A battle for America's soul

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When Barack Obama was elected, I lived in Belgium.

Something extraordinary happened around the corner from my home. A favourite local cafe hung out a stars and stripes.

Looking back from this land where houses, hats and hustings are always draped in the red, white and blue, that sounds commonplace. But it wasn't.

In my four years as the BBC's Europe editor, travelling to most of the 27 countries that make up the European Union and many outside it, I never saw the American flag displayed apart from at embassies or Kosovo, where Americans were indeed held in high esteem.

Elsewhere, many considered the US a rogue nation, a bully and a bigot, George W Bush the symbol of its excess.

The wave of sympathy that engulfed the world after 9/11 had drained away into the sand of Iraq.

The election of the country's first black president was seen as a moment of huge hope, holding the possibility of great change.

Obama in 2008

It was then a surprise to arrive with my family to take up the new job and find a very different mood had seized some Americans.

Taking a brief holiday travelling down the coast through Virginia, North and South Carolina, discovering the delights of BBQ and the easy languid grace of the south, it was a shock to switch on the TV in hotel room after hotel room to find pictures of over-heated town hall meetings, with people denouncing Mr Obama as though he were a war criminal, not hope made flesh.

It was a reminder that the idea he had an overwhelming mandate was conjured by the enthusiasm of the world and supporters at home. There are two Americas and only one voted for him.

A lot of time in my first two years was spent trying to understand what lay behind the anger that I had seen on TV. They are the ones who revitalised their party and made it possible for Mitt Romney to be so close to the White House.

I talked to people at small Tea Party gatherings in the parks of little towns and at huge rallies in the shadow of the Capitol.

Tea Party rally in Washington

I chatted at convivial gatherings over coffee and homemade cake, did interviews at serious study groups which seemed like the constitutional equivalent of Bible meetings.

I've met many who told me they didn't understand how much trouble America was in until they retired and had time to watch Fox News.

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Black Americans up and down this huge country tell me Obama didn't create this mess”

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I've met very well-informed people who are worried sick about America's debt and direction. I've met a fair few daft ones, too, like the woman who told me Mr Obama wanted to introduce Tsars "like they have in communist countries".

Beyond a fairly conventional conservative concern about taxation and debt, there is an inchoate angst that their country is going in the wrong direction, that they need to "take it back".

Some think this is code for "take it back from the black man in the White House".

It is not that simple. Nearly all of the people I met were white and most middle-aged or older. But few were racist in the conventional sense.

The only time I have seen that in the raw, I was off duty, at a dinner party. A woman growing increasingly passionate as the wine flowed called Obama a "monkey" and said "he's trying to give OUR money to THEM".

Not the poor, not the shiftless, "them".

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"They" are part of a different America, with a different history who want a different path for their country.

A millionaire in a designer chair in his plush Chicago home, surrounded by modern art, makes the same point as the broken-toothed men perched on smashed-up office furniture outside a beat-up shotgun house in Texas.

Next to me in the pew of a Florida church, the man with a trim grey beard and a "veterans for Obama badge" tells me the same thing.

These very different people all had one thing in common. They're black. And that means they share a history and often they also share a perception of the present.

Black Americans up and down this huge country tell me Mr Obama didn't create this mess, and he needs time to clear it up.

They know all about patience. They know all about clearing up other people's mess. They know about being shut out of this country's narrative.

There's a black history month. It rather implies that for the other 11 months, it is white history that will have its way. With Mr Obama they feel that has changed, just a little.

Celebrations in Birmingham, Alabama Obama's election in 2008 sparked celebrations among many African Americans

When a passionate Tea Party member talks about the land of opportunity, where people came to forge a better future, free from the persecution and tyranny of the old world, he rarely reflects that some Americans can't quite see it like that.

Their ancestors were reluctant immigrants from a better past, dragged in chains towards a land of persecution and tyranny.

If they do raise their voices, that is seen as having a chip on their shoulders.

One respected commentator told me a test of my time here was whether "they" would "get over it". Blacks have got poorer, worse off under Mr Obama. But for many, his election was a large step forward in a long march that is far from over.

There are other histories too. In a patrol car, bumping along a dirt track running alongside a giant fence, I reflected on the difficulty of keeping out immigrants who want to be part of the dream.

The fence of railway girders and wire just gives out, stops, as if in exasperation at the immensity of its task.

Latinos here legally are a growing part of the second America. They will make up 29% of the population by the middle of the century.

Polling booth in Latino neighbourhood

Watching Democrats campaign door to door for Mr Obama in Colorado, I was struck by something strange.

Many of the people canvassed looked Latino, spoke English with a distinctive accent but spoke no Spanish. As one of the canvassers put it to me: "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us."

It is true. Until the 19th Century, vast parts of the south west of the US used to be Mexico. Those people too are Americans.

Mr Obama and Mr Romney both continually stress that they offer a very different vision of America's future.

You could say that they both have a vested interest in dressing up the musty policy differences that have been at the heart of politics for 100 years, to make them appear more heroic.

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They see themselves as descendants of pioneers who forged a brash city standing proud on a barren hill”

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But that might be to miss the point that in America, politicians have never made a grand bargain or accepted the mish-mash of compromise about the role of the state that is the stuff of post-war politics in Britain and Europe.

The two men do see two visions - two different mirages of a future America, shimmering hazily on the horizon. But the trouble is there really are two Americas existing now. And the gulf between them is getting wider.

Increasingly, what you believe reflects who you are. The alliance of city dwellers and better-off liberals, Hispanics, blacks, many younger people and significantly more women may or may not win this time - but they are the Democratic core.

They largely agree with both Mr Obama and Bruce Springsteen's bitter, brilliant anthem that America should "take care of its own" and that a government of the people should not be despised by the people.

But the change Obama is offering would make the US more like the rest of the West, even as Europe's future looks dim.

He's trying to tame his country's demons when many see ornery cussedness as a founding virtue.

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Republican strength is made up of an alliance too, overwhelmingly white, the well-off, evangelical Christians and much of what used to be the working class, the rural, the blue collar and the deep south.

But here's an uncomfortable truth, difficult to state - this hinterland of conservatism does embody what they and many in the world consider especially American virtues and strengths and, yes, flaws.

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The two Americas are not immutable. They will slip and merge into each other”

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The dogged individualism that is fiercely critical of the extent to which the state helps those in need, but glories in kicking butt abroad. They take care of their own, but they do it themselves and circumscribe whom that includes.

They have the sort of determined guts and belief in a dynamic and manifest destiny that is needed to force the desert to bloom with shopping malls and new suburbs.

They see themselves as descendants of pioneers who forged a brash city standing proud on a barren hill.

These romantic ghosts will not easily be blown away on winds from a future world.

The two Americas are not immutable. They will slip and merge into each other.

America is such a very young, dynamic country - as were we across the Atlantic when presumably the Angles hated the Saxons and never thought they would be known by one name.

But for now this is not good.

Whichever America wins on Tuesday the losers will not happily tread the path chosen by the other America.

The BBC will be providing full online live results of the US presidential election on 6 November. More details here

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Hopefully it will not come to a separation forming two Americas. Of course that would be an inner civil war. Those falling in the top 1 percent income level had 4 years to sulk. My guess is that they want to resume unfair labor, credit, and health care practices. I do not agree with everything Obama does, but an alternative candidate does not exist. Now Clinton would be a good choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    40 Curt Carpenter
    You're right -- it was just before the South Carolina Senate elections in 2010.
    Good for you for saying so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    As an American who has made many trips to Europe an traveled the back roads of America ,the USA is divided. There are many factors that come in to play.Europeans need to tend to European needs an leave America alone.We tire of being your world's police.FDR was a Communist an so is Obama.That is what divides the USA.
    The USA is a Republic an in so being we reject Socialism.
    Keep it dont export it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    com'n everybody knows that america is devided: it's devided between the supporters of socialism and liberalism, those who who want to be given the fish and those who want to be taught to fish, usa is not young and growing nation, now it has grown to a standstill, the generations who rule are old now, they want their pensions to be saved and they don't want work, they want president- socialist

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    Well, why are you looking for objective news in an opinion piece? That's a little stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    31. Laura _ I agree seemingly another anti-american portrait. The country is not as divided as this article makes it seem. The vast majority are so sick of this election that we cannot wait until wednesday. Honestly, I dont see anything radically changing regardless. Come Wednesday, Mark, the "two Americas" will merge back into each other as we always do.
    Please stop focusing on the extremes

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    You're right -- it was just before the South Carolina Senate elections in 2010.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Mark M.,

    Thanks for writing once again from an overtly personal perspective.

    Sadly, in some ways, there are two Americas, though - when we're at our best - we remember: "the dream shall never die". Making it reality is always the struggle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Who knew condescension could come in the form of such lofty poetry?

    There are many dynamic, intelligent, even– gasp– worldly people in America that believe an expanded government is not the answer to the world's problems. To conflate individualism with selfishness or lump opponents of Obama with racists is to exhibit the same ignorance that you ascribe to members of the TEA party.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    34 ACEINA
    “This is the biggest brainwash in history. Explain how there are so many Kennedy's and Bush's and Romney's running the place the whole time?”

    It’s called name recognition. It’s hard to beat if the brand remains popular.

  • Comment number 36.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    30 Curt Carpenter

    “I didn't realize the extent of the rage on the American right until I stumbled into a T.E.A. party rally in South Carolina shortly before the 2008 election.”

    You did? That’s odd since there was no actual T.E.A. party in 2008. Maybe you’re confusing them with a Ron Paul rally. I understand he was upset with Bush and the whole TARP issue at the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    "America has no class system as exists in Europe and Asia"

    This is the biggest brainwash in history. Explain how there are so many Kennedy's and Bush's and Romney's running the place the whole time? Of course there is a class system - if you're born rich you are likely to stay rich (and powerful). They just tell the rubes its a meritocracy - and the rubes fall for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Mr. Mardell: Your commentary may qualify as observant sociology, however, it does not qualify as idiomatic political analysis. It is overly informed by a foreigner's sentimentality, and so it is actually patronizing. There are conflicting principles and ideas that inform how Americans vote, and we are quite capable of coexisting as we work through our definition of who we shall be as a polis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I am a harsh critic of Romney supporters but Mardell paints such a caricature of them that anyone can see it has more to do with prejudice than reality. As an Obama supporter, I'm offended at the image of Obama supporters at marginalized victims. I am doing fine and would like to continue to do so in a strong country. Obama has the better plan. Mardell is just another bitter Brit, down on the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    21 leighrichards

    Because 3% is within the margin of error and some polls show Romney beating Obama, also within the margin of error. Most of these polls are also based on 2008 election turn-out results. If Obama has that same turn out ratio in 2012 he wins. If that ratio changed enough, Romney wins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    "...the losers will not happily tread the path chosen by the other America."

    That perception stands as a good reason to remember who has the guns, and who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

    I didn't realize the extent of the rage on the American right until I stumbled into a T.E.A. party rally in South Carolina shortly before the 2008 election.

    Then I understood.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I too am American, and I find Mardell's description of the "two Americas" really apt, albeit disturbing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    As an American, having lived in Europe, I believe Mark is right on the money. His thoughtful observations provide valuable insight. Like most feedback, we always want to hear the best parts about ourselves. A young country, a proven Republic, from the County Sheriff, to the highest office, "By the People...". And as Mark points out, the People are at odds with each other...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I see it different on the ground in a red state. "A black man is elected President of the United States, so something must be wrong with the country."
    Replete with feints, deceptions, reworkings. Same as when Mrs Trollope visited. They're thinking "can't we just lynch him?"
    Racism in America has to do with 'who you are better than', for whatever reason, real or imaginary.


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