A Superpower in Decline Is the American Dream Over?
Part 4: The New American Nightmare
One Monday in September, six weeks before the mid-term elections, the CNBC television network invited President Obama to a town hall meeting with voters. One after another, members of the audience stood up to air their grievances: about the job crisis, America's crisis and the feeling of hope that the country has lost since the excitement of the 2008 presidential election.
Velma Hart, a stout woman in her mid-40s, stepped up to the microphone. "Mr. President," she said, as her eyes teared up, "I'm a mother. I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran and I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are."
Hart, who is black, voted for Obama. It was an obvious choice for her at the time, and she says that has never felt closer to an American president before. She is about the same age as the president and, like Obama, she has children and a job as an executive. She works at Amvets, the American veterans association. If anyone is a natural Obama voter, it's Velma Hart.
"The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family," Hart said. "My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"
No Real Answer
The president smiled thinly. He mentioned the "right steps" that had been taken but he had no real answer. He couldn't reassure her or even argue with her point. Her dream was his dream, he said.
The unemployment rate in the United States is at about 10 percent. But when the people who have stopped looking for work and are not registered anywhere are included, the real number is likely to be closer to 20 percent. For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans have a problem with long-term unemployment.
Hart's worries, in other words, have become the new American nightmare for many. In a country with a limited concept of social cohesion, laughable from a European perspective, the quiet demise could have unforeseen consequences. How strong is the cement holding together a society that manically declares any social thinking to be socialist? The US economy lost almost 100,000 jobs in September. Is this Obama's fault?
Dinesh D'Souza, a former advisor in the White House of President Ronald Reagan who is now the president of The King's College in New York, has written a 258-page bestseller about Obama, "The Roots of Obama's Rage." The title itself ought to be a joke.
It has been a long time since the United States has had such a levelheaded president as Obama, a man who governs so dialectically and didactically, who spends so much time listening, weighing options and calmly arriving at his decisions. The president has a lot of problems, including many inherited from his predecessor. He also has a hard time coming across as warm and empathetic. He is good at generating enthusiasm in crowds but, unlike Clinton, he is not adept at connecting to people on a more personal level. Obama feels uncomfortable when he faces someone like Velma Hart. But angry? Obama?
Full of Hatred
The Tea Party, that group of white, older voters who claim that they want their country back, is angry. Fox News host Glenn Beck, a recovering alcoholic who likens Obama to Adolf Hitler, is angry. Beck doesn't quite know what he wants to be -- maybe a politician, maybe president, maybe a preacher -- and he doesn't know what he wants to do, either, or least he hasn't come up with any specific ideas or plans. But he is full of hatred. And so is Dinesh D'Souza.
Indeed, the United States of 2010 is a hate-filled country.
D'Souza says that Obama's father was an anti-colonialist and that he dreamed of his native Kenya liberating itself from its British colonial rulers. His son Barack has the same dream, says D'Souza. He wants to put America, the neo-colonial power of the 21st century, in its place. "The most powerful country in the world is being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s," D'Souza writes. "America today is governed by a ghost."
D'Souza's book has been a huge success, reaching fourth place on the New York Times bestseller list. The Washington Post published an opinion piece by the author, Forbes had him write a cover story, and D'Souza himself thinks he knows why so many people believe that Obama was not born in the United States and is a Muslim. People can't identify with him, says D'Souza, because he doesn't believe in the American dream.
This is the climate in the country leading up to the Congressional elections on Nov. 2. It isn't shaped by logic or an interest in rational debate. The United States of 2010 is a country that has become paralyzed and inhibited by allowing itself to be distracted by things that are, in reality, not a threat: homosexuality, Mexicans, Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, health care reform and Obama. Large segments of the country are not even talking about the issues that are serious and complex, like debt, unemployment and serious educational deficits. Is it because this is all too threatening?
Gridlock as the American Status Quo
It has become a country of plain solutions. People with college degrees are suspect and intelligence has become a blemish. Manfred Henningsen, a German political scientist who teaches in Honolulu, Hawaii, calls it "political and economic paralysis." One reason for the crisis, says Henningsen, is that the American dream, both individual and national, has in fact always been a fiction. "This society was never stable. It was always socially underdeveloped, and anyone who talks about the good old days today is forgetting the injustices of racist America."
Agitators like Glenn Beck are "nationalist, racist and proto-fascist," says Henningsen. "They take advantage of the economic situation, almost the way the right-wing intelligentsia did back in the Weimar Republic."
Gridlock has become the modern America status quo, and the condition Henningsen calls "institutional idiocy" is especially obvious in the country's most important legislative body, the Senate, which has come to resemble a royal court where nothing has happened in centuries.
Each state elects two senators, including Wyoming, with its 540,000 inhabitants, and California, with a population of 37 million. If enough senators from states with small populations band together, they have the capacity to block everything, which is precisely what they do. And no one questions the rules, both written and unwritten. The Senate is no longer a club in which the members speak to one another. The filibuster, a way of blocking legislation through continuous debate, was the exception in the past, but today it's the rule. The Republicans have already used the filibuster to torpedo more than 100 of Obama's proposals.