Cate Blanchett and the American Nightmare

Stone the Crows! Cate Blanchett now explains the State of the Union. At least the bits about inequality, where President Barack Obama seemed inspired by Ms Blanchett’s portrayal of a psycho-socialite gone broke in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine . [i]

Not that she is a sympathetic character – far from it – but Jasmine’s utter inability to cope when she goes broke is at the heart of the American nightmare since 2008. No one is secure anymore. The point of the film is that in her humiliation Jasmine just joins everybody else in a hardscrabble country, where people stay on the scale where they started – if they don’t slide back.

Just how perilous prosperity is for all Americans and how opportunity is seen as a birth right being denied is an enduring theme in the national story. As Teddy Roosevelt put it in the “new nationalism” speech – (and can you imagine what Tea Partiers would do with this if President Obama made it):

 At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalise opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.[ii]

 And here’s what Barack Obama said last week in the State of the Union, while making the case for government to enhance opportunity:

 Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on. Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.[iii]

President Obama did not create the idea that the American dream excludes many Americans. It was a staple of recent US popular culture long before the Global Financial Crisis – demonstrated by a computer programer’s response to a Bartlett Administration free trade deal that would send jobs to India in West Wing: “I have members on their third and fourth career. What are they supposed to train for now, nuclear physics? Cello playing? Or should they just give up and bag groceries for minimum wage? … My career isn’t over yet; I want to keep my job.[iv]

The idea that no one is safe from unemployment and that joblessness means inescapable poverty is now all but a political given. Thus, the Stanford Centre on Inequality and Poverty reports “a deteriorating landscape … across a host of key indicators, including prime-age employment, long-term unemployment, poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality, and even some forms of health inequality. The facts of the matter, when laid out so starkly, are quite overwhelming.” [v]

As is the assumption that the Jasmines of the world who do not go broke are unjustly privileged. The Congressional Budget Office provides ammunition for the argument – between 1979 and 2007 the top one per cent of households saw after-tax incomes increase by 275 per cent. The figure for the population in the 21st to 80th per centiles is 40 per cent. [vi]

The Yanks have been here before, in the era when Jasmine’s ancestors shopped till they dropped – the gilded age of robber baron capitalism, which Teddy Roosevelt channelled in his new nationalism speech. In her stupid vanity and fragile complacence, Jasmine comes from the caste Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser wrote about.

And Jasmine’s conspicuous consumption channels the extraordinary wealth of old and new monied New York from the 1870s until Theodore Roosevelt’s time – a Vanderbilt ball for the city’s elite “400” in the 1880s cost $6m in current dollars.[vii]

But the way Jasmine ends, mad and impoverished on the street, is a fate for those who fail, even falter. President Obama’s speech included more than praise for the crippled war veteran. He mentioned the single mother whose surgery would have meant bankruptcy without his health plan and the mother of two whose unemployment benefits are exhausted. It was a speech for a nation where people know how easily they could end up like Jasmine.

And the Republicans know it – for all the emphasis on individualism in her State of the Union response for the mainstream party, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers let the President set the agenda:

The President talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality. And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide. We see this gap growing every single day. We see it in our neighbours who are struggling to find jobs. A husband who’s now working just part-time. A child who drops out of college because she can’t afford tuition. Or parents who are outliving their life’s savings. Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one.[viii]

 This is one scared country. And what it fears has not changed for a century.


[i] Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine, @ http://goo.gl/FrTjEi recovered on February 1

[ii] Theodore Roosevelt, “The new nationalism,” August 31 1910 @ The White House blog, http://goo.gl/sdX6z recovered on February 1

[iii] Barack Obama, “State of the union,” January 28 @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address recovered on February 1

[iv] The West Wing, “Talking points” 5/19 April 21 2004 @ http://goo.gl/AE0Pft recovered on February 1

[v] Stanford Centre on Poverty and Inequality, “The state of the union: 2014” @ http://goo.gl/bhzdTQ recovered on February 1

[vi] Congressional Budget Office, “Trends in the distribution of hosehold incomes between 1997 and 2007,” October 2011 @ http://goo.gl/fB9cQY recovered on February 1

[vii] Susannah Broyles, “Vanderbilt Ball- how a costume ball chanhed New Yprk elite society,” Museum of the City of New York, August 6 2013 @ http://goo.gl/RXSmcK recovered on February 1

[viii] Cathy McMorris Rodgers, State of the Union response, January 28 @ http://goo.gl/iPWksu recovered on February 1