Taking back America

Anatol Lieven

  • What’s the Matter with America? The Resistible Rise of the American Right by Thomas Frank
    Secker, 306 pp, £12.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 436 20539 4

There is no great mystery about the Republican victory in the US election. It was the product of what used to be one of the most familiar and powerful combinations in the modern history of Europe: the marriage of nationalism and conservative religion. The combination is unfamiliar to most Western Europeans today; but it was all too familiar to their ancestors, and remains so in many parts of the world. The problem is that Western Europeans think of these countries as backward. If we are shocked at what happened in the US it is because the US is in so many respects the most modern, the fastest changing society on earth. How can it also in some ways be so archaic?

The question of course assumes that the European experience of modernisation is the standard one, and that all others are aberrations. It also stems directly or indirectly from our commitment to Max Weber and his belief in the inevitable disenchantment of the world as a result of capitalist modernisation. Over the past generation, formerly conservative countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece have all been profoundly transformed, and in all of them there has been a decline of religious faith and practice, and of the modes of thought and behaviour associated with religion.

This is not a universal pattern, however. America is a huge exception, but so is India. There, economic dynamism, and ‘modern’, or partially ‘modern’, attitudes to sex and caste are often combined, among the newly educated Hindu middle class, with deep religious faith, and this faith is often associated with Hindu nationalist politics. Indian businessmen have contributed something like $350 million to support the rebuilding of the temple of Ram on the site of a demolished mosque in the town of Ayodhya. Israel is another instance of a highly developed state where conservative religion has grown in recent years in close association with radical nationalism. It’s an alarming thought, but a plausible one, that it is Western Europe that may in future be seen as having been the exception.

The danger posed by conservative religion, today as in the past, stems from the frequent association of its adherents with social groups that also consider themselves under threat from modernity and whose views often find expression in one variety or another of national chauvinism – hence, in the last century, their contribution to the rise of Fascism. Something like this is evidently at work in the US. It doesn’t, we know, characterise the whole country: very large numbers of Americans are bitterly opposed to the Christian Right and to its association with chauvinist nationalism. Fifty-one per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 59 per cent, represents less than one third of the total electorate. It’s important to remember, however, that in order to do as well as they did, the Democrats had to choose a candidate with what ought to have been impeccable patriotic credentials as a war hero, and with no real record at all of social, economic or cultural radicalism. And they still lost.

Christian conservatism is not a dominant force in the US as a whole, but the combination of conservative religion and nationalism is dominant across most of white, small-town, rural and often even suburban America. The county-by-county breakdown of the election results shows the Republicans winning even in upstate New York and throughout the interior of California, Oregon and Washington. With the exception of the big cities, the only areas to remain solidly Democrat are most of New England, the black-majority counties of the South, the Latino-majority areas near the Mexican border and the old Scandinavian, progressive regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. According to the Christian Coalition, the leading grass-roots political organisation of the American Christian Right, 29 senators out of 100 and 125 House members out of 435 – that is, more than a quarter of the members of both houses of the US Congress – voted 100 per cent of the time in accordance with the Christian Coalition’s principles in 2001 (the last year for which figures are available). These figures will be even higher in the new Congress.

In its present form, the conservative backlash in the US is the product of a set of historic defeats experienced by the traditional white middle class and working class in the 1960s and early 1970s. First, civil rights legislation overturned the old, enforced racial order, traumatising the white South but also creating deep anxieties among working-class whites in the Northern cities. Next was Vietnam, the first serious military defeat in American history (though in ways reminiscent of the German response to defeat in the First World War, it has been turned in conservative public perception into a victory ruined by liberal treason, cowardice and weakness). Radical protest against the Vietnam War deeply offended the patriotic consensus. Third, the sexual revolution and the legalising of abortion were seen as attacks on the old moral and morally defined social order; and the expression of these new attitudes on television meant that, for conservatives, the public face of American culture had become radically alien. Even that wasn’t the end of it. The banning of prayer in schools seemed to mark the expulsion of religious morality from the American state; the renewal of mass immigration, suspended between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s, brought the white middle and working class face to face with a new set of ethnic challenges and rivals; and the oil shock of 1973 marked the end of the long postwar boom. Since then, under the impact of globalisation, large sections of the working classes and lower middle classes have experienced thirty years of stagnation or decline in real family incomes, despite the entry of huge numbers of women into the workforce. The slump of the 1930s was more shocking, but that depression lasted only ten years.

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