America has always fascinated me – from its music, culture and sit-coms to its politics.
At the same time I have become more bemused and mystified in recent years at the way American politics is portrayed and understood across Britain.
Our general perception of the US makes no attempt to understand large swathes of the country – both geographically – the bit in the middle people fly over but which millions live in – and at a deeper level, the American story of itself, the widespread belief in American exceptionalism, and the different traditions of liberal and conservative, compared to here.
For the last few decades the Democrats have had a bit of a problem with large parts of mainstream America. This can be seen in the fact that until Barack Obama in the post-war era the Democrats had only won a popular majority twice in Presidential elections: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, and Jimmy Carter post-Watergate in 1976.
Since the civil rights revolution the Democrats have had serious problems with large parts of white America, the South, and men. Democrat politicians more and more came over as elitist and condescending, and presented their arguments in a way which assumed their moral superiority, concentrated on rationalism and the power of facts, and did not connect emotionally or at a gut level.
The Republicans – and politicians such as Nixon, Reagan and Bush II – tended to talk in a way which emphasised the power of story, being folksy, and not letting too many facts cloud an argument. A George W. Bush aide once famously said that their opponents lived in a ‘reality based community ’ whereas they lived in a world of ‘faith’. His Democrat opponents thought this worthy of ridicule, but this Bush-ism had a deep and important truth.
Drew Westen in his study of Presidential elections, ‘The Political Brain’ validated this perception. In every recent election Democrats presented their case point by point, calmly and rationally, whereas Republicans went for the emotional, the power of the story and allegory; the only exception in recent years was Bill Clinton.
Barack Obama, when he won the 2008 Presidential elections, was seen as too much of a good thing by too many people for it to be true: he was a projection for so many disparate hopes and dreams.
Yet at the same time it was clear that he had, for all his high-flown, grandiose rhetoric, a problem with how he connected on bread and butter issues. The election was on a knife-edge until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, and in the campaign Obama made controversial remarks about ‘Joe the Plumber’ and ‘spreading the wealth’, while he previously dismissed ‘folks who cling to guns or religion’.
Large parts of Britain – along with much of liberal America – just doesn’t understand these dynamics. One insight I have into this is the story of my American Hassan relatives.
Art Hassan III and his wife Kathy, used to live just outside Denver, Colorado, and now live in Montana, two of the ‘fly-over’ states. As people they are first and foremost a fitting testament to the upside story of American society. They are welcoming, loving and warm. They are family people, with a farm and a sense of obligation and trusteeship to the land and their animals. And their lives are an embodiment of some of the best of the American dream: of people of modest backgrounds making it and having a comfortable, prosperous life.
When I visited the Hassans on their ranch outside Denver a few years ago it was, in every way that mattered, a positive, affirming experience: of family stories, connections and histories. It was also a journey into the part of America most Europeans don’t go to or get too.
The American Hassans turned out to be staunch, true-believers in George W. Bush at a time when he was President and the Republican Party. Art, who was in his early sixties, had worked in a well-known multi-national company most of his adult life, and slowly grown disenchanted with it. One of the areas which most angered him was the corporate excesses, greed and hypocrisy of much of American big business, even more than the political manoeuvrings and deception of the Washington insider class.
At one point driving along the highway together I commented that I didn’t know a single American who hadn’t voted for Clinton in 1992 when he first won the Presidency, showing that my representative sample of American contacts was similar to the cast of ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Friends’.
Art then stated that in the same election – he didn’t know a single voter who hadn’t voted for Bush – and that Clinton had only won the election ‘by stealing it’. This was a reference to Ross Perot standing as an independent, and taking more Republican than Democrat votes. And this after, Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election by stopping the Florida vote.
A couple of years down the line, Art and Kathy who weren’t then or now right-wing crazed or ideological Republicans are supporters of the Tea Party Movement. They talk of the power of ‘We the People’ and the narrow class who live by the mantra of ‘We the Party’ and see ‘the progressive disease’ as the problem that is debilitating America.
A standard British or liberal American view would to dismiss Art and Kathy as little more than ‘hicks from the sticks’, captured by a kind of false consciousness which is the product of the daily drip of Fox News and the talk shows.
This isn’t accurate, fair or helpful. Indeed, it is part of the problem. My experience with Art and Kathy, and the wider Hassan family, was that they were good, loving people; they weren’t bigots or racists, and I was able to sit and listen to their views without ever once having a heated argument.
What it boils down to is that the Democrats stopped speaking to the Arts and Kathys of this world a long time ago, probably at the time Frank Sinatra stopped being a Democrat in the mid-sixties. The Democrats used to stand up for small folks, people with dreams and hopes, and know how to weave a populist story which linked into making the American dream a reality for as many ordinary Americans as possible.
The Republicans, since ‘the Southern Strategy’ of Nixon, have known how to do this, to tell a story which isn’t just about ‘cultural wars’ or a ‘class war’ for the rich, but invokes some of the deepest, most powerful traditions in the country.
Many of us in Britain and elsewhere may not like much of the Republican agenda or the Tea Party movement, but we owe it ourselves to move beyond the clichés and caricatures which fill so much of what passes for covering the US. I feel I owe that at least to my American family, Art Hassan III and Kathy Hassan.