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Friday, 5 November 2010

The Midterm Elections 2010: A European Perspective

So, the mid-term elections in the USA are over and there has been a major swing to the Republicans, leaving President Obama with a House of Representatives in which the Democrats are in the minority. The world has looked on as Americans have gone through their biannual exercise of their federal democratic right and wonders what the result will mean for the US and the world.

Which is what I take as justification to write this post, although I am not an American and thus open to the criticism that what US Americans do in the privacy of their own country is really none of my business. But (to adapt a saying originally applied to Britain and Ireland) when the USA sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold and so we have justifiably followed the arguments and the passion, the debates and mudslinging, the patriotism and ballyhoo. What happens in America has deep consequences for the whole world, for a number of reasons. For the past sixty-five years (arguably, for the past hundred) the USA has been the most powerful country in the world; for the past twenty, the only superpower (although this is changing as large emerging economies like Brazil, India and – most of all – China discover and start to flex their ever more powerful muscles). At the end of the 1920s, a crash on Wall Street could trigger a worldwide Great Depression and eighty years later the worldwide consequences of the collapse of Lehman Brothers showed how little has changed. Decisions made in Washington, in thousands of US boardrooms or by millions of American consumers have worldwide consequences. Culturally, from Hollywood to the music business to virtual reality the US remains the international powerhouse. Moreover, the world has become so networked, so interdependent and wired together that we have all been able to follow the long election campaign blow by blow online and even involve ourselves in countless discussions on the issues facing the electorate last Tuesday.

Well, the US electorate (or rather the 42% of them who actually turned out to vote) has decided that the Republicans will control the House for the next two years, the Democrats will have a narrow majority in the Senate and they’ll all have to work together (or not) with the Obama administration. The stringent US separation of legislature and executive has (not for the first time) led to a situation where Congress and the Presidency are controlled by different parties and can thus, more or less, checkmate each other. This is perhaps the most worrying consequence of the election outcome; gridlock, two years of which the country can very badly use at the moment.

But behind this election result can be seen much deeper streams and trends. At the heart of the campaign fought for the minds and hearts of the American people in the run-up to November 2 are questions concerning the nature of American society, the relationship between the individual and society and the role of government in society. These are fundamental questions about how to parse and interpret the basic revolutionary values as expressed in the other great 18th Century revolution, that of France; liberty, equality and fraternity. And all of this before an historical background which itself is not clear to many Americans, let alone outsiders.

Americans generally understand the Republicans as being more “right”, the Democrats as more “left” wing. What precisely is meant by right and left here is not easy to define, and is not always the same as what would be defined under these terms in other parts of the world. Simplifying enormously, the difference is more one of tendency, with the Democrats more inclined to stress the principle of equality while the Republicans tend more to liberty. At the same time, the Republicans would more quickly describe themselves as “conservative” while the epithet “liberal” can more conveniently be applied to the Democrats.

Seen from a European perspective, of course, what designates right and left in the USA is very much a question of gentle nuance, particularly when it comes to definitions of “left-wing” and the majority of US Democrats including President Obama, were they in Europe, would generally feel most at home in parties designated here as “centre-right.” But then, in Europe, “liberal” is usually not used as a pejorative either (the term “neo-liberal” is a different matter); most parties calling themselves “Liberal” are generally regarded as being in the middle of the political spectrum.

But many Americans, particularly those who regard themselves as more conservative, are deeply suspicious of Europeans anyway. The appeal of and to tradition, the history of the Revolution (nearly two and a half centuries ago now) and the colossal respect for the constitution makes them still tend to see us either as oppressed slaves of the unelected privileged classes or (sometimes simultaneously!) as dangerous statist socialists/communists. Europe is the old world from which the USA have liberated themselves and from which nothing can be learned. Those who would protest this view should remember Donald Rumsfeld’s scornful designation of those countries which showed themselves reluctant to get involved in the Iraq adventure in 2003 as “old Europe.” Yet, at the beginning with massive American help, Europe has generally been a wonderful success story since the end of World War II, expanding to include most of the Soviet Block following the collapse of the Iron Curtain twenty years ago. To give but one (central) example, most Western European countries have had comprehensive public health systems for half a century now and we are still both free and healthy.

But the tropes and memes of the Revolution are strong indeed, and all that seems necessary to harness the worries and fears of many ordinary Americans is the clarion call to rally against despotic big government and an overweening state which is acutely threatening the basic values of liberty and cannot solve any problems anyway. Throw in images of mad King George and heroes in frock-coats armed only with muskets and principles, add a president with a foreign father, an Arabic middle name and therefore possessing a whiff of un-American ideas such as socialism, and you’ve got yourself a movement. What seems to have been forgotten in all this is the other broad consensus which united the USA in the last historical situation in which it was faced with a financial and economic crisis comparable to the present one; Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Obama and the Democrats made mistakes in the past two years, no doubt about it. One ironic one is summed up in the three word phrase the Clinton campaign used to keep themselves on course in 1992, “The economy, stupid!” In retrospect it can be argued that the administration devoted too much time and effort to things like getting the Health Care measures through, rather than concentrating enough on the growing economic problems facing the country as a result of the financial meltdown (though in fairness it can also be argued that this was a campaign promise the president felt he had to keep). In doing so, Obama left himself open to two avenues of attack; that on health care itself and on his handling of the economy in general.

This is where the whole thing becomes confusing, even bizarre to us external observers. The issue of general social medicine – an issue which most Europeans take for granted – seems to be an issue on which many Americans regard their country as being fundamentally attacked in its constitutional foundations. The discussion, in many senses, left the practical area and became a powerful symbolic expression of a battle over the soul and identity of the American people and their national understanding. As such, it also served as a catalyst to focus worry over the future, suspicion of government in general and unease about the best way to handle the financial and economic crises. The result was the Tea Party and a major swing away from the Democrats.

I won’t go into that whole area further, the electorate has spoken and the lines have been drawn – at least for the next two years. Depressing as it may seem that the USA seems to be dominated by uncertainty, suspicion, anger and fear, this is not the only impression the past few weeks have left with me. The other, more hopeful image which remains are the very strange counter-protests last weekend, the rallies called out and inspired by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a chance for ordinary Americans to express their deep-seated wish for moderation, manners and dialogue with regard to the ongoing discussion of the nature of the civil society they live in and the political and economic problems it faces. It’s never easy to know when Stewart is being serious, but speaking before over 200,000 in Washington he seems to have epitomised what millions of Americans really feel:

... [Gestures across the Mall and toward the Capitol.] Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done – not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do. But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make …”

Now that’s a picture of America that I like. If only the politicians on all sides will listen. That French expression of the ideals behind the great revolutions of the late 18th Century comes to mind once more; Liberty, Equality … and Fraternity. It’s the last of these which contains and overcomes the tension between the first two.

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