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John Simkin

American Conservatism

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There was an interesting article by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in yesterday’s Sunday Times about American Conservatism. (It was an extract from their new book, The Right Nation: Why America is Different). The authors claim that America is the most conservative country in the western world. It points out that it is the only developed nation that does not have a full government-supported healthcare system and the only western democracy that does not provide child support to all families.

The American people tolerates lower levels of government spending than other advanced countries. Combined with a tax system that favours the rich, this has resulted in greater inequalities than in other industrialised country. For example, one in six American households earned less than 35% of the median income. In Britain, one of Europe’s more unequal countries, the proportion of similarly disadvantaged households is one in twenty.

These high levels of poverty has a dramatic impact on the crime-rate. Americans have the death penalty and strict sentencing laws: its imprisonment rate is five times that of Britain, the toughest sentencer in Europe.

Most conservatives in American support the Republican Party. Unlike in other industrialised countries, political views have little to do with class or wealth. The best predictor of whether a white American votes Republican is not his or her income but how often he or she goes to church. In 2000 Bush won just 54% of the votes of those Americans who earned more than $100,000 a year; but he won 79% of the votes of those whites who went to church more than once a week. This probably helps to explain why low income Americans vote for politicians committed to reducing taxes for the rich.

This enables Bush (a president’s son who was educated in elite schools) to successfully play the populist card.

Twice as many Americans describe themselves as “conservative” (41%) as describe themselves as “liberal” (19). America definitely has more “conservatives” than other industrialised countries. However, this does not fully explain their electoral success. Conservatives in America are much better organized than other political groups. This is especially important in a country where around 50% don’t bother to vote.

How different this is to America in the 1960s. Liberal administrations advocated the creation of a European-style welfare state (Great Society programme), imposed greater restrictions on firearms, mounted campaigns to outlaw executions, legalised abortion and introduced not just racial equality but positive discrimination in favour of minorities. When Barry Goldwater opposed these measures in 1964, he was beaten by a greater margin than anyone before or since.

However, Lyndon Johnson’s prophecy, when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that he was “signing away the south for 50 years” proved accurate. Southern whites, who before had been loyal to the Democrats, now became passionate supporters of the Republicans.

The conservative movement’s main crusade has been against big government. This has been a total failure. Government spending goes up every year (although less and less goes to those in real need).

Although the polls suggest that John Kerry might win this year’s presidential election, it is unlikely to change too much. The Republicans are likely to retain control over both houses of Congress, most of the governorships and the majority of state legislatures.

Anyway, the Democrats are still a relative conservative party by European standards. They rely for their cash on big business and wealthy individuals. As a result their policies will be aimed at the conservative voter. The chance of obtaining a “liberal” America seems pretty remote.

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There's a very useful distinction in Swedish between 'borgerlig' and 'icke-borgerlig' political parties. This is usually translated as 'bourgeois' and 'non-bourgeois', but I feel that those terms are too loaded in English.

In Sweden, the Conservatives (Moderaterna), Liberals (Folkpartiet), the Christian Democrats (kristdemocraterna) and the Centre Party (Centerpartiet - the old farmers' party) are borgerlig. The Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna) and Communists (Vänsterpartiet) are icke-borgerglig, whilst the Greens (Miljöpartiet) have to be regarded as icke-borgerlig, since they are supporting the Social Democrats in Parliament this term, even though they hate being labelled.

One of the most important factors in making the distinction is what you consider the role of collective action to be. If you basically think that collective action is at very best a necessary evil, but should really be dispensed with altogether, then you're borgerlig. Those parties would really like trades unions to disappear, and are generally in favour of individual solutions (and against collective ones).

I remember last year causing great consternation to visiting Americans when I was briefing them about Swedish society, by pointing out that 'liberal' in Europe generally means being on the right, and that Americans had a long way to go before they could be considered as being on the left. This is why I have no problems with the Liberal Democrats in the UK. They're a borgerlig party, so I don't even need to think about them being on the left.

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I agree with what has been said vis a vis American conservatism; as a Canadian, I see the two parties in the U.S. as both conservative in nature when compared to centre and left parties in other nations. To me, calling the Democrats liberal is incorrect when one looks at past policies. Things like universal health care have not been introduced by them; in the past, Al Gore has been quite critical of Canadian health care. Yes, they have been the ones to bring in greater civil rights in the U.S., but not until the 1960's when they were already behind the times when compared to the western world. Ralph Nader seems the only liberal to me, and he is very much shunned as an extremist, and blamed by the Democrats for their defeat in 2000. I see he cannot even get on the ballot in California for this election. So to me, the only choice American voters have in their elections is right, or farther right.

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Research suggests that the UK has about 25% of the population who would describe themselves as “conservatives”. A similar figure would describe themselves as progressive/liberal/socialist. The majority are pragmatic, floating voters.

The main difference between the two groups is that conservatives support the status quo. They want to conserve the present situation. They have been on the wrong side of all the past political debates. They supported child labour, opposed the extension of the franchise and progressive taxation, old age pensions, unemployment benefits, the formation of trade unions, the provision of free parks and public libraries, the introduction of the welfare state, racial and sexual equality, colonial freedom, imposing sanctions on South Africa, etc.

The main debate however has been about the redistribution of wealth. This is the subject that the ruling elite will use all its power to maintain. It took a bit of a hammering under the Liberal government of 1906-1914 and the Labour government of 1945-51. It also suffered reverses under Harold Wilson between 1964-70. However, since Margaret Thatcher (and assisted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), inequality has increased since 1979.

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One of the common strands within conservatism has been an antipathy towards organised collective action by the 'lower classes' (collective action by the 'right sort of people' is the 'natural order of things'!).

For example, one of the recurring themes for the Swedish right is to try to repudiate industry-wide agreements concerning pay and conditions of service. They'd like them replaced with contracts between employers and individuals … and guess which side would have all the power in that exchange!

George Orwell had something interesting to say about British conservatives in the 1930s:

"The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.

"… But the British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate … Clearly there was only one escape for them - into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible."

The Lion and the Unicorn, Part IV

(The US, in Orwell's view, was a 'robber baron' society.)

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Interesting take. I am very supprised at some of the numbers you use. As someone who considers himself a liberal in a land of conservatives (Kansas) I understand that there are more conservatives here, but not in California or other states. Is it possible that the conservatives have succeeded in making "liberal" a bad word. Maybe Americans have been snowed into believing that liberal is a bad word and are not comfortable with the word. It is also supprising that conservatives can draw from the ranks of the minorities. I used to work in Democratic politics and we would always ask people "If your not White, Rich, and male, why would you support the Republicans?" The inevitable answer was that the Republicans will keep America strong both militarily and economicly. The limits of these peoples minds astound me.

There was an interesting article by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in yesterday’s Sunday Times about American Conservatism. (It was an extract from their new book, The Right Nation: Why America is Different). The authors claim that America is the most conservative country in the western world. It points out that it is the only developed nation that does not have a full government-supported healthcare system and the only western democracy that does not provide child support to all families.

The American people tolerates lower levels of government spending than other advanced countries. Combined with a tax system that favours the rich, this has resulted in greater inequalities than in other industrialised country. For example, one in six American households earned less than 35% of the median income. In Britain, one of Europe’s more unequal countries, the proportion of similarly disadvantaged households is one in twenty.

These high levels of poverty has a dramatic impact on the crime-rate. Americans have the death penalty and strict sentencing laws: its imprisonment rate is five times that of Britain, the toughest sentencer in Europe.

Most conservatives in American support the Republican Party. Unlike in other industrialised countries, political views have little to do with class or wealth. The best predictor of whether a white American votes Republican is not his or her income but how often he or she goes to church. In 2000 Bush won just 54% of the votes of those Americans who earned more than $100,000 a year; but he won 79% of the votes of those whites who went to church more than once a week. This probably helps to explain why low income Americans vote for politicians committed to reducing taxes for the rich.

This enables Bush (a president’s son who was educated in elite schools) to successfully play the populist card. 

Twice as many Americans describe themselves as “conservative” (41%) as describe themselves as “liberal” (19). America definitely has more “conservatives” than other industrialised countries. However, this does not fully explain their electoral success. Conservatives in America are much better organized than other political groups. This is especially important in a country where around 50% don’t bother to vote.

How different this is to America in the 1960s. Liberal administrations advocated the creation of a European-style welfare state (Great Society programme), imposed greater restrictions on firearms, mounted campaigns to outlaw executions, legalised abortion and introduced not just racial equality but positive discrimination in favour of minorities. When Barry Goldwater opposed these measures in 1964, he was beaten by a greater margin than anyone before or since.

However, Lyndon Johnson’s prophecy, when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that he was “signing away the south for 50 years” proved accurate. Southern whites, who before had been loyal to the Democrats, now became passionate supporters of the Republicans.

The conservative movement’s main crusade has been against big government. This has been a total failure. Government spending goes up every year (although less and less goes to those in real need).

Although the polls suggest that John Kerry might win this year’s presidential election, it is unlikely to change too much. The Republicans are likely to retain control over both houses of Congress, most of the governorships and the majority of state legislatures.

Anyway, the Democrats are still a relative conservative party by European standards. They rely for their cash on big business and wealthy individuals. As a result their policies will be aimed at the conservative voter. The chance of obtaining a “liberal” America seems pretty remote.

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One of the messages I have for my students in Sweden when they're trying to understand US society is about the virtual absence of left-wing political parties. Just about all European countries have a political spectrum where there are parties of the right and parties of the left (yes, I know that parties aren't always what they say they are!). In the USA, on the the other hand, in European terms, I don't really think there is a party of the left. It's part of my explanation for why participation in US elections is so much lower than in European elections.

Now, I know that parties often aren't what they say they are, but the presence of left-wing parties on the political scenes of many European countries helps to keep the political spectrum far further to the left than in the USA. In Sweden there are plenty of politicians who would really like to, say, abolish publicly-funded universal health care and replace it with a US-type system … but the issue is a non-starter, thanks to the fact that there is an influential political 'home' for the left.

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Interesting take. I am very supprised at some of the numbers you use. As someone who considers himself a liberal in a land of conservatives (Kansas) I understand that there are more conservatives here, but not in California or other states. Is it possible that the conservatives have succeeded in making "liberal" a bad word. Maybe Americans have been snowed into believing that liberal is a bad word and are not comfortable with the word. It is also supprising that conservatives can draw from the ranks of the minorities. I used to work in Democratic politics and we would always ask people "If your not White, Rich, and male, why would you support the Republicans?" The inevitable answer was that the Republicans will keep America strong both militarily and economicly. The limits of these peoples minds astound me. (Justin Q. Olmstead)

I am sure you are right about the label “liberal”. What do liberals now call themselves?

This seems to be an old problem. In 1934, the famous writer, Upton Sinclair, stood as a candidate to become governor of California. He lost, but his EPIC program (End Poverty in California) gained considerable support and he won 879,537 votes against the winner's 1,138,620.

At the time he openly declared that he was a socialist. However, in September, 1951, he wrote to Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party: “The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to 'End Poverty in California' I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie.”

Thomas was writing at a time when people like Joseph McCarthy were convincing the American public that it was “Un-American” to hold left-wing views. What is more, they did what they could to take away people’s jobs if they were openly socialist or communist. McCarthyism destroyed the left in America. Over the last few years the Republicans have attempted to do the same thing to “liberals”. This has severely damaged the Democrats. Is there any evidence that the Democrats are fighting back in order to defend the right to be a liberal.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jupton.htm

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Some figures were published yesterday that illustrates this debate. According to the Census Bureau, 1.3 million Americans slid into poverty last year, taking the total to 35.9 million, around 12.5% of the population. This is the third successive year this has happened. During George Bush’s years in the White House 4.3 million people have fallen into poverty. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is now at its highest level since 1998.

African-Americans have done particularly badly under Bush. Around 24.4% of them now live below the poverty line.

An estimated 5.2 million have lost their health insurance under Bush. Overall, nearly 45m people are now without health coverage.

Will this have any impact on the presidential elections?

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Going back to an earlier question that you had posed to me about what do liberals call themselves. The best that I can come up with is, intelligent. I asked around to some of my colleagues and their response was we shouldn't be embarrassed to be liberals. One actually said that she thought that the new term for liberal was radical.

Going back to your question about whether or not the new numbers concerning loss of healthcare, and poverty will make a difference. My initial reaction is no. It will only make a difference to those that were hit the hardest. Particularly for those that have lost only their healthcare. Americans have to be hit hard before they are willing to make a change. Very few if any of these people will blame Bush for the loss of income, jobs and healthcare. It will be the HMO's fault but not the Presidents. Also keep in mind that most Americans, particularly those that are conservative, are one issue voters. They will support the Pres. because he is "Christian" and against abortion and stem cell research and because he is "defending America" against the evil Iraqi empire. These are the issues that are dominating the discussions now. Bill Clinton won his first election partly based on the fact that the economy was lagging economy, but most people today don't seem to see the problems.

I have to admit that it is an interesting feeling reading about people in other countries teaching, studying and learning about American history. This is not intended to offend anyone, but the European countries have so much more history. And honestly, I find it fascinating! I love to study about almost every facit of Europes history. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy American history but there are portions that I find extreamly taxing to read about.

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US history has its moments too, you know! What I find interesting about the USA is its status as a state consciously constructed by people. When the US Civil War took place, many people in Europe watched with interest - perhaps this was as far as such a state could go before it tore itself apart. Nowadays it's interesting to see what happens when you try to run a democratic country with no real opposition - the US situation is an object lesson for us here in Europe, and a warning signal.

Radical used to be a really left-wing term in Europe in the 19th century. The Swedish evening newspaper, Aftonbladet, which is now social-democratic was founded by such a radical, who fought for the right to publish an opinion which the King didn't like. When the trades unions finally gave up on the Radicals (because they chickened out and made too many concessions to the right), the radicals became 'borgerlig' - rightists. The former Swedish radical party is actually called Folkpartiet - the People's Party - despite being well to the right now.

All over Scandinavia you find these contradictions in the names of political parties. Venstre (Left) in Denmark is one of the right-wing parties, as are Radikalerna in many countries. The Swedish conservatives, who used to be called Högre (Right), changed their name to Moderaterna (the moderates) in a desperate attempt to avoid annihilation (since no party called conservative or right would stand a chance in Sweden!).

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I have visited the USA and Canada (where I have relations) on many occasions, and I have grown to love both countries. Occasionally I have made the mistake of getting into political debates with friends and family over there, expressing what in the UK would be regarded as a moderately liberal point of view, only to be accused of being a Communist. I tend to be a bit more cautious now - purely for the sake of keeping the peace. Another thing I have noticed in North America (less so perhaps in Canada) is a lack of appreciation of irony. I have been taken literally so many times in the USA that I sometimes feel I ought to wave a flag bearing the words "Irony Coming Up" when I am about to make an ironical remark. The rough-and-tumble, but good-humoured and often ironic, debating style that we are used to in the UK and Ireland does not appear to exist in the USA. Americans must find the confrontational (and entertaining) debates in the House of Commons really strange, and I doubt that many would survive long in the heated political debates we have in our local pub, where we yell at one another for five minutes and then buy each other a drink.

My first impression on visiting the USA, around 20 years ago, was its insularity. TV news broadcasts and newspapers rarely mention events outside the USA. Perhaps it is due to this lack of awareness of what is going on in the rest that contributes to attitudes on the other side of the Big Pond. I only realised I was a European when I visited the USA for the first time.

I have a collection of articles, "Notes from a big country", by Bill Bryson on my bookshelf, one of which is entitled "Those boring foreigners". Bill Bryson (who is an American by birth) writes:

"Julian Barnes, in a line I intend to make my own when the moment is right, once observed that any foreigner visiting the US can perform an easy magic trick: 'Buy a newspaper and see your own country disappear'. Actually, you don't need to read a newspaper. You can read a magazine or watch TV or just talk to people. [...] Because there is so little exposure to non-American things, people here often get quite severely out of patience with anything that is not immediately recognizable to them."

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I agree that the majority of American people are deeply conservative. However, we must acknowledge that a significant number are able to see through the media propaganda that takes place in their country. Justin is just one example of this. A lot more can be found on the JFK part of the forum.

A few years ago I spent some time in schools in Connecticut. I was surprised by the liberal opinions expressed by these teachers. When I questioned them about this they pointed out that America was a big place and their views were not untypical amongst well-educated people in their region.

One thing I have noticed is that Americans (even left-wing ones) tend to be very patriotic (much more so than people living in western Europe). As a result they tend to react badly if they feel their country or system is being criticised too much. Therefore it is wise to concentrate your comments about individuals rather than systems.

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In yesterday's Observer newspaper David Aaronovitch tried to get to the bottom of American conservatism by talking to Republican grassroots activisits. What he found were some interesting nuances and differences between economic neocons and traditional social conservatives.

Here is the article in full:

Heart of America

Uncaring, fundamentalist, extreme: it is easy to caricature the followers of George W Bush. But on the eve of the Republican Convention, a journey to the core of conservative America reveals 'those others' are not what they first appear

David Aaronovitch

Sunday August 29, 2004

The Observer

It wasn't until the Dodge Durango reached 9,000 feet that Radio KRKS, Denver Christian Radio, finally gave up the Holy Ghost. For 90 miles up Interstate 70, past the Coors Brewery, Buffalo Bill's grave and into the mountains, I had been listening to Pastor Rod and Rocky's prayer show. 'The spirit,' said Pastor Rod, 'is already moving a number of you to call our phone-in.'

First, there was Cheryl, who wanted intercession for her sister and brother-in-law, facing delays in moving to their new house. 'Dear Lord,' prayed Pastor Rod. 'We ask you to help Cheryl's sister in this difficult moment.'

Near Idaho Springs, the conversation shifted to teenage sex. A young author was on the programme advising teenage boys on how to turn away from internet pornography, as a first step to maintaining abstinence. Then, before any clammy-handed adolescents could call in, the road went through the Eisenhower Tunnel and the signal was lost.

Colorado, where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, is part of the United States of Otherness, the European's disturbing dream of America. Democrat America we like and know well; we visit its cities on the east and west coasts, and its pundits are always on our radios, shaking their heads over George W Bush. But this state is run by the other tribe. In 2000, its eight electoral college votes went to Bush. Colorado has a Republican governor, both its senators are Republicans, and so are five out of its seven congressmen. Here, if anywhere, you can find out who these Republicans are. Radio KRKS seemed to confirm much that a secular Brit had ever worried about.

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The local Republican chairwoman had invited me to visit her in the city of Leadville, 5,000 feet above even the Mile High City of Denver. Writers had been to this old mining town before. In April 1882, Oscar Wilde gave a lecture on art appreciation at the Tabor Opera House, later remarking that the miners had seemed to think that Botticelli was a drink. After the talk, Wilde was taken on a torchlit parade to the famous Matchless Mine, where he was let down to the silver workings in a bucket.

Huge fortunes, such as the Guggenheim family's, were made up here. And lost. The last miner was laid off from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine in the late Eighties. Since then, the residents of Cloud City had been relying on work in the tourist industry, mostly in the nearby resort of Vail.

But Leadville, sitting below Mounts Elbert and Massive, must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, gradually, wealthier people at the end of their careers have come here to live high up among the log pines. One of the first was Maryellen Thoren, vice-chair of the High Mountain Republican women. She came to pick me up from my bed and breakfast early on a Sunday morning and drove me round town in her large Lincoln. Now in her sixties, she looked like an older Sally Field and lived like The Archers 's Linda Snell on speed. There was hardly a voluntary organisation in the area she didn't help with or hold office in. When they were told I was meeting her, even the taciturn hoteliers I was staying with warmed a little. 'Maryellen,' they said, 'is a great lady.'

She didn't start life as a Republican. Her father was a blue-collar worker in Philadelphia, a union man and a Democrat. But as she went through college, Maryellen came to a different view. Having no money, she never attended college during the day, so she took jobs to keep herself and studied in the evenings. It was 1964. 'You know, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society turned me off. I believed that if you wanted things, then you worked for them. So I supported Goldwater, even though he was a little extreme.' Maryellen became a Republican because she disagreed with welfare - it sapped the incentive to get out there and achieve your dreams. 'We had multi-generational welfare families, where no one worked,' she said.

The logic of this might have been the pitiless one of leaving people to pull themselves up, but Maryellen was never a leaver. You should help people, she told me, but through charities and the churches, not government. Having worked for AT&T abroad, Maryellen came home determined to put her skills to good use. At 9am, I went with her to the modern Presbyterian church where she worships. There were 40 or so people in the simple, modern building (the normal congregation is around 70), and the sermon being preached by the plump woman preacher was 'Send me'. 'Here I am, Lord,' went the hymn that accompanied the text.

And here, Maryellen was, always ready to be sent. She was (unpaid) vice- principal of the local college. In 1996, she volunteered as an election observer in Bosnia. 'I will tend the poor and lame,' the hymn went on. 'I will set a feast before them', which Maryellen obliquely did, she told me, by getting Leadville connected to the fibre-optics highway so the local economy could diversify and the folks (many of them Hispanics) in the local trailer parks could get jobs.

The night before, I had watched a CNN report from Ohio, where workers who had just been made unemployed and who had begun the rapid descent towards trailerdom, were queuing at soup kitchens. For all its volunteering, Maryellen's can be a rough old creed.

But clear as she was about welfare, Maryellen was a moderate on everything else. She believed in Christianity by example, not by fire. 'It's about doing what you can to make a difference in the world. The question must always be, "Can you live with yourself?"'

She regarded such issues as abortion and gay marriage as none of the state's business. Warmly greeted by Maryellen's friends at the church, I was also granted a revelation: that this, rather than the tele-evangelism and Elmer Gantry fundamentalism that we enjoy shuddering about in Europe, was more likely to be the true Republican Christianity.

Just after her husband died two months ago, Maryellen's lobbyist son got her a ticket for a huge Washington dinner. She brought back a photograph of herself alongside George Bush. That association alone might be enough to consign her to perdition in the eyes of many readers, but if I were ever in trouble, I'd hope to be somewhere near Maryellen. She was a lovely woman.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Leadville by more than two to one. On Harrison, the main street, I found the office of Marcia Martinek, editor of the Leadville Herald Democrat (established 1879). Her political origins were similar to Maryellen's. She was a registered Republican and her late husband had been the Republican sheriff in Colorado's Arapahoe county.

'I became a Republican because I didn't like putting more and more money into welfare, where people got paid for every extra child they gave birth to out of wedlock,' Marcia said. And then, sounding like Gordon Brown: 'It would be better to provide daycare, so that single moms can work.'

But Marcia hadn't voted for Bush in 2000 and isn't about to in 2004. She didn't like the social stance. 'You know, it's hard to be Republican and to be a woman too,' she told me. She felt that some women were slipping back into traditional domestic roles, prevented from achieving more. And then there was Iraq. Her stepson, a strong Bush supporter, had been in Falluja with the 1st Infantry. Now he was coming home, but Marcia wondered why he had gone in the first place. 'What did the President know, what did the President not know about WMD? Was it justified?'

Iraq and security still seem to play for Bush. On the scenic train to Climax, built along the side of the mountain because a rival line had been built along the valley, I met Glynn and Connie, from Fort Collins. They were thinking of moving to the mountains because the foothills were getting too crowded. Glynn was very reluctant to talk about politics. 'Once, it was all quite simple, but it's all global now. Even the CIA doesn't understand the world, so how can we?' This same analysis made Connie want to stick by Bush. 'The world is a scary place, isn't it? I just think we should keep the man who's been through the fire. Right now, you don't want to change horses in midstream.'

While we were speaking, 500 runners had been taking part in an insane race. The Leadville 100 ('The Race Across the Sky') is a 100-mile trail run that takes a day and a night to complete. So next day, in the 6th Street gym, they were celebrating the achievement of the 196 who had finished within the regulation 30 hours. There was not a polyester moose in sight as Ken Chlouber, a former miner, current Republican State Senator and founder of the Leadville 100, handed out the gongs. Back in 1982, Chlouber was the first Republican elected here in 30 years. Now, in his stetson and shoelace tie, he is a local landmark. I told him I was a journalist from Britain and congratulated him on the race. 'Well,' he said politically, 'it's folks like you who make it what it is.' I told him I didn't think so.

Chlouber marked a trend. With the unions gone and retired people and second-home owners moving in, the political character of the area has changed. It's only 16 years since a Colorado senator, Gary Hart, was a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, before he was tripped up for premature Clintonism. It seems longer.

Standing next to Chlouber, with long grey hair, a print dress and the air of rosy purposefulness of a Liberal Democrat councillor, was the woman who had asked me up here, Merilee O'Neal, chairwoman of Lake County Republicans. As you read this, Merilee will be arriving in New York for the Republican convention, which starts tomorrow. Last Sunday, she was co-organiser of the Leadvillle 100. This evening, the Colorado delegates have all got Broadway tickets for The Phantom of the Opera .

Merilee was looking forward to New York. 'It's a great moment,' she beamed, 'being part of history. You know, David, I love George Bush, I love his parents, I love his wife. I respect all of them.'

Like Maryellen, she had been born into a Democratic family. Her father had been a small rancher in Gruver, Texas. 'He was a very conservative Democrat,' she told me, of the kind who no longer exists. She described herself, in what was to become a model formula, as 'fiscally conservative and socially moderate'. And she didn't like the Christian right, whom she felt had more loyalty to their own ideology than to the party. 'It does bother me,' she admitted, 'that there are single-issue party people who'd rather lose an election than compromise. But you know, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, David. They get the attention.' In fact, Merilee felt that she had much in common with some Democrats. She had watched their convention and thought that many of them had sounded just like Republicans!

So, as I headed down the mountain again, I listened to KRKS in a different way. First off, it's one radio station among dozens; then, how is the mom seeking advice on how to teach her 10-year-old daughter about purity and not flaunting her body, very different from a Muslim parent advocating the hijab? None of it necessarily means that the clock is about to be turned back to pre-feminism. These Republican women would never allow it.

Colorado is not just Republican, it's also the future. The state is growing rapidly. What they call the 'front range', the strip beside the mountains from Fort Collins in the north to Pueblo in the south, is seeing the highest population growth in the United States; 10,000 newcomers arrive to live in Colorado every month, drawn by the beauty, the climate, the trails and the rivers. In the middle is Denver and it is there, in its rejuvenated downtown, near Union Station, that I meet Mike Nelligan, chair of Denver Metro County Republians.

Mike is tall, rangy and shrewd, a semi-retired businessman who became politically active three or four years ago. And, another blow to prejudice this, he is absolutely delightful. 'Yes, Colorado is becoming more Republican,' he says. And adds, rather complacently: 'The people who come here tend to be more successful and more successful people tend to vote Republican.' Mike makes an easy equation of aspiration with Republicanism which, if the electorate believes it, could be lethal for the Democrats. But, in fact, a large proportion of the immigrants are Hispanic, who are not traditionally on the right. What does Mike make of them? 'Well, they either can't speak the language or don't vote. But if they did, they could change everything.'

We drive off. The mountains are on the right, so we head south, to a development called Highland Ranch, a new town of 75,000 inhabitants. 'It's the kind of place we call the "calving pens",' Mike laughs. 'It's a pre-planned development where the 25-50s come to have their kids. The schools are here, the shopping malls, the churches...'

Speaking of which, how important does he feel the Christian right is? 'You know, they're more adamant. They turn out to vote. Pro-choice people are more comme çi, comme ça - "Maybe I'll vote, maybe I won't". So it's a constant battle at the state level as to who is going to win the chairmanship and what's going in the policy platform.'

Mike is a business Republican - pro-choice and not that keen on guns. Earlier this month, Colorado Republicanism was convulsed by the struggle for the nomination for a vacant senatorial post between a local congressman who was backed by the strong fundamentalist wing, based in Colorado Springs, and a man they referred to as the 'alcohol magnate', multi-millionaire Pete Coors. Coors, a neophyte, won, but it was a nasty fight, in which he was accused of liquoring up the state's notoriously drink-prone youth, and of funding abortions through his company's employee health insurance scheme. Pathetically he announced an end to the health funding for abortions.

It is Coors we have come to see. His HQ is in Highland Ranch, as is the HQ of the Colorado Bush-Cheney campaign. There I meet Barbara DeGroot, glamorous, somewhere-over-50, chair of the Denver Bush-Cheney campaign and good friend of Mike's. It is Barbara who has procured the interview. Pictures of volunteers cover the walls and a halo of tinsel surrounds the notice that Beth Itchkawich is volunteer of the month. Young Corey, just out of college, shakes my hand. 'Are you really from London? Your Tony Blair, we think he's awesome. He stood by us and we will never forget it!'

I don't like to tell him that simply by repeating his words, I have probably cost Blair another hundred votes. James and Shirley Ball from Fort Logan are there to collect new yard-signs, he in his USS Lincoln baseball cap and she in her 'All-American Mom' sweatshirt. Their old Bush-Cheney signs have all been stolen. 'We've lived there since 1963 and we've never had any trouble until now,' says James. 'Things are getting a bit nasty.'

The alcohol magnate is Munster-tall, handsome, red-faced and courteous. I had seen one of his TV ads the night before. In 15 seconds, he had said: 'I'm Pete Coors and I'm in favour of low taxes, our troops and the family, so vote for me.' During the primaries, Coors had been forced to trim to the right to get the activist vote. Then he was accused of being woolly and uncomfortable; now he's more definite and even more uncomfortable, as though playing a role he is unsuited for. 'I'm pro-life,' he tells me emphatically and unconvincingly, 'and against gay marriage. I'm a tax-cutting, middle-of-the-road Republican.'

How pro-life is he? 'Life starts at conception. The unborn are unable to speak for themselves; we have to speak for them.' Then, glibly, he bites this sound. 'Abortion is elective surgery, like a facelift, except involving life.' And there are other options, such as adoption. His brother adopted five children from other countries. The successful businessman delivers himself of an embarrassing inanity. 'We don't know who the next great scientist, the next Einstein, is going to be. It could be someone who is about to be aborted.' Or it could be the next mass murderer or the next nudnik. Double-doh.

Despite this insulting nonsense (does the candidate really believe that women have abortions for essentially cosmetic reasons?), I don't think Coors has the stomach for banning terminations. For one thing, his firmest supporters simply don't agree. After the interview, Mike, Barbara and I drink iced tea at the Cherry Hills Country Club, looking across a sunny golf course towards Mount Evans.

I ask Barbara about Coors, whom she likes. 'You know,' she replies diplomatically, 'I do think people need to have a choice.' Mike adds: 'Yes, what if a child has a severe handicap? Sometimes, you can't tell 'til late.' And Barbara drops a bombshell. Her 24-year-old daughter is pregnant, but: 'She was on drugs, you know, David. She's 23 weeks into the pregnancy and if she finds that the child is affected... well it's her choice.' Well, not if her candidate for the Senate has his way, but she doesn't expect him to. His professed certainty collides with the way people really are, and Republicans are about the way people really are.

That same day, in Iowa, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay, distanced himself from Bush's stand on homosexual marriage. 'Freedom,' said Cheney, 'means freedom for everyone to enter into the relations they want.' Also that day, the Republican policy committee, headed by Colorado governor Bill Owens, drew up its draft platform seeking to prevent gay marriage. Mike's view was that you said these things to get the Christian activists onside and then, once elected, found reasons not to do them. Mike and Barbara understand that rugged individualism sits badly with moral determinism.

The following morning, we drive through the suburbs, taking note of one low, beige building in a lovely location. It's a school and a boy sits outside, basking in the sun. Later, it's on to a meeting of the Denver Young Republicans in a Mexican restaurant south-east of the city. There are 50 youngish Republicans there and the main speech, given by a state senator, and all the talk, is about economic issues - taxation, education spending and health finance. In addition to the presidential and senatorial elections, November will see contests for state representatives. David Sprecace, dark and intense, is standing in District 3. His manifesto declares him to be a 'social mainstream, fiscal conservative'. So what does he make of the current national budget deficit? 'I hate it.' So what will he do about it? 'What can I do? Write to my congressman?' In any case (they all say), it would be worse under the Democrats.

Even so, fiscal conservatives like Sprecace are increasingly worried by Bush. There's not just the deficit, there's also No Child Left Behind, Bush's New Deal-type policy of more money for schools and more federal intervention. There are anti-business ideological stances like that on stem cell research, where countries such as Britain look set to make up for what they have lost over genetic modification. One man I speak to, who recently held the GM portfolio at the US embassy in London, is very miffed at this thwarted opportunity.

And for some, there's the problem of the state powers garnered by Attorney General John Ashcroft as part of the war on terror. One young Republican tells me that he is, for the moment, prepared to put up with all this statism. 'At least,' he tells me, 'I feel secure from terror here in Denver.' I contemplate reminding him that, out here in the Midwest, the threats come from elsewhere. That beige building I had seen earlier was Columbine High School.

Judging from Colorado, the Republicans, though they may seem set to inherit the future, are in just as awkward a coalition as the Democrats, though sometimes more disciplined. The Christian right and the numerically greater economic Republicans will only coexist if the former don't push too hard. There are plenty of contradictions and one remarkable problem. In this gathering of Republican youth there is not one single black or Hispanic face. And although there are nearly as many women as men, this does not stop one of the officers making a speech referring to 'young Republicans, their wives and girlfriends'.

Mike, a clever, insightful and humane man, sees it. He says the election will be tight and turn on swing voters in key states, few enough that the politicians 'know them by their first names'. And they are up for grabs. Back at the hotel, I tune into public-service channel C-Span and see John Kerry make a speech in New York. To my European ears, it's a good one.

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Where to begin. Yes, Americans have problems with irony, but I don't understand it. Ironic, huh. More importantly Americans, in general, don't care what else is going on around the world unless it affects them directly. We have some late night television shows around here, where the host goes out onto the streets of New York or LA and asks historical questions of pedestrians. Question like "where is Latvia?" or something like this that is in the news. Most people don't know where it is. This being said most Americans say that they would be willing to sign a petition ending womens suffrage. How's that for ironic. Many don't even know the English language. With that in mind I think that most Americans are Anglophiles, even if they don't know where England is, they support and love Queen and Country (yes, many are still colonists at heart).

I think that part of the reason for the difference is the education system over here. Western Civilization is a class offered in the High schools for 10th graders. After the tenth grade they never have to deal with the outside world again if they don't want to. And I don't know how students approach things in Europe but here all they care about is getting high marks, learing the subject be damned.

I do have to disagree with Julian Barnes statement about picking up a newspaper and watching your country disappear. If it is really, really big news you will find the information on the front page. And even if it is not most papers have a small section in the middle of the paper titled "World Events" or something to that effect. I believe that satillite TV might make a difference in this area. I watch BBC new every morning, and also watch a news program out of Canada called News World International (NWI). Both do a good job of giving world views and not strictly American views. I find this very helpful in forming my opinions. NWI also airs programs from Germany, giving us some continental news.

I have visited the USA and Canada (where I have relations) on many occasions, and I have grown to love both countries. Occasionally I have made the mistake of getting into political debates with friends and family over there, expressing what in the UK would be regarded as a moderately liberal point of view, only to be accused of being a Communist. I tend to be a bit more cautious now - purely for the sake of keeping the peace. Another thing I have noticed in North America (less so perhaps in Canada) is a lack of appreciation of irony. I have been taken literally so many times in the USA that I sometimes feel I ought to wave a flag bearing the words "Irony Coming Up" when I am about to make an ironical remark. The rough-and-tumble, but good-humoured and often ironic, debating style that we are used to in the UK and Ireland does not appear to exist in the USA. Americans must find the confrontational (and entertaining) debates in the House of Commons really strange, and I doubt that many would survive long in the heated political debates we have in our local pub, where we yell at one another for five minutes and then buy each other a drink.

My first impression on visiting the USA, around 20 years ago, was its insularity. TV news broadcasts and newspapers rarely mention events outside the USA. Perhaps it is due to this lack of awareness of what is going on in the rest that contributes to attitudes on the other side of the Big Pond. I only realised I was a European when I visited the USA for the first time.

I have a collection of articles, "Notes from a big country", by Bill Bryson on my bookshelf, one of which is entitled "Those boring foreigners". Bill Bryson (who is an American by birth) writes:

"Julian Barnes, in a line I intend to make my own when the moment is right, once observed that any foreigner visiting the US can perform an easy magic trick: 'Buy a newspaper and see your own country disappear'. Actually, you don't need to read a newspaper. You can read a magazine or watch TV or just talk to people. [...] Because there is so little exposure to non-American things, people here often get quite severely out of patience with anything that is not immediately recognizable to them."

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