Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Outside Looking In
By Gordon Barlow

Foreign observers in general are of the opinion that the two major US political parties have moved closer over the last few years. The tragedy of 9/11 seems to have been a catalyst of this change. Differences remain – enough to fight elections over – but they are small enough to be those one expects to see between two factions of a single monolithic organisation.

Both factions believe in Big Government. Both believe the Israeli lobby must be appeased at all costs. Both believe in permanent warfare against the Muslim world. Both believe that the US Constitution has passed its sell-by date: increasingly, it features only as a Managers’ Special. Ding! “Price-check at Register 18!” “Yes, that’s correct; the Constitution is marked down all this week.”

That’s the way it seems to many of us. We hear and read the political experts who say the Democrats believe this and the Republicans believe that, but we increasingly dismiss the punditry as so much political posturing. Neither faction truly wants to balance the Federal Budget, or even to reduce annual Deficits. One half of Congress wants to cut back on welfare scroungers in the inner city (read: poor black people), the other wants to cut Federal aid to scroungers in the big banks (rich white people), but nobody wants to do both. Neither faction wants to cut carbon emissions by the nation’s overseas armies.

Permanent warfare keeps the unemployment numbers down below what they might otherwise be, and military-industrial profits above what they might otherwise be. Even better, it creates new enemies overseas, if not yet at home. Permanent warfare is a kind of perpetual motion machine. It’s not clear to us why there is no significant opposition to this incredibly costly strategy. Perhaps it’s because the two factions have a tight monopoly on the “rotten borough” electoral system; and public service is very profitable.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee were two characters in one of the “Alice in Wonderland” books, who looked alike, spoke alike and agreed on everything. It may not appear so from inside the US, but from outside that’s how your two factions do appear.

Neither is a champion of human rights, except in isolated contexts. We’re not even sure about the sanctity of domestic civil rights, any more. Which of the mainstream parties campaigns against the Guantanamo punishment camp, or even against the intimate searches carried out by the TSA on the pretence of security? We can’t discern any meaningful opposition from either political party.

Thanks to the Internet, there is a wonderful variety of US blogs competing with commentators belonging to the mainstream media. Both political groupings seem determined to bring all the anti-establishment blogs under the control of Big Government a.s.a.p. How did conservative Americans lose their dislike of Big Government so quickly?

Those things happen outside the US too, of course. But the US is way ahead of the rest of the world in the ferocity of both the defense of freedom and the domestic attacks on it – in the blogosphere as elsewhere. There is no place as innovative as the States. It is truly the one and only “indispensable nation” – so called by a former Secretary of State, though I don’t mean it in quite the bombastic way she meant it. The Muslim world drinks Coca Cola while dodging American bombs: now that’s indispensability! Mexican economic refugees swim the Rio Grande to find work in America: that’s indispensability. The crippled US currency is a safe haven for half the world… And so on.

The US Supreme Court has (reportedly) ruled that the US Constitution out-ranks all international treaties. That is the ruling that makes torture legal, not only inside America but wherever America’s writ runs. It’s a very imperial idea. We who are outside looking in have a huge respect for the Constitution, and we fear for an America that disrespects it. However, we also respect the signatures of those who sign America’s international contracts and treaties, and we wonder where the Court’s ruling leaves the signatories’ integrity. Our sympathies are with the amateur defenders of the Constitution more than with its mainstream detractors.

All Americans are patriots, still, when majorities in many (most?) other Western nations have given up on patriotism in favor of the idea that all human peoples have equal inherent rights. A high proportion of Americans are still religious, when many of their international friends are in post-religion mode.

To us foreign outsiders, the US used to be a much simpler place. Good was good and bad was bad. We are finding its current transitional phase a bit difficult to come to terms with. Paradoxically, blurring the distinction between its political poles is making America confusing for us.