Don't be fooled by Gush and Bore: dissent will return to US politics

'Put together, the idealism of Seattle and the anger of North Philly could derail the Mainstream Express'
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The Independent Online

One finds, at the beginning of the 21st century, a disconcerting caesura. In the West, among intellectuals, the old passions are spent. The new generation, with no meaningful memory of these old debates and no secure tradition to build upon, finds itself seeking new purposes within a framework of political society that has rejected, intellectually speaking, the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions.

One finds, at the beginning of the 21st century, a disconcerting caesura. In the West, among intellectuals, the old passions are spent. The new generation, with no meaningful memory of these old debates and no secure tradition to build upon, finds itself seeking new purposes within a framework of political society that has rejected, intellectually speaking, the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions.

Now, before the copyright lawyers come slamming down on me, an admission: that first paragraph, suitably amended, is taken from Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology - a work which, 50 years ago, proclaimed the central rivalry between left and right to be over. But one cannot attend the Republican Party's National Convention in Philadelphia without being aware of the shadow of Bell - and of the idea of the end of ideology - being very present.

The Republicans are trying their damnedest to get rid of the image of ideological fervour which overcame them at the last presidential election and which, they fear, may cost them dearly again this year. So all of the spite and bile of previous years is being jettisoned in favour of a Clintonesque language of purpose, renewal and compassion; even some of the policies are being reshaped.

The orthodox version of politics in Britain and America over the past few decades runs something like this: the Old Centre was formed from the consensus policies of the inter-war and war years. Then that crumbled as the weaknesses of Keynesian policies, the inadequacy of the welfare state and the lost aspirations of the poor exploded into new political tensions. Enter the New Left and the New Right; battle ensues and the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives triumph, producing the New Centre. Its parents are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and its guardians are Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

Now George W Bush wants to reclaim - from the Democrats and his election rival Al Gore - not the centre ground exactly, but possession of the commanding heights of the political debate, and that means moving to the centre. It is, frankly, all a bit ugly and unreal, but there is no doubt what he wants to do, and it seems to be working. William Hague is also in Philadelphia, praising George W's "compassionate conservatism" and identifying himself with Bush's move to occupy the centre ground. I would be very surprised if the spirit of the City of Brotherly Love were not coursing through Mr Hague's veins by the time he gets through passport control on his return.

So is that it? Is American politics for the foreseeable future a tussle over the fine-tuning of welfare reform and the appropriate colours to paint the podium at the convention? Have we now arrived at a situation where for "Butskellism", we substitute Gush and Bore? There are differences between Gore and Bush, for a start, over social policy (abortion and gays), economics (tax cuts and the pension system) and foreign policy. But they aren't that compelling; and neither is going to turn this into an election about real issues, that's for sure.

But I don't think this will work for very long, in America at least, and the reasons are here, in Philadelphia, and in a city on the other coast of the US - Seattle. The demonstrations that shook that city six months ago have now largely been consigned to the dustbin of history, because they were not followed up by organised protests on the same scale at the IMF meetings in Washington or the political conventions (so far).

There is one very obvious set of fault-lines out there for parties of the left and right, and that is over globalisation. These issues cut across party: you can find (and did, at Seattle) common cause between isolationist nationalists and globalist liberals.

The Republicans are not much troubled by dissent at their convention because Pat Buchanan, the fiery and sometimes extremist former Reagan and Nixon official, is out there campaigning for the Reform Party as its candidate. Ralph Nader will play the some role for the Democrats. Both campaign on an anti-globalist agenda. At the moment they are impotent because the movement is too fragmented; I don't think that will be the case forever. There is too much wrong with the US, even after the longest boom in years.

The next recession will bring a tidal wave of anger and unhappiness and a lot of it will be directed at the vast, free-wheeling economy built upon the three pillars of trade, technology and finance. It has delivered a great deal; but it has not delivered for most of North Philadelphia, which - despite the city's great efforts to pull itself up by the bootstraps in recent years - is still desperately poor. Put together the idealism of Seattle and the anger of North Philly and you might have something; something that could derail the Mainstream Express.

The other factor is one that Bell himself identified: the politics of the Fifties, with their stultifying orthodoxies, managed to antagonise and offend many young people who thought there ought to be more to life than that. They sought new answers. "The young intellectual is unhappy because the 'middle way' is for the middle-aged, not for him; it is without passion and is deadening," wrote Bell. "Ideology, which by its nature is an all-or-none affair, and temperamentally the thing he wants, is intellectually devitalised, and few issues can be formulated any more, intellectually, in ideological terms."

But that didn't mean that the search for new ideas was over, far from it, wrote Bell. "There is now, more than ever, some need for Utopia, in the sense that men need - as they have always needed - some vision of their potential, some manner of fusing passion with intelligence."

I hope someone out there is thinking about that while these people trot through their Profiles in Compassion Videos and their lectures on faith-based organisations.

The conventional wisdom is that young Americans are more interested in computer games and MTV than in anything that happens outside their bedroom or the shopping mall. I don't think that is true. I have met many people in the past few years who think and care deeply about their country and their fellow citizens: some in Seattle, and some in Philadelphia - though precious few in Washington. Their ideas are often inconsistent, but at least, in contrast to most of the people packing the stage here, they think and they feel.

There is, perhaps, one other argument for change, more pragmatic and political. When the centre ground prevails, the wings of both parties get uneasy. You can feel that in Britain, and you can certainly feel it in the US. There is an old Texan saying, one that we shouldn't expect to hear from Mr Bush any time this week: "There ain't nothing in the middle of the road but white lines and dead armadillos."

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