The world's marquee democracy holds its quadrennial presidential election on Tuesday, not with its usual air of casual pre-eminence but in an atmosphere of apprehension.
This mood stems first from the lingering dread associated with the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For a nation long accustomed to feeling invulnerable within its continental fortress, these assaults represented the ultimate rude awakening. Recognizing this fact, one conservative publication, The Weekly Standard, has dubbed this "The 9/11 Election." The not-too-subliminal message is that we should choose our president simply by asking how he would deal with another 9/11.
But there are other sources of unease in the land, as well. For many, the sense of national and personal vulnerability has been intensified by the past 18 months of conflict in Iraq. For some, this heightened tension began with the American-led invasion in March 2003. For others, it began with the anti-American insurgency that followed -- or with the growth of that insurgency this spring and summer.
The clouds over Iraq darken further for those who fear we are entering an era of multiple wars against other nations at odds with U.S. interests. They suspect these wars will mean a draft, much higher military spending, deeper deficits or higher taxes (or both) and a raft of social consequences. At the same time, many Americans are distressed to hear such protests raised at all when U.S. troops are engaged overseas. They actively worry for the nation when so much of it seems tepid in its patriotism.
On the home front, there have been undercurrents of anxiety of other kinds. Although the macroeconomic numbers have improved since the recession of 2001, they have not improved enough for many dependents of the manufacturing sector to return to the full confidence of earlier decades. And the job market is not the only market that has been disappointing. The financial markets remain well underwater when compared to the 1990s, and years of flat or declining returns mean worries for investors and pensioners alike.
Not all the domestic concerns are economic. Many social traditionalists, including religious conservatives, see abortion, school prayer and gay marriage as more salient than tax cuts and defense budgets. Their political instincts are aroused by a sense of encroachment. They fear the secularization they see all around them and take the threat personally. At the same time, of course, millions of Americans feel their most personal freedoms impinged upon by the activism of the religious. No one has the exclusive franchise on feeling persecuted.
Against this backdrop, the emotions of the 2004 campaign have been roiled further by media coverage that emphasizes the divisions in our society. The founding concept of E pluribus unum has always been an ideal more than a full reality, but right now it is mocked by an electoral map of red states, blue states and bitterness on both sides.
One powerful indicator of this mood is the controversy over access to the ballot. American elections have always had issues of enfranchisement and disenfranchisement, of vote fraud and voter suppression. But most of these have been disruptive at the local or at most state level. They have been sideshows to the main event. This year is different.
As news coverage this week suggested, the conflicts over voting this November may eclipse the election results themselves -- at least until a winner can be determined. And if vote tallies are confused or delayed, the election itself could be thrown into the House of Representatives. In the critical states of Florida and Ohio, missing absentee ballots and challenges to voter registration already have party activists and ordinary voters alike at each other's throats.
Not since 1980, when interest rates and inflation were in the teens and Iran was holding an embassy full of U.S. hostages, has America gone to the polls with quite so much foreboding. In that year, gas prices were setting records and recession was costing jobs. Before that, you would need to return to 1968 -- with its reversals in Vietnam, riots in the inner cities and assassinations on the political stage -- to find comparable levels of distress and hard feelings.
In both those watershed years, 1980 and 1968, voters sent the incumbent party out of the White House and brought in a new team. On the other hand, in both of those years, the voters chose to put their faith in Republicans (Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon). The two precedents contradict when applied to the situation of 2004.
In fact, the unique circumstances of 2004 seem to have produced an election of high anxiety in which precedents may not be as predictive as usual. One might assume that in such a restless national mood, incumbent officeholders would be running scared. But the evidence tells a different story. Incumbents have found the uneasiness of the era works as often as not in their favor.
President Bush has practically based his campaign on the anguished aftermath of 9/11, warning almost daily that fresh terror attacks are in the offing. And in the congressional races, the men and women of the House and Senate find speech material in the troubled minds of their constituents. In times like these, they seem to say, you need an experienced hand on the tiller.
And that is a tactic that's working. Only three Senate incumbents on the ballot this year are in any real danger of losing (and all could still be re-elected). The other six really close Senate contests all involve vacancies caused by voluntary retirement. On the House side, the numbers are truly stunning. Of the 435 seats on the ballot, only 35 are considered competitive by the authoritative analysis of Congressional Quarterly. And most of those will probably remain in the hands of the incumbent party.