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 538.

    526 sonofm&n

    What drivel. The 'Communist Witch-hunts' of the 20th Century weren't exactly 'ridiculing' & the superiority or inferiority complexes appear to fester on both sides. In my opinion right & left are both unbalanced, the centre ground is the only place in politics where dogma holds no credence & opinions are made on each subject rather than assumed to toe the party line.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    In case nobody else has said this: you're supposed to park facing the right way in the UK too - Highway Code rule 239: "do not park facing against the traffic flow". Shame most people ignore this common sense safety advice. I salute the Americans for being sensible!

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    Objectively, where's the great distinction between Democrat and Republican? Both implicitly agree: Israel better than Palestine and firearms better than none.

    Real ideological acrimony is impossible when even amendments to their constitution are treated as inviolable and the president must be a Christian .

    Pantomime-acrimony is fostered by the media and the unregulated rhetoric of politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    The problem with the US is they think helping each other is an act of socialism and they confuse that with an outdated view of the soviet union. Add that to their view that anyone non american is some kind of weird alien species out to take their country from them and your get a powder keg ready to explode

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    We are seeing the end of the post war consensus of high state spending and welfarism . These policies have failed miserably and as our standards of living decline relatively ,new conflict arises on immigration, jobs and what it is to be American or British or European . Our institutions have failed .Apres moi le deluge. We need a new vision not more of the same

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    I don't agree that US politics is polarised. They might say very different things but apart from healthcare there isn't a great deal of difference between the policies of George W Bush and Obama when you sit down and look at it, and Mitt Romney isn't actually proposing anything radically different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Disagreement in ideologic or political discussions is not hatred. The word hatred now has a new shade of meaning: repression. Anyone who feels that their convictions have been violated feels hated. Quote: "A hate incident is any act, whether consisting of conduct, speech, or expression, to which a bias motive is evident as a contributing factor" WHAT? Enough with the "I am a victim" mentality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    Maybe theres so many illegal immigrants things are'nt the same anymore?

  • Comment number 530.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    I see Mitt has released his latest Tax returns what they show is the advantage of being rich, in 2011 Mitt paid tax at a rate of 14.1% because he can salt his money away and live off income from investments. Now of course he’s not breaking the law but the top rate of tax in the US is 35%, Legal or not I still call that tax avoidance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    I am an American living in New York. As a student, in the '60s, I lived for some time in Indiana. Then, as now, there is an information and culture gap between the coasts and the rest. Local media simply doesn't carry some points of view. I suspect that Obama was right about clinging to guns and religion. Some of the country seems to revel in its ignorance. Does this help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    "The way I see it, it all comes down to education"

    Allow me to inform you that the US not only has the the highest educational attainment rate in the OECD, but has the best institutions of higher learning in the entire world:


    The stereotypes you adore so much are the exact opposite of the truth. Americans are actually among the most educated people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    The left are always filled with hate for their opponents.
    The right will disagree with the left and maybe ridicule them but the left are filled with hatred for the right in both the US and UK.
    An inferiority complex perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    What happened to America's community spirit? The Soviet Union collapsed, that's what happened. America was left without a credible external opponent for the first time in it's history (Bush's middle eastern 'Axis of Evil' wasn't exactly up to snuff), and so they now they have nobody to turn on but themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    I've been here 15 years and have never experienced this "community spirit" you talk of.

    The USA is nothing but a great marketing job , with the brainwashed citizens the biggest proponents. And like all badly made but well marketed products it doesn't take much examination to see how poorly produced the product really is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    May be for one reason is that over 30% of Americans don't speak English, some 20% think they speak English and the other 47% speak only English.

    Voting time comes many will ask, who is gonna win and votes the same way, nobody wants to pick a loser in a one horse race.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    514. Kent
    I doubt that’s true, but if we do have negative views it’s because America is not doing a good job of promoting itself in a positive light, rather than us being overly negative. For those of us who watch the political scene in the states you are not even promoting yourselves to your own citizens in a positive light, let alone to the rest of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Americans have always hated each other. From the Native American Holocaust, through slavery and Jim Crow, to the present. I at times cringed at the venom targeted at presidents Clinton and Bush. The venom hurled at President Obama is even worse. Many people believe it is due of racism. Republican members of Congress have stifled all his proposals, even those they supported in the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    Yes, please do keep away from my house; I'll look after that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    I was born and raised in America but have lived in Europe for 7 years, and I've had a difficult time explaining to friends and family back home how angry Americans (and American culture) now seem to me. Your insights here are great, I'd love to hear more, and I think a lot of Americans would benefit from having a mirror held up to such a corrosive way of looking at, and living in, the world.


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