The reason many called the U.S. election the most important of a lifetime was that it had the potential to be a consensus breaker.
In its ideological approach, the U.S. government had never strayed far enough from the centre to be considered a threat to the traditional order. It operated within a mainstream Western framework.
The reason George W. Bush became so reviled abroad and such a polarizing force at home was because his narrow-band ideological approach threatened that framework.
The world, his election opponents believed, could not withstand four more years of Bible Belt imperialism. Now they've got it. The impressive triumph of the radical right on Tuesday has indeed broken the historical consensus.
America has moved outside the box. It is in a new, potentially toxic territory.
This, as CNN's Bill Schneider put it, was a victory of values. Mr. Bush cannot now be seen as an aberration. His values have been consecrated. He is the new America.
While the United States has long been moving to the right, it has now put down stakes there. By the time the President is finished with the Supreme Court, it may well be cemented there. When the evangelical Christian values take stronger hold of the foreign policy apparatus, pitting one set of religious fundamentalists in Washington against the other in the Muslim world, it may well live or die there.
Mr. Bush's initial instincts will be to reach out, to show a conciliatory side, to soothe the wounds and stem the polarization at home and abroad.
But this approach is not likely to last long. He was arrogant and closed-minded without a mandate. One imagines what he will be like with one. Men such as Dick Cheney, who maintains the Iraq war is going wonderfully, will stir his baser instincts. If the Vice-President doesn't do it, some kind of terrorist response to the President's alignment with Israel surely will.
On policy, John Kerry wasn't starkly different from Mr. Bush. Philosophically, however, the two men were oceans apart. With Mr. Kerry, the Western consensus would have been rebuilt. And he would have entertained ideas such as the one offered by Prime Minister Paul Martin to create a new league of nations in the form of a Group of 20. The proposal is a good compromise between U.S. unilateralism and the hopelessness of the United Nations' multilateralism. Now it will die a quick death.
What lies ahead is more years of war, confrontation, arms buildups and terror alerts. Bush adviser Karl Rove's political exploitation of the "war on terror" has been ingenious. Outside of Iraq, where Mr. Bush's invasion has stirred the terror bombings and the Middle East, the toll from the past two years of terrorism has barely equalled the fatalities from a single day in the Second World War. Yet the fear-mongering has been such as to instill paranoia in the U.S. population. Some commentators liken the threat to Hitler's.
In the election campaign, Mr. Bush was able to define himself. Mr. Kerry wasn't.
Given the climate of the times, the public wanted conviction and purpose, not middle-of-the-road pieties. Mr. Bush offered constancy. Mr. Kerry might have shredded him with the line: Is this country better off today than it was four years ago? The answer could only have been negative. The Democrat could then have taken it further. "And now Mr. Bush is offering you more of the same. Do you really want more war, more record deficits, more polarization, more hatred for this country?"
If there is any solace for the Democrats, it is that they have not been put in the position of having to undo the damage -- without a majority in Congress -- of the Republicans' past four years. It would have been a near impossible burden.
The war has the look of an intractable calamity. The massive expenditures for it are on a collision course with fiscal sanity. With their weak showing, the Democrats at least allow Mr. Bush to inherit his own hellhole. If he doesn't rebuild the old Western framework, he may never find a way out.