Michael Kelly: Lights are going out on the American Dream

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl, hit by a power cut, is an illuminating metaphor for the current state of the country

THE Super Bowl is promoted as a metaphor for the lifestyle Americans like to believe they all lead. This belief in the American way of life is so strong that they have been extolling its values since the inception of their country and exporting its virtues to mainly unwilling recipients for decades. In that context, the Super Bowl is their own brutal game where strategy, the will to win and bloody guts demonstrate the characteristics and qualities of American manhood.

But more than that. It brings families together as only Thanksgiving does. The half time show provides one of the highlights to the entertainment year and united families sit at their TVs to enjoy it. This is what clean living is all about.

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However, this year’s event was more of a metaphor for the current state of their country than Americans would have liked. During this showcasing of their country’s values, the lights went out. Now, power failures can occur in any stadium in the world. What made this one so ironic is that it happened in the middle of a live broadcast where the commercials – at a cost of up to $3.4 million (£2.2m) for 30 seconds – had been boasting about the superiority of American technology and the virtues of a consumer-led way of life.

And the power cut, illuminated, if that is the right word, the contrast between private affluence amid public penury that JK Galbraith noted in the 1960s has got even more marked. In many parts of the country the electricity supply is on a knife edge. The market has failed to react to long-term trends. In the present case the 34 minute delay it caused to the game stripped away all of the illusions the pre-match hype surrounding it had created.

First, it became explicit that the Super Bowl has little to do with sport. The game is broken up to accommodate the ads. The final game of the year is merely a hanger on which to drape business opportunities. The initial reaction from CBS, which broadcasts the game, was not an apology to fans for spoiling their enjoyment, nor was it any form of admission that the delay might well have affected the result. Rather its statement was to assure the business world that the network had missed none of its in-game advertising commitments to sponsors. In other words, no refunds were available.

The game is built round the commercials, which prompted long discussions afterwards about which was the funniest, slickest or most effective. For this Briton watching in America they were cringe making, especially one which ran for well over 30 seconds of tear-jerking words and pictures devoted to praising the character and commitment of farmers. That one, naturally, was for a pick-up truck.

In many ways the US has become a caricature of itself. Trying to fool consumers was bad enough. Coming over strongly now is that the companies actually believe the trite and misleading messages they commission.

There was also huge hypocrisy in the pre-match entertainment where the surviving children of the Sandy Hook School massacre sang a heart rending version of America the Beautiful. Everyone had a good cry thinking about the innocent dead. But none of this will, of course, have any impact on the right-wing congressional lobby who will attempt to block every move at stricter gun control. But this was a pretty good substitute for that, American-style.

Sunday’s spectacular was out of kilter with the times as conservative America is determinedly clinging to an illusion of life here which is fast disappearing. Most of the recent political analysis has been about concerns over changing demographics. The way in which Barack Obama won a second term and his lurch to the left (in American terms) since November are read as portents that “traditional Americans” are not only under threat but are a electoral irrelevance.

The use of “traditional” is significant. It means white. While all election winning strategies target different groups of voters, this word – which is contrasted with “Hispanic Americans” – is used in a much more fundamental, divisive, tribal, if not overtly racist, way. So much for the melting pot. The Hispanic vote won the Democrats the election and because they will always favour government intervention on matters of health care and social security benefits, the Democrats will provide these benefits and keep on winning. So goes the lament.

Given the importance the candidate plays in presidential elections, this is probably an exaggeration. There is no guarantee that the next Democratic candidate can put together the coalition that Obama managed, though Hillary Clinton would give it a good try. Whether she does or not, the fear of right wing America remains that the values and culture of the Founding Fathers will be swept away by continuing influxes of poor illiterates.

What they have yet to recognise is that their model is broken. There was a time when the American dream held true for many. This was a country where anyone from any background who was willing to work hard and play by the rules of capitalism could make good, very good. For far toomany, that has not been true for a long time. Added to the poor, discriminated-against urban blacks there are other large and growing groups who see nothing but enslavement in endless hard work for a pittance as their permanent way of life.

Their votes may eventually force this country to change to such an extent that the drive for social justice replaces the adoration of enterprise and self reliance. But such is the rigidity of American structures, from the constitution to the separation of powers to the divisions between federal and state responsibilities, that the inertia deliberately built into the system make fundamental change more difficult than in any other western democracy. The alternative is prolonged conflict. Not of the clean Super Bowl-style sporting kind but more akin to class warfare.