America's lost confidence makes this a weird election

By Michael Goldfarb
An American writer in London


Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right: This is the weirdest election season in modern American history, symbolic of a nation that has lost confidence in itself.

Image caption,
Like baseball teams, countries find their confidence ebbing and flowing

There are good reasons for this: Iraq didn't quite work out the way it was supposed to, Afghanistan is proving intractable, the financial crisis and deep recession that followed would challenge any society's confidence.

But to respond to all this with Christine O'Donnell? Karl Rove's shocked reaction, immediately after Delaware Republicans endorsed her as a candidate for the Senate, illustrates just how weird things have become. It was not just the "nutty things" she's been saying that got to Rove (the man who did more than anyone else to propel George W Bush into the White House) it was her "checkered past".

His interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity strongly suggests he'd never in his life have expected to see such a candidate win a Republican primary.

People struggle to find the right metaphor or analogy for where America is at this moment in history.

Let me turn to one of the most over-used cliches about the US ever penned: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Let's work that cliche: America is like a championship baseball team that suddenly hits a losing streak, like the New York Yankees in the late 80's and early 1990s.

At first, the players and manager tell themselves it's just a matter of fly balls not dropping for hits or lucky swings against breaking balls from the team's ace pitcher. Then they start blaming the umpires for bad calls. Suddenly, it looks as if some of the team's star players have got old and aren't what they were.

The losing streak deepens and the locker room atmosphere becomes poisonous. Cliques form among the players. Fingers get pointed. The manager and coaches lose control of the situation. All team cohesion disappears, everyone is looking out for themselves. The downward spiral becomes unstoppable.

Tragedy and farce

Americans of all political persuasions living on this side of the Atlantic watch self-confidence leaking away at home with profound sadness.

Last month, just after the final round of primaries, I chaired a discussion at London's Frontline Club on the mid-term elections. On the panel were the respective heads in the UK of Democrats and Republicans Abroad, plus a visiting fellow from the Brookings Institution in Washington. The discourse was civil, the analysis of what ails American society and the policy prescriptions to bring it back to health were not wildly divergent.

The Tea Party phenomenon was explained to the British audience lucidly and with empathy by the Democrat. The Republican expressed regret at the way electoral politics has become so dominated by money that serious discussion of economic issues was not possible.

I imagine the primarily young, British audience came away from our extremely rational discussion thinking, as I did, that so long as there were Americans capable of talking about politics as the panel did, the US is not in decline.

But since then normal service has resumed. Christine O'Donnell has had to run her "I'm not a witch" commercial. The political discourse has gone beyond tragic into the realm of farce.

In the real world, unemployment seems to be entrenching itself around the 10% mark. New revelations about the way banks foreclosed on mortgages are threatening to open new claims against these giant financial institutions. There's no money left in the kitty to bail them out this time.

And looming over all these problems is China. There is another conventional wisdom creeping into American life: China with its massive trade surplus with the US is going to "own" the country soon. Currency war is looming with the People's Republic and the Chinese hold all the cards, ie dollars. America is now on a downward slope to second-class status.

It's not true, of course.

British decline

When I first encountered England as a student several decades ago I was surprised to hear regularly from my fellow students that Britain was finished. I was at an elite university and the people I was hanging out with would all be going on to do great things but the litany carried on in the pub and in the locker room after a workout: "We went bankrupt winning the war," my friends would say, "and it's been all downhill ever since... We're not an imperial power any more. We need to shrink our horizons."

Image caption,
Tony Blair found himself governing "Cool Britannia"

My horizons were what I saw around me - British bands, terrific independent films, the best theatre in the world, the NHS, free higher education, the worst aspects of the class system breaking down. "What's the problem, chaps?" I thought to myself. Except for the weather, this is a great place.

When I returned in the mid-1980s for what has turned out to be forever, I saw that my old friends' attitudes had metastasized.

Decline had been managed - badly. The culture wasn't so great and more than half the country seemed to be excluded from the government's concerns. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's loyalty question, "Is he one of us?" had been applied across the country.

Actually, Margaret Thatcher was a very pragmatic politician, but she cultivated that Iron Lady public persona - the one that said those who aren't with us, are agin' us.

Thatcher's approach foreshadowed the Bush Administration's approach to governance from 9/11 onwards. The effect in both the US and Britain was the same - a sense among almost half the population that the country was no longer theirs.

If you take away a person's sense of being part of the team they are bound to think of the time when they were part of it as being better. The team is no longer what it was. Without them it is in decline.

Generational shift

But here is some small crumb of comfort to Americans concerned about loss of influence - who are angry, disappointed and looking for someone to blame for their decline. Eventually Britain came out of the era of moaning about decline and became happy in itself again.

It was a generational shift as much as a political one. It was already happening by the time Tony Blair took office and found himself governing "Cool Britannia".

The culture became world class again. Confidence led to prosperity and Britain became a magnet for immigrants. Some people in Arizona may not believe this, but new blood is necessary to keep the optimism up.

As a kind of immigrant myself I understand the desperate hope that underpins the momentous decision to leave the land of your birth, your family and everything that formed you to go somewhere new and start over. I also understand the enthusiasm you have to affect to make the move work.

That hope and enthusiasm filters into the wider society. It helps long-time citizens see their society in a new light and restores pride.

Anyway, it was all going along swimmingly here - until the banks stoked a housing boom and then went bust on the back of it.

But my point is this: A society's self-belief ebbs and flows. What ails America doesn't have to become terminal. People have to remember that the Yankees eventually started winning again.