The Rise and Fall of the American Dream?
1917: The Promise: Liberty, Prosperity and the Free Market.
The United States became the world’s leading power before the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It had surpassed the British Empire by the end of the 19th century, and without the boost of an empire. The North American continent had all the resources needed to power agricultural and industrial growth – and a fulsome supply of immigrant talent flooded in from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Sweden. America became a melting pot for many nationalities, who fueled the opening of the West, the explosive growth of railroads and industry to supply them. Supporting industrial growth was a booming finance industry. By the early twentieth century, American banks came to dominate international financial markets. But there were many setbacks in the form of economic boom and bust, especially as the dominant American culture encouraged optimism, individualism and risk taking. However, the American way was to ride the problems, recover and continue as before.
After the First World War, in which America reluctantly participated from 1917, the United States retreated from the international sphere. This retreat was in part driven by a failure to persuade the world to follow peaceful policies – and especially to treat the losers with a degree of compassion. British and French behaviour after the war had a heavy part to play in the rise of nationalism and the Nazi Party in Germany – and indirectly cause the Second World War.
America entered the second global conflict after Pearl Harbor, but before that was supplying the British with money and arms. It became the industrial and military powerhouse that sustained the military efforts of the Allies, including Russia.
Boosted by the Second World War, America became a financial and industrial colossus, with massive economic and political power. The Cold War, in reality a conflict of competing ideologies, in which America was pitted against an “Evil Empire”; the American self-image was polished as that of a superior nation, with a superior way of life, superior values and a world leader with both hard military and industrial power- and with huge “soft” power through film, entertainment and an aura of moral rectitude. Internally, Americans were encouraged to believe that they could enjoy the fruits of a superior country. Massively growth in consumer and advertising industries, strengthened by the development of psychological techniques to encourage consumption led most Americans to believe that they could reap the benefits of victory and enjoy lifestyles that surpassed those of citizens in inferior societies.
An ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.
Americans have been led to believe that they live in a special society, blessed by God, and fortunate by comparison with other lesser countries. The proponents of the free market have used utopian language to lead US citizens to believe that the free market is a special gift bestowed on the people of a special country.
THE AMERICAN DREAM: Liberty and the Free Market
“The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (Democracy, Rights, Liberty, Opportunity, and Equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931:
"life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth”.
The American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "all men are created equal" with the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
America has long been regarded by many of its citizens as a country blessed by God. This notion comes from a deep stream of religiosity with its roots in the beliefs of original settlers, who emigrated to escape from religious oppression in their home country, Britain.
This conviction was heavily underscored by the ideal of Liberty, recognising French roots (the Statue of Liberty was a French gift) and the defeat of the English crown, the oppressor from across the seas. The twin tracks, religion and political freedom, were cemented into the American psyche by the conquest of the West. American pioneers overcame the perils of climate, geography and the hostility of some native Americans to realise the riches of the American West, based on rich agriculture, in particular beef production (cowboys), and of course, mineral riches; gold being infused into the popular imagination. The original pioneers were followed by remarkable entrepreneurs and engineers, who built the American railway system. It is not hard for an outsider to understand the profound effect of all these remarkable events and achievements, which were much later underscored by the film and music industries. Ronald Regan, a recent president, owed a lot of his popularity to the fact that he was a film actor, who specialised in heroic roles, many featuring him as a cowboy or military hero.
The American Century
The idea of the American Century, a potent symbol of power and influence has popped up at various points in history; and it appeared again in the 1980’s The phrase “American Century” has usually been used to describe a particular period in history: the emergence of the United States as the world’s greatest power during and after World War II and its crusading internationalism during the Cold War. But such is the power of the idea that it has survived, in popular discourse, as a description of America’s continuing image of itself as a nation that somehow sets the course of the world’s history – a nation whose values and virtues continue to make it a model to other peoples.
Ever since the first Europeans set their eyes on the American continents, the idea that the New World would somehow transcend and redeem the Old became an article of faith among many people on both sides of the Atlantic. The European settlements in America were destined to be a “City on a Hill,” “the last best hope of man on earth,” or -- as Herman Melville wrote in the mid-nineteenth century -- the “political messiah,” who has come, he said, “in us . . . the pioneers of the world.”
The seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century proselytizers of American exceptionalism, and of the special role America was to play in history, saw the New World and the new nation as an example, a model, a light shining out to a wretched globe and inspiring it to lift itself up. It was a morally energized vision, but also a largely passive vision. Few people in those years supported active efforts to impose the American vision on other societies, or even to promote it abroad with any real fervor. It was a vision of the United States looking out across a decadent or uncivilized globe, vaguely disapprovingly, hoping it would choose to follow the American example and improve.
The vision of an American Century that emerged during and after World War II was a fusion of these two related, but until the 1940s mostly separate, visions. The critical ingredient that now set the United States on its new path -- born of the nation’s experience in World War II -- was the determination of many Americans to use the nation’s great power actively and often very aggressively to spread the American model to other nations, at times through relatively benign encouragement, at other times through pressure and coercion, but almost always with a fervent and active intent.
But the man whose name is most clearly linked to the idea of an American Century is undoubtedly Henry R. Luce, the founder and crusading editor/publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life magazines and as early as 1940 one of the nation’s most outspoken internationalists.
On February 17, 1941, Luce published a celebrated and controversial essay in Life magazine entitled “The American Century,” whose title – although not original to Luce – he helped make a part of the nation’s public language.
The American Century, Luce wrote, must be a sharing with all people of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. . . .
[W]e have that indefinable, unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige. And unlike the prestige of Rome or Genghis Khan or 19th century England, American prestige throughout the world is [the result of] faith in the good intentions as well as in the ultimate intelligence and strength of the whole of the American people.
How, Luce wondered, could a nation that embodied such important and potentially universal values, a nation with such unparalleled wealth and power, remain on the sidelines in the battle for the future of the world? All America’s hopes for its future would fail, he insisted,
unless our vision of America as a world power includes a passionate devotion to great American ideals . . . a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence, and also of cooperation. . . . We are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization--above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmists called a little lower than the angels.
The notion of America as a specially blessed country has down history been celebrated in poetry. Here is some:
"While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer."
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru’ the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.
The Ballad of Davy Crockett
“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the Land of the Free
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!
His land is biggest and his land is best
From grassy plains to the mountain crest
He's ahead of us all meetin' the test
Followin' his legend into the West.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!”
Statue of Liberty poem
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Promoting the Dream – “The End of History”, combined with Free Market Economics.
The downfall of the Soviet Union caused writer Francis Fukuyama to write a triumphalist book “The End of History and the Last Man”. In it he declared:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
The idea was that Democracy coincided with the victory of Free Market economics, which could be regarded as the icing of the cake of liberal democracy.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of how free market thinking entered the political arena, and onwards into Society, is to see the influence of Reaganomics and Thatcherite convictions, which led to massive programmes of privatisation of industry but in particular the deregulation of the financial markets. Free market dogma could be likened to a parasite or viral infection that, once it entered the body politic, spread and took hold in vital organs such as banking, and then into the political system and government.
Another interesting aspect of the infusion of ideas into a social system is that once they are established they become virtually invisible, morphing into Axioms. People no longer publicly articulate free market dogma, but rather use different words and concepts that lead back to the tenets of the free market. So, “consumer choice”, “a rising tide floats all boats”, “freedom to be enterprising”,” “low taxes stimulate enterprise”, “high pay is essential to recruit the Best of the Best”, “government must stay clear of enterprise” are all rooted in free market dogma.
The ideas of the free market originated in the political right wing, being particularly strongly held beliefs in the Conservative Party in Britain and The Republicans in the United States. However, such was the potency of virtually invisible free market axioms that they became cornerstones of the policies of New Labour under Tony Blair in the UK. And it was a Democrat president, Bill Clinton who let the banks rip by repeal of the Glass Steagall Act. The term Glass–Steagall Act usually refers to four provisions of the U.S. Banking Act of 1933 that limited commercial bank securities, activities, and affiliations within commercial banks and securities firms.
President Clinton also signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the provisions preventing banks from affiliating with security firms.
“As Good as it Gets” – The Apogee of American Power and Self-Confidence
After the Second World War, America emerged as the big winner. Not only had she made a major contribution towards the defeat of the Axis powers, she had also become the industrial powerhouse that fed the Allied war effort. Europe and Japan were in ruins, America’s old ally, Britain, was bankrupt and the Russian empire had not reached the peak of its powers. The magnanimous acts of America in supporting European reconstruction were soon replaced by the need to act defensively to protect Europe from a Russian land grab. The next decades were characterised by the Cold War and a global struggle against “Communism”, but domestically the war economy was transformed into a machine to feed American (and global) consumption. The consumer society represented rewards for the struggles and sacrifices of the war years.
By the end of the Twentieth century, things were looking very good for America. The Cold War had been “won”, the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency and bureaucracy. The collapse and disintegration of the “Evil Empire”, as President Regan dubbed it, was heralded by many to be the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity. The “American Century was dawning.
Summoning Americans to "an era of national renewal," Ronald Wilson Reagan was sworn in as the 50th President of the United States today in an inaugural ceremony that was rich in pomp, pageantry and striped-pants formality.
But, Reagan added,
"It does require our best effort, our work and our willingness to believe in ourselves and in our capacity to perform great deeds; that together and with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which confront us. Why shouldn't we believe that? After all - we are Americans."
The freedom principle was not just an American principle; for Reagan, it was a universal principle. Freedom was not the exclusive domain of Americans. Reagan said that freedom was one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. ”All humans aspire to freedom. And when governments permit people to express their aspiration for freedom, especially in the economic sphere, freedom works. Reagan told the United Nations flatly, “the free market…works.” Conservatives thus needed to be freedom fighters. According to Reagan, conservatives should not simply be anti-big government or anti-communist or against high taxes and burdensome regulations, but, in the positive, “keepers of the flame of liberty.”
…”There is, said Reagan, a spiritual center at the “heart of freedom.” It is there because each of us is made in the image of God “the creator.” It is this that is truly “our power” and “our freedom.” Honoring freedom was thus “redeeming” in the eyes of God. The Creator had created freedom. He had created man. He had created us to be free. Honoring freedom meant honoring the Creator and our divine right.”
So America entered the new era on the crest of a wave of optimism and strong belief that American Freedom would conquer the world. In line with his inspiring words, Regan instituted a range of political and economic ideas that heralded the era of the Free Market.
Across the Atlantic, another newly elected politician driven by zeal for renewal and change was about to launch what amounted to a socio-economic revolution. Margaret Thatcher saw Britain as a tired nation, weighed down by bureaucracy and Socialism. Her recipe was similar to Regan’s in many ways – free up markets, let enterprise have free rein, reduce taxes, increase incentives to hard work, let the strivers keep the fruits of their labour and demolish a dependency culture. Her mood was upbeat,
"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
America the idealistic powerhouse
The early 1980’s seemed like a perfect storm of positive events for the United States:
- The power of the Soviet Union was crumbling into dust. Eastern and southern European countries scrambled for freedom from the Soviets and looked to America for support and a vision of a better future. German unification was consummated and the united German republic seemed to be a staunch supporter of the Market and American ideals.
- Russia toyed with the free market and deregulation of state monoliths and monopolies. American investment banks rushed to support the new Russian revolution
- America was a colossus of military and economic power. American products, both civil and military, dominated world Markets.
- American business know how was recognised as leading edge. Business schools such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford became models for a rash of new schools opening in Europe. INSEAD in Fontainebleau and London Business Schools were modelled broadly on the American model.
- American corporations marched confidently into Europe and South East Asia, but particularly US banks roared into the London financial markets exploiting deregulation driven by Regan’s free market “partner”, Margaret Thatcher
- President Clinton played a positive role in negotiating a Northern Ireland agreement
As has been described, it was not simply the sheer might of American corporations and finance that made for US world dominance. Hollywood and US TV came to dominate the minds of many people in Europe, especially the UK. Young people aped American food and drink, language and clothing, often to the irritation of their elders. Youth culture was emphatically American. American heroes such as Elvis Presley and a plethora of film stars became style leaders.
The consumption society
Less visibly, something else was happening that was to become even more powerful than entertainment. The modern advertising industry, born in America in the 1020’s, and weaned into power after World War Two, became a massively powerful influence in the growing consumer markets in America and Britain particularly.
Advertising “messages” spoke to the populace, urging them to fulfil every desire, follow every fashion, ape armies of “celebrities” and seize their rights to the Good Life. The potent idea was infused by all media that Americans were “owed” the Good Life as a result of their hard work, sacriifices and their good fortune being Americans.
The roaring consumer markets were fed by wall-to –wall commercial TV, blasting out messages to buy. And in the wings, still gleams in designers’ eyes, the nascent personal communications industry was waiting ready to complete the capture of the minds of millions.
But under the surface, a Cancer was spreading
As corporate power increased, uninhibited by regulation, the position of Labour in the economy came under sharp attack. Companies began to outsource their workforces to save cost, and then began a massive programme of “Offshoring” of manufacturing to countries where labour was cheap. Whole industries became hollowed out, and the basic industries that used to support manufacturing, such as iron and steel, were closed down. The term “Rust Belt” was coined to describe the death of many once-prosperous communities. Wage levels hardly increased for the employed for decades, and the growing army of unemployed or “Hardly-employed” found their way of life degraded. New employment was often based on semi or unskilled work, employment was insecure and often part-time, the power of trade unions was undermined – and mainly white working class people who had formed the backbone of the old economy felt themselves thrown on the scrapheap in dying communities. Ill health, depression, drug addiction and dependence on strong painkillers became an epidemic in many small communities in the old industrial areas.
All of this was worsened by the siren call of advertising, and many people racked up unsupportable debt to join the lifestyles of the famous.
All of this was a million miles away from the lives of the fortunate minority, employed in new high tech industries in Silicon Valley and of course, those employed in banks and large corporations. The problem was that none of these were situated near the dying world of heavy industry and traditional manufacturing. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that many politicians in both major parties were “recruited” by finance and big business and in this sense were paid to do the bidding of big money and power.
Rich elites became cut off from the realities of large parts of the nation, and this separation also tended to affect where people lived, so the poor were forced increasingly into ghettoes.
The problems became steadily worse as the blight of deprivation bit increasingly into the lives of the middle classes, which suffered also from decreasing living standards.
The effects of all of this were a sort of “Slow Burn” of anger and resentment on the part of an increasing proportion of the population which elite politicians in Washington failed to take sufficient note of. Political parties and candidates were supported by massive amounts of money supplied by wealthy organisations and individuals, which they needed to support political campaigns.
In America, the restrictions on political funding were removed, which further increased the sense of elite politicians being cut off from the realities of millions.
So, in both Britain and America, which had most enthusiastically espoused the Free Market, inequality burgeoned, the rich became richer and the poor became poorer in absolute as well as relative terms.
Much of this was masked by free market propaganda, lauding “freedom” and the benefits of competition un-sullied by the dead hand of government. The media and advertising industries poured torrents of what amounted to propaganda, encouraging people to regard themselves as individualistic consumers rather than active citizens.
So, in both Britain and America, whole communities were becoming cut off from the fruits of growth and wealth creation. In both cases, these communities tended to be situated a long way, both physically and psychologically, from the centres of financial and political power.
In America, the travails of the excluded classes were affected by another set of negative forces. In the “Good Old Days”, Americans could look with pride to the special place of the United States in the external world. Enemies were evil empires such as the Soviet Union, wars were fought abroad a long way from America’s shores. The fact that the Korean War was hardly a convincing victory and the Vietnam War a disaster really didn’t have to sink into the minds of the majority of the populace – at least they were fought a long way from home, and indeed fought to keep the evils of “Communism” far distant from the Homeland. Citizens could marvel at the size of aircraft carriers and the potency of fighters and bombers. The US had a massive nuclear arsenal, sufficient to keep any enemy at bay. Wars were rather simple, you fought a “bad” enemy, be it the Soviet Union or Iran, on battlefields far away.
But, not noticed by most Americans, including many politicians, the nature of warfare was changing. Jehadist organisations, mainly but not entirely Muslem, were quietly training individuals to conduct a quite different kind of warfare against the United States. But instead of nations who would “Stand and fight like men” these new enemies were more like loose knit networks, and their tactics were a million miles away from conventional warfare. America’s reactions to these new threats were initially bound by a straight-jacket of complacency and incomprehension.
The Dream Unravels.
In one bound, the world became a more threatening place…
On September 11, 2001, the nation was rocked by the Twin Towers disaster. This outrage caused President Bush, backed by vice-President Cheney and much of the nation, to embark on a campaign to defeat the forces of evil in the world and install American principles of democratic capitalism.
The Neo-Conservative revolution – Free Markets, democracy and the American Way.
Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, American neo-Conservatives embarked on a campaign (designated by President George W Bush as a “Crusade” until warned that the term would result in a huge Arab backlash) to take American values to the Middle East commencing with the invasion of Iraq. The intent was to create a democratic capitalist society modelled on the United States, which would be spread to other Middle Eastern countries in due course.
The result was spreading chaos and religious warfare amongst Muslim sects which spread across the region. There was a short period when it appeared that Muslim states with autocratic regimes might embrace democracy and Western Liberal values. Popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria rapidly degenerated into civil warfare and secular violence across the whole Middle East.
It is interesting to reflect that American Christian Evangelists were ordering thousands of copies of the Bible to take to Iraq to support their Christian crusade. Luckily for them, the crusade did not get very far!
But liberal hopes sprang anew……
The accession of President Obama, the first black incumbent and a liberal Democrat, was characterised by a message of hope. Heavily supported by black Americans and many in Hispanic communities, the campaign slogan “Yes We Can”, also resonated with many younger citizens hopeful of change. Obama’s rhetoric chimed with the message of hope and renewal:
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.
It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.
We are, and always will be, the United States of America”.
Obama blocked by the right wing at every turn
Obama was seen by many Americans and a huge following outside the US as a Good President, with impeccable Liberal values, capable of providing strong moral leadership to the rest of the world.
But at home, he was blocked at every turn by increasingly conservative forces in both Congress and the Senate. His detractors used every form of propaganda and “Untruth” to black him and his proposals for social reform. At the extreme were the “Birthers”, who claimed that Obama was in reality a black African and not an American at all. Included in their number at one stage was a certain Donald Trump, who later became a champion of “Untruthing”.
So it came to pass that the idealism that marked Obama’s first election as President progressively turned to disillusion, and in some quarters increasing anger at Obama, Washington power, and the whole industrial/ political elite that were out of touch, disinterested and impotent to improve the lives of the majority of (white) voters.
Cut to 2016
The Dam Bursts!
The political Establishment rocked
All of a sudden it seemed, the optimistic and hopeful flavour of American political life turned to anxiety and even rage, a shock to some equivalent to 9/11. This was in many ways caused by a sense of betrayal of the “Greatness” of the American Dream.
The political establishment, comfortably ensconced in Washington DC, was rocked by the emergence of two passionate candidates for president from way outside the establishment radar; one from each major party, who conducted a demolition job on the old political system.
The American system of primary elections and caucuses, leading to the Electoral College, is complex and Byzantine. But in “normal” times candidates for the post of President are arranged by the main political parties, Democrats and Republicans. Occasionally a rogue candidate appears, but is squeezed out before the populace goes to the polls.
2016 was quite different……
“Socialist” Bernie Sanders raises passionate support, Donald Trump carves up the Republican Establishment!
The Republican primaries started as normal with a long list of hopefuls, including “establishment” figures such as Jeb Bush, of the Bush political dynasty.
But it rapidly became apparent that there was a rogue candidate in the form of Donald Trump, a billionaire property magnate, who had no affiliations within the Republican Party. He has roused a passionate following, especially from white, male, working class citizens. His “Manifesto” includes abolishing Obamacare, expatriating Mexican immigrants, building a wall to keep them out and banning Moslems.
Trump has vowed to be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created" if he wins the election later this year.
He added: "I'll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places. I'll bring back our jobs, and I'll bring back our money."
Having vowed to abolish Obamacare, he supports Government-funded universal care and has promised to "make a deal with existing hospitals" to treat uninsured Americans.
He said: "I am going to take care of everybody. I don't care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody's going to be taken care of much better than they're taken care of now."
Donald Trump’s hustings were noisy and unpredictable affairs, led by a ranting candidate, who berated opponents abusively and made wild promises: “I’ll make the Mexicans pay for the Wall”; “I’ll make America great again”. (The plan that Trump laid out focuses on building up the military, taking care of veterans, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.) Other promises include: “I will take care of women, and I have great respect for women. I do cherish women, and I will take care of women;" bring back waterboarding, bring back jobs from China -- and Mexico, Japan and elsewhere – and many more….
Trump seems to have tapped into a deep well of rage and frustration amongst the mainly white working class and some elements of the middle classes. His passionate followers are strongest amongst mature and middle aged white voters.
The attitudes of the Republican establishment have shifted from amusement through astonishment to fear and loathing as Trump has swept other candidates aside despite desperate attempts to organise against him. By May 2016, it seemed very likely that Donald Trump would emerge as the Republican candidate for President of the United States.
On the other side of the political divide……
Hillary Clinton, wife of ex-president Bill Clinton, and ex-Secretary of State under president Obama, is widely reckoned to be the front running Democratic candidate. She is a middle of the road Democrat, with extensive contacts in the political sphere and industry, and great experience of foreign affairs.
Her main opponent Bernie Sanders, as self-styled “socialist”, was generally reckoned to be a no-hoper. But seemingly out of the blue, Sanders generated a passionate following, especially amongst young people and minorities, to the point that it appeared he might just squeeze the contest.
Why was Sanders so popular? It seems that he is tapping into a deep well of anger and resentment about the unfairness of US society, about inequality, about the machinations of the distant “THEM” in Washington: Wall Street and in big corporations. The Sanders following demonstrated a huge range of schisms that have emerged in American society between Us and Them, between the rich and privileged and the dispossessed, between political and religious extremists, between political conservatives and liberals – and of course between citizens of different colours and ethnicities. Both Trump and Sanders in their different ways, have exposed the collapse of the American Dream, revealing alienation, schisms and deep resentment about the way “The Establishment” are believed to have carved up Society to their own benefit, leaving the majority trailing further and further behind.
A sense of what the dispossessed majority felt can be garnered from Sander’s economic Manifesto:
- Invest in our crumbling infrastructure with a major program to create jobs by rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, waste water plants, airports, railroads and schools.
- Transform energy systems away from fossil fuels to create jobs while beginning to reverse global warming and make the planet habitable for future generations.
- Develop new economic models to support workers in the United States instead of giving tax breaks to corporations which ship jobs to low-wage countries overseas.
- Make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for higher wages and benefits.
- Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour so no one who works 40 hours a week will live in poverty.
- Provide equal pay for women workers who now make 78 percent of what male counterparts make.
- Reform trade policies that have shuttered more than 60,000 factories and cost more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs.
- Make college affordable and provide affordable child care to restore America’s competitive edge compared to other nations.
- Break up big banks. The six largest banks now have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product, over $9.8 trillion. They underwrite more than half the mortgages in the country and issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards.
- Join the rest of the industrialized world with a Medicare-for-all health care system that provides better care at less cost.
- Expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs.
- Reform the tax code based on wage earners’ ability to pay and eliminate loopholes that let profitable corporations stash profits overseas and pay no U.S. federal income taxes.
Whilst it was unlikely that Sanders would finally beat Clinton and become a Social Democratic “European-Style” president, he and his agenda have run Clinton sufficiently close to make the Democrat establishment sit up and take notice.
How has this come to pass?
The febrile American political atmosphere seems to be fueled by a range of factors:
- The comfortable complacency of the established political system, supported by big corporate and individual money; members of which were enclosed in a bubble that seems to have insulated those inside from noise from the wider nation, leaving them open to shocks that few saw coming
- The rise in economic power of nations such as China and India. China in particular has grown strongly by concentrating on cheap manufacturing, undercutting a whole range of previously American industries. The effects of “offshoring” manufacturing has laid waste to whole cities, as well as increasing a general sense of insecurity in a country that believed itself to be economically and financially invulnerable.
- During the Twentieth Century, wars were fought in distant foreign lands, often as Proxy struggles against enemies such as “The Evil Empire”, “Communism” in Europe, Korea and Vietnam. Like British in the Nineteenth Century, who took great comfort in the strength of the Royal Navy: (send a gunboat to quell fractious foreigners); Americans were confident their armed forces were capable of holding evil forces at bay, away from the Homeland. Until 9/11, which revealed a catastrophic failure to understand that the nature of warfare has changed dramatically. Many Americans have been comforted by the perceived might of the American military machine, with fleets of aircraft, huge aircraft carriers and of course, a massive nuclear arsenal. The Twin Towers attack suddenly and dramatically brought it home that the American homeland was vulnerable to attack by very small groups of fanatics, organised in networks and spheres of belief, rather than by military might. Events subsequent to 9/11 have done nothing to reassure Americans that they are capable of fighting organised “terrorism”. So, confidence in the might of American arms has been seriously eroded and replaced by anxiety and confusion (in the populace at large and maybe in the military establishment as well!).
- The failure on the part of the establishments to understand that many, if not most, people make political decisions, not on the basis of the facts and available evidence, but much more on “Feel” and emotion. So research has revealed that once an individual has made up their mind on an issue, they will sift “facts” that reinforce their emotional certainty; and the fact that angry people are most likely to vote according to how they feel, rather than think. This has been brilliantly revealed in:"The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics With an 18th Century Brain." By George Lakoff, Viking Press, Hardcover, 2008.
Conservatives have recognized that because most brain activity is unconscious, facts, figures and issues matter less to peoples reasoning than do frames and metaphors. Progressives still cling to the 18th century idea that people reason consciously. All you need do is present them with the facts and they will make the right decision. According to Lakoff, progressive politicians rarely use frame and metaphor. When they do, they are almost apologetic about it, as if by accepting the role metaphor plays in human reasoning they are somehow cheating. By taking this high minded attitude, Lakoff posits, progressives lose the battle before it has begun. It is as if liberals and progressives have agreed to enter a knife fight armed only with rolled up copies of Locke and Rousseau.
Lakoff’s findings were ignored by the American and particularly the British political classes, resulting in the election of President Trump and the vote to leave the European Union on the Part of the British electorate. Both Trump and the “Brexiters” cleverly realised how to influence angry people who felt abandoned by the “System”.
- The failure of America’s Post-Soviet military adventures. The Vietnam War resulted in military defeat, despite massive destruction in Vietnam, and the deployment of a massive arsenal of military might. The tactics of North Vietnamese and Chinese armies made them impossible to defeat cleanly on the battlefield, and America withdrew in chaos with terrible casualties. Nevertheless the Vietnam carnage hardly affected the average American. The Twin Towers attack suddenly and dramatically brought it home that the American homeland was vulnerable to attack by very small groups of fanatics, organised in networks and spheres of belief, rather than by military might. All of these factors are hard to comprehend by the (many) less educated and internationally minded members of the populace. How can it be that the world’s most powerful military power is unable, (or unwilling) to confront and defeat terrorists? (One Republican candidate, when asked how he would deal with Islamic State, a terrorist organisation, said he would “Carpet bomb them ‘til they glowed at night!).
- And: How so many Americans lost well paid jobs in manufacturing to foreign countries, such as China and Mexico? Why have wages and salaries of “average” Americans lagged behind the burgeoning wealth of the elite?
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump presents emotionally compelling reasons: – its “Them”, where “They” are foreigners: Mexicans and Chinese who have taken “our” jobs, rich elites in Wall Street and Washington, who are exploiting us – and of course “aliens” of all kinds, especially Muslim terrorists.
Democrat aspirant (close runner-up to Hillary Clinton) has a rather more nuanced list of villians. His “Them” lies in Washington and Wall Street, in big business and finance. His “To-Do” list is rather more thoughtful and even rather “Socialist”, as seen above.
Trump elected, Brexit wins in Britain!
Much to the horror of the American political establishment and more liberal-progressive voters, Donald Trump has been elected as the next President of the United States, on the back of passionate support from many of those who have felt themselves excluded from the benefits of American citizenship. This is not Latinos or black Americans, but predominantly poorer white citizens, who have been affected badly by growing inequality. A similar kind of constituency drove the “Brexit” campaign in Britain.
Perspective: US and Britain fractured Societies.
Does the 2016 Presidential Election mark the “End of The American Century?”
Many of the forces and processes described in the preceding Section are capable of exercising serious damage on the American polity. There are emerging fractures between:
- People of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds. There have always been stresses between black and white people, but now some politicians are opening fractures between Hispanics, Muslims and whites.
- The Rich and Poor. The Free Market has enabled a minority to become fabulously rich whilst at the same time a majority to experience stagnant or diminishing real earnings. There is no sign on the horizon that the rich are going to countenance significant re-distribution of wealth to ease the stresses of a grossly unequal society.
- Between different political parties. Once upon a time, in (say) the 1980’s, the differences between Democratic and Republican values were such that they could co-operate in Congress and the Senate to enable the country to operate effectively no matter which party was in power. This invisible consensus has fractured, with most pressure coming from the political Right, through such such bodies as the “Tea Party”. Now, the relationships between many right wing politicians and President Obama are steeped in vitriol.
- Between different parts of the country. There has always been stress between the old slave states and the Atlantic Northern parts of the US, never yet entirely healed, but new fractures have opened up. The lives of many people in California, New England, Colorado are manifestly different to those in the old industrial Rust Belts. It may take vigorous State involvement to heal some of the sores and narrow the rifts, (But of course that in itself is a subject of violent disagreement!!).
- Between people of different religions and moral philosophies. The range of issues over which people of different opinions and are unable to reach agreement are multifold. Gun Control, Abortion, the treatment of the LGBT communities (including Gay marriage), immigration policy, health care and social support for the less wealthy and older people are all subject to quite vehement disagreement
It is becoming clear that the adoption of Free Market theory and its application to economic and social life has not acted as a salve to the many problems that beset American society.
“Making America Great Again” and “Taking Back Control” in Britain are currently slogans without apparent substance. Whether they can be made real is open to question.
The invisible majority has struck in both America and Britain. Emotion rules in both countries, electorates are split, as are the political elites – what happens next is anyone’s guess!