Sunday, 4 October 2009

America the Free?

I was lucky enough to encounter American politics first-hand this summer. During a trip to Washington D.C. I was immersed in the heated debate over 'Obamacare', the 44th Presidents attempts at introducing publicly financed national healthcare. However I don't want to get into the merits of this strategy, nor generally the content of US politics. What struck me as particularly interesting, at least in comparison to British politics, was the involvement of the American public, and the reaction to Obama as a president, one which seems to hide darker traits behind its outward veneer of the freedom of protest.

I was in mid town D.C. during a march of the 'Tea Party Patriots', and their associated followers, who numbered, according to police reports, over 2 million. They were adamantly against the introduction of public Healthcare, and some had travelled for over three days to prove this to the incumbent government. I found it very impressive that this number of people could, in literally a few days, arrange a march on Washington, with almost every member carrying some form of placard, or wearing some form of themed t-shirt. They showed to me a passionate enthusiasm for their country, and for its democratic principles, and undermined the levels of democratic involvement in active politics currently evident in Great Britain. However this march also showed me an extreme example of trends which have been hinted at since the inauguration of President Obama, namely the indication that racism is still present in parts of American society.

Some of the sentiments expressed on this march, referring to Obama as the anti-Christ, or depicting him in a Nazi uniform with a Hitler moustache, or as Stalin, were shocking, inappropriate and ignorant. Overlooking the stupidity of comparisons simultaneously with both Hitler and Stalin it is disturbing that an American President, supposedly the pride of Americans as their sovereign, and historically lauded as a figure of democratic greatness and an icon of the 'American Dream', can be highlighted as being anything like the most evil men in history. Despite differing political allegiances it is hard to believe anyone in Britain would seriously compare any mainstream figures of British politics to Hitler, and this opened my eyes to a nastier side of American politics. It could be said that no American president has ever faced such a backlash, and commentators have remarked the vast difference between this administrations reception and that of President Bush's, or even another President who attempted to introduce healthcare, Bill Clinton. Obama has done little different politically to President Clinton in his scheme of nationalised healthcare yet, while I cannot vouch first-hand experience, it seems that a massive gulf has emerged in the extremity of opposition encountered in the respective cases. This radical difference leads to questions over why, and many commentators have highlighted race, depressingly, as an aspect of contention. How can Americans, who have previously condemned anyone insulting the President as treacherous and un-American, relate him to the devil or Hitler? It seemed to me on this march, highlighted to some degree by images as Obama as the Joker from Batman, that many of its participants, largely southerners, felt the underlying urge to insult the President in terms of race, however they had realised that this was no longer acceptable in mainstream politics and as such went as far in other directions as was feasible. Locals who were not on the march confirmed these suspicions, admitting to me that some Americans are struggling to deal with the concept that a black man has the ability to lead the country.

No one can say conclusively whether America is still infected with the spectre of racism, however it seemed undoubted from my personal experience that some Americans, admittedly a minority, are prejudice against Barack Obama for reasons other than his politics. As a result some have resorted to extreme and unacceptable forms of protest, and have begun to generally overlook the historical sanctity of the Presidential office. It goes without saying that race as an issue is unacceptable in any modern democracy, but in a country with such a chequered history surrounding this problem, and such a pride in democratic and egalitarian principles, it is even more shocking.

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