I am in the USA for two weeks, and am amazed by the vitriol of the political debate. We get only mild echoes in the UK of just how polarised American politics has become and how much rage appears to be about. CNN is even running a series next week entitled “Mad as Hell” about this popular resentment.
The main organisers of the rage have been the Republican right, who seem to be in danger of unleashing a monster they may well come to regret.
Until I came here a week ago I had no idea how much of this is racism against President Obama is such a significant factor. Today, for example, white citizens’ in a fairly liberal area (Rhode Island) interviewed for a TV show all said they had heard racist comments about Obama – although not from them, of course, and they seemed genuinely hurt by them. Talk of a ‘post racial’ America is clearly overly optimistic. There is clearly a substantial minority of “irreconcilables” who are not at all happy with their new President and it is pretty clear some of this is animating the more vociferous of the anti-health care reform protests.
Linked to this underground racism is the ludicrous assertion that any form of socialised health care equates with socialism or even communism. The accusations of ‘death panels’ for the elderly (apparently we already have those in the UK) may seem faintly ludicrous to us – but here, they are taken seriously by millions.
Don’t get me wrong – the majority of people I’ve talked to, including taxi drivers and coffee shop staff – are reasonably fair-minded and not taken in by the overblown rhetoric. But even they are mad at what has happened to the economy over the past two years.
And here is the obvious truth – the rage against Obama and health-care reform is clearly, in part at least, displacement from the real underlying rage against the catastrophic failures of Wall St and the fall-out for Main St USA.
The government bail-out is not well received – even those who intellectually acknowledge is was necessary are mad: mad that Wall St seems to have gotten away with it and is fast returning to ‘business as usual’; mad that government has been forced to spend billions on the bail-out; mad that retribution for those responsible seems a long way off. This is the fertile soil in which the rather more vicious weeds have sprouted.
Whilst the trends are not so extreme the UK has it’s own versions of this rage displacement: the extraordinary over-reaction to the MPs expenses scandal; protests and about foreign workers; the public support for cuts to the ‘bloated’ public sector – when none of these is the real cause (or cure) of our current woes.