A country for old men

When George W Bush gives his last State of the Union address, a milestone will be passed. But don't

On Monday 28 January, the increasingly pathetic figure of George W Bush will make his way slowly down the centre aisle of the House of Representatives for what, to the relief of most of the rest of the world, will be his last State of the Union address. This is one of those egregiously unreal American rituals where reality is turned on its head: America's 43rd president may have made America more hated than it has ever been before, caused mass slaughter in Iraq, and brought economic recession into millions of American homes, but he will be greeted with wild enthusiasm by backslapping Democrats and Republicans alike, as though he really is the cleverest fellow in the world.

Detachment from reality, though, is an innate American characteristic. It enables a country of 300 million people to convince itself it really is the progenitor of democracy and fine values across the globe, evidence notwithstanding. For exactly this reason, I must issue a government health warning: do not assume the Democrats will win this year's presidential election. The Republicans are not only better and more ruthless campaigners, but a new wind of hope is imperceptibly starting to sweep through their ranks.

In the past week, in fact, seismic but virtually unnoticed shifts have been happening in the polls. I will explain the fickleness and unpredictable chaos of the 2008 presidential campaign in a moment, but all of a sudden 71-year-old Senator John McCain is the Republican front-runner in all nine of the leading American polls I track - no fewer than 15 points ahead in the CBS News/ New York Times one, and by 14 in that of USA Today/Gallup. Hillary Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner in all nine polls, too.

But here's the real shocker: if you amalgamate the results of the four polling organisations that routinely pose the question, McCain would beat Clinton by four points in the 4 November election. Should Barack Obama be his opponent, McCain would still win by 1.3 points (don't ask me to explain the logic of this). The Republicans, meanwhile, still have three candidates - McCain, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, and the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Fred Thompson, former senator, withdrew after a disappointing result in South Carolina and is expected to urge his (by no means negligible) supporters to switch to McCain, a close personal friend.

Few in the world hate Bush more viscerally than McCain, whose political insurgency among the Republicans in 2000 was destroyed when vicious rumours about him - for example, that his five and a half years as a prisoner of the Vietcong had left him mentally unstable, or that he had fathered a black child (actually a little girl from Bangladesh whom he and his wife had adopted) - were spread throughout South Carolina. Bush duly won the Republican primary in that vital first southern state, and from that moment his progression to the White House was assured.

McCain had the satisfaction of winning South Carolina eight years later on 19 January, leaving the Reverend Huckabee (he is also an ordained Baptist minister) trailing second in the Bible Belt state many expected him to take after his Iowa victory, and winning more than twice as many votes as either Romney or Giuliani. Exit polls also showed, crucially, that McCain cornered the moderate vote in his first primary victory in New Hampshire on 8 January, and those of the evangelicals in South Carolina - a potent combination.

Reality check

So, perhaps it's poetic justice that McCain has Bush to thank as much as anybody for this success. His support for the Iraq War seemed to have doomed him as recently as just before Christmas, but the American people really are increasingly convinced that the ludicrously meaningless "surge" in Iraq (an adroit PR trick dreamt up by Karl Rove, I'm told) is actually working - another example of America's ability to suspend its disbelief, and a notion we will doubtless hear echoed several times over by Bush in his State of the Union address. See, we knew it would all come out right in the end, didn't we?

But before we get carried away, let's have a reality check. The polls unanimously predicted that Obama would trounce Clinton in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire - which she, in fact, won by a clear margin. And in 2008, most conspicuously of all, the illogical system of caucuses and primaries is finally beginning to fall apart (just as I hear voices from across the Atlantic urging Britain to adopt the system). The caucuses and primaries that began this month will reach a crescendo on "Super Tuesday", 5 Feb ruary, when - by the latest count - voters in as many as 23 states will go to the polls, far more than ever before on a single day.

Democrats will probably hold contests in 22 states and one US territory on that crucial Tuesday, picking 52 per cent of their delegates who will go to the Democratic party convention at the Pepsi Centre in Denver on 25 to 28 August - pledged, in accordance with the electoral outcomes, to support one of the candidates and then enthrone him or her as the official Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans will probably vote in 21 states, choosing 41 per cent of their delegates pledged to do the same with their candidate at the Republican convention at the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, at the start of September. If you consider that only roughly 4 per cent of delegates have been chosen so far, two clear winners should have emerged by 6 February - long before the final primaries in South Dakota, New Mexico and Montana on 3 June. Dead easy. Good old American democracy will have triumphed again. But this is the presidential election where anything can happen: it's not inconceivable that one or both candidates will end up being selected in brokered conventions in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms.

I say "probably" about the voting on 5 February, because the chaos is such that states and parties are still squabbling over exactly who will vote and when. Rules and regulations differ in each party and state. The confusion is worse with the Democrats: Obama may have comfortably won the first Democratic caucus in Iowa on 3 January but, the next day, because of the Democrats' arcane procedures, Clinton had 215 delegates in the bag compared with his 126. Clinton then beat Obama in both New Hampshire and Nevada, but they won the same number of delegates in New Hampshire and Obama even came out one delegate ahead of Clinton in Nevada.

Or let's take another absurdity. The polls have Obama easily beating Clinton in South Carolina on 26 January and thus taking its 45 Democratic delegates. But then Clinton is streaking miles ahead of Obama in Florida for its 29 January primary, just as she was for Michigan's on 15 January. But Clinton will take none of Michigan's 174 or Florida's 210 delegates because each state jumped the gun in the race to hold the early primary elections, and Democratic Party rules mean that voting in both states must be ignored. Democrats in the hugely important states of Michigan and Florida have therefore, in effect, been disenfranchised in this year's crucial presidential primaries.

Roller coaster

Phew. These are just two of many possible examples that illustrate just how confusing and wild a roller coaster the 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be. Less than a month ago, lest we forget, it was Giuliani who was soaring in all the Republican polls, only to sink without trace.

Yet it's too soon to write off even his chances: he took the strategic decision to concentrate most of his campaign funds and efforts on Florida rather than the other early states, and should he even scrape through there on 29 January he will win all 57 of Florida's Republican delegates. In one blow, that would hurtle him to the front of the Republican pack; with the same illogic as the Democrats, Romney has the most Republican delegates with 59, compared to Huckabee's 40 and McCain's 36.

The firmest prediction I have allowed myself is that the election in November will end up being between Clinton and Romney, and I see no reason to change, though the unpredictability of Campaign 2008 is such that I could easily be wrong on both counts. Following their increasingly rancorous exchanges, for example, Clinton and Obama could mutually self-destruct and let the former senator John Edwards in to take the Democratic nomination.

And the Republicans? McCain has that enviable ability to make you think you are a lifelong friend after only a few seconds' conversation, but has age against him, has battled with serious cancer and is ultimately a maverick and born insurgent; Romney is a less personally likeable company man, literally and figuratively, but has the backing of the Republican Establishment.

The Democrats must now unexpectedly face the fact that either would be difficult to beat in November, which is why Republicans are just beginning to stir and scent Democratic blood. Suddenly, the days of the man whose back they will slap with such fake enthusiasm on Monday night seem to be numbered; a milestone has quietly passed and, in less than a year, the nightmare of George W Bush will have receded and a new president will be in the White House.

If the current polls have caught the mood of the nation, it could just be a Republican one yet again.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood