A remarkable number of those in Blue America who hoped for an end to the Bush era on November 2 received the news of his election victory almost as if it had been a physical blow. Some compared it to a kick in the stomach, others to a sudden illness. Many dreaded the outcome so deeply that they were unable to watch the returns come in. One person, Andrew Veal, traveled to Ground Zero, somehow penetrated the security fence that rings the site and shot himself at the base of the World Trade Center–in part, reports have said, in protest against the election. And before the vote it had been a commonplace to say that it was the most important election of our lifetimes.

There was, of course, a long list of specific reasons for the sharp reaction, including the war launched on the basis of phony evidence, the blizzard of legal memos exempting the executive branch from the law and condoning torture, the widespread torture itself, the deep shroud of secrecy dropped over the presidency, the claim that the President could lock away any person, American citizen or other, on his own say-so as Commander in Chief, the tax bonanza for the super-rich, the phony economic math that had sent the budget deficit soaring, the blindness to environmental disaster. But at least as disturbing as any of these particular blunders and abuses was the across-the-board rejection of accountability for any of them.

The President and his Vice President appeared to be temperamentally incapable of admitting any mistake. Nor were the other branches of government, conceived by the Founders as checks and balances, performing that office (the main exception being the Supreme Court ruling against the Administration’s suspensions of habeas corpus). The Fourth Estate had, until very recently, abdicated its role as thoroughly as the other three. Even the international community was passive–failing, in this case, to provide that balance of power that has been the classic response of nations to hegemonic threats. If pursued to their logical conclusion, these tendencies added up to more than the sum of their parts. They evoked a terrifying vision of a systemic change, possibly irreversible, of the American democratic system into a one-party system dominated by a President who had placed himself above the law or any other control.

But one large and obvious barricade to any realization of this nightmare remained in place: the electoral system. Perhaps the people–the ultimate check, the ultimate balance–would rise up to say no to torture, no to aggressive war, no to a lawless presidency, no to empire, and impose the accountability that the other elements of the system had failed to provide and throw Bush out of office. Instead the people–or 51 percent of the voters, if the counters are correct–in effect looked on these things and called them good. It is true that the public may have been ill informed about such matters as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and also true that 51 percent of the voters do not constitute a majority of the people of the United States. Yet the fact remains that the public has given George W. Bush the most important expression of support that the Constitution provides for–a majority of the votes cast in a high-turnout election. (Some writers have suggested that some of the results may be fraudulent. But these charges, which of course deserve a thorough airing, have not been proven so far.)

For a believer in democracy, this sequence of events creates an acute quandary. The decision of a majority, the sole source of legitimacy that a democracy can confer, deserves respect. American Blues should honor it exactly as much as they would expect the Reds to have honored a Kerry mandate. Also, those Red voters, or some of them, are exactly the people who offer the sole available path out of today’s nightmare, which is to say the formation of a different electoral majority with a different will.

If regarded very narrowly, the creation of a popular mandate for a President who had never had one (because he lost the popular vote in 2000 and got into office with a vote of the Supreme Court) even has certain positive aspects. They were perhaps visible in the press conference that the President gave almost immediately after his victory. The flailing Bush of the campaign debates was gone. He seemed older, calmer, even more contented than he had ever seemed before. A President governing with the support of most of his fellow citizens: Isn’t this what democracy is all about?

And yet a nightmare doesn’t become a beautiful dream just because it has just been given a mandate; on the contrary, it becomes more frightening. Just how frightening became almost immediately clear when the President, in one of the most shameful acts of recent American history, ordered the attack upon the city of Falluja, beginning with an assault on a hospital, whose patients were for a while herded into halls and tied up. For Bush, in addition to being President of the United States, had made himself the dictator of Iraq. He came to democratize the country, but so far Iraq has dictatorized him. He has added himself to the company of despots that rule in almost all Middle Eastern nations. (Of course, it’s all being done in the name of democracy someday in the future. I am reminded of what Gandhi said of Stalin in 1938: “He dreams of peace, and dreams he will wade to it through a sea of blood.”)

What has produced the peculiar combination of intellectual disorientation and moral nausea among so many people is at least in part, I suggest, a fear that the democratic will of a people has become the adversary of democracy, that the country is entering into a legitimized nightmare. Can a great democracy vote itself out of existence? How does a true democrat act in such a circumstance? Perhaps anxiety of this kind was the tacit reason that some people were referring to the “Armageddon election.”

And yet, of course, on November 3, the sun rose, the coffee smelled good, the Internet was up and the Constitution remained in operation. There was still time to think and act.