It’s no surprise. The rest of the world breathed a sigh of relief when Americans elected Barack Obama president, thinking we’d finally gotten over our case of the stupids, having put George W. Bush back in the White House in 2004. As of last week, to the horror of the rest of the West, we are stupid once more.
November 12, 2010 | For several weeks before the recent U.S. election, there was much nervous speculation among Europeans as they watched the fluctuations of the poll numbers. Now that the results are in, Europeans are perplexed by this turn back toward the politics of the Bush-Cheney era.
Like the rest of the world, Europe cheered the election of Barack Obama as a change from the economic and foreign policy disasters of his predecessor. Yet just two years later the US government is returning to Bush-lite. How could this be, Europeans are wondering? The American electorate is looking like a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, chewing its own leg off to get out of the trap.
Europeans are puzzled by the success of the populist Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies — “Americans don’t want health care??? How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare — don’t they know Medicare IS a government program???”
While participating in a conference in Budapest in September, where prominent conservative leaders and thinkers were in attendance, including the president of the European Parliament and two prime ministers, some of the most eye-opening comments had to do with new perceptions about America. One speaker, Christian Stoffaes, who is chairman of the Center for International Prospective Studies based in Paris, stated the “United States is in disarray, extremely polarized. It is practically a civil war there, and you can’t count on it.”
This theme was echoed by others speakers, who went even further. One said “We need to shift our emphasis eastward (towards Asia) and not wait for the Obama administration.” I found these statements to be surprising, and even vaguely alarming, given the importance of the transatlantic relationship in the post-World War II era. But there was a widespread view that the US is being consumed by the severity of the Great Recession, brought on by a broken Wall Street capitalism, as well as by the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and an inability to change course.
And that’s the thinking of European conservatives …
So what is wrong with us? (Or, if you’re a tea partier, what is oh, so right?) One take would be that Americans, fattened by 50 years of almost unbroken post World War II prosperity, and heavy with the hubris of having saved the world from both Nazism and Communism (by ourselves, apparently…) have developed simple, yet seemingly counter-intuitive needs. [Note: this is NOT the brilliant essay. That's still to come.]
We need to be constantly told by our leaders how great — no, how “exceptional” we are, but have no interest in actually doing the things it takes to be great. Too much trouble. That’s why seeming simpletons like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush (and now Marco Rubio) capture the imagination of so many of us. They tell us we’re great, so who cares if they have no idea how to make actual things happen?
We need to believe we can have our cake with our dessert. Americans simply don’t want to hear that we can’t drive the biggest cars, belch the most black soot into the atmosphere by mining the most coal, drill the hell out of the ocean and still have breathable air. We want both. We deserve both. Dammit, we’re AMERICA!! So it’s much more comforting to believe that global warming is a myth than to confront what we’d actually have to do to arrest it. Too much trouble x 2.
We’ve bought completely into the myth of social Darwinism (though a shocking number of us don’t believe in actual Darwinism, otherwise known as “evolution.”) Because our narrative for generations has been about the Horatio Alger nature of success, we believe that success itself makes you great. Our churches worship wealth — literally. Our television programming celebrates even faux wealth, i.e., the rented houses and depreciating automotive assets on “Cribs.” We’ve created a whole new celebrity class that consists of people whose only accomplishment is getting on TV (and eating bugs.)
But there’s more to the “American problem” that the rest of the world perceives. We’re also impatient, demand immediate results in our favor (but not in some other guy’s favor) and finicky when it comes to our politicians.
But with the tea party movement having captured the imagination of the media, it seems that a deeper explanation is needed.
How to explain how, in particular, our white working class has become so deeply enamored with the wealthy, to the extent that they are literally demanding that the Bush economic program be put back in place? [One explanation I get a lot in my in-box is, "because at least Bush loved America." Seriously...] They are demanding, with their votes, that Social Security privatizers be given control of Social Security; that health insurance companies be put back in control of healthcare and that a universal right to care be abolished from the conversation; that union protection for workers be weakened or abolished, and that every conceivable safety net — even for themselves — be dismantled. And they are demanding it even to the point of threatening to go to Washington with guns. What’s up with that???
One answer is the conservative myth of individualism. In short, they simply don’t accept the extent to which their own social mobility was made possible by the New Deal, and by the shift from complete dominance of capital up through the 1920s and 30s, to more even balance of labor and capital from the 1930s onward, including literal “full employment” policies by government. They don’t acknowledge it, even when they are currently receiving the very government social benefits — Social Security and Medicare — that the New Deal and Great Society put in place for them. Many of the tea partiers both hate “government” and are currently dependent on it. It seems irrational to most of us liberals, but that is actually the case. So why is it the case? [Okay, now comes the brilliant essay...]
I have literally never read a better explication of why than this essay, which I highly recommend you read in its entirety. It’s long, but you won’t get a better explanation of how the right managed to decouple the white working class from the very idea of social mobility through government intervention. It has to do with class, but also with race. A clip:
Missing from the discussion is a real analysis of the role that race has in framing our national political, economic and historical narrative that can explain why public policies to limit the redistributive functions of government are the focus of conservative political groups in the form of “smaller government” advocacy. Indeed, the modern Tea Party can be said to have gotten its initial inspiration from CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s outburst on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange in which he blamed the federal government for giving subsidies to “subprime” mortgage holders who “were making bad economic decisions.” Santelli claimed that he would organize a Chicago Tea Party against President Obama’s plans to provide support to homeowners facing foreclosure. Of course, “subprime” became quickly coded by race and has been associated almost completely with homeowners of color whose experiences with foreclosure and mortgage debt had to be made somehow different and distinct from the experience of “mainstream” white American households who were morally superior and thus more deserving public sympathy.
The resulting global economic downturn has only prolonged the anxiety even as the crisis spread around the world. Yet, while the U.S. is generally recognized as the model for liberal capitalism, it is social democratic Europe who have recently gone through their own political wave of right wing ascendency, partly due to demographic shifts under increasing immigration from former colonies where the most severe fiscal austerity packages are being proposed. Still, the U.S. pushes forward with stimulus packages to spur job growth and diplomatic attempts to convince European governments to increase their own consumptive spending. The responses of the working class majorities among the U.S. and Europe are equally divergent, as the European working classes have taken to mass action against austerity measures in countries such as Greece and now France.
In the U.S. the greatest momentum among the working class majority is towards the mid-term election of more conservative politicians that include many who would not only raise the official retirement age of American workers [to levels three years higher than that being proposed in France and Greece, for instance] and some who would actually privatize the social security system, effectively eliminating the program completely.
In this context it is quite easy to understand why progressives in the US might be envious as they look across the Atlantic for inspiration and a glimpse of what working class responses to the economic crisis could be.1 However, any notion that the mass movement of left and progressive forces against austerity in France can be replicated in the US fail to appreciate the glaring distinctions between the two countries, most importantly the impact of racial/ethnic division in fueling the hegemonic status of conservative/right ideological perspectives in US political discourse.2
Even as many Americans tend to underestimate the real level of inequality in the United States, overall tolerance for inequality is much higher in the US than in Europe, and France in particular. In fact, although a recent study has shown that Americans might prefer to live in a more socially equal society,3 deeper analysis has shown that when race/ethnicity is made an explicit factor, acceptance [particularly by white Americans] of inequality increases. Specifically as the image of poverty becomes framed as predominantly people of color, urban African-Americans and Latino’s in particular, support among whites for redistributive policies is reduced.4 In fact, as Alesina and Glaeser’s research has shown, approximately 50% of the difference in support for redistributive policies between the U.S. and social democratic European countries can be explained by racial/ethnic heterogeneity.4
I think the author, Khalil Tian Shahyd, is done a bit of a disservice by the site title, since none of what he’s writing is “radical.” It’s actually incredibly well sourced, and written in a straight-ahead, rational, scholarly style. Please do read it. You’ll come away with a completely new understanding of where we are, and why it’s going to be much harder than you think to stop the corporatist train coming down the tracks at full speed, directly at us.