The United States of America is in decline and her government is no longer of the people, by the people and for the people. America’s only hope lies in the toughness and kindness of the American people.
By Francois Badenhorst
Standing in a Texan prairie, staring at a vast and unconquered sky, you realise some things about America. You realise in a femtosecond why generations upon generations of immigrants streamed into this country. And why Native Americans fought so bravely to try and defend it from encroachment. The land holds a promise – even in an age where Uncle Sam has lost some of his pulling power.
Travelling through the United States you also notice that Americans – that is, ordinary, everyday Americans – are well meaning, friendly, and very hospitable. A sortie into a petrol station is met with a smile and a warm greeting. Most Americans aren’t the hawkish, bombastic bunch they are oft made out to be.
In America’s heartland, the frontier spirit is still pervasive. These people are the descendants of immigrants who moved into a harsh interior because of the freedom it offered – it was a break from government and society. Even more, it was a rare chance in a crowded world to forge a whole new milieu in a wide and beautiful country.
I’m not romanticising the colonisation of this country: It was a bloody, messy and, quite frankly, a genocidal affair. Nor am I trying to perpetuate the cowboy/dashing frontiersman trope. Instead I’m looking to illustrate where America’s troubles stem from.
Given the opening statement of this piece you would be right to ask the question: If these people are as kind as you say, why has the government that represents them orchestrated one mess after the other? What of PRISM? What of the lobbies and elite interests that have infected Washington? And let’s rather not talk about the drones or Iran-Contra.
But that’s a gross over simplification. The trouble starts with the fact that Americans still harbour those frontier tendencies. They desire to be left alone, to their own devices. They want to own their guns, live and die in their small towns, work hard. The machinery of federal government seems distant and unnecessary, irrelevant.
Because of this many Americans are on a quixotic quest to limit government – what they often term here as “big government”. And this is not a worldview based in Ivy League neo-liberal erudition; it is a simple in-born desire.
Even something as basic as the prices of products: Stores here refuse to factor federal sales tax into the prices they show. Instead, it is added on after the transaction; a distasteful post-script in an otherwise legitimate business transaction.
Outside observers tend to see America in terms of its famous cities. And that’s through no fault of their own – we have movies, songs, games, famous images and the media to thank for that. When we look at these cities we see the purest social and political liberalism. But America is a nation of largely conservative people.
Americans for the large part want to be left alone. But the idea that this is even possible is a fallacy. It also detracts from the real problem at hand. While they might not be interested in government, government is certainly interested in them. The gigantic American middle class is the engine of the preponderant American machine.
This phobia of government has emboldened a small, wealthy elite. The Fed is now a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. This has happened because Americans are disinterested in the national political conversation.
Yes, there is a popular vote – and Americans do vote in their droves – but a democracy is more than a ballot. It’s a prevailing mood. American politics are dominated by parochial interests. John and Joan America are infected with a deep set myopia, an intense focus on the micro and ambivalence toward the macro. And to be fair, from the arid plains of New Mexico – so beautifully pockmarked by mesas and cacti – the White House seems like another universe.
This vacuum left by the American people has been filled by big business, foreign powers, and virtually every vested interest you could care to mention. And the ruling oligarchy is legitimised by a vote that doesn’t mean much.
There has been a symptomatic decline of America’s two great political staples. Come election time, Americans must choose, faute de mieux, between Democrat and Republican – but it’s really all the same. Both sides are ideologically – and often times intellectually – impoverished.
After a prolonged American exposure, you begin to realise that the freedom that Americans enjoy is often the appearance of freedom, a verisimilitude of democracy. The inherent promise of the New York skyline seems less dazzling when you look at America’s draconian prison system. And the grandeur of American enterprise seems a little emptier when you notice that the American dream has become a rigged game that suits those at the top.
But while it is so easy to become negative and declare the grand experiment a failure, it’s not that simple. There is something here. Away from the bloated monstrosities of Wall Street and the latest celebrity grotesquery, you can still see the American heart beating. It’s a fierce and very proud organ.
And Americans aren’t totally ignorant of what is happening. It’s impossible for them not to notice the decline of their fortunes. And they are trying to fight back – but in the wrong way. The kneejerk reaction has been to try and decrease government. This idea is based in a childish, bucolic yearning for the 18th century frontier.
It’s come too far now and that world is now the province of the imagination. Americans need to take control of their government – certainly a touch of Tahrir Square would not go amiss. It was Lincoln that said, “This country, with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it.” Before adding pragmatically, “Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”
The answer has never been less government. In fact, the answer is not more government either, that is a false dichotomy. The answer is a more humane and human government. A government inflected by the goodwill and kindness that average Americans exhibit so openly; one that mirrors Americans’ honourable, decent and duty bound way of life.