days devoting nearly as much energy to suppressing the Democratic vote as they are to mobilizing their own.
Time was when Republicans were at least embarrassed by their efforts to keep African Americans from the polls. Republican consultant Ed Rollins was all but drummed out of the profession after his efforts to pay black ministers to keep their congregants from voting in a 1993 New Jersey election came to light.
For George W. Bush, Karl Rove and their legion of genteel thugs, however, universal suffrage is just one more musty liberal ideal that threatens conservative rule. Today's Republicans have elevated vote suppression from a dirty secret to a public norm.
In Ohio, Republicans have recruited 3,600 poll monitors and assigned them disproportionately to such heavily black areas as inner-city Cleveland, where Democratic "527" groups have registered many tens of thousands of new voters. "The organized left's efforts to, quote unquote, register voters -- I call them ringers -- have created these problems" of potential massive vote fraud, Cuyahoga County Republican Chairman James P. Trakas recently told the New York Times.
Let's pass over the implication that a registration drive waged by a liberal group is inherently fraud-ridden, and look instead at that word "ringers."
Registration in Ohio is nonpartisan, but independent analysts estimate that roughly 400,000 new Democrats have been added to the rolls this year. Who does Trakas think they are? Have tens of thousands of African Americans been sneaking over the state lines from Pittsburgh and Detroit to vote in Cleveland -- thus putting their own battleground states more at risk of a Republican victory? Is Shaker Heights suddenly filled with Parisians affecting American argot? Or are the Republicans simply terrified that a record number of minority voters will go to the polls next Tuesday? Have they decided to do anything to stop them -- up to and including threatening to criminalize Voting While Black in a Battleground State?
This is civic life in the age of George W. Bush, in which politics has become a continuation of civil war by other means. In Bush's America, there's a war on -- against a foreign enemy so evil that we can ignore the Geneva Conventions, against domestic liberals so insidious that we can ignore democratic norms. Only bleeding hearts with a pre-Sept. 11 mind-set still believe in voting rights.
For Bush and Rove, the domestic war predates the war on terrorism. From the first day of his presidency, Bush opted to govern from the right, to fan the flames of cultural resentment, to divide the American house against itself in the hope that cultural conservatism would create a stable Republican majority. The Sept. 11 attacks unified us, but Bush exploited those attacks to relentlessly partisan ends. As his foreign and domestic policies abjectly failed, Bush's reliance on identity politics only grew stronger. He anointed himself the standard-bearer for provincials and portrayed Kerry and his backers as arrogant cosmopolitans.
And so here we are, improbably enmeshed in a latter-day version of the election of 1928, when the Catholicism of Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith bitterly divided the nation along Protestant-Catholic and nativist-immigrant lines. To his credit, Smith's opponent (and eventual victor), Herbert Hoover, did not exploit this rift himself. Bush, by contrast, has not merely exploited the modernist-traditionalist tensions in America but helped create new ones and summoned old ones we could be forgiven for thinking were permanently interred. (Kerry will ban the Bible?)
Indeed, it's hard to think of another president more deliberately divisive than the current one. I can come up with only one other president who sought so assiduously to undermine the basic arrangements of American policy (as Bush has undermined the New Deal at home and the systems of post-World War II alliances abroad) with so little concern for the effect this would have on the comity and viability of the nation. And Jefferson Davis wasn't really a president of the United States.
After four years in the White House, George W. Bush's most significant contribution to American life is this pervasive bitterness, this division of the house into raging, feuding halves. We are two nations now, each with a culture that attacks the other. And politics, as the Republicans are openly playing it, need no longer concern itself with the most fundamental democratic norm: the universal right to vote.
As the campaign ends, Bush is playing to the right and Kerry to the center.
That foretells the course of the administrations that each would head. The essential difference between them is simply that, as a matter of strategy and temperament, Bush seeks to exploit our rifts and Kerry to narrow them. That, finally, is the choice before us next Tuesday: between one candidate who wants to pry this nation apart to his own advantage, and another who seeks to make it whole.