The war for American minds

The great contest of the United States in 2010, the one that will decide the fate of Barack Obama’s vision of national renewal, is not at heart about politics. It is a clash about the moral nature of American society, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
26 May 2010

The United States witnessed another “super Tuesday” on 18 May 2010, in which four states - Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oregon - held primary elections to select the lead candidates for the mid-term elections on 2 November. The results were so diverse and confusing that the overwhelming view of political analysts and commentators was - that the voters’ instincts are diverse and confused. Next, on 8 June, even more primaries - a “super-super Tuesday” - will follow. It is safe to predict an even more messy set of results,  compounding further the febrile political and media atmosphere in Washington.

But behind the swirling cross-currents of an extraordinary political season, it is possible to discern the shape of an emerging national debate on a subject that transcends even the furious partisanship of the moment: nothing less than a political duel over the fundamentals of the American system. The divide is between those who accept that something has gone badly wrong with American capitalism and American government, and those who are scandalised by what they perceive as such disloyal calumny and who see salvation in a rediscovery of core American values.

The political moment

What makes the present situation harder to diagnose is the change in the political weather surrounding Barack Obama. Even around and beyond the the anniversary of his inauguration, in January 2010, the president had no great achievements to his name that began to match the expectations raised by his election in November 2008 (see “Barack Obama and America”, 12 March 2010). But from the moment of the House of Representatives’ approval of the Senate’s health-insurance reform bill on 21 March 2010 - albeit by an unusual if legitimate procedural dodge, and by the narrow margin of 219-212 votes - the president has it seems begun to score significant domestic (and, after the nuclear-weapons agreement with Russia on 8 April, international) successes.

The health-reform measure, which could mark a real advance towards universal health-insurance coverage, has now been followed by the Senate’s passageon 20 May 2010 of a major reform of financial regulation; this establishes (inter alia) a consumer-protection section inside the federal reserve, oversight powers over the huge derivatives market, a new regulatory mechanism to monitor systemic financial risks, and governmental authority to dissolve failing finance companies.

The bill will have to be reconciled with a substantially different measure passed by the House of Representatives, but the White House and its congressional allies express confidence that this can be done by the 4 July holiday. Christopher Dodd, chair of the Senate’s banking committee - who together with his House equivalent Barney Frank will play an important role in the reconciliation process - says that “the two bills really are very close to each other”. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reed -  himself at risk in his own state of Nevada - echoes this confidence in saying that “when this bill becomes law, the joyride on Wall Street will come to a screeching halt."

The confidence remains to be tested. What can be said at present is that both the administration’s and Congress’s efforts to persuade the financial sector to resume lending money to citizens and businesses have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Such companies as Citigroup, the AIG insurance group and General Motors have already repaid a large proportion of the money theyreceived from government under the largest of the rescue plans (the Troubled Assets Relief Program [Tarp]); banking executives have returned to paying themselves astronomical salaries and bonuses; Wall Street in general has exerted enormous pressure on the politicians to limit the effects of proposed legislation and recreate the space for “business-as-usual”.

The improvement in President Obama’s political outlook is real, but the immense political capital he has had to discharge in securing progress in these areas also indicates the scale of resistance to the change the president seeks. For both these major domestic achievements of March-May 2010 are intensely controversial.

The surprising unpopularity of the health-insurance measure reflects the way it is seen as exorbitantly expensive and unwarranted government interference, but is owed too to the shameless campaign of denigration launched against it by the health-industry lobbies. The policy of bailouts implemented at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 by George W Bush, and continued in Obama’s own fiscal-stimulus package of February 2009, has become deeply resented, principally because it is viewed as rewarding those who were responsible for the economic crisis.

The electoral mash-up

The mid-term elections in November 2010 affect thirty-six of the 100 senators and all 435 members of the House - though the only impact on the president himself is indirect. In this period the president’s approval ratings are hovering just below the 50% mark, which is historically worrying but not disastrous (see “Barack Obama: a market report”, 6 May 2010). By contrast, public approval of the Congress is catastrophically low, one poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports on 20-21 April finds that only 11% of the electorate think Congress is doing an “excellent” or even “good” job.

The polls in general suggest that the American electorate overall remains disillusioned with government, contemptuous of Washington and especially suspicious of Congress. That may sound familiar. But what is new is that disillusion, contempt and suspicion are more acute than ever.

A closer look at what the results on 18 May reveal sheds light on this current political atmosphere. In Pennsylvania, the 80-year-old Arlen Specter was defeated by Joe Sestak, a Republican former admiral. Specter had served in the Senate as a a Republican for thirty years, but had switched to the Democrats because he knew he faced defeat in the autumn; Sestak ran, if anything, to Specter’s left in policy terms.

There is little in “national” terms that can be read into that, nor indeed in other results such as Oregon’s. In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln - generally a very conservative Democrat, though the author of a stringent proposal in the Senate bill to make the banks separate commercial banking from derivatives trading - ended a tiny margin ahead of a Democratic rival who ran to her left. Lincoln now faces a run-off election which will be tough to win.

A higher-profile result than all of these is the victory in Kentucky of Rand Paul, the son of the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. He has the endorsement of the Tea Party group of anti-government extremists and of their one-time figurehead Sarah Palin. Rand Paul has already sent mixed political signals on issues of race and discrimination (by arguing that the government should not challenge businesses which showed racial favouritism,  then hastily declaring support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964). But the main reason for the national interest in Rand Paul is that everyone in American politics is now fascinated by - and many are terrified of - the Tea Party.

The fear and the fury

Almost all analysts and practitioners of politics in the United States are agreed that it is being buffeted by potent and turbulent currents. An enduring factor in these, which complicates the more straightforward political factors, is a rarely acknowledged prejudice against the president that is rooted in deep-seated racial and ideological hostility (see "The great American refusal", 23 March 2010). 

President Obama incarnates many resentments. He seems to many the epitome of a Washington that is thought to be elitist, and indifferent to the problems and fears of “ordinary folks”. He is seen as foreign at a time when there is resentment against foreign governments, foreign companies (most vividly at present BP, accused over the major oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico), and foreign immigrants. He is also, with even less logic than the rest, charged with responsibility for the loss of American power and prestige in the world (a view impervious to such expositions on the new international order and the need for multilateralism as his address at the West Point military academy on 22 May). He is in addition seen as an extremist of the left, all the more remarkable given his tactical and temperamental centrism. To many Americans,  he seems - in a word -  anti-American. And this may be the key underlying element of the coming explosion of 2010.

At the best of times, an incumbent president’s party would expect to lose some seats in Congress at the mid-term. The current predictions of the Democrats’ losses in November 2010 vary from the dire to the catastrophic. Some hope that the president will lose only a few seats, leaving him able to command a reduced majority in each legislative assembly and giving him a foundation for re-election in 2012; others believe that 2010 will be a year of drastic party realignment.

My own hunch is that the unease and turmoil that are reported from every  corner of the country, and from both ends of an increasingly polarised nation, reflects the cumulative shocks of an electorate adjusting to the discovery that many of its core beliefs have been exposed as false.

American people across this vast country have been brought up to believe that they were exceptionally prosperous and powerful - but also exceptionally virtuous; that their society was uniquely equal; and that their political system was peerlessly democratic and incomparably noble.

For a full generation and more, a series of shuddering blows, both single events and broader trends, has shaken this deeply ingrained confidence. They include defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate crisis, and the longer-term shift from producing  two-thirds of the world’s oil and gas to becoming dependent on imported energy; the agonising revelation of vulnerability to terrorists on 9/11, followed by a decade of war that produced and revealed a vein of loathing for the country around the world; and the crumbling of the former glittering icons of American capitalism in Wall Street and Detroit, the shock of which was reinforced by a growing awareness that America’s leaders had no idea how to restore the economy.

In the years of the financial crash and economic crisis since 2007 especially, the pace and scale of dissolution of once unchallenged verities have been accelerating. So painful and disorientating has been the overall change been, it is bound to produce a collective, political-psychological response that transcends everyday issues and disputes. And this seems to be it.  

The coming trial of strength

The implication is that the great contest of 2010, the one that will decide the fate of Barack Obama’s vision of national renewal, is not at heart about politics or ideology (left vs right, private enterprise vs public initiative); it is a clash about the moral nature of American society.

It will be a historic trial of strength between two kinds of Americans: those (predominantly concentrated on the east and west coasts) who acknowledge the failures, evasions and complacency of now discredited beliefs, against those (many living in what are insultingly called the “flyover states” of the south and west) who are shocked by the retreat from the classic verities of individualism, unregulated market capitalism, and messianic American exceptionalism. 

That is why the raucous Tea Party movement, the hysterical radio demagogues and the gauche followers of Sarah Palin should not be dismissed - as they too often are, especially in Europe - as morons or mountebanks. They may vent sentiments and propositions that are no longer true, if they ever were. But they also express a tough core of beliefs that are passionately held by serious people who have behind them a formidable record of success. The result of the unfolding American contest - electoral, but even more emotional and moral - is far from certain.

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