Giles Fraser doesn’t like Americans. Why? For insufficient piety. The US isn’t Christian enough, Fraser complains. ‘Of course, way more people go to church in America’, Fraser concedes. And, he concedes again, ‘I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief.’ But his problem is that ‘a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing.’ He reiterates that ‘America itself has long been its own civil religion’, ‘America became its own church and eventually its own god’, and even adds that ‘Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.’ (This about the country of Thomas Paine, Edison, Mencken, Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks.)
There’s always been an anti American variant to UK establishment thought, that holds the US in contempt first for kicking us out of their country and then electing the wrong kind of people. Political junkies in the UK feel that we have a stake in the presidential elections. We don’t feel that about, say, the German electoral college or Afghan loya Jirga. Hence, in 2004, the spectacle of British Guardian liberals writing to people of Clark County, Ohio, to instruct the bemused Ohians not to re-elect the vulgar Texan George W Bush. I forget what happened that November.
There is truth in what Fraser says, nevertheless. We tend to perceive American religion as the tent-revivalist and snake-handler variety. Poll after poll had large percentages of US citizens subscribing to biblical absurdities. The late Christopher Hitchens (who was granted American citizenship) demurred. When he published his big atheist book God is Not Great Hitchens took it on tour through the Deep South. He came back emphasising the civility of the book’s reception and said that the repeated opinion polls depicting Southerners as swivel-eyed literalists were wrong. The stereotype of British liberal Christianity versus US fundamentalism persists, even though the Anglicans recently suspended an Episcopalian church from its decision making progress because they disapproved of their American counterpart’s liberal stand on gay marriage.
Liberals watched the resistible rise of Donald Trump first with amusement, then concern turning to a low-grade terror. True, Trump is scary. He makes Bush look like Cicero. (He’s also hard to explain: Trump is a product of the New York property billionaire class, so clichés about unreconstructed snake handler Southerners do not apply.) Not even Hunter S Thompson would have dared imagine this guy. And neither the liberals nor the amusing satires nor the last moment flailing of what’s left of the GOP establishment looks likely to stop him.
Slag politics all you like, but you have to admit it’s not boring. Trump could lose the Republican nomination, or win the nomination but be knocked out in the general by Hillary or Bernie Sanders. Or he could win. It doesn’t seem farfetched to talk about the end of the GOP or even the republic itself. There’s no natural law that says democracy and civilisation will continue forever. Look at the European far rightists that have leveraged themselves into power in the more fragile EU states. Meanwhile those of us who survive the Trump presidency can sit in irradiated WW2 bunkers, eating fried rats and tinned tomatoes and discussing where it all went wrong.
How did we get here exactly? The conservative journalist Tim Stanley nails it. Voters in both our countries have been told by politicians, in essence, that ‘You need to vote for us, because we are the practical-sensible people who get stuff done. True, we don’t have a lot going for us in terms of dynamism and creativity, we can’t empower people, but you need to vote for us because the other lot aren’t practical-sensible enough and it will be a disaster.’ Stanley writes: ‘The politics of that era is overfamiliar and tired. And younger voters resent constantly being told that ageing pragmatists know best – especially when the smart technocrats are the folks who gave us Iraq, the credit crunch and the mess that is Obamacare.’ Practical-sensible can’t even sort out the housing crisis or protect our cities from flooding.
Part of me thinks the complaints of anti politics are ridiculous, after all we live in a free country with no barrel bombs, civil war or high child mortality rates. For me, probably for most of us, England is still a fantastic place to live. We have won the geographic lottery. But does this mean so much if you are, say, a struggling professional couple who can’t start a family because most of your income goes on petrol for your commute or rent for your shitty, damp-infested private rental? Maybe once a year a candidate comes to your door and promises savings on your energy bills. You might vote for him, but so what? You’re still going nowhere in a highly stratified class based society. You’re going to feel that the real decisions are made somewhere else and you’re not part of that conversation. Governments come and go, laws are passed (some of these laws arbitrary, irrational and intrusive in nature) but nothing really happens.
I came across a thoughtful piece by an obscure fellow named Anthony Painter who does a lot to explain the vacuum. His theory is that politicians of the right and left got too much into a managerialist, Burkian worldview. Governments do things to and for people rather than with them. While ‘[p]opulist ideologies offer a false sanctuary for the fearful and the angry’ the problem is also with mainstream practical-sensible people who ‘spend their time bickering with lunatics on social media rather than trying to understand why and how the world is changing.’ Political professionals don’t like anything difficult and don’t like change:
You may or may not think that Basic Income is a good idea. This week the RSA published an entirely practical plan for introducing it as a means to unlock social, civic and economic creativity. It has been greeted on the political centre-left with the same reaction you expect to get from a plumber looking at a leak – it’s all too much trouble, too difficult and costly. Beyond parties, the idea has been engaged with energetically.
Painter calls for an awakened ‘spirit of Paine’. I agree strongly that it would be great to have a (truly) new politics based on Paine’s values of individualism, liberty, secularism, empowerment and human rights – but what that would look like or how we get there, I don’t know.
Also: For some superb critiques of Donald Trump as well as interesting foreign policy stuff I’d recommend following historian Tom Nichols on Twitter.