What happened to America's community spirit?


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The secretly filmed video in which Mitt Romney appeared to disparage the 47% of Americans who do not pay income tax, was nothing compared to the harsh, divisive language used by some US politicians, radio hosts and bloggers. How did US politics become so polarised?

It was day one of our new life in America. I had arrived to take up my BBC reporting job and my wife and I were bringing our bags from the car. Our new neighbours showed up with cakes and soda. And a warning: "You'll want to re-park your car."

Eh? We had parked outside our picket-fenced new home and thought no more about it. But we had parked facing the opposite direction of traffic. This, in the capital city of the land of the free, is a violation. In Washington, you must park facing the same way as the cars are heading. It is safer, they reason, because you don't have cars nosing out into oncoming stream of vehicles. And my freedom? Fuggedaboutit.

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The hatreds are ideological as well - some Americans don't see us as having basic obligations to our fellow citizens”

End Quote Prof Michael Slote University of Miami

America, a nation we associate with rugged individualism, is actually - at least in its suburban guise - a nation of rules and conformity, a nation of community spirit, enforced where necessary by law. You may not say and do what you like in America, whatever the constitution says. You are expected to play nice. And you are all - every American - "in this together".

So what on earth has gone wrong? Why did Mitt Romney tell those wealthy donors, in the secretly filmed interaction that leaked out this week, that nearly half the nation were of little interest to him?

Never mind the poor politics - how can that be American? It feels so utterly wrong. But Mr Romney was being pretty mild when you look at the totality of the hatred - and that is not too strong a word - that the political classes in modern America throw at each other.

Nightmare poster

A miserable example comes on my car radio. We are somewhere in the middle of Florida, driving through a tropical rainstorm and a voice is booming out telling me that his opponent in their local congressional race "has benefited personally" from the bank bailout scheme set up in the wake of the financial crisis, "and so has his family!" Basically he's accusing his opponent of being a thief.

And this bile matters. It has real consequences. It leads, in Congress, to deadlock. A nation beset with urgent issues to confront - of which the size of the national debt is probably the most serious - cannot find the cross-party consensus necessary to act.

So here is the big question - a bigger question, frankly, than who is going to win this presidential election... What went wrong? And how can it be fixed?

I have been hearing three theories from Americans from across the political spectrum.

At the end of that rain-soaked journey, I landed at the coastal home of the Florida-based writer and newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen. He made an interesting point about the sheer number of sources of information on offer to the average American in the digital age. The TV of course, and the radio, but also from the net the blogs and the YouTube video and the snippets of half noticed opinion on Twitter and Facebook. A maelstrom of fact and opinion and sheer nonsense. All mixed up.

Justin Webb and Carl Hiaasen Carl Hiaasen (right): It's getting harder to see the other point of view

Hiaasen feels for his fellow citizens.

"The ability to twist and fabricate makes it so much more difficult to sort through what's true and not true. You need to dig twice as hard."

In these circumstances, no wonder many people defend themselves with the obvious human psychological defence mechanism - they believe what backs up what they already think and disregard the rest!

And more than that, they get angry that with all this so-called information that seems to them to back up their own views, how annoying is it that other folks do not see things the same way? The crush of "facts" actually reduces people's ability to see the other point of view.

Michael Slote, Professor of Ethics at the University of Miami, agrees. But he wonders as well if there is not a deeper issue - an issue that goes to the heart of what it really means to be an American.

Joyce Kaufman Joyce Kaufman: "I want to be banned from Britain!"

He sees that community spirit I identified at the start of this piece as a diminishing quality of American-ness. In fact, he believes it was a recent aberration. The real America is a tougher place, a place where bullying politics is part of the scenery.

He is depressed by what he sees as a nation reverting to type after a period of gentleness - brought on originally by the Depression and the New Deal politics that came after it - which suggested to Americans that in good economic times they could afford to help each other out.

"There is less to go around now. Less room for compromise," he says. "But the hatreds are ideological as well. Some Americans don't see us as having basic obligations to our fellow citizens."

I hope they sort it out. When you talk to individuals here you meet so many who are public-spirited.

The conservative talk show host Joyce Kaufman - who has been in trouble before for incendiary comments about immigration and guns - claims, I think with real justification, to be a backer of all Americans at heart. Even if it went socialist? "Yep," she says. "I don't have to stay if I don't like it here."

And she has a sense of humour. As we were leaving after interviewing her she takes me to one side; "I want to be banned from Britain, then I will feel I have arrived!"

Now that is proper American talk.

Justin Webb, a former BBC North America editor, is a presenter of Radio 4's Today programme. His television report can be seen on Newsnight, at 22:30 BST on BBC Two.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    The assumption that one's children would, if one worked hard, always be better off then you were, has hit a brick wall. Wages have falling in terms of purchasing power for 20 years while higher education has been priced out of the reach of ever more Americans, at a time when low-skill and manual labor have been moved off-shore. A shrinking pie is harder to divide than a growing one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    As an american at ground zero, I can tell you that the basic ideological divide is whether we live in a community together - which means helping each other and working together - or whether being selfish greedy individuals who give a rat's a$$ about anyone else is the ultimate society. Politics, economics, Ayn Randism, environmental policy . . . positions on these all flow from this divide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    467 So seniors that are on social security that don't pay income taxes are not citizens? Really? They paid YEARS of taxes! It is also ridiculous of you requesting the BBC to have no views on this. So it's OK for you to have a view of a British corp but they can't of the US? Typical, hypocritical American.

    They do vary views anyway.
    Romney doesn't care about citizens. And he outsourced jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    463 PMart , calling Obama "Marxist" is a classic case of what the article is talking about! If you looked at the facts of what a Marxist is you would clearly see that its ridiculous to call Obama a Marxist - but why let the facts get in the way of mudslinging? How is wanting to raise taxes so wrong when you have the biggest debt ever and people like Romney hardly pay any at all?

  • rate this

    Comment number 474.

    We've come from a post-Depression, post-war period where we saw real benefits from helping our fellow man to a reversion to the true American type, the one that Steinbeck so accurately characterized: "Americans will never accept socialism because the poor don't see themselves as the oppressed proletariat, but rather as temporarily inconvenienced millionaires."

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    @440.heaven1977 ,
    Why do you assume that those who are conservative & prolife, like me, are also war mongers? I don't support capital punishment either. Please do not stereotype.
    Thank you.

  • Comment number 472.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    Both ends of the political debate seem to favour sound-bites and artificial hysteria rather than actual thought. My US friends tell me that US schools favour rote-learning rather than thought and analysis, which I'm sure contributes to the problem. US TV, also - a system which has advert breaks every 5 mins seems calculated to encourage short attention spans and lack of cvonsecutive thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    Religion happened to it. It has always been decisive and now you have the religious right attempting to suppress the freedom and force them to conform to their belief - violating the first amendment in spirit if not letter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    Mitt Romney calling 47% of Americans lazy & dependent on govt for everything was expressing his true belief. It was no gaffe. If he meant to say 47% of Blacks who voted for Obama are lazy & depend on govt for everything, he would have been factually wrong, & racist. While conservatives want everyone to believe there are more Blacks on welfare, the fact is that, there more Whites on welfare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    333 The issue is insurance. As humans there's good/bad doctors and it takes time to find one good for [you]. But insurance companies delay/bully (> 6 months to take care of my aunt's cancer. Wasted money and life). Also, you'd save money with a better system, you know that, right? If a person with no insurance goes to ER/Ed guess who pays? Meanwhile, if they had insurance guess who does NOT pay?

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    BBC please don't follow USA media with opiniated views. Report both sides and leave the reader to decide. Romney didn't disparage 47% of America Citizens. He said they don't care about what he has to say because they will vote their paycheck. They don't pay taxes and any adjustment to this will lower their income from the Socialist welfare state. Romney DOES care about every Citizen!

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    Come on people, the only thing that most Americans want/need is the opportunity to excel. Our biggest roadblock to this is the despicable state of our poorer (usually inner city) schools. Don't blame the taxpayers for this - Billions have been appropriated and Billions have been wasted by corrupt, job protective, education 'professionals'. Fear of socialized medicine stems from this type of waste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    464. ugosugo

    "Not much to say, other that the Republican party is a collector of all the human trash that a society can offer, be it religious, ideological or just plain ignorance and dumbness. Which is pretty much self explanatory"

    You're right. Not much to say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    Not much to say, other that the Republican party is a collector of all the human trash that a society can offer, be it religious, ideological or just plain ignorance and dumbness. Which is pretty much self explanatory

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    The writer seems to think that political rancor is something new. Have our good friends in the UK watched their Parliamentary sessions on TV lately? I have, and there is as much, or more, rancor, vitriol and disagreement as I have ever seen in a governmental body. We unfortunately have the added (and hopefully temporary) impediment of a Marxist president fomenting class envy and strife.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    The answer to your question is: Politicians tend to bring out the worst in the best of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    There is a combination of the various media outlets and the opportunity for individuals to find a source of information that backs up their views.
    Look no further than Fox News.
    Think of Romney's statement about the 47% not paying taxes.
    Half of that 47% not paying Federal Taxes, don't think they are included in these numbers.
    America has a new level of ignorance - think Tea Party

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    The community spirit left American neighborhoods a long time ago. There is little community spirit left because the American people are becoming more and more guarded against their neighbors. This police state attitude is perpetuating itself due to self interests and fear. Many Americans are living pay check to pay check while being drawn inward due to fear of the unknown. Doom & gloom reaction

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    Speaking about politics, I am surprised that the BBC doesn't focus on what is dubbed: "the silent majority". You will easily hear both fringe sides but never from the moderates, especially in the media as they don't bring ratings. Registered voters are fed up with both parties and are now becoming independent/unaffiliated. Even in my home state of MA, more than half the voters are unaffiliated.


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