I hosted a discussion on the American mid-term elections yesterday, partly for interested Ukrainian students to practice their English, partly so I could meet said students. I would have to call the experience both humbling and enlightening. After graduating with a degree in political science, I found myself struggling to answer such questions as, “when did the Republican and Democratic parties come into existance?,” and “why is one marked as red and the other as blue?” (“Um, well, I know the Republican party goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, and the Dem’s are newer… but they didn’t really become what they are now until the Cold War… and I think the Republicans started wearing red ties and the Dem’s took blue to distinguish themselves.” Cue blank stares on that last point).
But really, the discussion centered more on popular opinion in America than on the elections themselves. I loved some of the questions I got, first because they say a lot about the issues that make the news in Ukraine, and also because they put into sharp relief just how ridiculous some of our politics can be. Take a look at their questions and my (perhaps too blunt) responses:
1. What happened with this mosque that was being built near Ground Zero? Why was there such a reaction to it?
Z: I think it was technically a prayer center– I guess a mosque is considered a holier place– but in any case, it was (is?) a ridiculous situation. There were always Muslim prayer spaces in the Twin Towers, mainly for all the workers there who couldn’t leave during the day. It was never considered a problem by anyone, and of course the people who actually worked in the building respected the custom of daily prayer. But there was a shift in the way a group of Americans saw Islam after September 11th. And when I say “shift,” I mean that lots of Americans didn’t know anything about Islam at all before then. Tons of people live in their towns, never travel much, never interact with different kinds of people, and just don’t know that much about what’s going on in the world or how other people live their lives– I think it’s like this for lots of people in every country, really.
So for some, maybe even a lot of Americans, their first encounter with Middle Eastern politics distorted their views of the religion. They didn’t know how to distinguish the very small groups of extremists from the religion as a whole, and they didn’t know how to separate some very complicated politics from the religion either. And so, I am very sad to say, I think some Americans have an irrational fear of Islam. But what happened with this prayer center is politics. Some politicians saw an opportunity to exploit these fears, to paint a very ordinary construction project as part of a bigger conflict, and to win reputation for themselves by claiming to protect people from a threat that doesn’t exist. It’s one of the oldest tactics in history.
2. What’s the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats?
Z: Wow, what a great question! The differences used to be obvious, but today, I’m not even sure what I would say. I think the Republicans have become a party that believes in limiting the role of government in social programs as much as possible. As little interference in people’s businesses or private lives as possible, or so the narrative goes. But I think some Republicans mean “as little interference with the right way to live our lives,” and “as much protection of what we consider the right lifestyle as possible.” So the same people who want small government want the government to have control over certain lifestyles, like those of gay Americans. But in any case, Republicans see themselves as championing private responses to social problems over government involvement.
And I think the Democrats have become the party of social engineering. They believe that the government must play a role in correcting social and historical injustices, such as continued inequalities in living conditions and access to opportunities for American minorities, especially the conditions inherited from years of slavery and then racism for black men and women. You might know that slavery existed in America until the civil war, for instance (“even Abraham Lincoln owned slaves,” mentioned one girl– “I know there were U.S. presidents who did own slaves– I don’t know history well enough to know if Lincoln ever did up until abolition– but in any case, hypocrisy is a big problem in politics”). But even after that, freed slaves remained second-class citizens by law until the 1960s. So the Democrats became the advocates of the civil rights movement, and today they focus on correcting problems through government involvement. Public health care is a good example of a problem the Democrats believe the government has to fix. Sometimes it works, though sometimes I fear the Democrats are a bit too naive about how easy it is to fix some problems. And they’ve certainly upset the Republicans with the huge health care program they’re trying to start, who see it, of course, as massive government interference.
So I guess the biggest difference is Republicans tend to advocate private liberties mixed with defending a certain vision of what American lifestyle is supposed to be, and the Dem’s defend equality and believe that if organized action is not taken (by the government or social movements), things won’t get better for the disadvantaged.
I hope that was fair and balanced for you guys. (Nobody got the joke.)
3. A friend of mine visited Washington, and somebody told him that the U.S. government is truly responsible for September 11th. What is this situation?
Z: Ah, yes, conspiracy theories. There are some Americans who are so isolated from the rest of the country, and who don’t understand what happens in Washington so much, that they think the national government is actually their enemy. These are very few Americans of course– most people who don’t like the national government see them as immoral, but not as trying to actually hurt them. But to these small groups, it’s easy to make up a story about the evils of the national government, and they are happy to believe it. So some people, amazingly, think the U.S. government destroyed the twin towers itself. It’s embarrasing for me to talk about, but I don’t think most Americans take that idea seriously.
4. Could we talk about something not dealing with politics next time?
Z: Not dealing with politics! Everything in America is political! I don’t even know how to talk about something distinctively American without seeing politics. There’s baseball, there’s the entertainment industry, but I can’t think of anything to be discussed in American culture that is not politicized. Even Lady Gaga is a social advocate, and entertainers who advocate total disinterest in politics are considered to be engaging in a political act.
Dear lord, are we really that political? Maybe I think this way because all I’ve done for the past four years is study theories of society and politics, of war and justice. But you tell me: where does politics end and culture begin in America?