Fear and loathing are so intense in this campaign, one almost expects the “blood-red moon” of the Apocalypse to rise over the Republic on election eve. Imagine John Ashcroft reading from the Book of Revelation as he pushes the terror alert to maximum. Democratic poll watchers might wisely be packing heat in Florida. Our pious President, who faces a near-death experience like his father’s, may be moved to pray aloud in public view, “Please, Lord, don’t do me like you did my daddy.”

The small joke is on both sides. They are locked tight in mortal fear for the outcome, yet the outcome is unlikely to be as decisive as life or death. The public is stressed out by the competing fears generated by both campaigns, but the content of that fear is more muddled than substantive, mainly a question of which man has the more odious character. This dizzy national trauma will conclude soon but may not easily pass, regardless of who wins. Like 2000, it might not even be over when it’s over. Everyone now understands that in the back room of electoral politics partisans dump ballots in the sewer or direct earnest citizens to the wrong polling place or, in extreme circumstances, ask the Supreme Court to brush aside recounts and issue a directed verdict.

When democracy turns ugly, it’s good to take a deep breath and remember that the Republic has survived a lot worse than this. If the polls are all wet and the final vote breaks sharply one way or the other, people will want to claim 2004 as a historic watershed. But I doubt it. This election does not feel like resolution, principally because neither candidate nor party was willing to state the choices with the full clarity of bedrock ideas. Bush did not campaign on the right-wing reform agenda he has pursued so aggressively in office. The President’s handlers well understand that a majority of the populace does not support it. John Kerry was equally shy, afraid even to say the words “right wing” lest it upset the addled undecided voters who do not like to make big choices. So this election opens an important new stage in the deepening conflict over political values and national direction, but probably doesn’t settle anything.

What can we say we have learned? We know now that Bush and the Republicans, because they were drenched in ideological certitudes, missed a historic opportunity during their first term to build a stable majority by moving away from extreme impulses and governing to the center. Four years ago, given the confused and inert Democrats, the opening was there and was what I expected (boy, was I wrong). Instead, Bush governed with brutal conviction, taking no prisoners despite his lack of any public mandate. Going to war for fanciful ideological objectives made the risk-taking even worse. If Bush loses (which I still kind of maybe think he will), he will go down for the same reason his father lost in 1992. He was indifferent to the common reality– the facts ordinary Americans perceived at home and abroad.

John Kerry had all Bush’s flaws working in his favor but– let’s face it–Kerry was a lame challenger. It took him all year to clear his throat and state the alternatives clearly (even then without the kind of convincing detail people yearned to hear). On the war, he was like a green tomato picked too early. His convictions didn’t ripen until the second week of October. His debate performances were heroic, however. Kerry’s split-screen contrast with the whiny President Resolute overcame the muddy slurs cast by Karl Rove and, more important, crossed the threshold of plausibility that faces every challenger. Kerry looks stiff and painfully serious but also more presidential than the other guy. Like many activist Democrats, I nurse the hunch that an intensified mobilization of fed-up citizens (including many silent votes from disenchanted Republicans) can elect the senator.

If Kerry wins, then the suspense deepens for us. If he governs according to what he said during the campaign, it will be a lumpish mess at best and could be disaster for the Democratic Party. On the war, remember, he talked a lot about killing and vowed to “win” this unwinnable war, even promised to expand military forces to do so. On most of the other large matters bearing down on the country–the deformities of overpowerful corporations, globalization’s erosion of US economic strength, the horrendous trade debt, the shrinking middle class–Kerry either had nothing to say or offered platitudes and trivial remedies with no real meaning. As President, he is likely to be engulfed by economic disorders the establishment does not acknowledge or even seem to understand. Let’s hope he is a quick study and, despite what we know of him, willing to abandon his long-held establishment beliefs.

If Bush wins and once again sticks with his convictions, I believe (and of course I could be wrong again) the realities will swiftly sink him, both in the polls and in governing authority. Some matters are not subject to the manipulative techniques of the Republican propaganda machine. If Bush is sufficiently shrewd and cynical, he will claim victory–soonest–and bug out of Iraq. The right-wing agenda reached its apogee during his first term, and he may imagine that the second term can consolidate and advance further. I don’t think so. Aroused citizens and enraged progressives, if not the Democratic Party leaders, have had enough. They are not likely to return passively to inactive ranks.

Nasty politics is not over. Either way, there’s much more ahead. Some months ago, I heard Kevin Phillips observe that the deepening economic troubles facing the United States have not yet reached full expression and therefore the political paternity is not yet clearly established. The unwinding began most obviously on Bush’s watch, but people vaguely understood that the origins came before, both during the Clinton term and years earlier. If the worst reckoning occurs during the next four years, including a recognition that America has frittered away its strength on free-market ideology and military adventurism, then it is the next President who will likely serve as the new Hoover and whose party may bear the onus for a generation. For partisans on both sides, the thought sounds too speculative to regard seriously. For the losers, however, it may provide a measure of solace. Right after the election, if I am reading the portents correctly, the country rejoins reality. A lot of the losers may be pleased, after all, that their guy did not win.