The Elephant is Still in the Room

March 14, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Yes, of course the best political entertainment this year has been the tussle for the nomination to represent the Republican Party in November’s US presidential election. Democrat Party supporters, the chattering classes and enlightened, informed people everywhere have pointed and laughed to scorn, while Barack Obama – no slouch he – has quietly got on with amassing the most gigantic electoral war-chest in global history and turning every public appearance into a stump speech.

The Republicans have no one to blame but themselves if they appear to be careering to defeat. Since the 2008 election, they have allowed the Tea Party and its bankrollers to annexe the GOP agenda and to muscle in on its choice of candidates. Both in their general demeanour and in the kind of candidate behind whom they have lined up, Tea Partiers have been blithely unafraid of looking like the lunatic fringe. Unhappily for them, this has paid diminishing returns as the months roll inexorably towards judgment day.

Candidates with uncompromising, irrational views tend to look wilder and flakier the more they are exposed to public scrutiny. And the unblinking attention of the media, even when it is that of Fox News, is merciless in cutting these numbskulls down to size. The Sarah Palin phenomenon seems to have burned out at last. Her successors as the darlings of the right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain – quickly proved utterly inadequate to the task. Those still standing – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul – have failed to gather irresistible momentum beyond their respective (and very distinct) core support.

Romney is the establishment choice, precisely because he isn’t a product of the Tea Party bubble. Like his father, George W. Romney, he was a liberal Republican governor of a Northern state (though Mitt stood down after one term) and, eerily repeating history, the son is also the front-runner in a race for the candidature but prone to hobbling his own case, just like the father. In 1968, George W. allowed himself to be decisively overtaken by Richard Nixon. Unlike his father, Mitt has built ruthlessly on inherited wealth – George W. was a self-made man — and his financial ethics have been talked up as a potent liability by his Republican rivals, most usefully for the Democrats’ electoral machine. Mitt’s own uncanny knack for sounding the wrong kind of sang froid about his wealth and thus making his business success seem even more of a millstone may yet deny him the party nomination in August. A lot can happen in five months.

It’s a curiosity of American iconography that the major political parties’ emblems are arse about face. The Grand Old Party presents itself as an elephant but its ability to forget – to rewrite history and move rapidly on – is unrivalled. The Democratic Party has dropped the donkey as its emblem, perhaps finally aware that it was ever incapable of delivering the donkey’s proverbial backwards kick. Since World War II, both parties have run with candidates who stood no chance – George McGovern (still around, rising 90) and Fritz Mondale for the Democrats, Barry Goldwater and Bob Dole for the Republicans – but the ferocity with which the doomed candidate’s party rivals slug it out cannot be compared. For instance, the story of George W Romney’s opposition to the candidacy of the right-wing fundamentalist Goldwater in 1964 is worth seeking out. Mitt lacks Dad’s killer instinct.

When it comes to the crunch, the Republican Party – like Britain’s Tories – is most always mindful of its own best interests and ruthless in the despatch with which it divests itself of a candidate it knows cannot win. Don’t discount the possibility of someone not now running being drafted in to rescue the cause. In this campaign, the GOP has faced an unprecedented dilemma because the immeasurable power of the Tea Party makes everything so uncertain. The invisible Koch Brothers, without whose billions the Tea Party would be nothing, exert huge power but lack the practical political skills to see what both the immediate and the long-term effects of that power might be. And the Washington elite has not had to deal with such incoming power before. There is no roadmap for what is going down.

In a provocative assessment, available on this site, George Monbiot credits the eccentric Russian émigrée writer Ayn Rand (who died thirty years ago this month) as the source of much current right-wing philosophy in the US. I do not doubt for a moment that Rand has had her adherents – many of them, intriguingly, in Silicon Valley – but Monbiot quotes a Zogby survey (which I cannot locate on the internet) to the effect that one American in three has read Rand’s notorious philosophical treatise, Atlas Shrugged. I apologise – disputing with George Monbiot is not to be undertaken lightly – but one-third of the US has certainly not heard of Rand, let alone read her. I should be more persuaded by a finding that one in three Americans has not read a book of any kind since leaving high school.

Rand was undeniably influential – let’s not forget that Alan Greenspan, who ran the Federal Reserve for twenty years, was a close protégé – but in terms of public recognition she was no Oprah Winfrey. She constructed her own slant on the American dream but she did not originate or even embody the articulation of that dream. James Truslow Adams’ 1931 treatise Epic of America attempts a summary that still serves: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement ‘ It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

The peculiar contribution Rand made to the dream was to argue that opportunity and attainment are constrained by regulation and concern for others, that the American dreamer should shrug off the pettifogging attentions of authority and government and the finer feelings of his neighbours and ruthlessly pursue the dream. It was a more incisive spin on a staple, age-old figure from American myth and literature, offered again and again to the public especially through the medium of cinema: the romantic individualist, the maverick, the heroic outlaw, the lawman who breaks all the rules, the righteous man of action.

Truslow Adams perceived that the American dream was inherently a repudiation of European class and caste, hierarchy and inheritance. In the American dream, all might rise – in the pre-feminist legend, any boy could grow up to be President – and birth, school, club and all such masonic connections would count for nothing. Rand took this further, preaching that community and social interdependence also counted for nothing. There is a clear echo in Margaret Thatcher’s famous retort during a 1987 interview for Woman’s Own: “[people] are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour”.

Obama has been widely “accused” of being a Socialist – not, of course, by Europeans who know what a Socialist is, but by Americans. That is because Obama has made a few small gestures towards trying to relieve the plight of the poor and the unemployed and those who cannot afford health cover. Even with the prevailing philosophy of the post-Blairite governing class in Britain, wherein more and more social provision is either outsourced to racketeers or withdrawn altogether, Obama’s achievements look small beer. By a rich piece of irony, Romney introduced health care measures in Massachusetts during his governorship that in many ways provided the model for Obama’s federal health care reform of 2010. Romney is no more a Randian by nature than is Obama.

Now Obama is indicating that those with enormous wealth might reasonably be called upon to contribute a larger proportion of the tax that they might expect to pay if they didn’t have accountants. In this, he is in step with European politicians, even Conservative ones. In the light of the economic conditions under which most of us struggle, it seems a mild enough line to take. Obama clearly hopes to outflank right-wingers like Santorum and Gingrich who think economic salvation derives from private enterprise having the freedom to exploit and to reward itself disproportionately. Handily, it also undercuts Romney because Romney is so very, very rich – were he to become President, he would be the second richest man ever to enter the Oval Office (the richest was John F. Kennedy).

And here I enter a note of caution. That American dream is still very potent. Millions of Americans – and not just right-wing fundamentalists in the south and mid-west – take the view that untold wealth might be just around their own corner, and if they could just get a break they would soon feature in the Forbes list. They know rationally that this is very unlikely to happen, that for every lucky son-of-a-gun who strikes gold there are thousands upon thousands who only sift soil and stones, including themselves. But they still dream and – in a notion that Obama will remember – they hope. It’s quite a universal impulse really. Europeans also subscribe to it when they play the lottery.

It’s my contention that many Americans – the ones who, while they may not read or follow Rand, still revere the all-American maverick – are actually repelled by any idea that the wealthy should be, as the rich will claim, “soaked” or “punished” in being more heavily taxed. If you cling to a dream of untold wealth, your dream is tarnished by any suggestion that the IRS might then take it away again. So you don’t resent the other guy’s riches – good luck to him. Let him screw the government for all he can get.

Obama had better beware that he doesn’t characterise the wealthy paying a greater share in such a way that the Koch brothers are able to galvanise a wave of militant sympathy for the poor bloody rich to sweep through the Tea Party and wash a man who that movement cordially loathes into the White House. It would be a poor Obaman legacy to find that his second term is supplanted by a chief who would be ripe for Dick Cheney-like manipulation on a grand scale, a hapless President Romney.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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