The 20th century US was a young place. Now it looks old
America at the Crossroads: The two presidential candidates have a combined age of 151
Some critics see The Wizard of Oz as an allegory for the political issues that consumed the US. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Why did Dorothy ever want to leave Oz and go back to black-and-white Kansas? From a very early age, to this viewer at least, it always seemed a troublingly flawed proposition, insufficiently answered by the non sequitur “there’s no place like home”.
Released in 1939, on the cusp of the United States’ transition from rising superpower to global hegemon, the film version of The Wizard of Oz is the United States’ most resonant fairy tale and lays claim to being the most-watched film in cinema history. Like all good fairy tales, its apparent simplicity conceals a multitude of complexities and paradoxes.
In 1901, when Frank L Baum published his original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Kansas was not, as it is today, a conservative heartland but a centre of radical political activity. Some critics see the story as an allegory for the political issues that consumed the US at the time, with Dorothy representing the common people, the Scarecrow the farmers, the Tin Man factory workers, and so on. More elaborate theories postulate the whole thing revolving around the controversy over the gold standard and monetary policy which divided populists and agrarian reformers on the one hand from industrialists and Wall Street on the other (hence the Yellow Brick Road).
The historian Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, argues that the word “populism” has been robbed of its true meaning (“of the people”) by technocratic-liberal-elite Democrats who equated “the people” with “the mob”, and that the word has subsequently been embraced by crafty right-wingers who use it to further their pro-business agenda under the guise of concern for ordinary Americans. In this reading, a Biden presidency, should it come to pass, will need to resist the blandishments of his party’s entrenched business interests and its coastal cultural elites to focus instead on bread-and-butter issues such as healthcare, education and infrastructure – the sorts of subjects that people tend not to make movies about (except, perhaps, very elliptically with Munchkins and flying monkeys).
As worldwide protests following the killing of George Floyd this summer showed, it often means we feel American stories are our own too
Perhaps Frank is right but, there’s something about the Oz versus Kansas question that goes to the heart of a peculiarly American duality. The country is defined by its binary oppositions. You can’t have the puritans of Plymouth Rock without the casinos of the Sunset Strip. The ruggedly individualistic Marlboro Man needs the conformist, corporate Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. There is no all-singing, all-dancing La La Land without a corrupt, racist, psychopathic LA Confidential. And if Pottersville didn’t exist somewhere, there’d be no wonderful life to live in Bedford Falls.
Many of these binaries are rooted in the story America tells itself – of 17th century settlers in search of freedom; of the exhilarating westward surge across the continent; the escape from oppression and poverty to the melting pot of freedom and prosperity. Others have darker antecedents – the circumlocutions surrounding the enslavement and oppression of black people; the near wiping out of the country’s indigenous inhabitants; the extraordinary levels of violence that persist to this day.
Hunger for power
In the introduction to his monumental study of the life of Lyndon B Johnson, historian Robert Caro finds a similar juxtaposition in his subject’s psyche. “Alongside the thread of achievement running through it runs another thread,” Caro writes. “As dark as the other is bright, and as fraught with consequences for history. A hunger for power in its most naked form, for power, not to improve the lives of others but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.”
In Caro’s account, Johnson fraudulently acquired a senate seat in 1948 through ballot-stuffing and bribes. He enriched himself to the tune of many millions of dollars (most of it, in an echo of more current events, funnelled through his extended family). He destroyed without compunction anyone who stood in the way of his political ambition. But he also pushed through the legislation that ended Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the South, and he introduced social programmes, including Medicare and Medicaid, that tens of millions rely upon still. And in the end he was forced from office because of the turmoil over the war in Vietnam.
Johnson was one of the towering figures of the Imperial Age of the United States, which has affected all our lives. American military power and economics might have helped to shape our societies, and American culture colonised our imaginations. We in turn reshaped American music, art and storytelling to our own needs and tastes. Inevitably all of this colours our perceptions of what is happening in the US now. As worldwide protests following the killing of George Floyd this summer showed, it often means we feel American stories are our own too.
Except that’s not necessarily true. We are not Americans. As we observe this election with fascination and trepidation, we are blinded by what we wrongly think of as our own familiarity with the subject. The United States is actually a stranger and more foreign place than we realise. Because of our close links, we compare it on a like-to-like basis with western European countries such as our own. But a more apt comparison might be with somewhere like Brazil, another huge, unruly, diverse former European colony in the western hemisphere.
Meanwhile, the US remains a country in perpetual flux, subject to dramatic waves of demographic change which shift the ground on which elections are fought from one cycle to another. And yet, paradoxically, its institutions have atrophied. The 20th century United States evoked by popular culture was a young place unencumbered by or (some sniffily said) ignorant of history. But viewed through the prism of this election, the US now looks uncomfortably old. The two presidential candidates have a combined age of 151. Whoever wins will be the oldest man ever to take the oath of office when he does so, barring constitutional crises or health emergencies, on January 20th, 2021.
The summer of 1946 was a bumper crop for presidents. Two former ones – Bill Clinton and George W Bush – along with the current incumbent, were born then, right on the crest of the wave that gave us the generation we now call boomers. Joe Biden is almost four years older than those three. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is 78. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is 80. A feature of the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings was the sight of aides hustling the ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, 87-year-old senator Dianne Feinstein, out of range of cameras and microphones so she wouldn’t have to answer any demanding questions. The left applauded the efforts of the late 87-year-old liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to remain alive and on the bench until a better president came along, but maybe more of them should have asked why she had remained there so long in the first place.
A clear Biden victory, no matter what occurs subsequently, would represent the biggest defeat for the international far right anywhere in the world
Meanwhile, thanks to the Republicans, in the absence of a functioning legislature and executive, an unhealthily powerful judiciary is increasingly dominated by judges who adhere to originalism, a legal theory akin to ancestor worship in which decisions must be based on divining the precise intentions of a small group of 18th-century white men. So when you go to your local Ikea in Wisconsin you may do so with a fully loaded semi-automatic weapon slung over your shoulder, even though what Madison, Jefferson and the rest might have thought of Ikea, assault rifles, or even the state of Wisconsin, is a matter for pure conjecture, since none of them existed in their lifetimes.
An absurd over-reverence for the past, an octogenarian executive class, a system of checks and balances which effectively makes democratically mandated political actions impossible to achieve – all of this and more suggest an imperial power in irreversible decline.
Which brings us, inevitably, to making America great again. Set aside for a moment the way the Republican party has facilitated and enabled the current president’s behaviour. Try instead to consider what it is about him that remains appealing, or just acceptable, to at least 40 per cent of American voters. Donald Trump is not a tragic figure in the mould of Charles Foster Kane or Michael Corleone (or indeed Lyndon Johnson). He’s more like Henry Hill, the mid-level hoodlum who laments at the end of Goodfellas that after a lifetime of crime he’s now “an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” That low-rent mobster shtick is what former FBI chief James Comey (who had more experience than most with La Cosa Nostra) saw in his dealings with the president and it’s what nearly half of the US, including Kansas, will vote for. "Trump 2020 – No More Bulls**t” declares a popular banner on display on the campaign trail in recent weeks. It’s an exhalation of disgust rather than a statement of belief, but it has an undeniable power all the same.
Meanwhile, the rest of us can only watch, fascinated and helpless. A clear Biden victory, no matter what occurs subsequently, would represent the biggest defeat for the international far right anywhere in the world since its current rise began. A second Trump term would inflame and encourage a new tide of nativism and lies.
Cynical reactionary politics are not a uniquely American phenomenon. As recipes for political success, they gained greater traction in many other countries first. But the capture of the most powerful political office in the world by a race-baiting grifter who lost the popular vote is a cautionary tale of systemic democratic failure if it happens once. If it happens twice, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Hugh Linehan will be liveblogging the US election results and presenting a special election edition of the Inside Politics podcast