An exposed nerve

By Johannes Schroeten

At first sight, it is a rather odd situation: a bunch of armed militia men occupying a federal building in a national park in Oregon. However, its significance should not be underestimated. The occupation is only one symptom of a new hysteria in the United States of America.

Flash-back to the 1990s, shortly after the breakdown of the Soviet empire. The United States seemed to be the all-encompassing and dominating force, the last true world-power. Its economy expanded and the rise of the digital age promised a technological superiority for years to come. In his acceptance speech, Bill Clinton called out the ‘renewing of  America’ in 1992. A break-through of democracy, capitalism and Western values in the world was only a matter of time. Or so it seemed. Flash-forward to today, and things look very different. What happened?

The American society was struck by two blows, triggering its current anxiety.

It all started with 9/11, the first foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour. Suddenly, the US were no longer untouchable. In the aftermath, President Bush declared the ‘war on terror’ and a US-led coalition invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite an early victory, the military forces would stay, fight and die for more than a decade. The results were costs of more than 2 trillion dollars and a traumatised American society.

The second blow came in 2008.The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers let loose a chain of business failures, private insolvencies and rise in unemployment. Mortgages could no longer be repaid. The pictures of thousands of abandoned houses became the symbol for the failure of the American Dream. The economic devastation would discourage many Americans.

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Within a decade, two core elements of American collective identity, namely superiority in military and security terms as well as the perception to have the strongest economy in the world, were gravely shaken. Although the economy soon recovered and is now larger than ever, the notion of a society in which everyone can achieve anything with diligence could not be revived. Instead, a deep uncertainty spread. For many, this was a nightmare proving the American economy to be no longer the hegemon in the world economic system. Obama’s ‘Yes, we can!’, still so strongly embraced and shouted in 2008, yielded to a precarious ‘Maybe, we can’t.’.

Out of these quarrels, two fluxes emerged. On the one hand, those who want to transform the US into an ultra-modern society, in which everyone enjoys the same rights and no one feels oppressed or restricted in their way of life. Examples are the civil rights movements, feminists and LGBT activists which usually flourish in urban areas and especially within the academic environment of universities. These are modernists, often politically represented by democrats.

Despite encouraging debates about structural racism and bigotry in society, their strive for political correctness has taken on sometimes ludicrous or even radical features. Not seldom, the correct name for an ethnic group or social minority can change within days. Those who might offend someone in any way easily face a ‘shitstorm’ of collective shaming and can hardly defend themselves in the outpouring hysteria.

On the other hand, a new emphasis on ‘traditional’ American values has entered the social and political discourse in the US. It is an ultra-conservative movement which is strongly oriented towards traditional ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ values. Despite the modernists, they also hate a supposedly elitist political class, the notion of a supreme government or even state structures in general.

They advocate a Christian identity of society and desire a maximum of personal security, not just from criminals or foreigners, but also from their own government. Hence a strong opposition to any restrictions such as gun control legislation. While the present and the future seem to be rather grim, they glorify their own history, be it the constitution from which they derive major arguments or the American superiority of the 20th century. This group is often formed out of middle aged white people, which tend to have received a lower level of education, and used to form the working and middle class of the US. However, due to the digital revolution and the outsourcing of production, they tend to be the ‘losers’ of the huge changes of the past decade. Ultimately, they struggle to preserve the lifestyle their parents have acquired. Let’s call them traditionalist.

The Tea Party has managed to coin this traditionalist view into a political program. Through further encouragement of bias and hysteria, it made way for Ben Carson and Donald Trump who poured more oil into the already blazing fire. The demagogic claims of both presidential candidates have fostered resentments against everyone and everything the traditionalists already dislike. With impressive effectiveness, Trump and Carson have managed to rally the underprivileged white masses behind them. Even more strikingly is the fact that moderate conservatives, such as Jeb Bush, cannot manage to pose a significant Republican alternative to the Trumpian hysteria and simplicity.

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Without doubt, both the modernists and traditionalists have always existed and influenced the political culture in the US. In recent years, however, a major shift became prominent. The social gap between rich and poor, countryside and city, majority and minorities, has only widened. Partisanship increased, resulting in debates in which facts play a subordinated role. Ultimately, the cement which used to hold the American society together has lost its grip. The (foreseeable) decline of American global influence has shed light on domestic struggles which had remained in the shadows in the past decades. Increased numbers of unarmed African Americans being shot, a hunt both online and in real life on students who might not comply with the predominant standards of behaviour on university campuses and government officials who deny homosexual couples their right of marriage are all symptoms of a frenzy which is preventing a rational discourse.

The United States would not be what they are today if they could not handle such tensions. And contrary to European politics, the dominant political tone has always been more aggressive. Nonetheless, the new developments peaking with the Planned Parenthood shooting, the Oregon occupation or the Charleston Church shooting, signal a new American hysteria. From the outside, the US still seems to be an extraordinary power. From the inside, it could face profound and radical changes. Like an exposed nerve, the American society is sensitive to any incident which in return could trigger an unpredictable knee jerk reaction.

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