I have no idea how the current political crisis in the US will turn out. I don’t know whether there will be a compromise of sorts or whether the country will slide into bankruptcy and anarchy. There’s something more important than that to worry about.
Most political crises are about struggles for power, and they conclude when somebody wins or when there is a compromise. The assumption is always that the actors involved are rational. What’s become disturbingly clear is that some of the actors in this tragic farce are not rational, nor even just somewhat irrational, as politicians can be. They are downright nuts. Many elected Republican politicians, and nearly all their supporters, apparently believe that Obama is the Antichrist, that the end of the world will come soon, that there’s a global conspiracy against them led by the United Nations, that Climate Change is a fraud, and, indeed, almost any other lunatic and apocalyptic conspiracy you can think of, often all at the same time. These are people for whom the concept of negotiation is sinful, and for whom victory means the establishment of a virtuous Christian theocracy. Either that, or very large number of people are systematically lying to opinion pollsters and media interviewers for no obvious reason.
This isn’t really new of course. The great waves of emigration to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were almost entirely from the poorest, most backward and least developed regions of Europe. The immigrants themselves were largely uneducated, and often brought up in highly religious and conservative environments. The tendency of immigrants to cluster together in ethnic groups meant that these tendencies were reinforced, if anything, creating a specific culture of religious extremism, racialism and apocalyptic anti-modernism in many parts of the country. Modest progress in breaking down these attitudes stopped, and even went into reverse in the 1970s. Since then, economic failure and the disintegration of traditional communities under the lash of the market economy has only encouraged the worst and most dangerous of these tendencies.
For a while, it didn’t really matter. Even on the Right, politics was actually controlled by more educated elites with a more modern and international outlook. But by the Reagan years the cracks were starting to show. The Republican party’s cynical strategy of encouraging all the most dangerous and obscurantist tendencies in American popular culture was starting to produce political figures who thought that a nuclear war might be quite a good idea, or that conservation was pointless because the world would end in a few years time. For the most part, though, these people could be politely ignored, since there were plenty of traditional, conventional right-wing figures around. By the time of the reign of Little Bush, however, it required a stupendous effort of will to ignore the fact that the President of the single post powerful country in the world was publicly announcing that the invasion of Iraq would facilitate the second coming of Jesus. It was just about possible then, but it doubtful if this trick can be pulled any more.
What this suggests is two things. First, the voice of the nut-cases who want to destroy Obama is as close as we are ever likely to get to the authentic voice of the average American. I find that worrying. The second thing is that, as a consequence, we should stop imagining that American is basically a country like Italy or New Zealand, only bigger. It’s not. In many ways it resembles Nigeria or Pakistan – a country with a relatively modern, westernised elite, perched uncomfortably on top of a deeply conservative and backward looking society, divided by extreme religious and racial tensions. And as elsewhere in the world, the extremists are increasing their political power all the time. How is the rest of the world going to deal with a country like that?