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.

US debt counter

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

An ending - and a beginning

Mark Mardell says farewell to his years as North America editor, and introduces his new analysis blog.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Interesting you read his article like this. I feel Mr Mardell's comment, "But the change Obama is offering would make the US more like the rest of the West, even as Europe's future looks dim", demonstrates with some irony, the dilemma for voters and the lack of an inspiring vision on the democratic side.
    Also, so many 'Facts' are based on statistics, manipulated to the needs of the author.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    So sick and tired of the same old tired left wingers using the same old tired left wing 'race card' excuse at every single turn, the undertones of this article are very clear to those who are intelligent enough to see it.

    'White American voting Republicans are racists' - Why didnt you just come out and say it because its clearly what you wanted to say?

    Same old nonsense. Bored of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I think what Mark Mardell is saying is that Republican thinking is rooted in freedom and empowerment and that Democrat thinking is rooted in protection and provision. When Republican thinking goes wrong the poor and the vulnerable are neglected; when Democrat thinking goes wrong the free are tyrannised. What he doesn't really address is whether there is a way of combining the strengths of each.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The US functionally doesn't have a multi-party system, much of Europe does.

    Obama isn't communist, in Europe he would be centre or maybe centre right.
    'Europe' struggles with where that puts the Republicans at the moment.

    And Europe doesn't discount America. It would be a bit like trying to discount the weather. Watch, try to understand, can't influence, can't ignore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I moved from the US to northern Europe during Bush's second term. We were very unpopular then. So many told me how their parents used to admire America and its culture. When Obama was elected the US was liked again. Obama was an example of American exceptionalism. Then I came home and people called Obama a terrorist and Hitler. The US once again is showing the world its ugly side: racism

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.


    We tire of being your world's police.
    Does that mean you will not be sticking your nose in, uninvited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    to Jlcard you are disillusioned
    I have never said any thing about a nations resources
    or aiding them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    49. Apolloin

    Commentary of any kind is only constructive when its supported by facts and critical thinking, not pretty descriptions and reductive generalizations.

    We're divided. True. Two sides fighting for our identity and future. This is only a 'bad thing' if, like Mr. Mardell, you simplify one side as ignorant, greedy, and evil simply because it's ideas are less common on your continent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Countries are divided because of politics and religion. Those who seek power propagate this state of affairs and we blindly follow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Suma @51

    Actually, I think he went out of his way to acknowledge that the vast majority of criticism is not racist - highlighting a woman getting drunk as the ugly exception.

    The proportion of US readers that seem to only see half the article and take offence is disturbing, but rather makes Mark's point for him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    What you Europeans are discounting is the power of a multiply party system.
    I hope the Independent Party unseats Obama/Communism in America. An the Mitt Romney s.
    An the USA gets out of the UN.
    So sink or swim it's the worlds call.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Excellent article, Mr. Mardell (and a refreshing break from the "folks, we've got a tight race here" theme).

    I wish I could say the US faces great challenges, but the truth is we are not facing them. Rather we, both sides (or all sides, for there are more than two) are avoiding the tough problems, postponing the remedies. This can't go on for much longer. A change is going to come, but how?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    You serm to come the 'aid' of countries with a large amount of natural resources. Sadly when you've finished 'aiding' them they are in a worse state than before...
    Of course the US is divided, most nations are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    49. It gets divided like this during every election cycle because of all the negative commentary, ads and press instead of focusing on the issues. Of course we have many issues here in the US. Mr. Mardell is absolutely correct if you look at the extremes.Life will continue as normal again on wednesday(by the vast majority) regardless of who wins.Of course there will be idiots out there

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Personally I'd like a Independent 3rd party to be come President.
    You like us to come to your aid when nature or man destroys you.
    No more you lazy socialists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    If this piece is meant to imply that the dislike for president Obama in any significant portion of the population is rooted in racism, then this is libel. Though it is against a broad ill-defined group rather than an individual, making it legally safe, it is still ethically repugnant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    America was build on 2 principles Common Sense and Reason.
    Obama has neither,
    Where as Romney has some.
    Congress will prevail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I am shocked by the rose-tinted lenses that prevent some from seeing how divided the USA is at the moment. There are very clearly two visions for America being offered at the moment and I find it hard to believe that the faction which loses on Tuesday will bear that loss quietly.

    Also amused at some American readers who can't take the slightest negative commentary as constructive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I am of the opinion the two faces of America are poor and the rich. In any case US is irreparable as it has been engulfed by very bad traits of irresponsible recklessness. Why are Americans so complacent? I think they have run out of innovation. The ideology that when rich become more richer, it will have a trickle-down effect to enrich the poor
    is a terribly flawed notion and highly detrimental

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    There are more than 2 America's. An they are build on racialism or religion or big business. The other America is build on reason an tolerance. Ask yourself am I reasonable? Am I tolerant of others?
    Before pointing a finger ask yourself these things.


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