From the eagle has landed to the ego has trended.
Talk all you like about the power of the United States waning over the past 50 years, but its global influence and reach remain omnipresent. It is elections for the White House that capture worldwide attention. China can make the goods but the lifestyle the world wants to buy is American-style consumption.
Even the very adjective illustrates American exceptionalism, as few who say it are thinking of people in Peru or Quebec. Or of US citizens with native ancestors predating Columbus.
They mean a land of immigrants that surprises onlookers with its insularity. Constitutional checks and balances checkmated by vested interests. A land of liberty that at any one time holds over 0.7% of its population behind bars (That is over two million people, more than any other country and edging towards a quarter of the world’s total prison population).
Yet the American dream of a land where anybody from anywhere can make good even without the brains of Einstein or Sundar Pichai, understandably holds worldwide appeal.
The sheer size of the US economy makes its often-parochial politics of global significance.
Just like four years ago, it remains the case that the opening paragraph of Soul on Ice still rings true despite being written in 1968: “It is not an overstatement to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like passengers in a supersonic jetliner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat.”
Adding that those words were written by a Black Panther author who became a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian is a good way to define the phrase “only in America.”
I doubt anyone seriously believes that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden are the best possible presidential candidates out of 320 million Americans, but anyone who wants to see some sanity return to US politics and the prevention of President Pence has to hope the Democratic party starts to get its act together.
Living in a country where the prime minister was at university in the 1980s and the finance minister looks young enough to go back, it is odd to recall I had heard of Biden, Trump, and Bernie Sanders years before most Americans had heard of Bill Clinton.
One of these three old men was famous in 1980s Britain for being a famous narcissist, one for plagiarizing a speech by Neil Kinnock, the leader of Labour party, while running for president in 1988 (funny because Kinnock lost two elections), and the other for being mayor of a town in Vermont, cited by Noam Chomsky as “almost the only elected Socialist” in America.
It is tempting to hope the murder of George Floyd has broken the spell cast by America’s aggressively armed police forces and harnessed voters to unite against Trump’s overtures to racist militias, but he still has four months to get out his core vote.
How did this come to pass? That some of the most popular answers refer to culture wars and the 1960s is rather depressing in 2020.
President Johnson correctly feared a racist white backlash when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Richard Nixon certainly took advantage when Johnson stood down exhausted by defending the Vietnam war.
But LBJ was wrong to predict the Democrats would “lose the South for a generation.”
It was the states of the Deep South, including Texas, Alabama, and Florida which helped send men to the Moon — that ultimate expression of the new frontier — that paved the path to elect Jimmy Carter in 1976 when California was solidly Republican. Remember some of the deepest hostility to desegregation in that era occurred in northern cities like Boston.
Where Johnson’s prediction came true, however, was via right-wing takeovers of institutions. In the sixties, the phrase “Christian politician” might have conjured the liberal likes of Carter and Martin Luther King, not right-wing fundamentalists obsessed with abortion and the Rapture as became more common by the eighties. Before 1977, when the NRA leadership of apolitical hobbyists willing to support gun control was replaced by hardliner Republicans, the best-known advocates for the Second Amendment was the Black Panther party.
Such changes helped pave the way for the Reagan revolution which unleashed many of the forces that have entrenched the corporate capture of large swathes of American politics.
A different school of thought puts the blame on President Vladimir Putin as an instigator of recent trends for chaos and authoritarianism in world politics. While there is plenty of evidence to point fingers at Russian state interference in foreign elections, it is harder to prove it makes much difference to outcomes. And even as late as 1985, even the declining Soviet Union had more real geo-political power compared to Russia today.
Back to the sixties then.
Clearly Bob Dylan, the quintessential folk singer and Nobel prize winner who provoked a recent flurry of textual analysis with the release of his portentous 17 minute long “Murder Most Foul” blames the assassination of JFK for the end of the age of hope he embodied.
But while entertaining for its wordplay on a history of America since the 60s (“the Beatles are coming, they’re going to hold your hand”) in the style of American Pie meets We didn’t start the fire — minus any semblance of a cacthy tune- this is hardly a new idea or myth, nor does it stand up to serious scrutiny.
Of course, another sixties figure Malcolm X, famously described America as a historical nightmare for African Americans in 1964 when he told a New York audience: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”
Perhaps then, while it is self-evident America must have had better presidents and politicians in the past than today, the better approach is to call into question the whole concept of an American dream altogether.
Time to wake up.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of Dhaka Tribune.