The United States of Anger: The People and the American Dream
“What a century it has been. America became the world’s mightiest industrial power, saved the world from tyranny in two world wars and a long cold war, and time and time again reached across the globe to millions who longed for the blessings of liberty. Along the way, Americans produced the great middle class and security in old age; built unrivalled centres of learning and opened public schools to all; split the atom and explored the heavens; invented the computer and the micro-chip; made a revolution in civil rights for minorities, and extended the circle of citizenship, opportunity and dignity to women. Now for the third time a new century is upon us, and another time to choose.”
President Bill Clinton Second Inaugural Address 20 January 1997
“They said to one another, ‘Behold, here cometh the Dreamer. Let us slay
him.’ .... And we shall see what will become of his Dreams.”
Genesis 37 19, 20 inscribed on a brass plaque where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Part One: American Dreams and the Anxious Economy
Chapter 1 The Rules Have Changed
Sanibel Island, Florida
The middle aged woman had the kind of New York accent designed to cut through the noise of heavy traffic. She was shrieking at a police officer who stood calmly, staring back at her through black sunglasses. It was early afternoon, the hottest time in the Florida sun, and there was no traffic. Only the woman, shrieking.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” she demanded, stressing alternate words as she shook with rage. The policeman shrugged at this Manhattan meltdown. There was no point getting agitated in the heat. Besides, “it” was going nowhere. It was an eight foot long alligator, basking in the sunshine in a pond on Sanibel Island, a precious little speck of Florida which juts into the Gulf of Mexico.
A flock of a dozen dirty brown pelicans flew languidly towards the sea. The beach on the other side of the dunes was a hundred yards wide and stretched for endless miles. The tide was receding on the powdery sand, and groups of wading birds followed by shell-collecting humans padded along the shore. The shell-collectors were barefoot, faces hidden under floppy hats, curiously competitive as they searched for rare specimens.
Suddenly, everything went quiet. The New York woman stopped shrieking, the police officer folded his arms, and the alligator was motionless as a log. A temporary stand-off. The reptile had chosen to occupy a slimy green pond surrounded by palm trees behind the apartment the woman had rented for a week. The presence of a wild animal frightened her. She called the police. Wanted it removed. Gone. Now.
“Can’t you shoot it or something?” the woman suggested, her voice ripping the air like a saw.
“Well,” she repeated, jabbing at the police officer with bright red painted nails, “what are you going to do about it?”
The policeman sighed as if he would rather deal with an armed bank robber. Outraged taxpayers were definitely the worst.
“What I’m gonna do, ma’am,” he said slowly, Clint Eastwood delivering a punchline, “is arrest you if you harass it.”
The woman blinked in amazement then started to shriek incomprehensibly, calling out to her husband who was circling at a distance, viewing the alligator circumspectly. The beast had sunk a little. Electric blue dragonflies danced in the air where two walnut-sized eyes showed through the green slime. When the woman paused for breath, the policeman explained that the beachfront development in Sanibel was a strip of condominums along the Ding Darling wildlife refuge. The animals were here first. The original inhabitants of the refuge included alligators, blue herons and ospreys. He pointed to an osprey perched on the roof of a nearby condominium, but the woman was unimpressed. So all these animals have rights ahead of people? The cop nodded and quoted various laws in a bored voice.
“The critters were here first, ma’am,” he repeated. No one smiled.
“More than a thousand bucks we paid,” the woman was shrieking again, “for a week here. Plus the air fare. It’s not -- ” she could not think of the right word at first. “It’s not fair. It’s not ... American.”
It was coming close to the time when the alligator would really scare her. It began its daily ritual of leaving the pond every evening as the sun sank over the Gulf of Mexico. Locals were so used to the routine that at 4.30 pm they would congregate on a wooden bridge over the sand dunes, drink beer and watch it waddle dinosaur-like over the grass, past the swimming pool, into the sea and off to wherever alligators like to hunt at night. Gator Heaven. The woman with the New York accent said she was trying to be reasonable. She just could not believe that the government of the United States had arranged things so that some dumb brute took precedence over people who had paid good money and flown a thousand miles from Manhattan to be here, and when she called the authorities -- here she scowled at the cop -- she was threatened with arrest.
“It’s the goddamn spotted owl all over again,” she hissed, referring to the bird whose presence in old growth forests had curtailed logging in the western United States as the government and courts tried to balance environmental interests with those of the lumber companies. The police officer politely suggested that he did not make the laws, but he would enforce them. The alligator was not to be molested. If the lady wanted to complain, she could talk to her Congressman, or the Interior Department or somebody.
“Pah,” she exploded in disgust. “What good did government ever do anybody?”
The word “government” was delivered like a swear word. The cop shrugged and adjusted his reflective sunglasses. The woman was not finished with him.
“Well, I guess the rules have changed,” she snapped with withering scorn, stomping off to her apartment with her husband in tow, muttering something about government destroying the country, going to Hell in a handbasket. When she had gone from earshot the policeman looked at me.
“Yeah,” he murmured as he walked back to his patrol car. “I guess the rules have changed.” (1)
This book is an account of how the rules of American life have changed profoundly in the 1990s, upsetting the foundations most Americans have taken for granted in the past fifty years. One result is that the US government is now routinely blamed by many of its citizens for every ill which befalls them, from the alligator in the pond of their vacation home to the apparent moral, social and cultural decline they see all around them.
The United States of Anger is an examination of the changes which are sweeping America with a speed which leaves tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding taxpayers disgusted, angry and fearful that the most successful country in the history of the world is on the brink of a cataclysmic failure. Like the woman in Sanibel, many Americans stand in impotent rage that “the authorities” or “the government” do not understand or do not care about them, betraying the best traditions of their country. Amid all the successes of what Henry Luce described as the “American Century” many of the country’s citizens remain anxious or angry that the lives they lead fall far short of the America of their dreams.
Some of these complaints are uniquely American. Many are not. In our increasingly global culture what strikes the United States today hits Britain and Europe tomorrow and the rest of the world next week. An examination of American anger at the bewildering changes in their society illuminates the sense of rudderlessness and confusion many Europeans feel about the pace of change on our own continent. It also reveals the chronic anxieties of a great and dependable ally which may become less dependable in a world in which many of its citizens fear American dominance is eroding.
At the heart of this unease, there is a profound disconnection between America in the aggregate and America in the anecdotal, between how well the United States appears to be doing as a country and how satisfied many of its citizens are with their lives.
America in the aggregate is booming. The facts and figures about the United States show it as the most successful nation in the world in the 1990s, the statistics of a land overflowing with milk and honey. Newspapers, television reports, government statements and political speeches are full of good news -- low unemployment, low inflation, a booming stock market, falling crime figures, the best high tech health care in the world, and the most technologically advanced military-industrial complex in history.
In the 20th century this America has defeated Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism, and Communism, exporting democracy around the world. It won the land war in the Gulf in 100 hours, swatting away the fourth largest army in the world with fewer casualties than an average weekend on the roads. This America has triumphed militarily, politically, economically and culturally in the past 50 years from the beaches of Normandy to the Craters of the Moon.
American ideas, ideals and products dominate almost everywhere and almost everyone. If you have ever worn blue jeans or listened to rock and roll, flown in an aeroplane, watched a Hollywood movie, made a telephone call by satellite, used Microsoft computer software or eaten a hamburger, then the triumph of the United States has already affected your life.
From Coca Cola to TV soap operas, take-away pizzas, Superman comics to western heroes, Olympic athletes to astronauts and teenagers wearing baseball caps backwards, American culture has so transformed our way of thinking that it has become impossible to separate it from the daily routines of hundreds of millions of people on every continent on Earth. In the words of the old British schoolboy book 1066 And All That, America has become top nation and history is therefore at an end. So where is the dancing in the streets? The victory parades?
This book is about a simple paradox. America has conquered the world, and yet Americans have found little peace.
Why in the midst of so much success are so many ordinary, practical, hard-working Americans anxious about their future, concerned about the fraying of their society, the prospect of social, cultural and military decline? And why are so many patriotic Americans desperately angry with a political system they see in crisis and possibly on the verge of collapse? Why is a country which ends the century without a credible foreign enemy such an obviously troubled Superpower? And what are the implications for the rest of the world when this indispensable ally turns inwards to try to fix domestic problems which undercut its success?
In his Second Inaugural address on a freezing January day in 1997 President Clinton stood on the steps of the Capitol and spoke in the uplifting terms customary on such occasions. He listed the triumphs of the American century, but nodded towards the unease of many of its people contemplating a difficult future.
“America became the world’s mightiest industrial power, saved the world from tyranny in two world wars and a long cold war, and time and time again reached across the globe to millions who longed for the blessings of liberty. Along the way, Americans produced the great middle class and security in old age; built unrivalled centres of learning and opened public schools to all; split the atom and explored the heavens; invented the computer and the micro-chip; made a revolution in civil rights for minorities, and extended the circle of citizenship, opportunity and dignity to women. Now for the third time a new century is upon us, and another time to choose.”
The choice Mr Clinton posed for the new century and the new millennium, was stark.
“Will we be one nation, one people, with one common destiny or not? Will we all come together or come apart?”
To foreign ears it may seem extraordinary that after reciting such a list of triumphs an American president raised the prospect of his nation coming unglued. But anger, anxiety and apathy are three symptoms of the American disease of disconnection in the dying years of the 20th century. Though the body looks in rude heath, especially to Europeans perplexed by their own problems, the disease is a metastasizing cancer eating away under the skin.
When they think of the future, millions of Americans fear the best days of their country may have passed, that the fabric of daily life is coarsening, racial and class divisions worsening, and that they will not prosper as their parents and grandparents have done. The core of the new anxiety is the recognition -- like that of the woman tourist in Florida confronted by the alligator -- that “the rules” which govern what most Americans think is “normal” have changed irrevocably. Two fundamental American beliefs which helped create the miracle of the American middle class in the past fifty years appear to have collapsed since the end of the Cold War. These two beliefs, almost amounting to an American Creed, are that if you work hard, you will make it in America, and secondly that each generation will do better than their parents.
But not in the 1990s. At least not for many middle income Americans. Job insecurity is widespread everywhere in the industrialised world from Munich and Middlesborough to Miami and Melbourne, as new technologies deliver some of the promise of the Information Age. Such insecurity is the number one fear of working Americans because technological change has been more rapid in the United States, and because it is more unsettling in a society which does not have the European tradition of welfare state safety nets. To lose a job in Munich or Middlesborough is bad enough. To lose it in Miami means something worse -- losing health care for your entire family, and quite possibly the threat of losing a middle class way of life.
In 1996, during the “good times,” the United States reported a record number of bankruptcies, more than a million for the first time in history. Those bankrupted by job loss and health care costs know they could even find themselves homeless. While only a tiny minority of Americans will ever face such a combination of personal calamities, millions more worry about it. Middle class life has never looked more insecure in a time of unprecedented churning in the workforce, when today’s good job may be tomorrow’s redundancy.
Moreover, the rich are getting richer while the rest fall behind. This is true of Britain, but it is much more extreme in the United States. One symptom of national disconnection is that more prosperous Americans often cannot understand, or simply deny, the depth of anxiety within the American middle class. Middle income Americans fear that for the first time in history their families may not share a piece of the American pie; that the future of their children may be bleaker than their own. Instead of the economic nirvana of America in the aggregate that they read about every day in their newspapers, in America the anecdotal there is often an impossible squeeze of increased taxes, lower real incomes and harder work, with little chance of sharing in the dream of constantly increasing prosperity.
The British in the 1990s complain of the lack of a “feel good factor” despite promising economic trends. In the United States this phenomenon is far more brutal. While Britain and other European countries have spent much of this century managing their relative decline from the status of Great Powers, Americans are only now experiencing the shock of recognition that they, too, may be eclipsed by rising nations in the East. Such unease strikes well beyond the political thinkers in Washington to ordinary workers who wonder if the national sense of everlasting progress and perfectability captured in the well-worn idea of the “American Dream” may be fraying beyond recovery.
“Bill Clinton says he has created 11 million new jobs since he became president,” a police officer in Annapolis, Maryland, told me sarcastically in the autumn of 1996, shortly before the presidential election. “Sure he has. And I have four of them.” (2)
The police officer was not joking.
He forcefully described the contrasts between America as seen by the politicians and “experts,” and the real America inhabited by ordinary taxpayers like himself. The policeman works six days in a row in uniform and then has three days off. But to reverse what he says is a decline in his family income, he fills each one of those three “rest” days with part time jobs as a security guard at a bingo parlour, a yacht harbour and a business complex. Then he goes back to his “real” job protecting and serving his community in police uniform, without a break. His wife also works, and they are raising young children, frazzled by the competing demands of earning a living and being with their kids, a tension typical of millions of working Americans in the 1990s, and more extreme here than anywhere else.
Not surprisingly the police officer and his wife are unimpressed by the wonderful statistics of America in the aggregate in which the US Stock Market rose by a third in 1995 and a further quarter in 1996. (3) That is a different country. They do not live there. Their home is in America the anecdotal in which two, three, or in this case five pay cheques are needed to keep alive an American Dream which for their parents’ generation 25 years ago demanded just one wage earner and one good job. Indeed the long hours of work of Americans in the 1990s suggest the conditions of a century ago, when 1890s trade unions fought against the “wage slavery” of 70 and 80 hour working weeks imposed by their bosses in the big steel factories and on the railroads.
The angriest voices are those who believe American society is in profound decline. Some of these voices are distressingly familiar and uniquely American. They are the preachers and prophets of the religious right who, almost since the foundation of the United States, have complained that the End is Nigh and who in the 1990s have declared a Cultural and Religious War on their fellow Americans. Their legacy has been a decade in which doctors have been murdered for performing legal abortions, abortion clinics bombed and their staff killed because sections of the angriest Americans believe God has told them to kill in the name of being “Pro-Life.”
Religious enthusiasms and anxieties understandably have increased on the brink of the new millennium, which some Christian fundamentalists believe will bring about the “End Time” of tribulations as Biblical prophesy is fulfilled by the Second Coming of Christ. But much more surprising is the extent to which Americans from the left and centre as well as those on the right fear that American society and culture is no longer merely diverse, but divided to the point of Balkanisation.
At an apparently trivial level, increased choice on the radio dial means those who like rap, jazz, country and western, metallic rock, classical, New Age, or Oldies, listen to different stations, hear different advertisements, and in some cases appear to inhabit different Americas. The same is true of television programmes, including -- as advertisers notice -- a distinct gap between the preferences of blacks and whites, the rich and the middle class.
The criminal and civil trials of O.J Simpson divided America along racial lines. So does the row over “affirmative action” policies -- what in Britain is called “positive discrimination” -- preferential treatment given to women or minorities to ensure “balance.” A generation after the disturbances of the civil rights period, black America is far from content with progress towards racial equality and many white Americans are resentful they are being penalised for past injustice. In 1992, three decades after Americans hoped civil rights would lead to domestic tranquillity, Los Angeles became the scene of the most deadly disturbances in an American city this century. Some black commentators called it an “uprising” rather than a “riot,” and there were gloomy predictions of a bloody racial war, unless relations between Americans of different colours improved. Compounding the sense of disconnection between the races, the board of education in Oakland, California even tried to obtain federal government funding to compensate for what they described as a separate black ghetto language, glorified by the name “Ebonics.”
Added to the black-white tension, many Americans complain they are being “swamped” by an unstoppable immigrant tide, legal and illegal, the largest in history, which literally and figuratively is changing the complexion of the great American cities. There is increasing evidence of an anti-immigrant backlash, especially against those who come from Latin America and who are criticised for not trying to assimilate into mainstream culture.
“The divide of race has been America’s constant curse,” President Clinton noted in his Second Inaugual. “Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretence of religious or political conviction are no different. The have nearly destroyed us in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror .... These obsessions cripple those who are hated and those who hate. We cannot -- we will not -- succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul, everywhere.”
Underlying this pattern of social unease and “dark impulses” is a strong fear of chronic moral decline, from family break-up and the rise in illegitimacy rates in the past generation to the wickedness of some of the most violent criminals, characterised as “Super-Predators.” Even as the crime rate stabilised or fell in the mid-1990s, fear of crime remains one of America’s unconquerable worries. Yet again there was an apparent disconnection between the rosy statistics and what many Americans believed was the reality in their neighbourhood.
According to one of the most detailed suveys of American public opinion The State of Disunion (4) published in 1996, the majority of Americans admitted they were “worried” or “upset” by the condition of their society. Three out of five feared for their families, the ethical condition of society and for the economy. As many as 21 per cent decribed themselves as “angry” or “resentful” about the criminal justice system. Only one in ten thought that the United States was improving while half believed that “the U.S. is actually in decline.” One in five believed it was a strong decline.
This pessimism has thoroughly infused what Europeans generally assume to be a peculiarly optimistic society. In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville was able to write that “America is Great because America is Good.” But by the 1990s millions of Americans complained that America was ceasing to be Great because Americans were no longer Good. The opinion polls showed that in each decade since the 1950s Americans have been less and less trusting of human nature, of each other, and of their government.
“Mistrust permeates our society,” is how Senator George Mitchell, one of the shrewdest observers of American public life, puts it, explaining a constant theme in the United States of Anger.
Senator Mitchell is the former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, and worked as US special envoy on Northern Ireland. He was chosen to play the role of “Bob Dole” in practice debates with Mr Clinton during the 1996 presidential election campaign.
“The public’s trust of all institutions, even of friends, neighbours and family, is declining steadily,” he said. (5)
This mistrust is linked to a decline in one of America’s most proudly trumpeted core values, self-reliance or what Theodore Roosevelt famously called “rugged individualism.” Many Americans complain of increasing selfishness and self indulgence, the death of American Heroes and the birth of a Culture of Victims, in which declarations of being a “victim” are now so commonplace there is almost no group which has not claimed some kind of “victimhood.”
Anyone who has travelled widely in the United States in the past decade will have heard about this apparent decline in values in conversation with concerned citizens, or will have understood it from the success of best selling “moral” books such as Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. There is one compelling statistical indicator of moral, social and cultural decline. The United States used to boast of being a society under the Rule of Law. Now it is crippled by the Rule of Lawyers. The number of lawyers in the United States has grown from 250,000 in the 1970s to 800,000 by 1991, with an expectation of exceeding 1,000,000 by the year 2000. This quadrupling in a generation -- with, of course, an associated rise in the number of lawsuits on behalf of “victims” seeking their “rights” -- has nourished a whining culture of self-pity in which the new “heroes” are those “victims” who complain most loudly.
This sense that something is seriously wrong at the core of society has even infected the proudest achievement of the American people -- American democracy. The system of government is faltering and to some seems incapable of reviving itself -- “sclerotic,” “paralysed” “gridlocked” are frequently part of the vocabulary of Washington commentators as voter apathy goes hand in hand with anger towards politics and politicians.
President Clinton called his 1996 re-election a “bridge to the future” and yet a majority of those eligible could not even be bothered to vote. Since Mr Clinton secured less than half of the votes of those who did go to the polls, he has twice been elected to the world’s most powerful office with the backing of fewer than one in four of his fellow countrymen. The crisis of American democracy means weak leaders with weak mandates lead weak political parties at a time of great social upheaval, but it extends far further. The federal government which was constructed as the servant of the people, is now frequently reviled as an increasingly despotic or greedy master, or alternatively seen as utterly disconnected from the daily lives of most citizens. Government in America has become the alligator in the pond on Sanibel Island. You cannot shoot it, you cannot move it, and it appears scary enough that you cannot ignore it.
One result is that fear and hatred of Communism as the greatest threat to the American way of life has given way to fear and hatred of the US federal government itself. Washington has replaced Moscow as the city Americans love to hate. The “Red Scare” of anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1940s and 50s has become the “Fed Scare” of anti-government paranoia in the 1990s. The Fed Scare is most angrily expressed on the far right wing fringes of anti-government militias and their supporters. But much more significant -- though it has received far less attention -- is the way in which disgust or anger towards the government has infected the lives of law-abiding average citizens. The angriest Americans turn out to be neither poor nor uneducated nor from racial minorities. They are the white, well-educated middle classes who forcefully argue that government is out of control, and that politicians, lobbyists, Washington journalists and government bureaucrats are part of a self-serving out-of-touch elite.
According to The State of Disunion survey, Americans are suspicious of both their local state government and the US federal government in Washington. As many as three out of four (77 per cent) believed that government is usually run by “a few big interests” looking out for themselves. One in five went so far as to describe the elite of Washington
as being “involved in a conspiracy” against the interests of the American people.
The notion of government as a monstrous conspiracy has become the most dangerous American neurosis of the 90s. It has seeped into every level of American popular culture, from television shows like the X-Files which portray top level government plots against the people of the United States to novels like David Baldacci’s Absolute Power in which a corrupt, drunken, womanising president encourages the Secret Service to wipe out those who threaten to expose his wickedness.
Listen to America in the 1990s and you hear troubled voices. There is the traditionally deep patriotism which has for two centuries been associated with this country. But you also hear constant attacks on the legitimacy of US government institutions -- on the Presidency, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Education Department, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and of course on the tax gatherers of the Internal Revenue Service. Criticising government is America’s best and most noble tradition. But in the angry 1990s some Americans have gone beyond criticism to cynicism, hatred and violence. There have been physical attacks on federal government personnel, bombings of government offices, gunfire and a kamikaze plane crash directed at the White House, a bomb blast at the Atlanta Olympics and in Oklahoma city the most deadly terrorist incident in American history. The titles of a stack of books written about American politics in the 1990s tell part of the story:
“Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics.”
“The Angry American: How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation.”
“Why Americans Hate Politics.”
“The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z.”
For a decade unhappy voters have seemed unable to make up their minds what they wanted or who they wanted, churning with anger and irritation as politicians struggled to pander to their latest concerns. Voters opted for George Bush in 88, turned against him in 90, threw him out (despite his Gulf War victory) in 92, while flirting with a third party candidate Ross Perot who had never served in any political office.
Then the electorate switched tack and voted overwhelmingly against Clinton in 94, and within a year reacted against Speaker Newt Gingrich’s promised Republican Revolution by making him as popular as the Ebola virus by the end of 95. In 1996 Clinton was back in the White House, and Gingrich was back as Speaker. But for the first time in American history the two leaders of the two powerful elected branches of the American government, President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, simultaneously faced serious ethical questions about their conduct and fitness to hold high public office. It was a symbol of the national mood of pessimism and distaste for political institutions. Mr Clinton and Mr Gingrich were the two flawed men entrusted with leading America towards the new millennium, and yet they had become causes as well as the targets of the anger they sought to defuse. President Clinton constantly appealed for political reform, though the many scandals which attached to him made him the weakest possible messenger for a campaign to clean up or revitalise Washington.
“And we will reform our politics,” he said at his Second Inaugural address, “so that in this land the voice of the people will always speak louder than the din of narrow interests, regaining the participation and deserving the trust of all Americans .... The American people returned to office a President of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call on us instead to repair the breach ....”
“Repairing the breach,” a Biblical phrase much used by Mr Clinton, meant healing the disconnection between Americans and their government and between feuding groups of citizens each pursuing their “rights.” It is the central task of political leadership in the early years of the 21st Century otherwise America will not “come together.” It will surely come apart, riven by racial and ethnic unrest, competing visions of what it is to be an American, and engulfed in the angry and potentially violent confrontation between the Washington bureaucracy and those who increasingly despise it.
If cynicism, anxiety and anger are so obviously rampant despite the supposely “Good Times” of the 1990s, what might happen when the economy of “America in the aggregate” turns sour? When the irrational exuberance of the Stock Market ends in an overdue correction?
When unemployment or inflation rises? When the massive Baby Boom generation finally comes to retire and fewer younger working Americans are compelled to support increasing numbers of older Americans? When the cities say they simply cannot absorb any new immigrants?
A central part of the argument which follows is that the end of the Cold War not only redrew the boundaries of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The end of that fifty year long struggle has also had the same effect, in a more subtle way, within the United States. The Rules of Life of America in the 1990s have indeed changed, redrawing the “boundaries” between regions, classes, racial groups, employers and employees, and most importantly between the American people and their capital of Washington.
On a grand scale, the disconnection between the Government and the Governed neatly parallels the disconnection between the happy statistics about America in the aggregate and the less happy feelings of ordinary Americans across the country. The Washington Beltway is technically Interstate 495, a highway which forms a doughnut shaped ring around the Washington centre of government. Inside this doughnut live politicians, government workers, economists and journalists, the “Inside-the-Beltway Tribe” with their own codes, language and social structure. But, as we will hear repeatedly, this Beltway Elite is regarded as being as disconnected from the concerns of ordinary citizens as Marie Antoinette was from the problems of the sans culottes in pre-Revolutionary France.
For example, a month before the November 1996 presidential elections, The Washington Post ran a series of articles on the differences between what economists said about the American economy and what ordinary people believed to be true. (6) The economists could demonstrate that unemployment was at a seven year low. Inflation the lowest for 30 years. The budget deficit had declined sharply. The economy was creating more jobs than it was losing. But the public saw the alligator in the slime. One in four ordinary people told the survey they believed that unemployment was more like 25 per cent -- Great Depression levels. The public thought prices were rising much faster than they really were; that the budget deficit was increasing, not decreasing. And that there were fewer jobs than five years previously.
The evidence of a profound disconnection is clear. Either the public, in this most information-conscious society and on the brink of what President Clinton and others call the Information Age, is seriously uninformed, misinformed, misled, or plain ignorant. Or alternatively, economic statistics do not measure the lives most Americans believe they live. Or perhaps both.
President Clinton noticed and feared these trends. In informal comments on Air Force One he spoke of the “tumult and upheaval” of a life in which the rules kept changing. Americans felt “lost in the fun house. They always feel that living life is like walking across a running river on slippery rocks and you can lose your footing at any time.” He called this disease a nationwide “funk.” (7) It was the recognition, at the highest level of government, that behind the peace and prosperity of America’s dazzling success, there is a truly dangerous disconnection between Government and the Governed, between the rich and the middle class, not just rich and poor, and between the vast and wonderfully inventive United States and its often arrogant and out of touch Washington elite. It is the stunning contrast between the paradise of Sanibel Island and the fear that a rough and threatening beast lurks somewhere in the slime ready to strike.
Finally, there will be those who resent the idea that a foreigner, despite years of living and travelling in the United States, can presume to write about America. In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville was much struck by such sensitivities.
“The Americans in their intercourse with strangers,” he wrote, “appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise.”
For those who take offence at my presumption, I apologise. But the old wisdom that war is too important to be left to the generals may be rewritten thanks to America’s success. The United States bears the conqueror’s burden. It is too important to the rest of the world for its problems to be relevant only to Americans, and the world is too inter-connected for America’s anxieties to stop at America’s shores. Democratic governments everywhere report moods of disillusionment and the questioning of once unchallengeable social structures or national symbols, from the British Royal Family to the German Deutschmark.
In America the questioning has gone further and faster than anywhere else, undermining the sense of what it is to be an American in a way that many Europeans have failed to recognise. Besides, this is not a mere country. It is a continent and an idea of human progress, bigger, often better, and frequently more colourful and complex than anything foreigners could ever imagine, especially if their knowledge of the United States springs only from Hollywood movies or exported television programmes.
Whatever subject is under discussion there is more of it in America: more wealth, more consumption, more freedom, more poverty, more contradictions, more success, more failure, more violence, and most definitely more anger and anxiety, but always more, more, more. As usual, the ordinary Americans who make up the bulk of the voices in this book, face this anxious time with practical common sense, good humour and considerable patriotism. But many are pessimistic that the institutions of their government, and those who aspire to political leadership, are irreparably flawed and about as capable of productive change as a wolf is of becoming vegetarian. There are intimations of failure and decline as America shudders with foreboding that the country’s best years may no longer lie ahead.
How America solves these problems, or fails to do so, affects Britain and Europe most closely, but also the rest of the world. What goes wrong here tends to go wrong everywhere. What goes right in America becomes the candle which is lit to prevent the rest of us from cursing the darkness. That is why the journey through a disconnected America begins with a family in rural New Hampshire, anxious that the candle has been blown out.
1. All the events and conversations in the book, unless otherwise specified, are from my own reporting. The incident in Sanibel took place in May 1994.
2. The conversation with the Annapolis police officer was in October 1996.
3. In the New York Times of 28 January 1997 John J Brennan of Vanguard Group, the second largest mutual fund (unit trust) investment group in the US described the giddiness of America in the aggregate. Funds were flowing into Wall Street he said because “everybody remembers that the market went up 23 per cent last year and 37 per cent the year before that.”
4. There have been numerous surveys reflecting American anxiety and pessimism concerning the apparent decline of the United States.
While it is wise to treat opinion polls with a degree of scepticism, what is alarming is the consistency of their findings, especially concerning the decline in confidence in government in the past 40 years. I found most useful the State of Disunion survey conducted in 1996 by Gallup for the University of Virginia Post Modernity Project. Face to face interviews were conducted with more than 2,000 American adults for up to three hours at a time. It is one of the most detailed and rich studies of its type conducted during the 1990s.
5. The conversation with Senator George Mitchell was in October 1996, after he had helped Mr Clinton rehearse for the debates.
6. The Washington Post series “The Economic Perception Gap -- A Nation that Poor Mouths Its Good Times” began on Sunday 13 October 1996.
7. President Clinton made his extremely perceptive “off the cuff” remarks on Air Force One in 1995, and then retracted them. Presumably he felt his comments were too close to President Carter’s pessimistic diagnosis of America’s “malaise.” Unlike Mr Carter, of course, Mr Clinton was re-elected.