I knew when I boarded the plane home to America on Boxing Day that I was heading to an unhappy place. There may be lots of shortages in the United States right now, but anger is on tap (so say the think pieces). Americans are ‘furious’, ‘divided’, we’re told, and the ‘two sides’ are completely incapable of engaging in civil discourse with each other and have been for quite some time.
I’d been reading about America’s woes constantly and had heard so many first-hand accounts from friends, family and old colleagues about the abject misery that characterises politics right now. But you have to be in America to really feel it. I was blown away by the extent to which discourse has become polarised. It’s not just rage that seems to permeate throughout the country: it’s a sense of hopelessness too.
Due to quarantine rules, testing regimes, and an explicit travel ban in the UK that went on for months last year, my visits back home have been limited. But driving from Newark airport in New Jersey through New York and into Connecticut, the scenery made me feel that, since 2020, America had gotten stuck in time. The Trump-Pence posters never came down. If anything, more had popped up. I’m from Connecticut, and left-wing states like mine still boast comfortable Democrat voting majorities, but the dissenters seem far less inhibited about speaking up.
Turn on the news and the anger from the Trump era still blasts from the screen. But now, in early 2022, it’s had time to simmer. Americans still dislike their president, but he’s got a different name now and it’s a different party in charge. The great promise of Joe Biden to offer a reset in American politics – a promise I voted for – has not been made good. Tension hasn’t diffused. It’s simply been tugged into new battles: the focus of America’s rage is now on the Democrat party’s attempt to grow the size of government, instead of the Republicans’ efforts in the four years previous.
There’s plenty to lament about the state of discourse in Britain, especially over Covid-19. The shifting goalposts during lockdowns, dubious modelling being presented as fact, and the lack of assessment over the economic and social impact of restrictions did nothing to improve the relationship between politicians, the media and the rest of the country.
But British debate is a picture of health compared to America’s pandemic discourse, where the middle ground has simply vanished.
Nuance has never been the forte of America’s biggest broadcasters but watching the networks over the Christmas period gave me the strong impression it’s now being purposely avoided. On the political right, vaccine hesitancy and big-government scepticism (fundamentally different things) are frequently morphed into one position. It’s difficult to tell if it’s simply laziness or a deliberate attempt to grow a coalition against ‘the other side’, but the result is the same: Covid has been thrown into the great culture war sorting hat. You have to be on one side — anti-vax, anti-government — or the other.
On the left, masks have taken on a quasi-religious importance that seems increasingly divorced from reality. The evidence on face coverings and where they really make a difference – in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces – comes second to the signal that wearing one emits. Wear a mask to show you’re good. Wear two to show you’re great.
That explains, in part, why the country is still stuck in the pandemic fights of 2020, even though we’re two years into Covid. Leadership in America, even among the most senior medical officials, has failed to move the debate on: Dr Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, told the Senate Appropriations Sub Committee just a few months back that he ‘might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine.’ That, apparently, is ‘the science’.
The polarity of the discourse makes it much harder to have a rational debate about the huge benefit that the vaccines bring. America has always had a vigorous faction of vaccine-scepticism. But the politicised resistance to getting the Covid jab (nearly 30 per cent of Trump voters still say they won’t take it) means that vaccinated but less ideological Americans feel increasingly hopeless that the ‘old normal’ will ever return.
This in turn obstructs the crucial debates that should be had over the civil liberty implications of vaccine passports, say, or the moves to kick unvaccinated people out of federal jobs. These debates can be acrimonious in Britain, but they are conducted with a degree of good faith. That’s not so true in the land of the free.
But while the UK may have staved off such an aggressive politicisation of vaccines, there are Covid-related woes in America that Britain won’t be able to avoid.
America is several paces ahead with its inflation saga. The inflation rate has increased to 6.8 per cent in November. Britain appears on track to catch up with America in several months’ time: the UK Consumer Price Index is already over 5 per cent in the UK, overtaking the Bank of England’s peak forecasts months in advance.
The Federal Reserve has been playing the same game as the Bank of England: not just by printing more money in one year than they did in the years between the financial crisis and 2020, but by denying the dangers of a price spiral for months on end – insisting repeatedly that inflation was simply transitory.
Speaking to a British minister several months ago, I asked why they thought most central bankers and politicians had so gravely underestimated the risk of inflation. ‘I have absolutely no idea about the central bankers,’ they lamented. But the politicians were easier to explain: it was just ‘politically easy’ to say that the most fundamental rules of economics didn’t apply anymore.
But reality is starting to bite and meagre attempts by politicians to address the inflation issue simply aren’t enough. An ABC/Ipsos poll last month found inflation to be the top concern of Americans, with nearly 70 per cent disapproving of Biden’s handling of rising prices.
It’s not obvious Whitehall is ready to deal with a worsening cost-of-living crisis, but at least the issue is being discussed seriously. America appears far less ready to face such realities: Biden’s claim this week – that he discovered hamburger meat had risen in price from his wife’s friend – will have done little to convince families choosing between food and heat that the President has understood the scale of the problem.
Meanwhile the partisan blame-game remains far too enticing. New data from Pew Research this week shows that Americans at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum are most likely to be politically engaged – and the broadcast media is more than happy to cater to them. It’s not even that the debate is too aggressive: it’s that there’s little appetite for debate at all. Far easier for America’s warring factions to double-down on their own narratives and address their own audiences than to engage in what’s gone wrong.
If America stays on this path, something will soon give. This year’s midterm elections and even talk of the next presidential election in 2024 will push the country along, as major political questions – Trump’s ties with the Republican party, the direction of the Democratic party to the left or the centre – are eventually answered. But the problems go much deeper than mere political manoeuvres. For a country so often defined by its optimism, there is a notable lack of excitement in the air: rather, a growing trepidation about what new horrors might come next.
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