Tobias Endler: America – A country in search of itself.

29. June 2024 – Oliver Stoldt

Tobias Endler, USA expert, with a guest article on the current situation in the early summer of 2024, before the election of a new president and the choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

“I would like to share a few impressions from my recent trip to the USA: 10 days between Manhattan and Texas. Two Americas that are 3,000 km apart. For someone who has been traveling the country for decades, it feels more like 10,000km in 2024.”

This brings us to an initial observation: the great dividing line runs between urban and rural areas. The presidential election in November 2024 will also be decided along this line. According to statistics, 8 out of 10 Americans live in “urban areas”, but this term encompasses many things, and due to the majority voting system, the question of victory or defeat is decided in the large rural states. Texas is a world unto itself, and it is America to the power of 2. But Texans are not alone in their belief that New York, Washington DC and the other East Coast metropolitan areas don’t have much to do with their lives. They are, however, proud of the pull their state exerts on the people of the metropolises on the West Coast – even if you can’t officially do anything with the “blasé Californians”: Don’t mess with Texas. Ranch houses with verandas and large front gardens plus driveways are available here for half the price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

The USA in fall 2024 – economy or values?

Second, Americans will vote along the two W issues in the fall: Economy and Values. And in that order. I’ve talked to students on Columbia University and NYU campuses, and of course many have been at the protests because they have a problem with their universities being invested in Israel in a big way. This is a values issue (and no matter how you feel about it: The university managements’ handling of the matter is somewhere between unfortunate and impossible). But there are also some who don’t see why they should pay 65,000 dollars a year in tuition fees and leave the university with a mountain of debt of 300,000 dollars. As long as they are students, they at least want to make their opinions known. Freedom of speech is very broad in the USA. But opinion is not everything, and unfortunately the level of information of some protesters is not nearly as high as their commitment.

Partly because the protests are so present in the media, it is easy to be mistaken about their significance for the bigger picture. There are around 20 million enrolled students in the US, only a small fraction of whom are so involved. With over 160 million registered voters across the country, we are dealing with an important constituency, but by no means the only constituency. In the fall, another issue may also take center stage – namely the economy: How much is my minimum wage per hour? In New York City the answer is 16 dollars, in California 15 dollars. In Texas it’s 7.25 dollars. How high is my property tax? An important question in the land of homeowners and landlords, where nobody rents unless they have to. Will economic growth remain at almost 3.5%? It’s no accident that Joe Biden emphasizes at every opportunity why Build Back Better was such a good idea. He didn’t really get to that during the first televised debate against Trump on June 27, 2024. How he didn’t seem quite himself at all.

Joe Biden in the televised debate against Donald Trump.

The president’s performance: a PR disaster for him and his party, and a gift for ex-president Donald Trump, who got through the duel with his numerous lies and half-truths because the question of Biden’s mental freshness overshadowed everything. The first exchange of blows has made one thing clear: performance will make the difference in the fall and in the elections in November, with content taking a back seat. Only questions of values are increasingly relevant. They are central to the younger Gen Z and Gen Alpha generations. Fewer and fewer of them see why the state should decide whether or not I have a child. Biden has hit a nerve with this. However, opinions differ greatly as to whether a – really – old man is the best advocate on this issue. After all, 6 out of 10 Americans believe that their president is “somewhat religious”. Biden is “kind of” about a lot of things, hence his emphatically combative rhetoric of late.

Back to questions of values: they also play an important role for the other generations, right up to the boomers – although many of them manage well without religion. In general, it seems to me that the importance of questions of faith is now overestimated when we look at the USA from Germany. Of course the Americans are – on average! – a religious people. But young people in particular argue with ideas of fairness, justice, self-determination, human dignity etc., not with what the Bible says.

Thirdly, we should not succumb to the illusion that foreign policy will ultimately play a decisive role in the fall election; that much was already obvious from the CNN duel between the two candidates. The situation would be different if the USA were to experience an attack on its own territory (see 9/11). Otherwise, Americans’ attention is focused on the issues on their own doorstep, or on the question of why it seems a little riskier every day to take the freeway on-ramp in need of repair, or why it’s dripping from the ceiling at school again.

In conclusion: In Texas, the favorite for the election is Willie Nelson. Reagan T-shirts are also still doing well. MAGA caps are being sold in NYC. Times Square is still officially a gun-free zone – there are extra signs to make sure no one forgets. And Tom Petty is Jesus. Nobody can claim all this without photo evidence, so here you go.

Book USA expert Dr. Tobias Endler for lectures and discussion panels with The Premium Speakers Agency.

Dr. Tobias Endler

Political scientist & Americanist, Author & Publicist