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10 May 2004

America’s barbecue vote

They work longer hours than Dad did, regret not having wives who stay at home, and hate seeing those

By Becky Tinsley

By any rational measure the average white American male enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. The United States is consistently near the top of the UN’s Human Development Index measuring quality of life in 175 countries. Yet white men across America are mad as hell, and George W Bush’s campaign strategists are counting on their anger to keep their candidate in the White House in November.

In 2000, the Democrats attracted the support of the majority (54 per cent) of women, while only 42 per cent of men voted for Al Gore. At its most extreme, in the race in Delaware, there was a 20 per cent gap between the sexes, with 64 per cent of women voting Democrat compared with 44 per cent of men. Just as Gore failed to carry the majority of white American males who bothered to vote at the last election, so John Kerry is unlikely to get their support this year.

Why are they so angry? They don’t live in a war zone, or face the mass unemployment and hunger of the Depression. Their homes keep appreciating in value. Most of them were too young to be drafted to Vietnam. But white men feel angry and cheated because this isn’t what they were expecting when they were growing up in Eisenhower’s America. “Only my dad needed to go out to work,” is the common refrain. It isn’t simply that it now takes two incomes rather than one to keep the average American household afloat. The working hours and security are different, too. “My dad didn’t work half as hard as I do and he was always back by six o’clock,” says Terry, 49, an estate agent from New Jersey. “He spent his evenings watching TV or bowling with his pals. His job was to cut the lawn on the weekends, but otherwise he was the king of his castle. My parents did fine on one income, and my dad was secure in the knowledge he had his job for life.”

Dave, 54, an architect from San Bernardino, California, is so angry, he has already had a stress-related heart attack. “I work long hours. The house is a mess when I get home because my wife goes out to work, too. I can’t sit in front of the TV all evening, like my dad did, because I’m back at my computer screen after supper. My dad never brought work home.”

What’s more, Dave is from the “honey, I’m home” generation: “I want my wife to be there already when I get in from work, but the house is empty,” he complains.

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Even on two incomes, the middle-class American experience is no longer that holy suburban trinity of barbecues, baseball and Tupperware parties. In its place is career angst, not enough money for the goods they believe are essential, and scarce leisure time. In Kevin Phillips’s recent study of George Bush’s America, he notes that at no time since the Wall Street Crash has income distribution been so polarised. During the past two decades the richest 1 per cent has become astonishingly rich, owning 38 per cent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 60 per cent have only 5 per cent. The angry white man (AWM) has been squeezed.

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Given the sense of rage and betrayal among AWMs it is not surprising that advertisers reach out to them with expressions such as “comfort”, “safety” and “making sense of your world”. In a country where people learn their history from the movies, the Fifties and early Sixties have attained mythical status. Several successful cable channels are devoted to 24/7 retro reruns of Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy, all perpetuating positive, decent and innocent images of times gone by. Equally, comfort food is enjoying a huge comeback (with predictable results). And 46 per cent of Americans are taking some form of prescription drug at any given time: “just taking the edge off the 21st century”, as they say.

The Eisenhower generation emerged from the New Frontier with high expectations. In the golden age of Chryslers as big as whales, Betty Crocker cake mix and Perry Como, you knew tap water was safe to drink, your station wagon was made in America, the ethnic minorities were out of sight and in their place, and your wife talked about your needs, not hers. These days Tabasco outsells ketchup: that tells you everything you need to know about the chaos out there.

Ask a newcomer, such as a Mexican, and she will likely claim one reason the Americans are angry is that “they don’t know how lucky they are”. “They’re lazy,” adds Marie Rodriguez, 25, currently working four cleaning jobs a day in southern California: “They’re so pampered with their drive-up postboxes and Lazy Boy recliners. Go to the mall and you see kids waiting five minutes to take the elevator down one floor.”

The AWMs’ abiding self-image, fostered by sentimental movies and TV shows, is of genuine stand-up guys, worthy inheritors of the rugged pioneer spirit of their ancestors. Despite this, they soften life with euphemisms: you don’t dial, punch or push a button – you touch it. And they aspire to live in gated communities, they drive sports utility vehicles with the doors always locked, feel threatened by unseen enemies, and are ready to wallop you with a lawsuit.

A recent National Science Foundation/National Institutes of Health study found that conservatism in America can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in “fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity”. The AWMs want a “return to an idealised past”, they “condone inequality”, and cling to “premature conclusions”, “simplistic cliches and stereotypes”.

At heart AWMs are convinced their adult life sucks, and they seem unaware that people in Africa or Asia face greater difficulties. Most Americans get their news from television, and the majority tune in to local channels or cable, rather than ABC, NBC or CBS. Local TV news barely touches foreign stories unless there are sensational images or quirky aspects (“my, aren’t those Finns weird?”). Americans have a galaxy of information at their fingertips thanks to the internet, but that does not make them more worldly than their fathers.

Paradoxically, because they no longer get their news from Walter Cronkite or his modern network equivalents, many live in a bubble in which they hear and read only the narrow views of the prophets of doom with whom they already agree. Their bewilderment and disconnection from the gritty reality of elsewhere has only been increased by 9/11.

However, this only goes some way to explaining why AWMs will be willingly herded into the George W Bush camp come election time. If they believe they are much less well-off than their fathers, then logically they should vote for the party that best represents their economic interest against the ruthless, downsizing corporations and the greedy medical insurance companies screwing them out of healthcare.

But, defying all Marxist analysis, AWMs are crazy about the sedated frat-boy from New Haven, Connecticut; the under-achieving, privileged scion of those Washington insiders, the Bush dynasty. The AWMs obligingly rally behind this petulant former drink-driver who describes individuals in his cabinet as “fabulous” – not a word an AWM would ever use.

Karl Rove, the brain behind the Dubbya brand, perfectly understands the anxieties of the AWMs. He knows they feel patronised by the bicoastal metrosexuals who describe Middle Americans as “the people we fly over”. He also knows they want their president to be “the kind of guy you can talk to while you’re standing around the barbecue”, as Dave, the furious architect, puts it. They don’t want to feel threatened by some sophisticated, egghead, liberal “jerk” from Georgetown, Boston or San Francisco.

For AWMs inarticulate equals sincere, and AWMs feel “comfortable” with the tongue-tied Bush and his black-and-white world-view. During the Iowa caucuses a conservative group, the Club for Growth, spent $100,000 on an ad campaign that perfectly captured the essence of the America so distrusted by AWMs. It described Democrats as a “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show”. By contrast, the Middle American AWM is an uncomplicated retrosexual, freed from Nineties exhortations to find his feminine side, comfortable with his hairy chest and sagging jeans.

AWMs are further nudged into the Republican fold by the unsubtle use of wedge issues such as gay marriage, abortion, gun control and patriotism. (This is where the gender gap comes into play: in opinion polling, American women cite defending abortion laws and the need for gun control as important reasons for supporting the Democrats.)

The Dubbya brand is carefully aligned to the Church, and particularly the born-again evangelicals, of whom there are 70 million. These wedge issues are raised repeatedly in the broadcasts that give AWMs their daily reinforcement: on Fox News, and by the talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh (who has an audience of 20 million), Michael Savage and former Watergate felon G Gordon Liddy. A glance at their websites illustrates how the AWMs’ indignation is stoked with tales of “the liberals’ increasingly destructive influence on America’s cherished institutions . . . seeping into America’s churches, schools, even its families”, as Savage puts it.

The Republicans are confident of raising $170m for the election, and since 4 March they have been spending their war chest on commercials in 17 battleground states. The AWMs are already being bombarded with Rove’s finely tuned message: our fearful nation needs “steady leadership in times of change”. The initial advert featured flags, firefighters and images of the World Trade Center atrocity – including film of the victims’ coffins. It was quickly dropped when this was judged to have gone too far.

This wobble aside, the Republicans are richer and better organised than ever, and confident that the ponderous, if worthy, John Kerry will be too liberal, aloof and dull to convince AWMs to join him. The Democratic candidate may be a war hero and may enjoy manly, extreme sports, but is he the kind of guy you can talk to around the barbecue?