Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tea-Party and the Small-Town Myth.

One of the usual features of American political campaigns is the insistence on a connection to small-town America even though most voters live either in the cities or the suburbs. As this McClatchy article shows the Republicans launched their campaigns by conveying a picture of “real America” that draws on the imagery of the small town. For Michele Bachmann, it is the place where “we work hard” and “don't spend more money than what we take in”. For Rick Perry, rural life is “centered on hard work, and on faith and on thrift”. Even the president proclaimed that the true values of America are to be found in small towns when he visited one of them in Iowa on his bus tour : 

"You know how to make it through a hard season. You know how to look out for each other in the face of drought or tornadoes or disasters, looking out for each other until we reach a brighter day. That ethic, that kind of honor and self-discipline and integrity, those are the values that we associate with small towns like this one. Those are the values that built America."

This ideal small-town America is a fiction that has been used extensively by American politicians and US presidents in their speeches. The McClatchy article clearly demonstrates why it is a fiction, but it also implies that such a perfect place did exist once (but it is "no longer true"). In doing so, it may unwillingly be feeding the myth and re-enforce it - after all, if it was true once, it may be true again. 
Indeed both politicians and the media have actually turned the ideal small town into a myth by treating it as both sacred and true.  In "The Reagan Range: the Nostalgic Myth in American Politics" James Combs shows how it has been linked to the “nostalgic myth” in American politics. It is also rooted in the myth of the good community, à la Rockwell. It is about paradise lost and regained, about youth (innocence lost) and not maturity. It is what Combs called an "unusable past" and particularly appeals to the past oriented people who believe in a story of descent – typically the Tea Party. 
The “Take OUR country BACK” motto of Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin (here) or Michele Bachmann (here) is typical of nostalgic rhetoric. It is based on a desire to return to an undefined past (we never know when that past really was) which never existed - an ideal place of innocence. More importantly it also about a sense of dispossession (“OUR country”) and loss of power. It is thus not surprising that Tea Party supporters tend to be wealthier white, male, married and older than 45. (NYTimes poll) They are disenchanted with the world and their lives and have the feeling that they may be losing control. Typically, the more active people are in the Tea-Party movement, the more pessimistic they tend to be about the present and the future (CBS Poll)- hence the anger and the desire to find refuge in the comforting past. The new changing reality becomes so hard to deal with that re-empowerment becomes necessary through what might be called a “re-enchantment” of the world. The popularity of a rhetoric of simple answers echoes the longing for what is perceived as a more simple time, typical of small-town America when simple answers seemed to solve problems. Some could argue this is not so typical of the American mindset which tends to be more future oriented, but it is typical of times of major social changes such as these. 
The small-town myth may be better understood in its implied opposition to the city myth. The opposition between cities and towns became acute in the 1920s when a major demographic shift took place - more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. Small-town America became a popular myth in that period as the city represented the OTHER - be it the immigrant, the black, the ‘hobo’, the ‘flappers’, the drinker, etc....whereas the Town represented the proper WASP majority. The dichotomy between cities and towns thus became religious in nature, in its opposition between good and evil, between corruption and innocence. There again, you have the myth of a paradise lost. 
It is also in the 1920s that the suburbs started to emerge  - primarily thanks to new availability of cheap cars such as the Model T - but it was also an attempt at recreating "small-town America" with its controlled nature, its openness and community oriented environment - even though, contrary to towns, it had no center. Essentially the suburb has been about people living among their peers, and excluding the threatening Other who lives in the city. It makes life very simple as you do not have to deal with the complexity of facing the unknown, the stranger and those who are different from your own kind, either socially or racially. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in wanting to be with your own kind but the result is a lack of exposure that encourages bias. In this regard, suburban life makes life seem so much more simple and the myth of an enchanted simple world thus seemed within reach. This is where the Tea Party electorate tends to reside in suburbs and why the small-town America myth is so appealing to them and has the tone of credibility. 
In many ways, we may live in times similar to those of the late 19th century and 1920s with many technological, economic and social changes that people are not ready to cope with. Myth meets the need for a simpler narrative in a world that has become too complex, and that's exactly what the Tea Party has been providing them. Unfortunately, this is based on fear and the exclusion of what is different, which may be why President Barack Obama has become the target of so much of that anger.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On Why Roads are Worse in the US than in Europe.

This summer, while in the United-States I did something I hardly ever do: I biked. I’m always biking in Europe but never in the United-States, but since I was in a small town in America’s heartland, I decided to give it a try.  Duluth, MN is not such a fun place for biking because it is so hilly.

But what bothered me the most was not that terrain but the pavement quality. Biking is a great way to have a better sense of the quality of the road pavement and it was a great reminder of something I’ve experienced over the years – that roads are in worse shape in the United States than in France or even Europe. Only you feel it more on your bike (and in your butt) than when you’re driving. And it can even get dangerous when you are taking speed downhill, especially if you can’t see the crevices because of bad public lighting (but that’s a whole new topic I’m not even going to get into).  
And for once, the regional differences in the US do not really matter, whether on the west or the east coast, in the north, in the south or in the middle, it is all pretty bad and certainly worse than in Western Europe. I have always wondered why that was.

Whenever I asked, people would tell me it was because of more extreme weather (in the Midwest) or earthquakes (in California). For some reason I was not entirely satisfied with those answers. If I can see why earthquakes may affect the road, and California may have more of them than anywhere in Western Europe; the weather excuse did not seem to be enough. After all, the French Alps can get very hot and very cold, yet the roads there are still in better shape.

Then I was reminded of an article I read a few months ago in the Economist : it showed that American traffic congestion is worse than western Europe’s and that the road fatality rate is 60% above the OECD average, but even more interestingly, it also showed that “total public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at 2.4% of GDP. Europe, by contrast, invests 5% of GDP in its infrastructure”.
There is no secret: it is a question of how much money you’re ready to put in infrastructure, and it is also about whether you want a quick fix or long term investment. Americans spend more money building new roads but less maintaining them.

By doing a little bit more research, I found out that the building material used for roads also make a huge difference. According to this professional site:
European pavement construction stresses high-quality design, material, and construction, in contrast to the U.S. objectives of lower first cost and shorter construction time.

Here’s a more detailed explanation:
France, like the rest of Europe, has over the past few decades made a concerted effort to build roads with an eye to the long haul-to spend early to avoid spending more later. 
They mix their asphalt with additives-rubber, carbon, polyethylene-to a far greater extent than Americans do. And they make wide use of new technologies like Novophalt, a polymer-modified asphalt binder that gives cement more flexibility and thus increases the pavement's service life. Novophalt, which Europeans began using enthusiastically in 1976, costs between 4 and 8 percent more than traditional asphalt, but it lengthens the pavement's life between 50-100 percent. Does this daring approach work? Don't take our word for it. 
Last year, visitors to Europe from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reported, "The extreme forms of distress that are evident in many parts of the United States-rutting, raveling, cracking, and potholes-were, simply, rarely seen.". (article here)

(Here’s a more technical report on the warm-mixed asphalt used in Europe if you’re interested in details.)

Not only do European countries invest more of their public money, but also “get the private sector to carry part of the weight”. More importantly, stricter regulations are enforced: “contractors in virtually all European countries must guarantee their work for up to five years after completion. When they screw it up, they fix it up-a concept positively foreign to the builders of American roads”.
The best contractor is not always the cheapest one, but unfortunately, to get U.S. federal money to build new roads, a state must by law choose the lowest bidder.

This road pavement issue is significant beyond the topic of infrastructure. It shows what is wrong with politics in America – a reliance on cheap quick ‘popular’ solutions and a lack of vision and guts of its political leaders. Unfortunately, as the debt ceiling debate has recently shown, the rise of populism is only going to make the situation worse. It is not any time soon that warm-mixed asphalt will be used in the US. If anything, you can only expect American roads to get worse since no investment in in infrastructure seems to be in the air these days.