The Australian

By Tom Switzer  

UNCLE Sam has rebounded from past crises but this time it's very different.

There are several explanations for the Democrats' loss in last week's mid-term elections. Some attribute the shellacking to an anti-incumbent mood.

Left-liberals blame the economy or Barack Obama for lacking the courage to prosecute a true progressive agenda. Many conservatives ascribe Republican success to the Tea Party movement, which is tapping into economic anxiety and political estrangement that voters feel across the nation.

But the most obvious explanation can be boiled down to two words: cultural crisis.

Americans of all ideological and political persuasions are in a foul mood. They suffer from a lack of confidence. They believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. And no wonder: The US is in the midst of near-double-digit unemployment, skyrocketing national debt, swelling home foreclosures and a deeply unpopular war.

All of this has given rise to rapid mood swings within the electorate, epitomised by the fall of Obama from adulation to contempt within two years. For three consecutive election years (2006, 2008, 2010), the electorate has voted against the party in power.

As pollster Scott Rasmussen points out, this is a continuation of a trend that began nearly 20 years ago. During the past three presidencies, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama won elections before their party lost control of congress.

But the roots of US despair go beyond ideology and any political brand. They stem from expectations about the US's right to economic prosperity and global leadership that no administration or congress may be able to meet - expectations that have deep roots in the US's past.

Since the first English settlers landed in the 17th century, Americans' understanding of their land had been shaped by their own exceptionalist vision.

For generations, Americans saw themselves as a chosen people destined to create a new English Israel (Cotton Maher) and the last best hope of Earth (Abraham Lincoln) that would make the world safe for democracy (Woodrow Wilson).

The same vision was echoed in the idea of the American Century, which shaped the national consciousness after World War II when the US enjoyed strategic and economic pre-eminence. The collapse of Soviet communism reinforced the perception of American exceptionalism.

But many things in recent decades - quagmires in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Watergate and other scandals, mounting trade and budget deficits, Hurricane Katrina and its ugly aftermath, the collapse of the housing bubble, the decline of US unipolarity and what Irving Kristol warned were clear signs of rot and decay germinating in US society - have shattered US confidence.

Suddenly, the dominant vision of Pax Americana faded without anything - even the war on terror - emerging to replace it. The void means that Americans have oscillated between periods of clarity and purpose, and periods of intense doubt and uncertainty.

Can the US bounce back? After all, the US has suffered several setbacks only to rebound: think 1812, the Civil War, the Depression, Pearl Harbour, Vietnam and Watergate.

But the US has never endured a crisis quite like this. It is not just that the US military is stretched to breaking point. Nor is it just that the US is on the cusp of a double-dip recession.

It is more to do with whether Americans will gracefully accept a lesser role in an increasingly multi-polar world. Americans are facing the prospect of lowering rather than raising their expectations. Not an easy task for a people who have experienced centuries of rapid moral and material progress. What last week's election really shows is that the US is in a seriously bad way. Its famous capacity to rebound from adversity is going to be put to a severe test.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of The Spectator Australia.