I hate to comment on the politics of other countries. I know more than most British about the US political scene, but I’m no expert. Still, wider lessons about the process of politics can be seen from the US. And they are rather worrying.
As a liberal I root for the Democrats in the US elections – though their record on some issues, such as business regulation and education is not good. So the scale of their defeat in this year’s mid-terms was a shock: not just in the Senate, but in state gubernatorial contests too. I had subscribed to a rather optimistic theory: that where California goes, so the rest of the US follows. In California the Republicans did very well, until, one day they didn’t. And then it was all over. They were overwhelmed by demographic trends – especially the rise of the Hispanic population. They had so misused their period in power that they had damaged their brand beyond repair to those outside their diminishing band of natural supporters.
So perhaps 2014 is their high water mark, as was the Pete Wilson governorship in California , which ended in 1999? Alas I fear not: Republican strategy and tactics seem far to solid for that. These elections were revealing. Republican success was largely driven by low turnout. Younger voters, and those from minority groups, failed to turn up to vote. That seems to be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy. This is achieved through relentless negative campaigning that has poisoned the political process. Their opponents go in for negative campaigns too, but they lose more from the diminishing reputation of politicians as a whole. Republican politicians are not well regarded by the US public. They just keep winning.
The insidious thing is that the Republicans are using their short-term successes to rig the democratic process in their favour. This is conspicuous in three ways. First, Republican governors have gerrymandered Congressional districts so that they can win comfortably in the House of Representatives even if they lose the popular vote – as happened in 2012. Second, Republican sympathising justices in the Supreme Court have destroyed attempts to regulate campaign finance – in the guise of supporting free speech. This includes the ludicrous proposition that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. This unlocks the door to vast quantities of money from billionaires, like the Koch brothers, who want to impose their rather bizarre world view on voters, and to fund all that negative campaigning. There is already well-funded right wing news media. Third, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, in the guise of limiting electoral fraud. This is aimed especially at blacks. These ratchet up a series of advantages for the right. There is no sign that they might be reversed.
Of course, the success of the right is not just because of the malign influence of shadowy billionaires corrupting the political process. They have a well-motivated core group of supporters, who hold to a strong series of myths about the American way. This core, with strong conservative religious attitudes, a hatred of central government and taxes, and a belief in American exceptionalism, make American politics a very strange place to Europeans, including us British. This core support can’t be taken for granted by political leaders, as the “Tea Party” rebellion has shown – but there is no equivalent on the left or liberal wing of US politics.
So it does not take a huge amount of paranoia to picture a Republican strategy. The rising anti-Republican demographic groups find it more difficult to vote, or find that their vote affects the outcome little. They grow frustrated, but generalise their frustration to the entire political process and political class, and this leads to political apathy. Meanwhile the right consolidates its control over the whole process.
What can go wrong? Over-reach by the right can lead to a backlash, which in turn leads to electoral upsets in areas that are less easy to rig – such as the Presidency and the Senate. This happened under the Presidency of George Bush Junior – when many Republicans thought that they had won for good, and the feeding frenzy of their corporate friends became so conspicuous that the public were motivated to vote against it. Republicans may lack the discipline to avoid that mistake again. In due course the left might reform itself into a more coherent and robust political movement that will overcome the increasingly rigged electoral system and media.
Does it matter? The irony is that the conventional wisdom on the political economy is shifting steadily leftwards. The ideology of laissez-faire and small government that took off in the 1980s has run its course. Increasingly it seems that a healthy economy needs more taxes and a bigger role for government. Republicans want to take their country in the opposite direction. This will simply feed the crisis of capitalism, not resolve it. The American economy will start to fall apart. Also the tendency of Americans to use world politics as an extension of domestic politics will only get worse. American bullying plays well at home, but is counterproductive in its actual effects. A properly engaged, constructive role for the world’s only superpower is less likely. And climate-change denial seems to be one of the core beliefs of the right – this will make global progress harder – though a failing US economy will offset this somewhat. Ultimately, this attempt by the right to reverse the tide of history is the most likely cause of its failure in the long term – but it could take a decade or more.
Are their further political lessons? The American political system is unique. Two party politics is deeply entrenched, and the electoral system promotes it. But it can lead to what amounts to minority government, and it can be captured by extremes. In Australia we have seen this too: disappointment with a lacklustre left of centre administration has led to the capture of the government by the wayward right.
Britain may escape this fate. The wayward right is progressively taking over the Conservative Party. But many of the wayward millionaires that are behind this trend have lost patience, and are supporting the Ukip insurgency instead. This is ruining the chances of a takeover of the right – though a weak Labour leadership means that we can’t rule this out. Ironically the rejection by the right of electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Vote (the system in Australia) is probably a shot in the foot. This naturally tends to push politics into a duopoly, as the Australian experience shows. Now electoral chaos is likely to discredit First Past the Post, and any reform is likely to towards proportional representation.
The multi-party, proportional model of politics has its faults. But increasingly it seems to be a better direction to take – it is less open to capture by the extremes. I hope that Britain will follow that path.