Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The polarisation of American Politics

It’s easy to forgot that the United States is exactly what its name suggests; fifty independent, sovereign states, united together.  It’s ambitious to imagine there exists a single narrative or illustration that comprehensively describes the USA, though many attempt exactly this.  To brand nearly 300 million people as ‘brash’ is inaccurate and hypocritical.  It’s a big place and its complicated.  You can’t look down your nose at any nation if you’re going to pigeon-hole its entire society that quickly. 

That said, anyone describing the American political discourse of recent years may well find their observations taking on the form of sweeping generalisations; and it’s easy to see why.  American politics has become incredibly polarised.  The rightwing Tea Party has not emerged within a robust and pluralistic discourse; one may have expected its rise to be a reaction to the occupation of the centre ground by the traditional parties, filling the gap for those disenfranchised members on the American Right. 

Instead the Tea Party and the New Right has emerged within an already heavily polarised landscape in which the two traditional parties have been putting ever greater distance between themselves.  I don’t wish to conflate the New Right and the Tea Party, but both represent strong right-wing views of one sort or another.  The Tea Party subscribe to the right-wing economic liberalism of minimal tax and regulation; the New Right have adopted an anti-immigration, anti-state, anti-Obama rhetoric coupled with Confederacy fetishism.

The Republican response to those stockpiling arms, quoting the second amendment and invoking the spirit of the American Civil War has been to vacillate between a shift to the centre-ground and a shift even further right to embrace the momentum of the Tea Party and other assorted groups.  Though the Democrats are invariably centrist, many on the right consider them socialist.  The result has been the entrenching of diametrically opposed positions, the adoption of  an adversarial stance between the left and right in American politics, forcing everyone into a with-us-or-against-us position.

No society is perfect and harmonious, the pluralist nature of democracy will always grant political breathing space to those with extreme or bigoted viewpoints.  That such groups are allowed political breathing space, such as the British National Party in the UK, is a testament not only to the strength of the political system but also the common sense of its constituent members; in Britain greater exposure has brought ever diminishing returns for the BNP.

That particular case aside there is always the danger that extreme viewpoints will give rise to extreme actions.  In particular the chances of this are increased when extreme ideas and beliefs become an accepted part of the mainstream, espoused openly by those infallible mediums that never mislead such as television, radio and the print media.  

Beyond the sarcasm the ethnic bigotry that has reared its ugly head in Europe on numerous occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries has always been accompanied by extremist messages from the mainstream; Jewish pogroms, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the obvious example of Nazi Germany all illustrate how reprehensible racial hatred can become a legitimate part of the common discourse.  This is not to suggest a strict causality; does the media lead the people, the people the media or does the political class lead both?  The relationship is symbiotic, all three influence each other.

It is therefore misleading to separate the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords from the extreme messages emanating from the American political mainstream.  There can be little doubt that the context in which political debate now takes place had no role to play in this recent tragedy.  To argue that the shooting was not politically motivated is also somewhat difficult; a politician has been attacked who happened to adopt policy positions (on abortion, healthcare and immigration) that are anathema to right-wing Americans; the very same people who choose to adopt Civil War rhetoric when discussing these subjects.  The branding of a democratically elected politician as an anti-American traitor and using the language of armed conflict to label them a legitimate target was never likely to encourage a sensible or measured response.

That no single politician or commentator can be blamed should be emphasised; those that wish to place responsibility at the door of Sarah Palin alone are missing the bigger picture.  Responsibility for the bellicose approach to politics in the United States appears largely Republican, it is their supporters and members placing their messages within the context of armed aggression.  However we should not forget the attitude adopted by many on the left to the presidency of George W Bush; his depiction as a simpleton and a buffoon, his supporters as intolerant Christian Fundamentalists and the personal attacks attached to these caricatures hardly engendered an atmosphere ripe for serious debate. 

The attacks on Obama’s place of birth and accusations that he is not a Christian (and therefore, un-American) may hint at a discreet racism in the mindset of some of his opponents. But these personal attacks, aimed at discrediting his character, fit within the long established narrative of using personal attacks to undermine politicians; from Obama, to Bush, to Clinton, to Biden.  Worryingly we have now entered a new phase that blends personal attacks with the language of armed conflict, placed within the context of a polarised political discourse that encourages disagreement and animosity.

The caustic rhetoric of recent months has tragically reached its dénouement in the shooting of Senator Gifford.  Although it is sadly no new phenomenon it has entered a more radicalised phase.  The question that should be asked is not who is to blame, but why and how the mainstream political discourse arrived at this juncture.  But the most pertinent question is how it can extricate itself as soon as possible.

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