Old America

2 October 2003

Old America

By Gwynne Dyer

Lying in bed just after 7 am, listening to the radio. The rain is pouring down, my youngest child has decided that she’d rather be driven to school today, and the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme, which completely dominates serious morning radio news, is discussing the closing day of the Labour Party conference.

This is a major event in the British political calendar, similar in tone though different in purpose to the four-yearly national conventions at which the Republican and Democratic parties nominate presidential candidates in the United States — and the presenters are being remarkably cheeky, especially given recent history.

It was the ‘Today’ programme, a few months ago, that reported that the British government had ‘sexed up’ last year’s dossier on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, setting in motion a train of events that led to a senior official’s suicide, the Hutton inquiry, and huge damage to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation. Blair has just made a speech to the conference defending his motives in attacking Iraq alongside the US and asking the delegates for understanding. Most of them heartily disapprove of the war, but they give him a standing ovation nevertheless. So how do the presenters deal with the gap between the public displays of unity and the seething dissent beneath the surface?

By talking about the decision to bring back the practice of singing ‘The Red Flag’ at the end of the conference. The old socialist anthem was dropped in the 80s, when Labour realised that luring middle-class voters was not fully compatible with songs about class war (“The People’s Flag is deepest red / It shrouded oft our martyred dead…”), but now that Blair has led the party into the sunlit capitalist uplands of privatisation and foreign invasions, the problem is how to keep the old left-wing stalwarts from rebelling. A little socialist window-dressing helps.

So the ‘Today’ programme had some fun with that, and then offered helpful hints about less antiquated songs that might capture the essence of the proceedings. How about something that said what was really on the delegates’ minds? Cue the Vietnam-era song “War! Unh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Or maybe something from the Animals to sum up Tony Blair’s state of mind? “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. / Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” Then on to the next item of news.

And it struck me (still lying there) that no serious American radio or television broadcaster would ever take the mickey out of a US major-party convention like that. The US news media generally treat political figures with the utmost reverence, no matter how few clothes the emperor in question may be wearing on a given day. Which leads to some further thoughts about the nature of the political process in the United States.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a professional conference of several hundred American newspaper journalists, and to my astonishment the opening session was devoted to three history professors who gave talks on the ‘Founding Fathers’ (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin et al.) and their relevance for Americans today. Good talks, actually, but can you imagine a couple of hundred British or Australian journalists — or Russian or Indian ones — voluntarily sitting through an hour’s discussion of 18th-century history at their professional convention? It would never happen.

Is this because American journos are more patient or more scholarly? On the contrary. When they started asking questions, it was clear that the ideas and intentions of the Founding Fathers mattered to them because in their daily working lives they have to navigate all sorts of tricky political and constitutional issues with their roots in a very distant past. Which makes perfectly good sense, because the United States is one of the oldest countries in the world.

Americans are brought up to think of their country as ‘new’ and Europe and Asia as ‘old’, but there are few nations in Eurasia where the constitutional arrangements are even one century old. Most countries go back no further than 1945 in their current political incarnation — whereas the United States has had the same constitution and political system for two and a quarter centuries. It has also been largely spared the calamitous wars that smashed the old structures and the mindset that went with them in every other great power during the 20th century.

It goes directly counter to the prevailing domestic ideology to say this, and it frequently infuriates Americans who mistake it for criticism, but the United States is a very old-fashioned country compared to the other industrialised democracies. It’s visible in the overt nationalism and religiosity of public debate, in the huge role that lawyers and litigation play in a society based on a 200-year-old constitution, and in the reverence Americans have for their ancient political institutions. It makes for a society that is instinctively conservative in both social and political matters (apart from a few big cities on the coasts).

This does mean that Americans are significantly slower to change their minds on major issues than the febrile French and the volatile Germans — let alone the flibbertigibbet British — but they do generally get there in the end, and it is generally the same ‘there’. At the moment, the post-Iraq collapse of public trust in the government in Britain is about three months ahead of the parallel process in the United States, but Americans are catching up fast.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“This..history”; and “Is this…world”)