The superpower versus the rest of the world

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Nov 20 2004, 05:30am hrs
It is actually both remarkable and distressing that India does not quite produce the kind of original and lucid commentary on America that one would normally expect from an English-speaking country with so many layers of engagement with US society. Even after two million migrants, thousands of students, and hundreds of intellectual interactions, our collective understanding of American social trends and public impulse is limited.

Either there is a superficial consensus, du jour sort of analysis, or there is an acute disconnection among our experts between their theoretical knowledge and actual experience of what America really is. Either way, it can lead to a loss of valuable nuance, if not serious misjudgment.

The recent US elections were, of course, crucial. A turning point, perhaps, for the world as much as for Americans, but there are some key points about American society that are missing in the wider debate and coverage.

First, the values gap is really a cultural gap and not a chasm between those who have values and those who do not. In fact, the irony is that almost everyone in American public life is deeply committed to and righteous about the values they espouse. Republicans are socially conservative, viewing morality mainly via lifestyle issues, while Democrats are economically conservative, viewing morality via economic justice issues.

Make no mistake: both sides have historically carried a moralistic attitude about how the world should be. In fact, historically, it is the Democrats who have carried the greater interventionist and evangelical zeal.

Thus, it would be a mistake to label all those who voted for Bush as nutty fundamentalists or Jesus freaks. Bush, in fact, won among women, middle class and a whole lot of traditional democratic constituencies. Plus, he got an amazingly high (44%) of the Hispanic vote. All this points to how the country has been becoming conservative over time on social issues.

Clearly, this culture gap is nothing new. It is just more pronounced, more neatly aligned on political lines. The American heartland has always been deeply religious, except it used to vote Democrat in earlier eras. Why Because there was a sense of moral appeal to the FDR-inspired New Deal. Also, politics of that time produced a winnable combination for the Democrats, essentially an umbrella alliance of southern Democrats who still carried lingering mistrust of the Republican north, trade unions, northern liberals and, of course, racial minorities.

Of all the great movements in America of the 20th century the trade union movement, the Vietnam peace movement, the Peace Corps, the womens movement not one of them really originated in the Democratic Party. Yet each of these movements sought political expression at some point in the Democratic Party, and not in the Republican Party. But that era, especially the unfolding of the FDR political and goodwill legacy, is now coming to an end, and along with it the increasing unfolding of the rainbow alliance which the Democratic Party has really been.

Second, the crucial thing about the 2004 election was not the sharp polarisation between red and blue states that has happened before but because it was the first time since the FDR era when there was wide public debate about American action outside its borders and about its relationship with the outside world. Even in 1972, as much as the McGovernites tried to make it into a referendum on Vietnam, the election was mainly decided by economic and leadership factors.

Thus, the maxim, Its the economy, stupid, was missing for the first time in 50 years. That is an amazing development in US society. Bush won despite a deeply controversial and divisive war in Iraq that even conservatives will admit is going all wrong, and despite a tough economic situation. Kerry could not even win Ohio, a state that had lost 250,000 jobs on Bushs watch.

None of this automatically means that the US has become more internationalist in the last half century. In fact, just the reverse. American engagement vis-a-vis the world has grown exponentially in terms of travel, media, aid, foreign students, ethnic minorities, MNCs, American products and lifestyle exports. Essentially, the hardware. But it could be argued that the mindware is still missing. Outside a few pockets on the eastern and western seaboards, American understanding of the world is still very scattered and tenuous.

So, what it all boils down to is this simple reality: the biggest power in the history of mankind is far more ignorant (though not uncaring) and far more in flux than we thought. For many of us on the outside, America was always perplexingly schizoid; two different countries, one at home and another abroad. Now, 48% of the US and many of Americas European allies have joined us in our state of incredulity.

The writer is editor of India Focus