Kerry didn’t lose. America lost. Osama won. The numbers that kept recurring as the nervously expectant Big Night collapsed into a gloomy, foreboding Morning After weren’t blaring from any TV screen, and they weren’t new. They had been with us since the U.S. launched its unprovoked war on Iraq.

Percentages ranging as high as 72 and never lower than 40, depending on the time and the poll you read, measured the chunk of the American public that believed Saddam Hussein had been behind the attacks of 9/11. Of course, no non-risible evidence of that assertion has ever been produced and, in fact, the Bush administration never directly claimed it, although it was obviously happy to have the dark suspicion taken as fact, since the tissue of disinformation it used to propel America into war only stood to benefit from this particular figure of paranoid projection.

Those numbers are still staggering, and today more than ever, they are cause for the deepest worry.

The election of 2004 was, to me, not ultimately about the Iraq war but about whether our brand of democracy–which we’re now trying to impose on other populations and cultures, whether they like it or not–can work as intended when a good portion of the population is operating on sheer delusion, a form of delusion all too easily fostered and manipulated by the agents of predatory plutocracy and bellicose zealotry.

Our bright and idealistic form of governance was, after all, a product of the Enlightenment. It reflected the Lockean belief that an educated, well-informed adult citizenry would naturally make decisions that combined innate rationality and healthy self-interest. At the moment, the assumptions underlying that happy, common-sensical creed look as distant and quaint as Newton’s clockwork universe.

Marshall McLuhan, the erratic but invaluable ’60s media theorist, would have told us that the government created by America’s founders was a constellation in the “Gutenberg galaxy,” the culture produced by the invention of moveable type. This culture, which brought us modern industrial society, was weighted toward rationality, order and linear thinking; the government it inspired was suited to people whose judgments and worldviews were forged by reading. McLuhan also predicted that when print’s dominance was overthrown by electronic media, the result would be that societies that had previously been more or less homogenous would fragment into new forms of “tribalism,” and rational, analytical outlooks would increasingly give way to symbolic, totemic, emotional ways of thinking.

This grim transition, I suggest, is one explanation for Saddam-the-9/11-Perpetrator, a nonexistent bogeyman who evidently carried more weight in the 2004 presidential election than all the words written in every book, magazine and newspaper in the last two years.

The bogeyman’s world-shaping power obviously bodes ill for those of us recently derided by one of President Bush’s faith-motivated cronies as members of the “reality-based community.”

The bottom line: Reality is out. Hallucination is in. Orwell is spinning in his grave. And Osama is free as the wind, and laughing.