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 558.

    Carl Hiaasen is correct. We have a 24/7 news cycle on television, blogs and don't get me started with how weird social media impacts things. I am a U.S. citizen and I can tell you the problem is cognitive dissidence, and sheer laziness. It is easier to read or hear a BS soundbite than to take the time to check out facts. It's a mob mentality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    No matter how bad things get, I console myself that none of our politicians are challenging each other to duels, and that no senator has of late been caned on the senate floor by a member of the opposite party. When that happens I will begin to listen half seriously to talk of civil war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 556.

    From another immigrant into the USA: There's two basic views: equality of outcome (i.e., everyone should be equally rich) and equality of opportunity (i.e., everyone should have the same opportunity to succeed). The former rail at the rich simply for being more successful. The later assume that those who "don't pay income taxes didn't take responsibility for their lives". They both sadden me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 555.

    I live in California where community spirit is alive and well. In fact, even with our wide range of cultral and idelogical differences we get along just fine.

    Folks outside USA need to understand there's a debate about two opposing social ideologies. We thank our lucky stars that we are able to have that. Safer as a result we keep to the center and folks can get on with their lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 554.

    Sometimes in the history of a country, conditions call for significant action on the part of the citizenry. The US has reached such a point. IMHO, the best thing that can be done now is to choose those running as independents. Dump ALL members of congress. Send the message that business as usual is not good enough. We need to reset the board. We need to "reboot" our political system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    534. Bill Savage
    They tried to do that 30 odd years ago, trouble is the system they brought in put so many people out of work or into part time or poorly paid work that welfare spending went up. It’s simple if you want to get people off benefits you need to create jobs that pay a living wage, unfortunately the people in charge don’t want that because they are doing just fine as things are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 552.

    Americans have always hated Americans. They hated the American Indians, then they hated the British, then they hated the African Americans, then they hated the Ameican gangsters, then they hated the American communists, then they hated the American Muslims. If they're not too busy loving money then they're hating Americans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    Sadly, the fringes of the two parties have taken control of the rank and file. These fringes thrive on pasing out lies and half truths that then blossom into lives of their own. I believe that we Americans are more moderate than we choose to believe. We've entered into a phase of mob mentality driven by the 24 hour "news" cycle. Name calling has become "deriguer". I hope it will end soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Politics is a game everywhere, but here in the U.S its taken to a whole new level. Promises are made that anyone , with an inkling of the machinations of politics or past history , will realise that they cant be fulfilled.
    Fundementally there is little or no difference between the two, and unless you are at the top or the bottom of the economic spectrum it matters not a jot who wins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    They tend to believe their own b*||sh*t. They're suspicious and scared of each other and the world. Uptight even. They can't form any meaningful relationship with the two major nations they border. Their natural neighbourliness doesn't extend far beyond the next picket fence. If you want to lead the world then extend a hand, turn your resources toward toward human advancement, not just American.

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    HMMMMMM it would seem simple but it is not..... however there are somethings in America that, historically, are just wrong. They fall under names such as: KKK, white supremacy, certain christain doctrines that fan hatred of anything that is not them. These foul values have come to roost heavily within certain USA parties. Reagan(beloved/NOT) fired the first shot been down hill ever since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    "Community Spirit", isn't that the stuff they distill in the woods?

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Nothing has 'gone wrong'.
    The land of Bush's base of 'haves and have mores' is still there.
    Things are the same as they always have been except that the 'poor' are now more vociferous than before.
    They don't take no sh@*t.
    And rightly so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    541: All bureaucracies are inefficient. It is one of the great political lies that privatising/de-regulating will AUTOMATICALLY make things better. You only have to look at bankrupt US cities or mains water prices too expensive for the poor, to see that de-regulation CAN be a disaster. Can the US really justify millions in bonuses for Wall St traders 'gambling' with OTHER peoples money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    The issue at hand is NOT that Americans have lost the ability to get along. The issue is that there are two diametrically opposed philosophies of governance in conflict. One believes that govt should tax & spend & manage the economy. This philosophy has produced $16 TRILLION of federal debt. The other believes that govt refrain from debt. You will inevitably have conflict in this environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    Most of my American friends, be it in Alaska, Washington State, California, Colorado or Washington DC, whose professions range from Warden to Economist via secretarial job, are a fairly moderate bunch and fairly relativists. They don't do headlines as they don't seek headlines.They show they colour on Facebook but are open to discussion. We just don't hear about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    From the UK, the USA looks strange. Only recently is was common in the US for those at the bottom, economically, to aspire to having high-incomes through 'the American dream'. More US citizens are waking-up to the reality that the British have known for years... if you have money to start with, you are likely to enhance it. If you don't have money even a good college is going to be unattainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    "Some Americans don't see us as having basic obligations to our fellow citizens." This is entirely wrong. The political strife arises between those who believe government should be the engine for help and those who believe private citizens should be. Like many of us, I am all for helping the poor and downtrodden, but I strongly object to being compelled to do so by an inefficient bureaucracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    The miseducation of the American people causes them to believe and follow every demagogue with microphone & a radio or TV outlet. I often observe people listen, like zombies, to the messages of the likes of Rush Limbaugh & that high school educated Glenn Beck (he now has Glenn Beck University), messages replete with vitriolic half-truths & outright lies - like those enchanted people in Madrasahs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    @Kent 527

    You might want to read the criteria used to select the top-rated universities, at least in the context of your comment.

    Only 10% of the ARWU rankings is based on the quality of the education, whilst 80% stems from the research done at each school. Buckets of papers and awards don't necessarily mean the students get a good education, only that the faculty are prolific researchers.


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