Sunday, November 11, 2012
So Europe got the American president it wanted – the one who would present no threat to its own delusions. The United States is now officially one of us: an Old World country complete with class hatred, ethnic Balkanisation, bourgeois guilt and a paternalist ruling elite. And it is locked into the same death spiral of high public spending and self-defeating wealth redistribution as we are. Welcome to the future, and the beginning of what may turn out to be the terminal decline of the West.
It has become clear why it was so easy to misjudge the significance of the apparently lacklustre Obama campaign – the drastically reduced crowds at his events; his underwhelming, peevish performances in the debates, and his failure to produce any substantive plan for a second term – as signs of how the election would go. Mitt Romney may have pulled far larger and more enthusiastic audiences for his stump speeches but this contest was not, in the end, going to be about speeches or arguments. The reason that so many of those who would vote for the incumbent president did not bother to turn out to see him as he toured the country was that they were largely untouched by the campaign: their voting allegiance was always a certainty. It was not about political ideas at all. It was about identity: about who and what you were in the most visceral and personal sense – about race, about class, about being the kind of person you believed it was necessary to be.
The saddest development is the one that is most counter-intuitive. Mr Obama – who famously ran in 2008 as the post-racial candidate – has polarised the nation racially in a way that it has not been for half a century, reversing what had been the progressive trend toward real social integration and colour blindness in American political life. Ninety-three per cent of black voters – 93 per cent – voted for Obama in this election, as did 71 per cent of Latino voters and 73 per cent of Asian ones. But if non-white ethnic groups are choosing to segregate themselves electorally – quite often with little regard for their actual economic or social interests – white voters are not. Only 59 per cent of them supported Romney: a majority but not an overwhelming one. Some of this was down to the class war issue: blue collar voters were encouraged to see Romney as a rapacious capitalist who would destroy people’s livelihoods if the balance sheet dictated it.
But that was an unfortunate consequence of this particular candidate’s credentials. There is a more historically significant, and possibly more permanent, development too. The United States has now acquired an electorally powerful liberal bourgeoisie who are convinced, as their European counterparts have been for several generations, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that public spending is inherently virtuous, that poverty can be cured by penalising wealth creation, and that government intervention can engineer social “fairness”. But just when some of Europe’s political class has begun to appreciate the dangers of this philosophy – that taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to economic stagnation and social division – America seems to have decided that it is the quintessence of enlightened sophistication.
This is precisely the model – the Gordon Brown vision of government as omnipotent benefactor and purveyor of “social justice” – from which we in Britain are attempting to escape, and in which the EU is still hopelessly trapped. But it should run deeply against all the traditional American values of ferocious self-reliance and personal aspiration. How does the resentment of the rich, which Obama’s campaign fostered so successfully, sit with the old American dream that the United States was a place where anybody who had talent and worked hard could become rich – even if he had arrived as a penniless immigrant? The idea of “the rich” as an unreachable and undeserving class apart is an Old World concept rooted in the landed, hereditary wealth of an established aristocracy. Almost all wealth in America was, traditionally, self-made.
Rich parents no longer demand that their children make their own way. So there is a whole tranche of adults in the United States now who will never work for a living: an idea that would once have been virtually unthinkable. One of the most damaging facts that came to light about John Kennedy when he was running for president was that his father had given him a million dollars so that he could devote all his time to running for political office: an indulgence that was regarded as almost sinful.
With unearned wealth comes guilt and from that comes paternalism: the idea that you are obliged to elect a government that will take responsibility for all those people who are worse off than you – and not just by providing them with opportunities to better themselves in the traditional American way. American voters still want jobs – the mantra of Romney’s campaign still held for half the population – but they are less convinced that work is the only route to salvation. Which is a pity because it remains far and away the best and most permanent route out of poverty. The United States always had its share of poor people but, until recently, when welfare dependency created a permanent underclass, they were not the same people from one decade to another. The whole point was to move up and out of hardship, as wave after wave of newcomers did.
Back in its less sophisticated, less European, days, the United States had actually discovered the formula for extraordinary social vitality, and the miraculous ability to turn people who started with nothing into proud, self-determining citizens. It said to everyone who arrived: “The state only exists to give you the chance to make your own way – to that end it will give you freedom under the rule of law, the right to live your life, to own property and to pursue happiness.” That was the deal.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the country would outgrow that fervent, youthful self-belief and become just another declining society, retreating from the world stage as brash new global powers loomed into view. Then again, after four more years, it might just rediscover its soul.