Understanding America


Universe Column March 6th 2005

by David Alton

President Bush’s recent visit to Europe was part of his post-election drive to rebuild American-European relationships.  But an essential ingredient in making a relationship work is a willingness to understand what makes the other person tick. There is little evidence on either side of the Atlantic of a willingness to do this.

Understanding America today means understanding why President Bush managed to poll a majority of American votes (52%) – a feat which has evaded Democrat contenders since the early 1960s.  It also means understanding the significance of the New Right in the US – and recognising the differences between it and European conservatism.

American conservatism is hardwired by a passionate belief in the freedom of the markets and by religious faith. It has little in common with its British counterpart. That is why Tony Blair is closer to the President than Michael Howard could ever be.

Democrats and Republicans simply do not fit neatly into our British-made political boxes.  In British terms, for instance, Senator Kerry – the Democrat candidate of the left – was to the right of Michael Howard. Kerry, after all, tried to get the Republican Vietnam war veteran, Senator John McCain, to run as his Vice President, he supports targeted assassinations by Israel (something President Bush opposed), he is against the Kyoto Agreement, for the war in Iraq, and is opposed to the creation of the International Criminal Court. Bush has favoured a more open immigration policy than the Democrats and is liked by the Hispanics for his openness.

Unlike its UK counter-part, American conservatism is dynamic and optimistic, and not backward looking. It is often caricatured as unthinking and unintelligent but that is rubbish. It has spent over $1 billion since the 1990s on think tanks and policy initiatives and it is organised at the grass roots in every part of America. Contrast that with the UK’s Conservative Party.

You may not always agree with the conclusions of the American New Right but give it credit for out-thinking, out-organising and out-polling its opponents.

Above all, the New Right is deeply religious – and that reflects the biggest miss-match between Europe and the USA. Max Weber famously predicted that modernity would kill religion. But you only have to travel briefly in the silicon valleys of America to see brand new churches standing alongside computer software factories, and to know that religion provides for young Americans a set of values to steer them through the complex challenges of the modern world. .

And, where once, religion on the right was dominated by a Protestant antagonism towards Catholic immigrants, and by prejudiced, racist segregationism in the South, today it is symbolised on the New Right by black women like Condoleeza Rice (brought up in a segregationist city dominated by Democrats), by Hispanic Catholics and others from immigrant stock working alongside their Christian counterparts.

And, in addition to its utter belief in the sanctity of human life (something even Hilary Clinton is now beginning to address), there is now in the churches a new wave of thinking about environmentalism, America’s duty to the developing world and about poverty. All of which may make for a more interesting future than we in our rabid anti-Americanism have thus far allowed.

America remains a pragmatic, hopeful, idealistic, tolerant and democratic country – where the constitution and human rights remain a corner-stone. It is true that it was traumatised by 9/11 and has united under the rubric of national security. But that alone does not explain America today. Europeans need to have a sharper understanding of the things that make our Americans cousins tick and not simply retreat into a xenophobic and self-serving anti-Americanism.