The countdown to the upcoming American presidential election in November 2008 has started early. Way early, with prospective candidates from both major parties taking part in debates, raising money and travelling the country since the spring of 2006. So too has begun the favourite pastime of the international chattering classes, namely pondering and pontificating about ‘What the hell is wrong with the American people?’
After a few drinks, my European friends begin asking things along the lines of ‘How could anyone be so stupid as to vote for someone as imbecilic as George W Bush?’, ‘How could they vote for a party (the Republicans) that is so pro-business, anti-environment and hostile to the interests of working people?’, ‘Aren’t I worried about the influence of religion in American life?’, ‘Don’t Americans care what the rest of the world think?’
American liberals, from the so-called ‘Blue States’ on the coasts, have no ready answers to these questions other than to wring their hands and agree. How does one solve the problem of ‘The American’: stupid, gullible, arrogant, bellicose, addicted to petroleum, belching carbon, indifferent to the planet and, oh yes, probably obese? How should one approach the vast cultural and intellectual wasteland that makes up the bulk of the United States?
As someone who has spent nearly as much time living abroad as at home, I am continually amazed by the lack of serious political thought in both the foreign and domestic variants of this discussion. Analyses like Morris Fiorina’s Culture War: the Myth of a Polarized America (2004) (which makes the case that the vast majority of Americans are politically moderate, regardless of where they live), and which don’t fit with the popular prejudices about the barbarian hordes inhabiting the ‘Red States’ are ignored in favour of studies like that of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes in 2004 that suggested Bush supporters suffered from ‘cognitive dissonance’ when it came to their belief in the president (Kull 2004). A more recent variation on this theme is Drew Westen’s The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2007), which purports to use brain scans to show that Americans vote primarily on the basis of emotion.
It is disturbing, not so much for the level of arrogance required to dismiss the better part of a country as irrational dupes; or even for the naïve notion that if only the Democrats would ditch the political arguments in favour of ‘navigating and channelling the emotional currents of the Political Brain’ (Westen 2007: 419) they might win an election. The really troubling thing about these critiques is how self-serving they are. The message is clear: if vast numbers of people in the United States do not share their critics’ enlightened vision of the world, then there must be something peculiar about the way they perceive reality; we’ve got the brain scans to prove it!
The reliance on focus groups, polls and brain scans smacks of desperation. It as much as admits that there is no common ground between the country’s cultural and intellectual elite and the American people. What’s more, it implies that there never can be. Overall, one gets the impression of an American political class, whether Republican or Democrat, casting around for the magic spoonful of language, spin and emotional sugar required to help the medicine go down and put them into power.
It might seem like a small point, but it goes to the heart of a more profound moral and intellectual crisis in American life that also underpins the growth of anti-Americanism abroad. For most of the last century, regardless of the actions of the American government and sometimes in spite of them, the idea of America has represented something beyond itself. It embodied a belief in progress, faith in the future and perhaps most relevant of all today, belief in the fundamental tenets of democracy: the ability and the right of the People to govern themselves. It was a universal aspiration which all sections of American society could relate to. More than that, it inspired people across the globe and still inspires many today both in the United States and beyond its borders. The irony is the only people it doesn’t seem to inspire are members of America’s elite and those influenced by their outlook on the world.
What began as disillusionment over the gap between what the United States stood for at the level of ideas and the realities of fulfilling America’s role as ‘policeman’ in the post-war world, quickly became cynicism about progress and the future. More recently, it has becomes strikingly hostile to the mass of humanity, whether it takes the form of an environmentalism that sees human beings as the source of all problems, or the endless parade of prejudices about the stupidity and greed of the American people.
The discussion of the problem with Americans is not informed by much knowledge about people’s lives, or even any basic curiosity about them. Rants about the role of religion in the United States, for instance, make no attempt to understand why people are drawn to faith or how religious institutions have adapted to incorporate many of the underlying premises of liberal thought, particularly, ironically, embracing many of the psychoanalytic concepts liberals use to explain voter behaviour.
While there are certainly things about American society that should be held up to criticism - the celebration of ‘victim culture’ and the medicalisation of social problems, to name just two - they aren’t unique to the United States. By contrast, the sacred cows of the liberal elite are accepted uncritically, from their preoccupation with other people’s weight, lifestyle and foods, to the embarrassingly naïve belief that having ‘saved’ Iraq, American troops should now be deployed to ‘Save Darfur’.
When it comes down to it, these criticisms betray more about the morbid preoccupations of the middle classes than they do about the average living, breathing American. The problem with the American people, in so far as it exists, does not lie in how they perceive reality, in their lifestyles or their religiosity, but in how the decline of the idea of America has influenced their belief in progress, the future and, most importantly, their own ability to shape their own destinies. All those points mean defending the American ideal is more important than ever, no matter where you live.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.
Fiorina, M. (2004). Culture War: the Myth of a Polarized America. New York, Pearson Longman.
Kull, S. (2004). The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters. University of Maryland, Program on International Policy Attitudes.
Westen, D. (2007). The Political Brain: How People Vote and How to Change Their Minds: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. New York, Public Affairs.