The American Elections
The Flag on this blog, with vertical and not horizontal stripes and a colour scheme different from that to which you may be used, is a product of some demented libertarian re-imagining of US history in the early twenty first century. Some writers, for reasons probably connected to distaste for the Federal government, decided to create the idea of a creeping militarised conspiracy to replace the US 'peacetime' flag after the civil war with one associated with the war department. To that end, they invented a history, claimed the US customs flag and variations upon it as their own, and set about rewriting history.
Their claims are refuted extensively here, but a libertarian project to re-write the long ago in order to criticise a somewhat leaden and centralised present has a certain quirky twinkle about it, I suppose, until it comes to seem sinister. The sad truth is that the United States has never really been a peacetime republic and I write that as someone who has at various times of my life been in love with it.
For the record, I think that only a strong central US state could have ended slavery, and so I understand the point of some that the US had a second revolution in the Civil War.
There is a European part of me that can't understand what the fuss is about. In the Seventeenth century, the waning Spanish Empire assured its domination of the West, rooted in the Americas and in unsustainable flows of gold and debt, by attempting to unite Christendom against the very real Muslim threat of the time. It condemned relativism and promoted muscular religion and a message of vigour that could not disguise its aristocratic and feudal rapacity. There's a nice little riff on that point in Richard Tuck's Very Short Introduction to Hobbes that you might like to read.
Why mention that now? Because I am coming to understand the comment once made to me at a summer High Table in Oxford (I think in Exeter College, where I was teaching on the University Summer School) that 'things would be much better if the Americans just stopped pretending to have any British heritage and spoke Castilian'. I thought at the time that it represented the sort of parochial over educated snobbery that one can find at the drop of a hat anywhere in Oxford. Now I'm not so sure. There are times when I think the Irish should speak a continental tongue with Gaelic words rather than English, so I get the point.
It seems appropriate that the news that drove me to this thought came from the old Mexican Cession. The Nevada Caucuses have spoken.
Months and months ago, I thought that Mitt Romney's money and appeal to conservatives would push through in the Republican race, and that his willingness to say anything would get him near the nomination. Just about his only qualifications are vast wealth and his desire to do better than his dad, who was built up by Richard Nixon to disguise his entry into the race in 1968 between Nelson Rockefeller on the left and Ronald Reagan on the right. These are essentially frivolous demons of the sort that grip republics enmeshed in debt, threat, and global overstretch, and ones not unknown to the present incumbent.
I also said that I liked, as candidates, Huckabee and Paul, on that side of the race. I think that Romney is exactly the sort of Republican who could be beaten even by Hillary in November, though of course if those two end up the candidates Bloomberg will almost certainly come in and take votes from everywhere. I do think a brokered convention is still on the cards over there though. It is fascinating to watch the Republican Party break up and yet still have a chance of winning the presidency. Romney is just awful, though.
Over on the Democratic side, the interesting thing is the way the press are spinning, mostly for what has been a fairly awful Clinton campaign. She can only win by dragging him down, and it seems that she is succeeding in the best 'two-faced corporate uber-woman/bourgeois feminist' style.
Yet look at the figures. Clinton and Obama have now stood in four and three states respectively, which are fairly representative. She has gained around forty four per cent of the vote on average; he around forty per cent. For every thirteen delegates she gets, he has tended to get twelve; and he has run away with a sizeable chunk of the independent, male, centrist, and union vote. I like Obama, very much, as a candidate. I can't help feeling that he is at the minute on his way to gaining 'not quite enough'. Even so, I want him to win, really quite a lot. This is a tight race and, in his terms, a remarkable one.
We may be seeing the end of American elections in the form they adopted between 1952 and 1960. The candidates are now clearly relying on organisation, out-in-the-open dirty tricks, lobby-group politics, media bypasses and defiance of any of the breathless sleep-deprived stuff that passes for reporting. The reporters are increasingly at each other's throats and using the web to create, spin, plant and find news. The other interesting thing is how desperate the media-political class is to shut out John Edwards and Ron Paul.
This in the middle of the biggest debts, deficits and money corruption of the political process the United States has ever experienced, and I include the Gilded Age and the Jacksonian era in that.
For the first time in my adult life, I feel extremely detached from America, even though so many of my friends and my girlfriend are over there right now. What a strange night-time thought. More than twenty years of my life, by the standards of some in my family more than half of what my life may be, have been spent fascinated with America. I've read its histories, ploughed its memories and taught its stories. How long is it though until Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson are about as famous as Marcus Aurelius, or Vespasian, and for the same reasons?
Other big democracies have always been a mix of feudalism and technocracy. India and Pakistan are obvious examples of that. All republics have anni di piombo. In fact, that may be the default condition of republics. In some places, the depressing and politically mundane has been all the order of the day, and not necessarily to the disadvantage of citizens.
But America, zany demented America, has always been just one step ahead of amazing historical sins, like slavery, the destruction of the native Americans and the Mexican War. Its politics have often been vicious and ridiculous, but sometimes the country has been better than that, or at least made one feel it could be. Like some crazy, lovely woman to whom one always finds oneself somehow giving one last chance, and most of one's money. Who would Ilsa Lund have been without Victor Laszlo, the hero of Rick's Bar?
In fact, if one really knows the Federalist Papers backward and forward (especially numbers ten and fifty-one) this really was anticipated. The default condition of the republic is gridlock because politics was meant to trap the ambitious and the vicious, not allow them a free reign.
But really, has Tom Paine's refuge and Lincoln's last best hope and Roosevelt's Arsenal of Democracy really come to this? An emperor deciding by signing statements what laws mean, the rich and dynasts competing to replace him, a senate and house that is made up of people who barely face any opposition to their re-election, a media that is an estate of the realm and tax revenues supporting the biggest armed forces in history whilst the rest of the country is mortgaged to the far east? The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to escape and there will, sooner or later, be a point of no return.