George Bush, Human Rights, and American Democracy

By Stuckey, Mary E.; Ritter, Joshua R. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

George Bush, Human Rights, and American Democracy


Stuckey, Mary E., Ritter, Joshua R., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Disaster is always interesting to scholars, not least because serious mistakes always demand explanation and, if nothing else, research can lay some claims to being able to provide such explanations. Indeed, the troubled history of the American military intervention in Iraq has already generated a vast body of journalistic, scholarly, and popular literature purporting to provide explanations and analysis of how we got into this war, how it has been prosecuted, and whether we ought to remain actively engaged in it or seek an end to our involvement.

This article contributes to the large and growing body of literature on the intervention in Iraq by examining the role the ideograph plays in George W. Bush's presidential rhetoric. Ideographs are the constitutive terms of a rhetorical culture and, as such, their use places matters beyond debate. Ideographs are historically bound and yet flexible. Mapping their use helps us determine how complex ideologies are translated into policy through the use of abstract phrases--ideographs are devoid of specific policy content, empty of policy direction, and can be used to defend competing, even contradictory, actions.

By strategically wielding throughout his presidency and by using to amplify his use of association and dissociation, Bush connects his actions in important ways to the foundational myths of American democracy. In so doing, he provides powerful warrants for his actions, which undermine the very practices he claims to be supporting. That is, by using as a way of tapping into the myth of America as the synecdochic representation of freedom in the world, and by associating some of his administration's actions with that myth while using it to dissociate others, Bush rhetorically reaffirms American exceptionalism while acting in ways that also subvert it. The United States, for instance, went to Iraq at least in part to defend the of Iraqi citizens, and we now find ourselves in a moment when conjures up images of free speech zones, Abu Ghraib, prisoner abuses at Guantanamo Bay, torture by members of the American military, and, more recently, admissions by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the FBI is illegally spying on American citizens under the auspices of the Patriot Act. All of these actions are defended through recourse to some conception of .

What is particularly troubling is Bush's definition of what might be. He often pairs with the phrase "free markets." By linking these terms, Bush's construction of carries with it a strong connection to economic neoliberal ideology and neoconservativism, both of which privilege free enterprise, privatization, deregulation, deterritorialization, and particular economic "rights" above political "rights." Neoliberal and neoconservative conceptions of "democracy" are thus inherently tied to how function in Bush's discourse; that is, market fundamentalism and neoliberal orthodoxy are the "democratic" freedoms and rights to which Bush refers, and these rights become debased into the freedom to consume under the veneer of a certain "moral" order. A large part of the American myth, then, is one of economic competition embedded within an ideology of consumerism that Bush brings to the fore in his use of .

This argument proceeds in four parts. First, we review the theories of ideographs, with specific attention to the connection between ideographs and our national democratic myths. Second, we make a brief case for as an ideograph in the American context, especially in regard to neoliberal free market capitalism and neoconservatism. We then turn to an analysis of George W. Bush's strategic use of the ideograph and his use of to amplify strategies of association and dissociation. …

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