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A Fateful Election

These churches clearly shaped her views on social issues, so it is fair to ask how they have shaped her views on foreign policy. All three, after all, adhere to an eschatology known as dispensationalism: the belief that the world will end in a cataclysm during which Christians will be “raptured,” nonbelievers destroyed, and Christ will return to earth. Dispensationalists look to current events for signs that End Times are approaching, and since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948—the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy of the return of the Jews to the Holy Land—many have found such signs in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Ed Kalnins, the pastor of Wasilla Assembly of God since 1999, recently told a journalist, “Scripture specifically mentions oil instability as a sign of the Rapture. We’re seeing more and more oil wars. The contractions of the fulfilment of prophecies are getting tighter and tighter.”12 Larry Kroon, pastor of Wasilla Bible, preached last July that God could destroy the earth as soon as this autumn by raising up “a revived, prosperous and powerful Communist Russia with a web of alliances across the Middle East.”13 The Juneau Christian Center, also dispensationalist, last year played host to John Hagee, the Christian Zionist pastor whose endorsement McCain had to repudiate because he preached that God had used Hitler to drive European Jews to Palestine.14

Many Pentecostals believe that spiritual warfare between godly and satanic forces underlies all earthly conflicts, and that those battles are a part of God’s plan for the end of days. Kalnins, for one, has preached, “What you see in a terrorist—that’s called the invisible enemy…. What you see in Iraq, basically, is a manifestation of what’s going on in this unseen world called the spirit world,” and he has called the war on terrorism “a holy war” between Christianity and Islam.15 Palin herself seems to believe that warfare can be holy, for in June, standing next to Kalnins on the stage of her old church, she asked a graduating class of young missionaries to pray that “our national leaders are sending [US soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”

Out of church, she may be able to take a purely naturalistic view of international conflicts. Still, she has spent much more time in church than she has studying foreign policy, and the habit of mind these churches instill has little to do with diplomacy or peacemaking. “We need to develop as believers the instinct that we are at war, and that war is contending for your faith,” Kalnins concluded from his remarks on terrorism. “I believe that Jesus himself operated from that position of war mode.”

Timothy Garton Ash

From my observation perch in Stanford, California, an English European turned 24/7-cablenews-Webcast junkie, I notice that many Americans still suffer from a touching delusion that this is their election. How curious. Don’t they understand? This is our election. The world’s election. Our future depends on it, and we live it as intensely as Americans do. All we lack is the vote.

The world may not have a vote, but it has a candidate. A BBC World Service poll, conducted across twenty-two countries this summer, found Barack Obama was preferred to John McCain by a margin of four to one. Nearly half those asked said an Obama victory would “fundamentally change” their perception of the United States. And it certainly needs changing. Over the two terms of President George W. Bush, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of worldwide public opinion surveys, has documented what anyone who travels around the world knows: a substantial fall in the standing, credibility, attractiveness, and therefore power of the United States.

In the American context, Obama is “black” or “African-American.” His candidacy exposes yet again how that thing anachronistically called “race”—meaning the legacy of slavery and segregation—is the hidden warp and woof of American politics. In the international context, Obama is three other things. Firstly, he’s one of us—the child of an increasingly mixed-up world, now aspiring to be the most powerful man in it. A true cosmopolitan: not just African-American but also a little bit each of Hawaiian, Kenyan, Kansan, Indonesian. Secondly, he’s not Bush. John McCain is not Bush either, but a lot less not-Bush. Finally, he personifies everything that foreigners still love about America.

Back in Oxford, and traveling around Europe, I constantly meet young people who who have grown up furious at the United States. “You know, I’m very pro-European,” one British student informed me. Stirred by this rarity—a pro-European Brit—I asked why she was pro-European. “Oh, I guess mainly because I’m anti-American.” But she wasn’t really anti-American. I would bet my bottom euro that she’s an Obamaniac now.

Culturally, socially, and aesthetically, he represents the America that is deep in young Europeans’ everyday imaginations, transported there by the soft power of American films, music, literature, and television series such as Friends, ER, The West Wing, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and even Star Trek, together with serial abuse of the word “like”: you can hear it at any coffee shop in Oxford, and the speaker may be Slovak, German, or Chinese. That someone from Obama’s modest migrant background can make it this far also revives a potent, positive image of the United States as a land of opportunity—an American self-image which much of the world has internalized, however little it corresponds with the statistically recorded facts of limited social mobility.

Were he elected, we would discover within a few months how much of the worldwide hostility loosely tagged “anti-Americanism” really was anti-Americanism, and how much was just a violent allergy, shared by many Americans, to a particular president, a specific set of policies, and a certain version of Americanism. Yet this very popularity of one candidate raises the stakes in this election to an alarming degree.

Just because international hopes have been raised so high, the disappointment if Obama fails will be devastating. The shock will be even greater because of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin—who, like George W. Bush, reinforces every European cliché about the otherness (cowboyness, hickiness, wackiness) of Americans. This disappointment might be unfair to the likely content of a McCain foreign policy, but in international politics, as in financial markets, the perceptions are a large part of the reality. If Americans were to choose McCain-Palin, after reelecting Bush in 2004, I don’t think it’s too much to say that a lot of Europeans would feel like giving up on them. Of course European governments wouldn’t, and couldn’t afford to, give up on Washington; but they would have to operate within the constraining reality of popular disillusionment.

This would matter to the United States at the best of times. It will matter a lot more in these times. Even before the financial crisis, the list of problems piling up for the new president’s in-boxes (both the one marked Urgent and the one marked Important, to recall John F. Kennedy’s distinction) was already formidable. Even before this crisis added perhaps a trillion dollars to an already staggering national debt, the relative power of the United States to achieve its goals on its own—unilaterally—had significantly diminished over the last eight years, not least because of the renaissance of great powers such as China and Russia. Somewhere around 2000 may be marked by future historians as the zenith of American power. In such a world, the need for allies and international credibility is greater than ever.

Paul Krugman

A year ago I thought I knew what would happen in this election: it would be a referendum on conservative economic policies, leading to a big Democratic victory and a fundamental change in the country’s direction. Then, for a few agonizing months, it appeared that I might have been completely wrong. But at this point, a little over four weeks before voters go to the polls, I’m back to my original prediction.

In my last book, The Conscience of a Liberal, I argued that the conservative movement that now dominates the Republican Party has pursued policies that foster inequality and insecurity, and have made the large majority of Americans worse off. The GOP has nonetheless been able to win elections through identity politics—above all, by exploiting white racial resentment. But, I argued, identity politics were losing their effectiveness, because America has become more tolerant and, not to put too fine a point on it, less white. As a result, the era of conservative dominance was over.

The 2006 election, which abruptly ended the supposedly permanent Republican majority, seemed to confirm my thesis. That election gave Democrats a larger majority in the House than Republicans ever achieved in their twelve-year reign. Moreover, this new Democratic majority is much more solidly progressive than the pre-1994 alliance between Northern liberals and Dixiecrats. And I expected the 2008 election to continue and cement that power shift, leading in turn to a transformation in federal policies—a new New Deal.

For a while, however, Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular, seemed to have lost the plot. Instead of running against the Republican economic record, Obama spent the primary season and the first few weeks of the general election campaign portraying himself as a “post-partisan” politician, someone who transcended the traditional party divide. In his speeches, he tended to hold both parties equally culpable for the country’s woes, denouncing the failed policies of right and left equally. And when talking about economics, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid scoring political points: as late as early August, he was still talking about how incomes had risen “during the 1990s” and fallen “over the last several years,” somehow failing to mention that the good years had taken place under a Democratic president and the bad years under a Republican.

The lack of a forceful economic narrative from Obama allowed John McCain’s campaign, now run by disciples of Karl Rove, to do two things. First, they were able to blur the question of who offered “change”—because if change wasn’t defined clearly as a rejection of conservative economic policies, McCain could claim to be a change candidate too. Second, without economics front and center, there was room for a new version of the old identity politics. Never mind the policy details, was the McCain message, Obama isn’t one of us—he’s a celebrity, not like Sarah Palin the hockey mom.

And McCain’s tactics were effective. By early September it looked as if the seemingly impossible might happen: a Republican victory in a year in which everything—the short-term state of the economy, the longer-term stagnation of working Americans’ incomes, and the public’s disgust with the Bush administration—overwhelmingly favored the Democrats.

  1. 12

    Alexi Mostrous, “Sarah Palin, the Pastor and the Prophecy,” The Times (London), September 10, 2008.

  2. 13

    Max Blumenthal, “Palin’s Pastor: God Will Damn America,” The Nation online, September 5, 2008.

  3. 14

    The Rev. John Hagee…Will Speak,” Juneau Empire, June 15, 2007; Sarah Posner, “Palin’s Juneau Church to Host a Hagee ‘Night to Honor Israel,’ in March,” The American Prospect online, September 2, 2008.

  4. 15

    Nico Pitney and Sam Stein, “Palin’s Church May Have Shaped Controversial Worldview,” The Huffington Post, September 2, 2008; Suzanne Sataline, “Palin’s Faith Is Seen in Church Upbringing,” The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2008; Manya A. Brachear, “How Religion Guides Palin,” Chicago Tribune, September 6, 2008.

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