Metapolitics: America’s election faultline

Godfrey Hodgson
18 September 2008

Wall Street has collapsed. Its fourth biggest investment bank, the 158-year-old Lehman Brothers, has collapsed, its shiny building bought at a knock-down price by the red coats from Barclays. Merrill Lynch, the thundering herd of people's capitalism, has been bought by Bank of America in a fire-sale.    AIG, the biggest insurance company in America, has been nationalised, as were Fannie Mae andGodfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure:

The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving
(PublicAffiars, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election" (25 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Barack Obama's political tour" (28 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 AuguFreddie Mac, responsible between them for half the mortgages in  the United States (see Ann Pettifor, "America's financial meltdown: lessons and prospects", 16 September 2008).

Abroad, the United States has been told to buzz off by the new government of Pakistan, a relatively democratic regime compared to the one the George W Bush administration had given $11 billion in mostly military aid. General David H Petraeus has left his post as commander-in-chief of United States forces in Iraq, not proclaiming victory as his president expected him to do, but warning bravely that a long struggle lies ahead there (see Patrick Cockburn, "Iraq: Violence is down - but not because of America's 'surge'", Independent on Sunday, 14 September 2008). In the Black Sea region, the inability of the United States to protect its protégé in Georgia is painfully manifest, while attempts by vice-president Dick Cheney to recruit Ukraine into a grand alliance against Russia are also in vain.

The Republican philosophy at home, and the Republican policy abroad, have both failed utterly. Yet the Republican candidate, John McCain, has pulled level with or is in some polls even ahead of his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. How can this be? How could anyone, confronted with this cosmic mess, vote for the Republican politicians who caused it?

The outsider narrative

For well over a century Wall Street was Republican, and the Republicans were Wall Street. The Republicans presented themselves as the cautious guardians of fiscal probity. Under their rule, deficits have ballooned and the credit of the American government is dependent on then tolerance of the state bankers of China.

Since the Vietnam war, Americans have not quite trusted the Democrats to safeguard national security  The Republicans have plausibly maintained that the foreign relations of the United States were safer in their hands.

Their once magnificent economy has been shaken to its roots by the policies of conservative Republicans, yet so far there is little sign of the voters calling the Republicans to account. At a time when tens of millions of Americans have good cause to worry about their homes, their mortgages, their jobs, the price of food and the price of the gasoline on which the whole structure and geography of their society depends, the election campaign only reluctantly pulls itself away from an obsession with trivia, personalities, even gossip (see "The lost election year", 15 May 2008).

Republican tax policies, those of George W Bush and of John McCain alike, have turned the United States - for the first time since the lifetime of JP Morgan - into a class society, where chief executives, corporate lawyers, stock- market traders and sports stars make hundreds of times more money than less privileged Americans.

The United States, which as recently as the 1930s still produced most of the world's oil, is now increasingly dependent on imported energy. Detroit's "big three", which once made most of the world cars and trucks, plead with the government to be bailed out with $25 billion of corporate welfare. In the years of conservative Republican ascendancy, economic growth in America has been at a lower rate than either in the American past or in many other parts of the world. Statistics show that most of what growth there has been, has gone to the top few per cent of the population.

This is no coincidence. It is the direct and - it is hard to avoid concluding - the desired result of Republican "trickle-down" policies. So why, again, do the victims of these policies, of arrogant incompetence at home and abroad, not rise in their righteous anger and boot the rascals out?

The reasons are many, and they explain much of what has gone wrong with American democracy. They lie in what might be called metapolitics, at a deeper level than the swordplay of a political campaign.

For one thing, many conservative voters in what are known as the "red" states do not see Wall Street as Republican. They see it as eastern. Their Republican party, the party created by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the party of John McCain and Sarah Palin, prides itself on having destroyed the power of the eastern, moderate Republican elite, the party run and typified by Thomas Dewey, Wendell Willkie, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay and Gerald Ford.

By all traditional measures, those men were conservative. They were staunch defenders and in many cases grand beneficiaries of capitalism. They were fiercely anti-communist, preachers of fiscal caution and social stability.

The new Republican party has neither sympathy nor respect for that moderate tradition. It prides itself on being radical, on its contempt for "the establishment". William Kristol, the spokesman of the younger generation of neo-conservatives and now a columnist on the New York Times, has even artfully declared his welcome of the current "wreckage of torpedoed establishments and the shards of overturned conventional wisdom" (see "Both Sides Now", New York Times, 14 September 2008).

It is a remarkably self-denying position, for no journalist or publicist in the country represents the new establishment in the Republican party more than the son of the veteran polemicist Irving Kristol. Yet as absurd as it is on the surface, there is a twisted logic to this posture.

East, south, west, north

The new conservatives really do consider themselves outsiders, even as they constitute a new establishment. For this, there are geographical, historical, racial and ideological reasons, or at least explanations.

Many years ago a Republican politician leader in senator McCain's adopted home of Arizona, (who was a close ally of the first of the new Republicans, senator Barry Goldwater) explained to me why he and his Arizonan friends hated the federal government. Their state, he said, was a colony of Washington. The federal government owned most of the land: as national parks, national forest, Indian reservations or air-force bases.

The attitude of the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a manifestation of the same syndrome. Alaska thinks of itself as the last frontier, a land of libertarian entrepreneurs. Yet it is largely dependent on the federal government and on oil companies whose ownership base is on the east coast of the United States or abroad. Palin rages at Washington. But she and her fellow Alaskan Republicans are pensioners of Washington. The old Republican political machine in Alaska was primed with federal money by senator Ted Stevens, the long-term chairman of the senate appropriations committee and the man who could open the tap to flood Palin's hometown, Wasilla and the other tiny settlements of the "last frontier" with federal dollars. Palin's generation of Alaska Republicans, for all the claims to radicalism and freshness, represent a new version.Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:

openUSA is a new part of the openDemocracy network, publishing daily commentary and analysis of the 2008 election - both from the United States itself and around the world - and links to the best campaign coverage

Read openUSA 

The American west - or perhaps more accurately successive American wests, given the dynamic nature of the unfolding frontier - saw itself over several generations as the empire of liberty, the nursery of independent entrepreneurs. Yet the west's businessmen - from the railwaymen to the mining barons, from the real-estate developers to the defence-industry employees - lived off the bounty and the taxes of what they saw as the profligate, decadent east.

They were able to do so because the west (California excepted) is, thanks to the US constitution's original "great compromise", grossly over-represented in congress.  Many of its states - Palin's Alaska, Cheney's Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas among them - have fewer inhabitants each than many English counties; but each gets two senators, the same as New York, Pennsylvania or Ohio.

The racial dimension of American politics connects this east-west axis to the north-south one. It is most directly influential in the south, which has been a reliable source of Republican votes in the electoral college since the 1970s. The modern Republican party is, to a greater extent than it is often considered polite to mention, the unintended consequence of the civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation proposed by the John F Kennedy and enacted by the Lyndon B Johnson administration in the 1960s. As African-Americans began to vote in much the same proportion as whites, conservative southern Democrats became Republicans, and the Democrats became the party of the liberal-left.

Many of the architects and prominent champions of the new conservatism - for example George W Bush himself, and current or former senators and congressmen such as Trent Lott of Mississippi, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and Phil Gramm of Texas, Tom DeLay and  Dick Armey of Texas, Newt Gingrich of Georgia - have been southerners.

Trent Lott is especially typical of many of the new conservatives who moved from the Democratic to the Republican  party in response to the growing number of African-American voters in the south. Lott rose to be Republican leader in the senate, but he began his political life as a Democrat, and was even associated with the White Citizens' Councils, known to southerners at the time as the country club Ku Klux Klan.

Many white southerners, both before and during the civil-rights revolution saw the south as an economic colony of the north and specifically of Wall Street and the City of London. They had been brought up to hate and fear Yankees - the abolitionists who had defeated the Confederate south in a bloody war, and the "carpetbaggers" who afterwards imposed a humiliating peace on them which for a time included efforts to bring some degree of equality to southern Negroes.

This remembered and endlessly repeated version of history goes far to explain the new Republican party. All these reasons - geographical, historical, racial - combined to create a new conservative ideology (see "From frontiersman to neocon", 24 April 2003).

We and they

One of the key ideas of this ideology is what Thomas Frank has called "market populism". This is the idea that liberals are an elite, and that the elite is liberal. This equation is absurd enough. It is not the case that most millionaires are liberals, even less that most millionaires are liberals. It is linked to the even less plausible, but equally popular notion that a government elected by the people's votes is less to be trusted with the people's welfare than Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola - or than the "masters of the universe" who sold sub-prime mortgages to people in trailer-camps and then wrapped them up so cunningly in derivatives that they were bought by ostensibly cautious bankers (see Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)", 17 September 2008)

Such ideas, however, have "traction", not least with the very working-class white voters in industrial states that have been wasted by Republican policy (see Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew, Macmillan 2008). The McCain campaign has had great success in  presenting its candidate - the descendant of Mississippi slave-owners, the son and grandson of admirals, whose wife is worth $200 million dollars - as a plain citizen, in contrast to his opponent, son of a single mother in marginal economic circumstances and an African father.

In part, of course, this is due to unscrupulous manipulation of political advertising and media management. Yet the failure of a rough half of the electorate to see that they are being persuaded to vote against the true interests of their country and of themselves is not only the result of cynical political machinations.

At the root of the mindset that allows so many Americans to ignore real political  issues and to identify themselves as moose-hunters, Confederate rebels or defenders of a lost small-town paradise, there lie deep and passionately held, if questionable, beliefs. Deepest of all, perhaps, is the idea of American "exceptionalism": the conviction, taught in high-school textbooks and preached from pulpits, that the United States is morally different, morally better, than other societies, that it is destined, by God or history, to bring light, if necessary by force, to a world living in darkness (see "Can America go modest?", 10 October 2001).

If you believe that, and many Americans do, then you can easily be persuaded that the "other" threatens the national destiny and even the divine purpose; perhaps especially if he has dark skin and his middle name is Hussein. A familiar, tempting polarity of this kind can be made to seem more vital even than the fragile health of the American economy, the insecurities of work and housing and health, the perils resulting from failed policies in Iraq and Pakistan, or the survival of the global environment. Whether the voters can resist its charms in sufficient numbers this time, the remaining weeks of this extraordinary election will tell. 

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