The presidential campaign debates are over, and the time for decision has come. The Nation endorses Senator John Kerry to be the next President of the United States.

Any stocktaking must begin, of course, by comparing the records of Kerry and George W. Bush. Yet the upshot of such a detailed comparison, though entirely favoring Kerry, is not our principal reason for supporting him. To make clear why, despite strong disagreements with Kerry, we not only recommend a vote for him but do so with fervor, we must step back from the candidates and their positions and set forth an independent view of what we believe are the stakes in this election.

The most important is the consequence it will have in what has emerged as a crisis of American democracy. The crisis began on December 12, 2000, when Bush was chosen to be President by the Supreme Court. The gift of a true electoral mandate now to this previously unelected President would give fresh legitimacy and momentum to all his disastrous policies. And that new momentum could in turn place our constitutional system itself at risk.

This magazine’s disagreements with Kerry are deep and touch on fundamental matters. We believed that the invasion of Iraq was “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time” (as he now describes it) before the war was ever launched; he has come to that conclusion only recently, having voted to authorize the war. We believe the United States should withdraw from Iraq; he wants to “win” the war there. We think the military budget should be cut; he plans to increase it, adding 40,000 troops. (For what, exactly? to fight another wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time?) We reject pre-emptive war; he embraces it. We oppose the wall that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is building on Palestinian lands; he supports it. We believe in the elimination of all nuclear weapons; he wants only to stop their spread. He calls for significant expansion of healthcare; we call for a single-payer system that would cover everyone. He opposes gay marriage; we back it. If he wins the election, The Nation will pursue each of these differences vigorously.

But while we have sharp differences with Kerry, we believe he has the qualities required for the presidency. He is more than “anybody but Bush.” His instincts are decent. He is a man of high intelligence, deep knowledge and great resolve. At times in his life–notably, when he opposed the Vietnam War–he has shown exemplary courage. He respects the law. He believes in cooperation with other countries and has the inclination and ability to bring America out of its current isolation and back into the family of nations. As a senator, he demonstrated concern for social welfare and has backed this up with enlightened policy proposals. He has supported civil rights and labor rights and opposed racism. He has supported the rights of women, including the right to an abortion. He has been an advocate of nuclear arms control and opposed the almost incomprehensibly provocative nuclear policies of the Bush Administration. He would rescind the most unfair of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. He would be a friend of the environment and return the United States to the negotiations on global warming.

The Bush Record

As for Bush, where to begin the list of his mistakes, delusions, deceptions, follies, tragedies and crimes? Where to end it?

He failed to respond to repeated clear warnings of an Al Qaeda attack (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,” the CIA told him) and displayed startling incompetence when the attack came. Then he tried to cover up both failures by opposing the formation of the September 11 Commission, obstructing the committee’s work once it was formed and denying key findings once they were disclosed. (To this day, Vice President Cheney asserts a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.)

In the name of fighting terror, Bush waged a war in Iraq that had nothing to do with terrorism and was as unjustified when it was begun as, after the loss of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, it is unwinnable now. He has inaugurated an immoral and unsustainable policy of global hegemony based on military force, estranged most of the country’s principal friends around the world and dismayed the world at large–which has begun, indirectly but pervasively, to resist US domination. He mocked the United Nations as “irrelevant” and defied the Security Council. Today our forces are overstretched in pursuit of delusional goals.

Bush’s policies have turned away from the country’s tradition of seeking disarmament exclusively by diplomatic means and adopted force as the mainstay of its nonproliferation efforts, violently pursuing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, where there were none, and overlooking them in Pakistan and North Korea, where they existed. All the while, his Administration further provoked and disturbed the world by pursuing the development of new, “usable” varieties of nuclear weapons, to be employed for new purposes against new targets, mostly in the Third World. He has systematically cast aside or weakened environmental initiatives, domestic and international. He withdrew from negotiations to address global warming, which except for nuclear war is the gravest danger facing the world; sponsored a Clear Skies Act that fouled the air; gutted regulations limiting strip-mining; and sold off public lands to oil, gas, timber and mining companies; rejected fuel conservation measures; tried to suppress or repudiate the science on which knowledge of environmental hazards is based.

And while thus conspiring to discredit these and other scientific findings, he has pandered to a “base” of religious fanatics, many of whom are looking forward to a day of “rapture” when Jesus returns to earth and kills everyone but them. His attitude to the factual world in general is one of hostility and rejection. He has made fraud and fantasy foundations of his Administration. His own belief in something–that Iraq was a threat to the United States, for example–appears to be evidence enough for him that it is true. One of his advisers has mocked his critics by stating that they live in a “reality-based community,” explaining, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Bush has by almost every measure worsened the US economy and set it on a path to likely disaster. He has taken hundreds of billions of dollars from the poor and people of ordinary income and given it to the rich through tax cuts (if you dare to point this out, you are accused of waging “class warfare”) while driving the country into unprecedented federal debt and trade deficits, delivering the nation’s finances to the decisions of foreign creditors. He has increased our dependence on foreign energy sources. His approach to the economy and our resources is the same as to the environment–this putative believer in a “responsibility society” strip-mines the future to gratify the present.

Bush has broken his oath to uphold the laws of the United States. He asserted and made use of an array of “inherent” powers nowhere mentioned in the Constitution: to lock up and place in solitary confinement American citizens and others, with no access to courts or even legal representation; to withhold information from the public and Congressional committees; to detain hundreds of people outside domestic and international law in the legal no man’s land of Guantánamo; and to permit the torture of prisoners.

He has governed through fear and intimidation. His party will not tolerate dissent either in its own ranks, from which it purges any moderate voice, or in the country at large, where his Administration insinuates that his opponents are in league with America’s enemies. At his rallies, composed of carefully vetted supporters, people who oppose him have been thrown out and even arrested.

A Dangerous Mandate

A matchup of the records of the two candidates only begins to measure the stakes in this year’s election. These come fully into view only in the larger context of a deeper crisis that has overtaken the American system of government. To begin with, the irregular procedure of the last election lends a special importance to this one. In 2000 candidate Bush, who lost the popular contest by half a million votes and was put into the presidency by a Supreme Court decision, failed to receive a popular mandate. However, he embarked on a radical, right-wing course anyway, compounding the insult to democracy. Yet it is so far only the government that has asserted global imperial ambition, waged aggressive war on false pretexts, condoned torture, strengthened corporate influence over politics, turned its back on the natural environment and spurned global public opinion. If Bush is now elected, then a national majority–a far weightier thing–will stand behind these things. The consequences would be profound. A crippled presidency would begin to walk on two legs. At home, public affirmation would turn the record of the first term, now having been inspected and approved by the people, into the starting point for an accelerated movement in the same general direction. Bush has already put through a new round of federal budget-wrecking corporate tax cuts, called for new repressive legislation in a Patriot II act and clearly announced his desire to “democratize” not just Iraq but the entire Middle East. Abroad, such a vote would deepen and confirm the United States’ separation from the rest of the world, enclosing it in an eccentric and dangerous mini-climate of ignorance and lies.

On the other hand, if Bush is defeated, his entire presidency will acquire the aspect of an aberration, a mistake that has been corrected, and the American people will be able to say: We never accepted Bushism. We rejected the brutality, the propaganda, the misbegotten wars, the imperial arrogance. And we never, ever chose George W. Bush to be President of the United States.

What Is at Stake

But even these stakes are not the largest on the table in November. The largest and most important is the protection of American democracy. It is always difficult while enjoying the comforts and privileges of taken-for-granted liberties to imagine that they could be lost; but the elements of Bush’s misrule have plainly converged to form this threat. It is the wars of aggression designed to expand imperial sway abroad that produce the fear that fuels his campaign. It is the transfer of money from the poor or average majority to the rich few and corporations that cultivates the allegiance of the corporate chieftains who swell Bush’s campaign coffers while at the same time helping to bring the news media, now owned mostly by large companies, to heel. It is the media that amplify his Administration’s war propaganda while failing to expose the deceptions put forward as justification for war and puffing up the bubble of illusion whose creation is perhaps the Administration’s top priority. And it is government secrecy and Justice Department repression and a right-wing judiciary that chills the dissent that tries to puncture the bubble of illusion. The upshot is a concentration of power in the Republican Party that has no parallel in American history, including the Gilded Age and the Nixon era.

It is not only all three branches of government that have fallen largely into the same hands; it is the corporations, the military (which tends to vote Republican) and, increasingly, the communications industry, which are either propaganda arms of the party, as in the case of Fox News and other outlets of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, or else simply bow to the pressure of Administration threats and popular anxiety.

Even before Bush’s selection by Supreme Court fiat in 2000, a dangerous pattern had asserted itself at the top levels of American institutional life. The Republican Party embarked on a process of using legitimately won power to acquire more power illegitimately. In the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about sex, the Republican majority in Congress abused its power in the legislative branch to try to strike down the leader of the rival executive branch. The attempt failed. In the election of 2000, the party in effect abused the judicial power to seize the presidency for itself, and this time the attempt succeeded. The deed was in fact a culmination of a long, deliberate (if not conspiratorial) campaign of politicization of the judiciary, pushed by right-wing legislators as well as such groups as the Federalist Society. In a series of reapportionment battles, notably the one waged by House majority leader Tom DeLay in Texas, the party used legislative power to entrench itself in that same legislature. Meanwhile, a web of think tanks and other institutions, supposedly independent but actually de facto instruments of the Republican Party, was created. They cooperated in vetting political loyalists for government posts and in flooding the news media with apologists for the party and its policies. Under DeLay’s leadership, the Congressional Republicans, leaving no stone unturned, have sought to take over even the lobbying establishment of Washington by threatening firms that hire former Democrats to work for them.

The persistent theme of these policies and actions, domestic and international, is to acquire power–to seize it, to increase it and to keep it for good. A systemic crisis–a threat to the Constitution of the United States–has taken shape. At the end of this road is an implied vision of a different system: a world run by the United States and a United States run permanently by the Republican Party, which is to say imperial rule abroad, one-party rule at home. Somewhere along that road lies a point of no return. It is in the nature of warnings in general that you cannot know whether the danger in question will come, or be averted by timely action, or perhaps never present itself at all. But it’s also in the nature of warnings that one must act on them before it is too late, and this is especially true in the case of threats to democracy. That is why the danger to democracy takes primacy over other perils that are in themselves greater, including nuclear war and irreversible damage to the ecosphere through global warming. (It is notable that none of these three perils has been more than glancingly mentioned in the election debates that have just ended.)

No one can know when or how the decisive test of democracy might arrive. It could come quickly, perhaps in a crackdown following another terrorist attack on American soil, this time conceivably on a far greater scale than September 11, or it could come slowly, in a protraction of the process, already well under way, of gradual strangulation of independent institutions, amounting to a coup in slow-motion–a hardening of an informal monopoly of power into a formal monopoly–leaving the institutions of democracy technically intact but corrupted and hollowed out from within, helpless to resist a central authority that has drawn all real power into its own hands.

Although the precise steps by which a systemic breakdown might occur are obscure, most of the main elements of the danger seem to be contained in microcosm in one episode–the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere in the United States’ nascent global gulag archipelago. The story begins with a secret memo from Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel to the President and most frequently mentioned name for a Bush appointment to the Supreme Court, recommending that he issue a “finding” that neither international law, in the form of the Geneva Conventions, nor US law, in the shape of the War Crimes Act (18 US Code, Section 2441) was applicable to abuses of prisoners in Afghanistan. The “war on terror,” he said, was a “new paradigm,” rendering provisions of the Geneva Conventions “quaint.” As for US law, a presidential determination would help tormentors brought to justice by creating “a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution.” Even before the crimes were committed, the White House was planning how to beat the rap. In one short memo, a new vision of law came into view. In this vision, the executive was freed from legal accountability as well as Congressional oversight, while at the same time the individual person was stripped of his fundamental human rights. It was law–if “law” is the right word for it at all–cut to imperial specifications.

A blizzard of other memos justifying the abuse of prisoners followed from lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department, and soon Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had authorized several new varieties of torment for the prisoners at Guantánamo. Not long after that, the superintendent of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, traveled to Iraq to teach the command there the new interrogation arts. To the surprise of the Administration, the war was not going well, and the military command was hungry for intelligence from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. A memo had gone out from a captain in intelligence stating, “The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. Col. Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken.”

They were. In the recently published report “AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade” by Maj. Gen. George Fay, cited in The New York Review of Books by Mark Danner, we read:

In October 2003, DETAINEE-07, reported alleged multiple incidents of physical abuse while in Abu Ghraib. DETAINEE-07 was an MI hold and considered of potentially high value. He was interrogated on 8, 21 and 29 October; 4 and 23 November and 5 December. DETAINEE-07’s claims of physical abuse (hitting) started on his first day of arrival. He was left naked in his cell for extended periods, cuffed in his cell in stressful positions (“High cuffed”), left with a bag over his head for extended periods, and denied bedding or blankets. DETAINEE-07 described being made to “bark like a dog, being forced to crawl on his stomach while MPs spit and urinated on him, and being struck causing unconsciousness.”

The overthrow of law by legal-sounding phrases penned in secret; the laws of the Republic falling before the demands of empire; nullification of any check or balance on the President; suspension of fundamental human rights; a tangle of contradictory bureaucratic memos; blind imperial ambition leading to catastrophic war; mayhem and failure in that war unfolding behind a shimmering screen of high-sounding phrases extolling the spread of democracy; panicked resort to criminal emergency measures; torture and other outrages against human dignity hidden behind a battery of euphemisms (“sleep adjustment,” “setting the conditions” for interrogation); the pre-organized rejection of any accountability, including that imposed by the articles of the US criminal code: Are these not the main features we might expect to see writ large if a full-scale collapse of the Constitution of the United States were to come?

Safeguarding Democracy

And that brings us back to the election and our endorsement of John Kerry. The most important reason to vote for John Kerry in November is to safeguard democracy in America.

Kerry’s election would not necessarily save, and Bush’s election would not necessarily destroy, democratic government in the United States. Even as President, even “in power,” Kerry might well find himself “in opposition.” In that case, he would need all the help from ordinary people he could get, and there’s good reason to believe it would be forthcoming. The impeachment of Clinton failed, but it demonstrated the strength of the assault on legitimate government that can be waged not by the presidency but upon the presidency–and that was in peacetime. Clinton, after all, began his two terms in office with all three branches of government in Democratic hands but ended with all three in Republican hands. (His presidency was perhaps the most brilliant political retreat in American history, but it was a retreat.) Moreover, Kerry has given his right-wing opponents powerful ammunition. By pledging to win a war in Iraq that is unwinnable, he may have put his foot in a trap that would snap shut once he was in office, leaving him open to the charge of failure. What would the party that impeached Clinton for sex and lies do to a President who presided over the “loss” of Iraq in the midst of the “war on terror”?

If Bush is elected, the role of popular activism in support of the democratic system would be even more important. Roughly half the country dissents from Bushism. The antiwar movement, and now the campaign itself, have generated widespread and intense opposition. Activism has blossomed. New progressive organizations have been founded and will outlast the election. Events are also unlikely to favor the Administration. Already, its war policy and its fiscal policies are widely recognized as disasters. Opposition is bound to be strong and can save the Republic. And let us recall that when President Nixon threatened the constitutional system thirty years ago, he was driven from office in disgrace by popular fury. For all its importance, the election is only one episode in a longer popular struggle, whether Bush or Kerry is President. Either way, The Nation will devote itself to the fight.

Yet it remains true that of all the things Americans can now do to support democracy, the election of John Kerry is the most important. A Kerry presidency would seriously disrupt the concentration of power at the heart of the present danger. He might still try to “win” the Iraq war but would be less likely to wage future wars. His appointments to the Supreme Court would stop the Court’s slide into unchecked, one-sided partisanship. His control of the bully pulpit would be a powerful counterforce to the right-wing propaganda that now all but drowns out other voices in the news media. His control of the agencies of the executive branch would halt, or at least retard, their merger with corporate America. More important, the simple structural fact that the Democrats are the other party would create a counterbalance to the right-wing power that predominates elsewhere in the system. The Democrats, including Kerry, have been disappointing champions of their namesake, democracy, yet the culture of their party is still an improvement over that of the Republicans. The Democrats are reluctant imperialists; the Republicans are imperialists by avocation. The Democratic Party generally wants to defend civil liberties and does so when it dares; the Republicans, with honorable exceptions, apparently would sweep them aside. The Democrats prefer social justice, however weakly they fight for it; the Republicans would give every dollar they can find to the rich. The Democrats are inclined to limit corporate power; the Republicans are corporate power.

What can be lost, slowly or abruptly, as the crisis unfolds, is everything that was lost by Detainee 07. What can be saved–let us rescue the beautiful word from the cesspool through which the Bush Administration has dragged it–is freedom.