- Introduction:Campaign 2004: Looking to the Past for Ideological Certainty in a Period of National Anxiety
Some moments in the cultural life of a nation are pivotal—they resonate with an everlasting impact that shocks and changes forever. One such moment for the United States was September 11, 2001. We now shorthand September 11 by reference to its date; it is simply 9/11 and it joins December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, and April 19, 1995, as among those moments that we teach our children and our students, that we remember permanently, that we relive in anniversaries and memorials year after year. Unlike other national traumas—like the assassination of President Kennedy or the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City—the brutality of September 11 is without end for many as U.S. troops continue to pursue a worldwide campaign against "global terrorism" and Americans live in almost perpetual fear of yet another terrorist attack. Indeed, as we write, the United States relentlessly conducts its "war on terrorism" with sustained action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and equivocates over its policies relating to potential nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea. Acts of political violence continue unabated, moreover, with commuter trains exploding in Madrid and London while nightclubs are incinerated in Bali. And the occurrence of car and suicide bombings in the Middle East, from Gaza to Tel Aviv to Baghdad to Beirut, has become an almost daily event. As the symbolic and physical violence of September 11 continues, so does the uncertainty over the cultural and ideological meaning of those events. [End Page 543]
Indeed, September 11 is unparalleled as a cultural trauma that demanded a response. The trauma of September 11 has had significant consequences, from longer lines at airports to the denial of freedom and civil liberties for thousands living in the United States and around the world. It means a perpetual uncertainty and a threatening, endless feeling of danger from future attacks and "weapons of mass destruction." It means, as do all significant cultural traumas, that our sense of collective life will be forever altered and our identity as a community subject to ongoing anxiety and fluctuation.
Such cultural anxiety functioned as the backdrop for Campaign 2004—the first general election in the aftermath of that nation-altering catastrophe. Bill Clinton always says that campaigns are about the country's future and not its past. But Campaign 2004, we contend, functioned instead as a window into the nation's collective past, revealing the ideological comforts that citizens long for in a wartime context as well as those ideologically contested moments that citizens toil to forget. As cultural critics Jean Pickering and Suzanne Kehde note, "In times of change or crisis, nations look to the past and infer a narrative that erases all confusion and contradiction."1
To that end, campaign rituals, particularly the rhetoric that infuses campaigns, can provide psychological comfort, relying on a certainty of the past that is more cathartic than an uncertain future in a war on terrorism where the enemy is ambiguous and the end of the global war is unimaginable. Such a psychological return to the past, of course, necessitates that ideological contested moments of history are either forgotten or resolved simplistically in favor of unity. And, such a return favors more traditional ideological commitments related to gender, race, and militarism. Explaining the complexity of such psychological processes associated with national identity, Victor Burgin contends that "forward movement in life is achieved through a backward movement in memory, but one that is more than a simple temporal regression."2
In reflecting upon such a national psychological regression, we turn to the political topics and leaders that are addressed by the authors of the essays and forum pieces included in this special issue on Campaign 2004. Rather than review the authors' arguments, though, we instead demonstrate how the rhetoric they interrogate reflects a rhetorical regression, which either provides a sense of ideological certainty or reflects a cultural amnesia when such certainty is too painful or contentious.
In reviewing the campaign discourse of President George W. Bush and Senator John F...