U.S: The Divided Nation

Christian DeFeo 

Image © lumierefl

The town which I come from is like many others in America: it lies just outside a big city, the streets are aligned in near perfect grids, and there is a small downtown area which features a bank and a grocery store.  Churches of varying denominations are in abundance.  The Stars and Stripes flutters over red brick public school buildings, a striking sight on a clear summer’s day.

Looking at the tidy lawns and the carefully painted exteriors of the homes in my town, it is relatively easy to think that this is a prosperous country.  There is an air of quiet affluence that accompanies being house-proud.    On a bright June afternoon, Obama’s America seems a good place to be, particularly in contrast to the depressing images of homelessness, dereliction and unemployment which scar much of Britain and Europe.  Surely, then, Americans should be grateful for their relative good fortune and surely they wish to re-elect the President.

However, go to the next town and the picture changes: in less than a quarter mile along a main thoroughfare, I counted no less than 5 large stores and office buildings that had lost previous occupiers and now were either for sale or rent.  Other stores promise big bargains or state they’re going into liquidation.  The windows of the empty shops are dirty; inside, bills which will never be paid lay scattered along the dusty floors along with brightly coloured junk mail.  This America is bankrupt, broken and clearly dissatisfied.  If this is Obama’s America, then it surely won’t be his for long.

How can the two be reconciled?  When one speaks of either economic despair or boom there is an assumption that its effects are broadly uniform, and exceptions, such as the continuing London property boom are just that, exceptional.  What is striking about America’s economic recovery, however, is how patchy it is: indeed, it is its motif.

As statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show, states which are prospering sit side-by-side with those which are suffering.  For example, Texas’ economy grew 3.3% in 2011 while next door in New Mexico, growth was just 0.2%.  North Dakota’s economy grew a staggering 7.6%; this is largely due to its tapping into natural gas resources.  Its neighbour, South Dakota, grew at a measly 0.8%.  As my former home town and its neighbour illustrate further, this patchiness extends to a micro level: towns which thrive and suffer live in close proximity.  While the overall economy may grow, this strange mosaic prevents an overall impression of well-being from taking root. 

Furthermore, it means that the partisan commentators which dominate the airwaves are simultaneously right and wrong: MSNBC says the economy is recovering.  Yes, to an extent.  Fox News says the labour market is stagnating and the economy is flat.  Yes, this is also true to a certain point.  MSNBC may want to blame the economy’s patchiness on economic crises abroad; this contains at least a strong element of truth.  Fox News also suggests that the money from President Obama’s stimulus wasn’t at all well spent: in my home town, this has manifested itself in the local high school building a fine arts centre despite having subpar Maths and English test score results.   Fox News frets that America is suffering a perilous decline: America was always going to suffer a relative decline as other nations grew.  MSNBC implicitly attributes certain dynamism in the overall picture which is less than thoroughly justified. There are plenty of opinions and even some facts to support diametrically opposing positions.  What is rare is nuance and coherent analysis: American opinion is kept captive in ideological silos which offer starkly contrasting points of view, while denouncing the other as having no merit whatsoever.  Nowhere is there a genuine commitment to purveying the overall and sometimes contradictory truth: Fox News says it’s “Fair and Balanced”, a claim which is laughable the moment one views the composition of their broadcast schedule.  Stephen Colbert states that “reality has a well-known liberal bias”: this is supposed to be comedic, but it is a message.  What is happening is less a Presidential election than two ideologies coming to blows on the field of battle.  Neither side can admit error, doubt or even thoughtfulness, lest it become material for attack ads.

However, the candidate who wins will be the one who can convince those who do not sit within the laagers of ideology: the quiet middle is going to have to hold its nose and vote for the most palatable. I don’t envy them: they are going to have to decide between a candidate whose acolytes would like to cast the nation in a pall of gloom or view it with rose tinted glasses.  For a nation whose motto, “E pluribus unum”, means “out of many, one”, never has it felt more divided.    Whoever wins may have to straddle a chasm that may not be able to be bridged; how genuine progress will be achieved is far from clear.   It may be enough of an achievement to keep the nation from splintering further.

  • Christian DeFoe is a novelist, has a PHD in Creative Writing and is a social liberal.
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