Typically American

According to German media, Mitt Romney is a spineless, shapeless politician. And 47 percent of Americans are apparently stupid or senile enough to vote for him.

There’s a wishful fairytale in progressive circles in America that goes roughly like this: the coming decades will see a massive shift in political capital as millions of immigrants and today’s youth side with the Democratic Party. The political base of the Republicans will either die of old age or wither away as a result of societal changes. Contemporary Republican positions on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage will become untenable. In other words: Republicans are a dying breed, without the prospect of future electoral success. Tomorrow’s leaders are bilingual, progressive, pragmatic politicians with minority backgrounds.

Looking at the coverage of the Republican National Convention in the European media, and specifically in Germany, it seems as if that golden future might have already arrived. Papers are busy slamming Mitt Romney – now the official GOP nominee – as a “candidate without traits,” as the representative of a bygone world “populated by white people living in neat suburban homes, who cut their lawn with nail clippers and seize any opportunity to assemble the family for idyllic portraits.” Republicans, as one article in the online version of “Der Spiegel” quips in characteristically drastic words, have been reduced to a “party of naysayers,” to a party without common sense. The implication: only idiots or senile retirees from The Villages would still vote for some spineless and backwardly politician like Mitt Romney.

The fact is: American society is changing. It’s entirely fair to assume (and to hope) that many of today’s political statements will have become obsolete in twenty years. The two major parties must confront these changes. Indeed, much of what has emanated from the headquarters of the GOP since 2008 falls far short of serious engagement. In April 2012, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published a much-discussed editorial in the “Washington Post” under the headline “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” in which they argued that the GOP had become dominated by extreme ideologists, had filibustered its way through several years of Congressional discussions, and was the driving force behind the polarization of American politics. Just this week, “Salon” came to a similar conclusion and endorsed the view that Republicans had morphed “from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.” Even Jeb Bush, son of one US president and brother of another, recently warned his fellow conservatives against political extremism that went far beyond the policies pursued by his father or by GOP legend Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s tax policies would be ripped apart as fiscally irresponsible by today’s Tea Party politicians.

But like any fairytale, the story of the decline of the Republican Party doesn’t have much of a connection to reality. The death of the GOP has been predicted so many times that I’m running out of fingers to count with. In the early 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson chided conservatives for their proud isolationism and proclaimed that the future didn’t hold much for them: “I will not speak with disrespect of the Republican Party. I always speak with respect of the past.” After the Great Depression, it was President Roosevelt who encountered conservative resistance to his New Deal policies – and denounced his political opponents as unfit to survive in a modern world as they had “never learned to walk forward.” In the 1960s and 1970s, the GOP became the enemy of choice of a whole generation of civil rights and peace activists. In the 1970s, it was the target of feminists and opponents of nuclear armament. And when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History” after the Iron Curtain came crashing down under its own weight, more than a few strategists suggested that the GOP had lost its main (foreign) policy topic and stood to lose out in a world without hemispheric conflict. Republicans, the story goes, have nothing to say in a globalized and modern society comprised of immigrants, homosexuals, hispanics, African Americans, and the poor.

The only problem: the GOP is remarkably alive and well for someone who has been repeatedly pronounced dead. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Romney leads Obama with 47% to 46%. If we believe the tenor of coverage of the presidential race outside the US, almost half of Americans are thus either too dumb, too uninformed, or too ideologically blind to make good political choices.

In any case: who are “the Americans”? To a European audience, 309 million people can apparently be reduced to, and stereotyped as, a simple arithmetic mean. America, a land with the size of almost 2.2 billion football fields (1.8 billion if you include both endzones), populated by an obese species of politically ignorant, gun-toting idiots. Welcome to the land of absurd comparisons and simple conclusions.

Just last week, the German weekly “Die Zeit” published an article that explained opposition to tax increases as “typically American.” According to this argument, Republicans are mainly successful because of Americans’ allergic reaction to higher taxation. Apart from the fact that current GOP policy can best be characterized by looking at the insidious lobbying work of a single man, Grover Norquist (and not by some innate American resistance to the IRS), the analysis falls short for simple historical reasons. Until the 1980s, income tax rates in the US were considerable higher, and more progressively designed, than today without causing political turmoil. (A good visualization of US income tax rates is available at DataPointed) Not much about current Republican policies is “typically American,” just like it’s short-sighted to attempt an explanation of Germany’s leadership during the Eurozone crisis with some nebulous “typically German lust for power.” It’s a rhetorical façade that differs quite starkly from reality in many cases.

Clearly, then, we’re dealing neither with “the American” as a singular entity, nor with a bunch of political ignoramuses. Still, we Europeans may ask: why do so many Americans support Mitt Romney and the GOP? The laundry list of explanations is long and varied (the “New York Times” just ran an interactive graphic highlighting a few key constituencies): concerns about the economy, slow recovery, and persistently high unemployment. Religious opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage. Ideological commitment to small government. Fear of liberal immigration policies. Fear of rising debt, combined with the belief that Republicans will trim the budget more effectively than Democrats. Mistrust of “liberal elites” and “liberal media.” Tradition. Disappointment with President Obama. The list is long indeed, and not only populated by unconvincing arguments. While Republicans are evidently catering to a kind of conservative populism, not all reasons and all potential GOP voters can simply be dismissed as stupid or senile, or grouped together as a homogeneous constituency.

For many GOP voters, choosing Romney might not even be in their best (economic) interests. If the budget plan of Paul Ryan becomes reality, we can look forward to radical welfare cuts, a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and additional burden on the American middle class. But it’s a fallacy to believe that voters would choose differently if they were more informed and contemplated harder. Politics isn’t a game of rational choice theory.

The interesting question, from a journalistic perspective, is not how a man who is supposedly without contours and convictions could rise to become GOP candidate, or whether his wife Ann is presenting a whitewashed version of the American Dream on stage at the Florida convention, but how Republicans have managed to rebound from their defeat in 2008 with such enormous strength and persuade so many Americans that, despite the comedic (or, depending on one’s view, tragic) convulsions of the GOP during the past three years, Romney actually stands a chance of being elected President of the United States.


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