'The greatest demagogue Washington has seen since McCarthy,' is how George Packer of the New Yorker describes Texas Senator and Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz. The shutdown of the US Federal government is, rightly, blamed on the intransigence of the likes of Cruz. Universal healthcare is a norm in the rest of the civilised world, and a privatised system is both wasteful and unfair. But the liberal narrative which is so popular among American liberals and in Europe, in which Republicans are portrayed as the last gasp of white America, is hopelessly flawed. More than that, it exemplifies the kind of mindset which powers American polarisation.
Why? Let's return to Cruz and McCarthy. Both are right-wing demagogues, but their rise would be inconceivable without the triumph of American liberalism. Liberalism opened doors for McCarthy and Cruz while forcing conservatives to rally to their banner.
Let me explain. Cruz and McCarthy are both ethnic outsiders. Cruz is Hispanic in an Anglo majority country. McCarthy was an Irish Catholic in a nation ruled by what Digby Baltzell termed the Protestant Establishment. McCarthy was aware that Al Smith's presidential bid foundered on the rocks of anti-Catholicism in 1928. He knew the multi-million member Ku Klux Klan of the twenties was primarily driven by anti-Catholicism. The prohibition of alcohol, a measure introduced by Protestant America to put the demographically rising Catholics in their place, had been repealed just two decades before McCarthy's rise. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, scrapped only in 1965, slashed the intake of immigrants from Catholic southern and Eastern Europe. In this European-style ethno-nationalist climate, a McCarthy or Cruz was politically stillborn.
But the American Left knocked down these barriers. Liberals since John Dewey in the 1900s dreamed of a cosmopolitan America. Pluralists fought hard against anti-Catholicism, immigration restriction and prohibition. Where the American Federation of Labour and Social Gospel movement linked immigration to the ills of unbridled capitalism, the new Progressives pleaded for an open door. After World War II, Oriental Exclusion acts were repealed and European immigration partly liberalised. In the fifties, the version of American history taught in schools spoke for the first time of America as a 'nation of immigrants' and offered the first positive portrayals of white ethnic groups such as Italians. The Cold War changed the basis of nationalism from anti-Catholicism to anti-communism. National identity became creedal: squarely based on liberal ideology rather than Anglo-Protestantism. Only nonwhites remained outside the circle. This was missionary, not ethnic, nationalism.
The new liberal atmosphere unleashed a new species, the minority ultranationalist. A Catholic like McCarthy or Jew such as Barry Goldwater could finally be a hundred percent American. Missionary nationalism offered minorities a route to upward mobility and an outlet for their elation at having escaped the shackles of second-class citizenship. Jewish and Catholic patriots such as Irving Kristol and William Buckley laid the foundations of Neoconservatism in the fifties and sixties.
Liberalism quickened its cultural pulse in the late sixties. African-Americans were admitted, at least notionally, to citizenship as Civil Rights triumphed over Southern segregation. The liberal cultural moment reached its zenith in the eighties with multiculturalism, bilingualism and political correctness. Today these trends have become as routinised as the Spanish on ATM screens and supermarket signs. Though Samuel Huntington bewailed its loss, the Anglo-Protestant cultural centre had crumbled. The right internalised these changes and adapted, substituting culturally-neutral ideals such as free market economics, regime change and anti-abortion for its fading ethno-nationalism. The great thing about being a right-wing ideologue is that racist or nativist labels won't stick. Ascriptive Americanism gave way to competing left and right-wing versions of ideological Americanism.
When the Left politicised culture and history, the country lost shared understandings and ideology swept into the void. American liberals kept pushing diversity over solidarity. They elevated multiculturalism into a defining creed, relegating economic inequality to second place. Conservatives responded by trumpeting economic individualism and religion while downplaying cultural nationalism. As parties became more united around ideology, politics polarised. On the Right, economic individualism became a sacred symbol. The masses followed suit. Surveys in the fifties showed most Americans had little sense of the connection between liberalism and the Democrats, or conservatism and the Republicans. In the eighties people began to make that connection, and to identify and vote accordingly. Even decisions about which church to join or where to live came to be defined by ideology.
The liberal and European perception that the Tea Party is a white nationalist organisation reflects the multicultural obsession of American liberals and myopia of European observers. In fact the Tea Party, like its Neoconservative predecessors, sublimates its cultural nationalism in favour of its radical economic agenda. Its base cheers minority fellow-travelers from Bobby Jindal to Herman Cain and Ted Cruz. The Tea Party stance on immigration focuses on illegal immigrants rather than legals, law and sovereignty rather than culture. That's why Ted Cruz can shout it from the rooftops. European politicians openly clamour for lower numbers of legal immigrants on cultural grounds. Such arguments are beyond the pale of political debate in the US - even for the Tea Party.
Nobody wants a return to the bad old days of segregation and anti-Catholicism. Yet ironically, if America wants to have the more rational policy debate of Old Europe it may need to sacrifice some of its diversity for solidarity and adopt a more European model of national integration. A new American identity might, for example, focus on historic Afro, Anglo and Native American influences rather than immigrant cultures. Agreement on common Regionalist cultural symbols underpinned the economic redistribution of the New Deal. It is difficult to see how a functioning welfare state and an end to polarisation can return without some revival of shared national understandings.