Looking beyond the US elections

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Oct 30 2004, 05:30am hrs
Opinion polls suggest that the US presidential election may perhaps be among the tightest in history and even a repeat of 2000. The seesaw legal wrangles of that election is what has injected so much acrimony and polarisation in American politics. At the same time, because of the Iraq war, global popularity and respect for the US are at their lowest A whole number of surveys, editorials, even private conversations reflect how deeply resented America is across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. A recent poll by 10 of the worlds leading newspapers showed a high level of contempt for the Bush administration and a strong endorsement of John Kerry. As one anti-Bush columnist commented, a Bush re-election would leave the path open to imperial dreams.

It may be altogether easy for the world to cheer for Kerry. But irrespective of who wins, the real cause for thought, if not disquiet, ought to be how fundamentally America has changed over the years. So much has happened since the 1970s. But of all major mutations, it is the decline of the Left (or in fact Liberal) thought in US policy and the rise of the Right that is remarkable.

One of the main reasons for this is that American society in the aggregate is more prosperous than ever in history. Consequently, many of the triggers for empathy have been diluted. Not only have the civil rights and gender campaigns been highly successful in social and political terms, they have also altered the economic demography of the country.

The Liberals have ceded their passion and edge to the Conservatives
The Conservatives are a powerful force in US thought and policymaking
Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay in The New York Times a few years ago titled Age of the Plutocrats: What happened to middle class America His thesis was that America was returning to its Great Gatsby days and that it was the top one percent, and not even the top 10% that controlled over 50% of wealth in the country. However, not everyone agrees, and it has been argued that while wealth is far more concentrated it is also far more extensive than at any time in history. In fact, what may be disappearing fast is the lower class.

A record number of Americans today (almost 70% of all households) own their own homes, health insurance is expensive but extensive, people have more leisure time, and the overall standard of living has improved.

All this is, of course, set against spiralling expectations. But a real apples-to-apples comparison since 1970 shows that America is far better off now. The experiments of the Great Society have apparently worked out well, and outside of some pockets such as immigrants and single parents, things have improved tremendously.

This has led to complacence within the Liberals who have ceded much of their previous edge and passion to the Conservatives. Worried by what they saw as a destabilising counterculture from the 60s and 70s, the Conservatives have been investing time and money in creating intellectual and emotional appeal to reclaim the space they lost. And 25 years later, the American media, public opinion and scholarship are being influenced by conservative thinktanks in an increasingly sophisticated and increasingly successful way.

A perfect example of this is the one-sided reportage in the mainstream American media during the early days of the Iraq war which pushed a barely-masked ideological position and a brazen falsity without anybody really checking the facts or just taking a sceptical line.

More generally, the American Right has prevailed on many fronts in recent years. This success goes beyond the current crop of neo-cons who are so disliked in other countries.

The decline of intellectuals on the Left and the rise of intellectuals on the Right has dramatically changed US politics, both within its borders and abroad. Some estimates suggest that the Right spends over $ 5 billion annually via research grants and scholarships to promote a conservative agenda.

Irrespective of whether it is Bush or Kerry who wins, the American Right has become a truly powerful and well-embedded force in US thought, attitude and policymaking. The real long-term issue for most nations will be how to engage and deal with them.

The author is editor of India Focus