91. Letter from America

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

4 August 2023

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Sometimes looking from outside can help us to see our own country in a new light

For very many years my favourite listening on BBC Radio 4 was the Letter from America by Alistair Cooke (1908 to 2004). Now, in the third week of what has become an annual trip to Hollywood to visit our son and his wife, I am tempted to emulate Cooke’s title, though not sadly his prose or his insight. A few random thoughts.

Plenty of plenty

Coming to America there are some things, many of them perhaps obvious, that it is very difficult to resist commenting on. The first is the country’s huge variety and diversity, which perhaps should act as a warning that any generalisations about this country are pure folly. Such is the scale of the country that most Americans have never left it, and yet can still consider themselves well travelled. Each state has its own idiosyncrasies. A trivial example is that in some you must get used to the fact that it’s permissible to turn right at a red light, and if you do not know this you will be reminded very audibly by the person driving behind you, whereas in others the same action will get you a fine. Much more significantly, as we now know following the revocation of Roe versus Wade, in some states abortion is still readily available, whereas in others it is a criminal offence, even in cases of rape. We might be forgiven for asking how this could’ve been allowed to happen.

That the US is a prosperous country is obvious. Not only does it have the world’s highest GDP, still well ahead of China and likely to remain so for at least the next 10 years, but per capita GDP, at $80,000, is greater than that of most European countries. The figure for the UK, at $47,000, puts us on a par with Mississippi, the poorest US state. And with US inflation at 4%, under half of ours, that disparity is more likely to grow than shrink.

Conspicuous consumption is everywhere. The energy used alone for air conditioning in the US is of the same order of magnitude as that of the entire UK economy. Not that it is possible to see air-conditioning as a luxury in the current California heat wave, what temperatures in some parts over the last week have exceeded 48°C.

Do not get me wrong. I do not want this to be just doom and gloom. It is easy to be positive about life in America. The country has a vast amount to offer both those who live here and those who visit; the US has a rich cultural life, the people are broadly welcoming and friendly, and there is a culture of hospitality. It would be wrong to assume that the xenophobic Trumpist “build a wall“ culture is wholly representative of Americans.

A model of democracy?

There are massive glaring deficits in the political arena from which we should learn, if we have any sense.

Donald Trump perhaps exemplifies what is the worst in American politics, though sadly he is far from being the only one. He has just had his third indictment on three wholly unrelated charges. Yet he is managing to use this to his advantage. With each new indictment he has succeeded in strengthening the narrative that his crimes are all invented, that there is in some way a highly sophisticated conspiracy against him and that the election was stolen. If this were the case it would mean that his enemies are a great deal more clever than in fact they are. With each indictment there is an boost to his funding. What is even more remarkable is that he has taken his entire party with him. Many Republican members of Congress were present on 6th January 2021 and know exactly what happened, and yet are now denying the truth with worrying zeal. Even those contesting the Republican leadership, all of whom are over 30 points behind him in the opinion polls, are bizarrely in denial that Trump has ever broken the law. And this despite the fact that only four of his 40 former Cabinet members, who presumably do not need to seek re-election, have been prepared to say that the man has ever been fit to be president. The Trump loyalists in the electorate, perhaps a third of the total, still rally around him and make it clear that they would vote for him even if he were going to contest the election from prison, something which is well within the bounds of possibility.

Given his track record, we have good reason to fear that any return to office by Trump would be an existential threat to the future of democracy in this country.

We in the UK cannot afford to be complacent. We would like to think that the era of Boris Johnson is over, but, like Trump, he has damaged the democracy of his country to such a degree that it will struggle ever to recover. Even after only a small handful of MPs opposed the Privileges Committee’s finding that he had acted inexcusably, he still has his diehard supporters in whose eyes he can do no wrong. While the majority of Conservative MPs may disown Johnson personally, they continue to sign up to his lies. How can any rational person possibly subscribe to the view, now that we have the evidence, that Brexit has been beneficial to the country, that the Rwanda plan is anything other than a Machiavellian smokescreen, that Britain’s true future in the world is as a Pacific nation (!), or that the queues at airports are all the fault of the French? What planet are these people living on? Cognitive dissonance worthy of the US.

The land of the free

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Americans as a people are incredibly proud of their country and their democratic traditions. Flags are abundant, and a very dim view is taken of anybody who appears to disrespect the Stars and Stripes. The belief in the American model of democracy is so strong as to lead to a virtual compulsion to export it to other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, where unfortunately such efforts have been predictably unsuccessful. But is the American model actually something we would wish to emulate?

Bear in mind that, had the US had a fair voting system, in which every citizen counted equally, we would never have had President Trump or (at least for his first term) president George W Bush. Most of us who believe in democracy and common sense would, I’m sure, speculate that in such circumstances not only the US but the world would be a far better place.

What is going on? Firstly, the US, like the UK, continues to use the first past the post system. In this respect both countries differ from every other European country except Belarus. It means that distributional factors have a very great influence on outcome, many voters have a right to feel disenfranchised, and there are huge rewards for the art of the gerrymander, which of course is itself an American term.

Even more egregiously, the Founding Fathers in their wisdom chose to give each state two senators. In spite of having had almost 250 years to repent this, the Americans have never done so. This means that the 580,000 citizens of the least populous state, Wyoming, have the same representation in the Senate as the 39 million citizens of the most populous, California. This impacts the election of president, where the electoral college is made up of the sum of House representatives and senators representing each state in Washington. Thus Wyoming has three and California has 55. in the former state 190,000 people have the same impact as 700,000 in the latter. There is no logic whatsoever behind this is and as shown in 2000 and 2016, it matters. The system invariably favours red (Republican) states over blue (democrat). And no, I don’t see the sense either in using the colour red for a conservative and low for an allegedly liberal party.

Separation of powers?

The US Constitution postulates that there should be a separation of powers between executive, ie president, legislature, i.e. Congress, and judiciary. In theory, this is about checks and balances, but of course in practice the three are intertwined. Republican members of Congress do not dare to confront Trump, even when he’s out of office, and members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President of the day, which has led to a 6-3 conservative majority. This may well prove to be one of Trump’s most enduring legacies. The end of Roe vs Wade is only one of many regressive changes which have made possible by the Supreme Court even in the Biden era.

Food glorious food

Part of ‘Project Fear’ was the assertion that post-Brexit the UK market would be opened up to American food imports, with or without a trade deal. From a UK perspective, this is a threat, not an opportunity. Americans are food aware but this is, alas, not always reflected in the quality of food on offer. Large quantities – as you might tell from the physical shape of many Americans – but fewer safeguards than we might be used to in the UK. This is much as you might expect where the agenda is set by the food industry. The trouble with chlorinated chicken – of which we hear so much – is not that it is chlorinated but that it needs to be, as a result of how it has been grown. Food hygiene standards are a cause for concern. Per capita the death rate from salmonella related food poisoning is about 7 times that in the UK. Do we really envy that?

Care for those who can get it

It is impossible to ignore the American healthcare nightmare. Healthcare provided here can be the best in the world, if you can get it. Even post Obama many Americans are not insured and even those who are can find co-payments financially ruinous. When you call an ambulance you may find yourself facing a bill of $2,000 before you even reach hospital. And that is of course just the start. Among the homeless you will see placards saying ‘medical bills, broke, please help’. And in emergency rooms you may be asked for proof of ability to pay before you are even assessed. It is sad to think that our prime minister, who until recently held a green card, is still actively talking to American providers on his many trips over here (I believe he is in California just now). Can one see the American system as a model and still be honest and sane?

To us the NHS, at least as we remember it, is of totemic value. But for many Americans, including even some who have suffered at the hands of their system, the NHS is a socialist monstrosity. We have right wing politicians in the UK who take the same view, though some may not put it in quite those words.

The American dislike of ‘socialised health care’ is part of a larger distaste of the welfare state. A culture which lauds self reliance has left many vulnerable people unprotected. Tent cities have grown up, occupied by those who have, for whatever reason, fallen through the cracks. This in the world’s most prosperous country.

Skid Row has become a byword for those left behind in society. It is in Los Angeles, in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world.

Our support mechanisms in the UK are weak, and our system of universal credit is nothing to be proud of. We too have problems with homelessness. We live in an increasingly unequal society. But if we look across the Atlantic in the hope of finding something better, we will be sadly disappointed.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily representative of Oxford for Europe

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