Rupert Cornwell: A world both shrunken and more divided

What grounds for optimism at the end of a dismal decade?
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The Independent Online

What a dismal decade, even though in my case it began with one of the best calls I ever made. We were living in London then, and for reasons I now forget, had tickets to the great Millennium bash at the Dome in Greenwich on 31 December 1999. But we decided to pass on the event, and learnt the next morning how the great and the good, not to mention countless less eminent citizens, were made to queue for hours before they could get in. By luck or judgment, one small fiasco had been avoided.

A year or so later we moved to the US, my vantage point ever since, and these have been, to put it mildly, interesting times. For better or worse, decisions made in America tend to shape the world – and has there ever been a decade when America has made as many bad ones? Let's start with one you may never have heard of, the Commodities Trading Modernisation Act that Bill Clinton signed into law a few days before Christmas 2000.

This blandly titled piece of legislation raised few eyebrows at the time. But it opened the floodgates for the unregulated trading of derivatives and other exotic financial instruments that led first to the 2001 Enron débâcle, then the largest bankruptcy in American history, and then to the 2008 near-death experience of the global financial system, and the general discrediting of US-style capitalism.

As that fateful financial measure was being debated on Capitol Hill, the US Supreme Court was making an even more fateful decision, that everyone could understand: to cut short the vote recount in Florida and thus hand the presidency to George W Bush. Bush and his administration would then of course make their own series of blunders.

They included massive tax cuts that were unfair and unnecessary, and that squandered the budget surplus bequeathed him by Clinton; the failure to send sufficient forces to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001 (that might have ended the Afghan war there and then); and, of course, the biggest mistake of all, the decision to invade Iraq.

Never was so much goodwill squandered so fast. For a moment after 9/11 everything came together. The world – including even Iran – stood with America in its moment of agony and grief. In the US the political parties dropped their differences. But Bush blew it all. When he left office, global dislike of America was at an all-time high, and Republicans and Democrats were more divided than at any time since the US Civil War. And this in turn is one reason why the US political process today is borderline dysfunctional.

True, not everything that's happened in America these last 10 years has been a disaster. Back in 1865, no-one could have imagined that less than a century and a half later the country would elect a black President – a historic breakthrough that the Supreme Court decision of December 2000 indirectly made possible. But a President must be judged not by the colour of his skin but by the quality of his leadership. The jury is still very much out on Barack Obama.

Yes, it's hard to find much good to say about the accelerating march of celebrity culture, another hallmark of the decade, where America as usual has been in the vanguard. Celebrity has been around as long as human beings. But far more than even 10 years ago, this is an age when the death of a pop star or the marital transgressions of a famous golfer become the sole talking point of the day, when everyone can be a star (the more outrageous the behaviour, the bigger the star), and when reality TV becomes reality, tout court.

These, however, are the inevitable by-products of an information revolution that – with one large exception – has otherwise been a blessing. YouTube, iTunes, Wikipedia, blogging, Facebook, the instant ability to record, transmit and hold forth about events great and small with gadgets almost anyone can afford, have exponentially increased knowledge this last decade, and made that knowledge more available to everyone. But now the exception. If technology has shrunk the world in the last decade, it has also deepened its divisions.

Nowhere has this process been more evident than in the US. This country knows more about the world than ever, but understands that world no better and is no more sympathetic towards it. The same is even truer of the domestic political arena.

There are several reasons for this polarisation. The contested 2000 election, and the hardball tactics of the Bush White House and the former Republican majority in Congress, have played a part. The growth of talk radio and TV, and the 'yell-before-you-think' mentality fostered by instant communication, have reinforced the trend. The two parties have also unwittingly contributed to the trend, by artfully redrawing congressional districts. They have succeeded in their intention of making safe seats safer. But gerrymandering has had the unintended effect of sharpening the divide. An incumbent these days tends to be less worried by his opponent from the other party than by the risk of being outflanked from the right or left by an ideologically "purer" challenger from his own party in the primary.

As a result, the political centre has shrunk ever faster since I arrived in the US in 2001. Yes, there's the old Texas saying that the only things you find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Compromise, in other words, is for spineless wimps. Alas, politics as war is fine during campaigns, but not when it comes to the more prosaic business of governing. In democracies, the middle of the road is where opponents meet to make the deals that produce laws that command broad public support.

America is now being forced to address crucial, long-deferred domestic policy issues. But if the first test cases are a yardstick – the Obama stimulus bill that garnered just three Republican votes, and the current healthcare measure that will have to pass without a single Republican vote – the middle of the road will be populated solely by dead armadillos. Maybe things will be better in 2019. I somehow doubt it.

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