Postcard from New York

by Stephen Tall on April 3, 2006

What shapes a nation’s cultural and political values? I’m currently in New York, and trying to work out quite how the USA has grown up to be the same, and yet so different.

Of course, this city is a bastion of liberal, Democratic values. Though its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, might represent the same party as George W. Bush, he is an Eisenhower Republican, governing from the liberal centre; for instance, arguing in favour of gun control limits.

And it tends to be these proudly progressive places which we foreign interlopers see at close quarters, and extrapolate from – whether it’s Manhattan, Florida or California. But there is another America, one in which the deeply conservative Right is well entrenched, and which identifies so closely with President Bush.

On the flight over here, I read a chunk of ‘The Right Nation: why America is different’ by John Micklethwaite – the new editor of the Economist – and Adrian Wooldridge. They trace the growth of conservative values, from its early beginnings as a disregarded minority viewpoint, championed by a handful of right-wing zealots in the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, the National Review magazine, and the economic writings of Friedrich von Hayek.

Its nadir was 1964, when Barry Goldwater – John the Baptist to Dubya’s Jesus – was trounced by the widest margin ever recorded in a US Presidential election. His conqueror, Lyndon Johnson, that paragon of ‘big government’ liberalism – he famously declared in his election campaign, “We’re in favour of a lot of things, and against a mighty few” – signed his name to a raft of civil rights legislation, and lost the Dixiecrat South to the Democrat Party for the next 50 years.

Since the ascendancy of LBJ, liberalism has been on the permanent retreat in the US. Though Nixon, Ford and Bush pere are often regarded as under-reaching, pussy-footing ‘wets’, when placed side-by-side with the right-wing duumvirate of Reagan and Bush fils, they form a pretty impenetrable continuum of conservatism – interrupted only by Clinton, who was himself forced to tack right after the disastrous over-reach of his first two Presidential years. (Though the pathological passion of neo-cons to cut taxes and increase defence spending – resulting in huge budget deficits – has considerably undermined both Reagan’s and Bush 43’s claims to the mantle of fiscal responsibility which all Republicans would wish to claim.)

But this conservatism extends well beyond the acceptance of free markets which has, to one degree or another, pervaded all industrialized democracies. What has distinguished the USA’s rightward shift – perhaps bizarrely in a nation which has taken to its heart Will & Grace and Queer Eye – has been its growing social regression: the intolerance of gays (whether in the army, or as ‘married’ couples), compulsory school prayer, the teaching of creationism, the guerilla tactics of anti-abortion campaigners, the fetishisation of guns, fervent belief in the death penalty.

This is wholly counter-cultural to western Europe, with which after all the US shares so much common ground: a majority religion, Christianity; an economic market system; the English language; elections and representative democracy; and popular culture, whether films, music, art or literature. Yet the trend in Europe since the 1960s has been towards a slackening of socially conservative standards, which has gone hand-in-hand with a mounting secularization (though prompted rather more these days by passivity than the bloody anti-clericalism of the French revolution).

This divergence – the polarization of these two continents – might be possible to explain away if we look at Britain. We’re a densely populated island, increasingly urbanized, in which our public space is shared closely with our neighbours: the natural, sensible response is to be become more socialized, more tolerant, to maintain harmonious relationships.

In the more sprawling, more spacious US, it is perfectly possible for each and every individual to aspire to acquire their own private plot of land – the dream therefore is to become separate from your neighbours, to live more atomized lives in which society can be marginal, divorced from people, away from the complicated messiness which pervades the fabric of other people’s lives, and nurtures within us the understanding and empathy necessary for the creation of enlightened, civilized society.

Yet the argument does not hold fast for some nations in mainland Europe, for example France and Spain – large countries in which their respective citizens might be expected to harbour a desire for a life of individual self-assertion and arms-length society. They are, though, two countries which continue to cling to the era of big government which America jettisoned with the passing of LBJ.

Are our two continents going to drift further apart? Is the conservative, evangelical American way of life irreconcilable to the liberal, enlightenment European way of life? I hope and believe not. It’s interesting to observe the esteem in which Reagan continues to be held – an easygoing divorcé president who served his conservatism sunny side up. As Micklethwaite and Wooldridge comment: he “was an optimist in a party that had acquired a habit of pessimism”.

It was this trait the Americans took to their hearts, and which they felt they might find again with President Bush. It was a hope that has been dashed. As Clinton warned his fellow Americans in the run-up to the 2004 Bush-Kerry election: “If one candidate is trying to scare you, and the other’s trying to get you to think; if one is appealing to your fears, and the other is appealing to your hopes — it seems to me you ought to vote for the person who wants you to think and hope.” It was a line which might have worked but for the lacklustre and lugubrious candidature of John Kerry.

But it was a shrewd, calculating appeal to all that is best in the American psyche: a self-confidence in the abilities of the individual to carve out for him or herself a successful life. It is those progressive, optimistic virtues which I think best reflect the character of the America I know; and they are virtues with which every European, every continent, can identify.