Ruth Dudley Edwards: Rose-tinted glasses in US exchanged for polarised lenses
With just a week to go to the elections, the American electorate is deeply divided, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
I'M just back from California, and can report that reporters and commentators aren't exaggerating when they say -- with just over a week to go to the US elections -- that the electorate is alarmingly polarised.
The night before I left London, I had dinner with a nice, intelligent, thoughtful bookish couple visiting from Tennessee. I've known them for a few years and we've never had an argument about politics, but this time it was unavoidable. I couldn't agree with them that most of President Obama's critics are racists and that supporters of the Tea Party movement -- a powerful lobby within the Republican Party -- are, by definition, loons, morons or bigots.
When it emerged that I thought Ronald Reagan had been a fine president and they thought him an idiot, we gave up. I think we feared someone would mention Jimmy Carter and the ensuing disagreement as to whether he was a fool or a saint might lead to a rift.
The next night, in San Francisco, dinner was with an amusing Republican thriller writer with whom I've had many jolly evenings at what Americans call 'mystery conventions'. When I suggested Obama had some redeeming features, he looked at me as if I were mad. He shook his head a bit too when I suggested that although I like Sarah Palin, I don't think she's up to the job of president. After this I tried to dodge any discussion of politics, except with an English friend who's lived in California for years and with whom there was common ground.
This level of polarisation is worrying because since neither side sees anything but base motives in the other, both are full of righteous indignation. Obama supporters think their man has achieved great things, like bringing in healthcare and stimulating the economy, and that he therefore can be opposed by no sane or decent person with more than two brain cells. 'Don't these red-neck ignorant crazies realise what he's done for them?' they cry, and then, sneeringly, they produce the latest 'can-you-believe-it?' quote from some ill-educated and ill-informed Tea Party candidate who has said something foolish or offensive.
Christine O'Donnell, the senatorial candidate for Delaware who won the primary in a major upset, is a favourite target. Apart from digging up every last piece of dirt on her, the media delighted in running a clip from a 1999 programme in which she said she had once dabbled in witchcraft. Liberals hate her
for her religious and political beliefs, and additionally despise her for the way she talks. Rebuking one opponent for 'unmanly tactics', she added: "This is not a bake-off, put your man-pants on."
Karl Rove, a key adviser to George Bush who, like many others in the Republican establishment, is unhappy with the Tea Party for ousting several of its candidates in the primaries, described her as "nutty", but O'Donnell has well articulated just why she has gone down well with ordinary people. Denouncing "anti-American elites" for trying to marginalise traditional conservatives, she said: "The small elite don't get us. They call us 'wacky'. They call us 'wingnuts'. We call us, 'We the people'"
O'Donnell is not mad, but she has a dodgy past, is a poor candidate and will almost certainly lose the seat. But many more candidates admired by the Tea Party will sweep to victory, for the truth is that many ordinary Americans who never much cared about politics are furious with conventional politicians for ignoring them and for -- in their view -- changing the country without consulting them. They resented George Bush for going to war and being a big spender, and they think Obama is deliberately trying to change the country's political culture by encouraging welfare dependency and a big state.
The Tea Party believes in rugged independence, small government, low taxes and freedom to run your life much as your pioneering forefathers did. People like them have in the past been charmed back into the fold by Bill Clinton or George Bush, who had the common touch and genuinely seemed to like ordinary folk. Obama, for whom many of them voted, now seems to them to be a condescending snobbish spendthrift who despises them and is undermining the American way of life. To be accused by his supporters of racism makes them mad as hell.
The anger and frustration of grassroots America is set to overturn the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives: the Senate is not out of reach. After the election, the apprehensive political and media establishments -- who are currently acting as if spear-clad natives are clambering over the top of the Washington stockade -- should look to France and Greece and think again. Which kind of opposition should a government prefer -- rioters screaming for subsidies or peaceful protesters asking that the nation tighten its belt and leave its citizens alone?