American flag (Image credit: buggolo via Flickr Creative Commons)

American flag (Image credit: buggolo via Flickr Creative Commons)

American flag (Image credit: buggolo via Flickr Creative Commons)

Paul Smith, who is director of the British Council USA, writes about his first impressions of the United States on the day of the presidential election.

I was fortunate with the timing of my US posting – just eight weeks before election day, which falls today. It’s been exciting to feel part of the demographic  buzz, watching and debating the Tampa and Charlotte conventions, then watching and debating the presidential debates. Nice to feel close to things – from my  window I can see Joe Biden’s home next door to the British Council office. There was a thrill as our weekly staff meeting was drowned out by the sound of the Vice President’s helicopter taking off to wing him to the vice-presidential debate in Kentucky.

It’s extraordinary to be in such a politically-polarised country, particularly after two years in Afghanistan where the only polarisation was whether you were pro- or anti- corruption. There’s little bar room anecdotal bantering here. Republicans and Democrats seem to find it very difficult to confront each other without some frank animosity and serious distrust. If you’re of a minority party persuasion in a small community, the experience for the loner can be uncomfortable.

Why’s that? Well, after eight weeks,  I’m the least expert pundit around. But, through my ever-serviceable British Council cultural relations prism, I can sense that one reason may be that the USA, always was, still is, and probably always will be as much a cultural concept as a definitively political and economic paradigm. And when you’re arguing around cultural contours there is more likely to be heated personal positioning than when you’re simply arguing about party politics or disparate economic persuasions. That’s because the rooting of culture is in identity, and when our identities are threatened – our origins, our legacies, our ethnicities, our beliefs, our frontiers, our sense of home, our entitlement to place, and the values that evolve from all these – then you’re probing not just what most matters to us but, fundamentally, who we are.

That’s what’s been happening in this US election. Obama, only yesterday, reiterated the view that the election’s not about politics and it’s not about parties but it’s about what ‘America’ means, to its peoples and to the wider world. Probably no other country would surface the very identity of the nation as the most pertinent issue of its democratic process. But the forming of any nation is an act of public will, usually in which peoples of common or comparable cultures choose to inhabit a single, if federated, domain of values  – they elect a shared identity. When that self-defining country is engineered from waves of immigration over two and a half centuries, when that country realises itself as the world’s primary superpower with the most diffusive globalising culture and when that country has experienced its first four years of leadership by a president of biracial origin despite the appalling legacy of slavery, then it will be the very meaning of ‘America’ – the fundamental cultural question – that will mobilise the heady dialogues around the economy and wealth and around politics and international relations.

Worldwide, the most defining cultural moment of our times was when a group of suicide bombers declared war on an American value system which they could not tolerate by destroying iconic buildings in the US political and commercial capitals. Whether the world’s peoples like it or not, the USA is our de facto leader, and tomorrow it will newly decide the lead leader. It’s a fundamentally cultural moment for the voters of these uniquely federated states, but the cultural resonance will be felt across the world.  The American dream, whether scary or consoling, has long been a global reality. Today, the dream will again reconstitute.

Learn more about the British Council’s work in the United States.