Historical context of the US right-wing backlash
It is somewhat difficult to avoid the increasingly strident levels of “debate” here in the US as we hurtle toward the mid-term elections. The extreme right seems ascendant and is certainly dominating the headlines. We are seeing some apparently bizarre candidates look as though they might possibly get elected. The flame of Tea Party ardor seems fiery bright, and as an observer external to the voting process though resident here, it makes one wonder how is this possible in such a seemingly advanced nation?
In an attempt to understand the issue one has to immerse in the debate. A good place to see what this ultra-conservative anger is all about is to visit sites that traffic in such extremism such as Tea Party darling Michelle Malkin. Visiting Malkin’s blog is like intellectual porn; something one feels dirty and guilty about, but necessary to understand the beast-like rage within the American psyche. Malkin’s posts are nothing extraordinary. She deals with the conservative hot points such as national security, border control and government (especially world-government) conspiracies against ‘we, the people’. She demonstrates the classic insecurities of type. She has the paranoia symptomatic of the Cheney led xenophobes, and the classic ‘shut the gate so no-one else can get in’ of a first generation immigrant. It is, however, in her reader’s comments that the underbelly of the beast can be dissected. If you want to understand the primeval rage of the ‘race, religion and rifle’ crowd, you just need to trawl the comments to understand their frustrated anger and misinterpretation of current realities.
America is in transition – economically, culturally, demographically and in terms of its global soft power influence. In recent times, America was the dominant world power. It enjoyed a historically brief period of unipolarity in terms of it world standing. It was the super power; the largest economy, the one with all the bling, and on and on. Americans saw themselves as somehow better. They self-identify with American exceptionalism, as if the average American is somehow intrinsically better than folk of other nations. This period of American ascendancy was but a moment in historical terms, perhaps a couple of hundred years or so. This contrasts with the fact that China and India were the biggest economies for more than 1800 years before losing that crown. Now it appears it will not be many years before one or more of them reclaims it.
This is where the American anger comes from – a rapidly changing reality. Unipolar hegemony is out, as multipolarity appears on the horizon. Soon there will be no one superpower, but many. China, India, Brazil and more are vying to take their seat at the big table. This in actuality is a better reality. Any one power, regardless of benign intent, upsets the balance. It sets a singular agenda of nationalist objective. It is difficult to seek mutual advancement when one big kid has the keys to the car and the credit card for the gas. America is transitioning from what was to what will be, and this is hard on the heartland of the nation. If you want a insight into this process take a listen to the Council on Foreign Relations recent podcast by Kishore Mahbubani. Leave aside his breezy passing off of China’s human rights record, a common opinion in Asian countries used to more autocratic government, and focus on his dissection of US foreign , domestic, education and social policy. It explains this moment in history so adroitly.
Unfortunately, this is not the sort of content that will get widespread airtime on the cable channels like Fox and CNN, and as a result does not permeate the consciousness of mainstream America where Beck, Hannity and Ann Coulter dominate. So as a result, the American populace doesn’t get to experience the broader picture of the world’s perception. America main street attempts to analyze itself from within, without the benefit of perspective, and as a result, has become angry, impotent and truculent. This unstoppable change of multipolarity, internalization and a clipping of US hegemony infuriate those who can’t understand the driving forces are larger than a single nation. The anger is real, but the cause is being displaced with base rage at the current US President.
Presidents Obama and Bush marked bookends of the transition, and the great divide in the American population. Bush is the traditional American hero – cowboy, war chief, not intellectual, everyman and bombastic. This appeals greatly to the old America – clinging to the past that see ‘America the Great’, a land unsurpassed where the dream can still be achieved. In reality, this passed a generation ago. Economic mobility is now greater even in places like Europe than it is in the US where the next generation is more likely to remain the same class as their parents. It contrasts even more sharply with the emerging economies where a booming middle class is rapidly appearing better educated, hungrier for advancement and in greater numbers than America can compete with.
President Obama represents the next age. He is a transitional leader, but for many in the country they are not yet willing to let go of the past and embrace the wave of the future. Obama talks to other world leaders, apologizes where he sees transgressions, understands the need for investments in education and social supports such as health, and appears more a citizen of the world than of the mid-West. This enrages those who look in the rear view mirror at history, and that is where the anger of the Tea Party and their ilk comes from. Knowing this, it becomes somewhat easier to comprehend this backswing and what the mid-term results mean. It is the last great throes of the past; in one more generation it will pass, but the passing will be painful for many.
Those who observe America through a microscope of objectivity can see the pattern. Like a maze that cannot be seen in its entirety unless from a distance, many in the American populace can’t understand the bigger picture. It confuses both sides. The new America cannot understand the Tea Party Anger anymore than the old America can stomach the changes occurring in its midst. In these elections, the mantra of the angry masses seems to be ‘we, the people’, and ‘it’s the economy stupid.’ In reality, it is more ‘it’s history happening, stupid’ and ‘we, the people’ now means a whole lot more than just Americans and their Constitution. Time to crank up ‘the times they are a changing’ and recognize that massive social change such as occurred in the sixties is not a one-off event, but merely part of a continuum that continues in tsunami waves at times and not always as just gradual erosion. Big waves can hurt, and many will be as the country changes. What emerges, however, will certainly be different and many of us hope it will be better.