6 Nov 2012

US in decline, the new normal?

Every morning on a school day we hear the sound of the pledge of allegiance being muttered by 200 tired children in front of a giant stars and stripes dangling from the flag pole in the primary school in front of our house.

One neighbour has the red, white and blue draped across his front porch all year round. Others just display it on national holidays. On radio, television and in just about every speech given by any candidate at every level America, the exceptional, the beautiful, the beleaguered is invoked, beseeched, bewailed and of course blessed by God.

If this country weren’t a democracy most Europeans would wince at what sounds suspiciously like the kind of 19th century nationalism that got us into so much trouble.

But for now let’s just say that there are few nations as self referential to the point of obsession as America. One of Mitt Romney‘s most popular applause lines is “I don’t want America to be the worst of what Europe has become”. He is talking about Europe in 2012, mired in the euro-pudding. But he could also be talking about Europe a century earlier.

President Obama for his part slams those who dare to suggest that America is in peril, that the country’s best days are gone. When he does so he reminds me of George W Bush. As the incumbent he needs to persuade the electorate that the American dream is in tact, that the country will persevere on its exceptional, history-defying path to eternal greatness.

Mitt Romney’s campaign pitch hinges on the argument that only he, the accomplished fixer can reboot America. He relentlessly attacks Obama as the apologised in chief, who is embarrassed by America’s strength, wants to clip the eagle’s wings and is, yes, a “declinist”. This has become the insult de nos jours. The fear of decline hangs over this election and woe to the candidate who talks about it honestly.

Read International Editor Lindsey Hilsum: China rising, the low profile superpower

A cold hard look at the numbers is indeed sobering. On education, industrial productivity, social mobility, per capita wealth, public health and just about every other index used to measure a nation’s rise and fall, America is slipping.

America these days looks over to Europe and thinks, oh well, things could be worse. It then glances at China and the colour drains from Uncle Sam’s face until it is pointed out that China too is vexed by potentially crippling issues. As Christopher Stephens, a mild-mannered veteran diplomat put it to me the other day “we are not in great shape. But I would much rather have our problems than anyone else’s.” He may be right.

If I were an American I would be less worried about education or health indices. Those can be fixed by policy. What would keep me up is the apparent tribalism as displayed with renewed vigour in this election. This country used to pride itself on being a melting pot, where immigrants from every corner of the world could converge, pursue prosperity and live by the same rules underpinned by the founding documents. But instead of fusion the political process fuels fission.

There are two Americas today and increasingly your vote is determined by who you are, not what you think. It is reflected in every rally, convention or local campaign meeting I have been to. The Republicans are in danger of looking and sounding like a party intoxicated with nostalgia for a mainly white, mainly protestant America that is fading into the past.

Obama and the Democrats have demography on their side. The rising population of Hispanics, now the biggest minority, African-Americans and crucially the internet savvy youth can’t identify with the world offered by conservatives.

Increasingly Democrats and Republicans live separate lives, on separate sides of just about every issue from abortion to taxation to climate change. Their politicians no longer socialise in Washington and it is rare to go to a party in the capital where you find both in attendance. Given how divided this country is, how slim the margin of victory will be and how much anger has been built up on both sides against the other, this election will test the ability of one tribe to lose well and the other to win modestly.

If this election ends up with a Republican congress and a Democrat in the White House, there is really no alternative to working together and forging some kind of grand bargain. The fiscal cliff awaits. Democratic dysfunction has already been the reality of the last two years. America cannot afford more of the same. If the result of the 2012 election is a cold political war then decline will become the new normal.

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