American Discourse

Other than last month’s article discussing gun control, I’ve devoted little attention to the USA since the immediate aftermath of Obama’s victory. Turning to other parts of the world and different issues is always a relief after the general election, it being lengthy and deeply exhausting, but a number of things have caught the eye recently. Or one thing, rather, common to several prominent debates in US politics at present.

It started just as I was happily tuning out of the American conversation, knowing what the few months between the incumbent’s November re-election and re-inauguration on 20th January would bring. Budget wrangling and cabinet nomination sparring of the most venomous and tedious of sorts. Looking to the Middle-Eastern and domestic concerns was a welcome change of scenery, as unpleasant as that scenery often was.

Admittedly, there were passing glances back across the Atlantic but no more than to confirm the familiar scenes of impossibly childish bickering between the honest-to-god lawmakers of the most powerful country on the planet. It appeared the Republicans had gone a sorry, insular direction after their loss and ignoring the routes back towards being a functioning or at least adequate opposition, chose to recommit themselves to all things anti-Obama.

There is nothing discernibly new about cross-party feuding in general, especially for one from the UK where it has been formalised into a weekly puppet theatre, which I love, but it was slightly more concerning to witness a new degree of obstinacy. The right wing die-hards perhaps began to absorb their own demented propagandist visions of a second-term for the Democrats, and they seem possessed by a sort of crazed and apocalyptic lack of cooperation. Fiscal cliffs and credibility be damned.

While it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the state of things are falling steadily into decline, I’m not prepared to concede I’m merely not looking hard enough at the past for similarly vitriolic examples. I think the George W. Bush years, followed immediately by Obama’s greatly contrasting tenure, has laid out a severe dividing line in the nation that is becoming much more challenging to reach across.

Recent examples of the failures of American political discourse have run to the truly heinous with aid bills for 9/11 responders, war veterans and natural disaster victims somehow becoming sticking points in Congress. True conservatism implies a degree of caution where heavy spending is concerned but that’s not to say it is devoid of compassion. This Republican fixation on forbidding the Democratic government from extracting a single red cent, even for the most patently proper of causes, is obscene and a dereliction of public duty.

No surprise at all then that the budget talks have been so stuttering, and there is equally nothing new about the exaggerated outrage surrounding Secretary of Defence candidate Chuck Hagel. But where I’ve thus far lambasted the Republicans for their role in the stagnant political scene, the case of this long-serving politician and Vietnam veteran goes both ways. There are, of course, deep rumblings from hawks over his Eisenhower-like approach to war and the military, notably his opinion of how to deal with Iran coupled with his evident lack of impractical devotion to Israel.

More curious though is the vocal dissatisfaction from the LGBT lobby, who are distinctly and, I think unfairly, unimpressed with former senator Hagel. Way back when in 1998 he said some ill-advised things about Jim Hormel, then nominee for Ambassador to Luxembourg and homosexual. Hagel also supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” and doesn’t possess a stellar record on voting for LGBT rights but the lobby’s reaction is disappointing. Popular activism site Back2Stonewall calls him an anti-gay bigot while labelling his nomination sickening.

There is simply a remarkable lack of reasoned temperament permeating almost every facet of public debate in the USA right now. From left to right and back again, the starting disposition for nigh on every issue appears to be entrenched and combative, but reaching new extremes of disingenuity. Would that it only ran as far as the matters mentioned up to this point, but it would be painfully naïve to hope it were so.

Sadly, although it would be good to say no one could have predicated the desperately tragic events of Newtown, they extended a pattern of all too often repeated incidents that are beginning to feel predictable. The shooting of school pupils and staff by Adam Lanza further highlighted what can only be called a stunning indictment of the nation’s failure to bring but the slightest degree of rationality to gun controls. There couldn’t conceivably be a silver lining to this sort of thing, but in the very least it seems to have finally triggered another serious approach.

This debate, depending on how determined Joe Biden and his taskforce are, has the potential to be genuine political warfare. The gun lobby is about as potent as it comes and the Second Amendment tends to strike a notably emotional chord. In the current climate, and despite the shame brought down on the defenders of that antiquated “right”, it is hard to imagine this will be a smooth ride. If Texan radio host Alex Jones is a taste of things to come, buckle up. The already tattered state of American discourse will certainly be getting worse before it gets better.

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