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The paranoid centre and life in the American fever-swamp

13 July 2012

7:00 PM

13 July 2012

7:00 PM

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told Fox News Sunday last weekend:

‘The fact is, it’s not a question of whether can Mitt Romney win. The statement is, Mitt Romney has to win for the sake of the very idea of America. Mitt Romney has to win for liberty and freedom. We have to put an end to this Barack Obama presidency before it puts an end to our way of life in America.’

There you have it, the conservative movement’s flammable combination of hysteria, hyperbole and cynicism in a single soundbite. Verily, American politics has become an ugly thing, dominated by boors and scoundrels animated by a spirit of hyper-partisanship for the sake of it and to hell with the national interest.

That, at any rate, is how the liberal branch of today’s orthodoxy has it. And for sure, there’s something to this, not least the palpable truth that the Republican party and its offshoots are indeed amply stocked with boors and scoundrels prone to frothing hyperbole and fantasy. Nevertheless, let’s not kid ourselves. This is nothing new. And nor, frankly, is such silliness necessarily or always confined to the conservative side of the aisle.

As I recall it, the Democratic primary of 2004 was in large part predicated upon the suspicion that George W Bush had stolen the Presidency and that, damn it, this was the moment the Democratic party was going to “take back our country”. Now, you may say, all those signs proclaiming that Bush = Hitler didn’t represent “mainstream” liberal thinking to same degree that madness courses through the conservative movement in the Age of Obama. True enough, but they were real signs and real feelings, and a reminder that the left has its fever-swamps too.

It’s the nature of American democracy to pretend that each election must be one of the most important in the country’s history and that dire times lie ahead if the wrong guy wins. But it is a weakness of contemporary punditry that many people think these are unusually tempestuous times or that the republic is threatened as rarely before.

Thanks to Erica Grieder, I spent some time this morning reading a superb article Lawrence Wright wrote for Texas Monthly (a consistently splendid magazine, incidentally) on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. As we prepare for the insanity of this year’s election season, it’s worth pondering the story Wright tells, both in terms of ruptures with the past and how, in some respects, less has changed than might be thought.

The Kennedy years were a time, remember, when the publisher of the Dallas Morning News railed against the ‘Judicial Kremlin’ reinventing America from the safety of the Supreme Court. That complaint might seem hyperbolic until you consider how, until John Roberts changed his mind, even usually-sensible liberals warned that the ‘wrong’ (that is, inconvenient) verdict in the Obamacare case would be little less than a kind of judicial quasi-coup-d’etat.

Back to 1960. As Wright reminds us, the Reverend W.A. Criswell, leader of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, thundered that ‘the election of a Catholic as president would mean the end of religious freedom in America’. One of Criswell’s 18,500 parishioners considered this a warning of such importance that he paid to have 200,000 copies of this sermon posted to Protestant ministers across the United States. I don’t think there’s any need to stress the contemporary parallel too strongly, is there?

Wright continues:

‘What accounted for the hostility (or to use her word, indignation) of the fashionable and affluent Dallas woman? In part she was imply a prisoner of her age: a women of unfocused ambition, intensely competitive but unemployed (the working wife was still a signal of economic desperation), lonely at home and given to causes. She may have been financially secure, but she was deeply troubled by some unnamed fear that her castle was built of sand and the coming tide would wash away her American dreams. She named the tide International Communism, or Creeping Socialism. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev boasted to the West, &”We will bury you,” the conservative Dallas woman believed him. Earlier that autumn Khrushchev had come to the United Nations and pounded on the table with his shoe—a gesture of such swaggering boorishness that it justified every qualm the Dallas woman felt about Russia, the United Nations, and American foreign policy. She worried about the missile gap and the spread of communism to Cuba. Moreover, people in her own country were talking enthusiastically about social change—Kennedy was already speaking of the &”the revolutionary sixties”—and the Dallas woman knew those changes would come at her expense. She worried about the erosion of liberty caused by recent Supreme Court decisions (often delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was the creeping socialist personified). The court was taking rights away from the Dallas woman and awarding them to pornographers, criminals, atheists, communists, and Negroes. The Dallas woman felt herself to be under attack at home and abroad.’

Again, you can hear echoes of all this today. For good reason, too. As Wright pointed out, ‘In many ways 1960 was an ideological turning point for the United States, a moment when conservative and liberal impulses were in nearly perfect balance, with mainstream presidential candidates representing both parties.’ As then, so now. Indeed, this partisan equilibrium has been a feature of American political life since at least the Millennium election a dozen years ago. In such circumstances is it a surprising that many people become attached to the view politics must be a zero sum game?

This young American president represented something new. No wonder he ‘gave off threatening emanations to millions of Americans, and no one was more finely attuned to that frequency than the right-wing Dallas housewife.’ Great change sparks a great reaction. How can it be otherwise? To say so is not to say one is impressed by the logic of that reaction, it’s merely to observe that when one candidate repudiates everything the previous President represents and when that candidate suggests his predecessor somehow betrayed the spirit of America or led the United States to actual, empirically-measured ruin, he cannot be surprised if his predecessors’ supporters take it badly. For, if nothing else, he is telling them they are fools or, worse still, wreckers. This too is the nature of the political game but, like elections, the game has consequences.

That doesn’t whitewash or justify the often-unhinged reaction to Obama’s presidency. Rather it’s an attempt to put it in some kind of context. It’s not Obama’s &”fault” per se, merely an unfortunate, perhaps inevitable, consequence of his victory.

And while Obama’s victory was in many ways a great and even uplifting thing (though many considered the uplift of short duration), all the talk of just how “improbable” his victory was carried with it an unmistakable reproof. However mildly, it still slapped or scolded those who weren’t wise enough to vote for the new guy and Change You Can Believe In. Why wouldn’t you want to get with the programme? What’s wrong with you?

So this bred a certain festering resentment too. These people certainly didn’t consider themselves racist (though perhaps some of them were or are) and they definitely didn’t like the suggestion their opposition to the new president’s legislative agenda could be cas
t, even by inference, in such unflattering terms. That the Republican party had previously suggested their opponents lacked patriotism was a different matter. That was then, this is now.

And, frankly, the new president took office at a bad time. There was no way of dealing with the consequences of the financial crash that could be both effective and popular. The best the administration could do was pass measures that proved almost-effective without being cripplingly-unpopular. That’s not nothing but nor is it quite the promise of a new dawn either. Throw in a massive government-led overhaul of healthcare and an unpopular bail-out of the motor industry and you can begin to stitch a tapestry of government interference and over-reach. Add (spurious) intimations of weakness abroad and you have enough fuel for the right-wing noise machine to go into overdrive.

All this, too, at a time when the look and feel and language of the United States is changing. The prospect of a majority-minority country doesn’t terrify me or the Americans I know, but I can see why it might alarm some. America is changing and it isn’t your grandfather’s United States. The 1950s are long ago.

In many ways it’s a damn good thing they are too. Nostalgia — and reactionaries are invariably nostalgic — is usually a pernicious force in American politics. We forget too easily that the victories won in the 1960s came at a heavy price. It didn’t help that the White House was occupied by psychopaths for a dozen years but nothing — repeat nothing — today matches or comes close to matching the tumult of the civil rights movement, the rancour of school bussing or the trauma of the Vietnam War. America, despite its present uncertainty, has come a long way and is a better place now than it was then.

Despite everything, there’s been nothing like Dallas, 1960. Lyndon Johnson was lucky to get out of the city unharmed; Adlai Stevenson was spat upon. Kennedy, as the world knows, was not so fortunate. Dallas, a strange place at that time and close to the end of its tether, took the blame for Kennedy’s assassination. Hadn’t the president told his wife “We’re heading into nut country today”? Yes he had. As Wright says:

‘But Dallas had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death. The hatred directed at our city was retaliation for many previous grievances. The East hated us because we were part of the usurping West, liberals hated us because we were conservative, labor because we were nonlabor, intellectuals because we were raw, minorities because we were predominantly and conspicuously white, atheists and agnostics because we were strident believers, the poor because we were rich, the old because we were new. Indeed there were few of the world’s constituencies that we had failed to offend before the president came to our city, and hadn’t we compounded the offense again and again by boasting of those very qualities? In that case we were well silenced now.’

Dallas was new and brash and godly and many things besides. Since then America has become more like Dallas and Dallas more like America. The city is respectable now, even if east and west coasters also agree it’s still a vulgar place of questionable merit. Nevertheless, if there’s a battle between California and Texas to determine which of these experiments best represents the American future, there’s no doubt Texas is winning.

This still scares people. There are liberals on either coast who, deep down, wouldn’t be too upset if Texas actually did secede. It ain’t their America. And that’s fine too. The United States is a big place. Or, rather, it was just about OK so long as Texas kept its weirdness to itself. But Texas has long horns that reach across the state border. It is a foe worth fearing and all the more so as the proof of its success is measured by internal migration to the Lone Star State.

That success may come at a heavy price. It’s certainly a price that would be deemed intolerable in all European countries. But, damn it, I still can’t help liking the place.

But back to the culture wars. It’s no surprise Barack Obama’s greatest electoral weakness is with white men who never made it as far as college. He is from an American future and they fear he treats them as part of the American past. These are the ‘bitter’ guys ‘clinging’ to their religion and their guns and, by god, if there’s one thing they recognise it’s when they’re being patronised by some northern liberal speaking at a fund-raiser in, of all places, bloody San Francisco.

Sure, Obama was trying, however clumsily, to tell that audience they needed to understand a little more and condemn a little less, but it was evident then, and still is, that while he might be able to speak to these people in terms of policy, he lacked the imagination or empathy to speak to them in cultural terms.

Of course, the conservative insistence that the American soul is located in small towns across the continent is baloney now that everyone is suburban. Nevertheless, the idea of rock-ribbed country simplicity opposed to metropolitan swells has been a part of American politics ever since Virginia wrestled New England for supremacy back in the Republic’s earliest days. The specifics of the argument may change but its essence remains familiar.

This argument has lasted chiefly, I think, because each side is secretly afraid the other might be on to something. The resentment Kennedy inspired was the product of, as Wright argues, ‘envy and intense curiosity’. Worse, he says, the boys from Oklahoma or Arizona or Texas ‘felt inferior’. Opposed to this is the sense, weaker now perhaps but still there, of guilt endured by the elites clustered on the coasts. They may be embarrassed by flyover country’s unquestioning patriotism but they know these are the boys who will die in America’s wars.

Moreover, when the ‘real America’ boasts of being, well, ‘real America’ the more perceptive coastal-dwelling types can appreciate that though there are many Americas this ‘real America’ is the one that doesn’t have any kind of hyphen. It’s the ur-America, if you will, apparently so confident enough in its own culture it doesn’t need to look for inspiration from anywhere else. From a foreigner’s perspective, the places Barack Obama fares least well are likely to be the places in America the foreigner feels most foreign.

That doesn’t make them better; just different (though give me life in Tennessee above life in Massachusetts any day). But it’s part of the back-drop before which this new election will be played.

Most of all, however, we should remember that while the culture wars will always be with us these are not unusually vile times in America. The centre can be just as paranoid as the right even if the fever-swamps will never be drained. In the end, however, I suspect you can measure your fretting by the quality of your faith in the proposition that the American people will find a way of muddling-through and making the best of it. Dire warnings about the apocalypse are nothing new but by the standards of the past today’s lunacy seems, as they say in Texas, ‘All hat and no cattle’. Or, at the very least, ‘more hat than cattle’.

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