Editor's Note: Many outsiders looking in at the United States during Election 2010 are perplexed at the craziness and know-nothing-ism that has gripped American politics, though anyone who has followed the arc of U.S. media and governance over the past three decades would be less surprised.
In this guest essay, Bernard Weiner of The Crisis Papers tries to explain the new unreal American reality to friends, Wolfgang and Jacqueline, on the other side of the Atlantic:
Your recent e-mail, wondering "what the f--- is going on" these days, questioning whether we Americans have taken "more than your usual amount of stupid pills," is well deserving of a considered response.
How is it possible, you ask, that the very rightwing party whose policies helped create the current mess may very well take control of the House of Representatives and conceivably the Senate as well, in the upcoming November elections?
"Is the U.S.A. experiencing some kind of death wish? Are we in Europe witnessing the paroxysms of a failing democracy, and a failing empire? Will the flat-Earth Know Nothings really take over in America?"
Good questions all.
It's not easy to explain to foreigners what's happening here and what to do about it. I do know that in too many societies, for a relatively brief period of time, a contagious irrationality seems to spread dangerous nonsense in the polity; moral moorings and common sense fly out the window.
It's happened in your countries: the French right now ethnically-cleansing themselves of the Roma/Gypsy peoples, for example, or the Holocaust in Germany in the 1930-40s. But I'll have a go at some explanations, and you and your families and friends in those countries can tell me whether my analyses make any sense.
To understand our current and dangerous political circus requires a quick romp through the historical context:
The first thing to understand is that what's happening today in American politics is not new. One could go back to the major philosophical splits amongst the Founding Fathers who, because of ideological fervor, were at each others' throats over how to distribute power.
Or we could go back to the "robber
barons" era of the late 19th century, when capitalist greed and
industrial might, both basically unregulated at the time, ran roughshod
over the economy and country. That unrestricted "free-market"
philosophy helped lead eventually to the Great Depression and the
resulting major social correctives of FDR and the Democrats in the
But for our purposes here, let's pick up the thread in 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president.
A Cherished Value
For the first time in the modern era,
extremism and incitements to violence were given political cover as they
were introduced by a presidential candidate into American's civic
bloodstream. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," said
Goldwater, to cheering GOP convention delegates.
The corporate/fundamentalist forces behind the Goldwater candidacy knew their candidate would not win, could not win, in a country still deeply appreciative of popular liberal policies coming out of post-World War II reconstruction in the 1950s.
The aim of these wealthy forces was to purge the GOP of its moderate voices and create an ideologically pure, HardRight party that through education, political activism and constant agitprop would eventually triumph over "decadent liberalism."