For a country that is much derided for the way it exercises its hard power overseas, the US can be commended for one thing above all others: it’s huge devotion to the exercise of democracy. Kevin Anderson of our US panel:
Last year, I worked with Tunisian journalists as they prepared to cover their elections. I was touched by their honesty when they said at the beginning of the training that they had never covered an election in which they didn’t know the outcome.
Think about that for a moment. For decades, journalists there knew who would win. There was no horse race, as flawed as that type of coverage can be. The result was known even before a single vote was cast.
So, a couple of things worth noting from Tuesday:
– The US electorate voted for a black President for the second time with barely a public mind to the question of race;
– Karl Rove and many rich donors lost their collective shirts backing not just one losing ticket, but small tickets right across the Union.
There’s no question that President Obama’s colour energised a much larger base this time, helped no doubt by the springing of the likes of internet controversialist Ann Coulter on national television and, more importantly, the tilt in demographics towards racial minorities.
But in all kerfuffle, the biggest argument was about America’s mountainous debt and it’s fragile, jobless recovery. And, in truth, President Obama barely shaded it. America remains, in the immediate wake of Tuesday’s result, a 50/50 nation.
To our European mind (where strong party systems often matter more than candidates) the US seems overly devoted to the exercise of democratic choice, with school boards, and police commissioners as well as powerful city mayoralties all up for grabs.
And its electorates are wary of handing out power willy nilly to one party or faction. In the midst of a terrific recession with terrific levels of accumulated debt they plumped for the same split status quo from before the whole thing began.
In this hyper democracy, conventional political terms don’t really make the journey across the Atlantic without some considerable adjustment in the process. Conservative, for instance, does not even mean in the US what it means in Canada.
Post War of Independence, the US has become a whiggish Republic of often competing, ill tempered and unbiddable radicals; it’s political tradition as mobile and protean as the creative destruction of the market place to which it is so devoted.
The role of the main party structures (the DNC and the RNC) is not to ‘whip’ individuals into line, but to facilitate and support (though not pay for) individual campaigns nationwide.
It has allowed for a huge degree of evolution in the traditions of both parties.
If there is an identifiable long term argument going, it’s highly internalised one and, by European terms at least, resides firmly on the centre right. Much like Irish politics it is a long term (often esoteric) argument about the nature of the state.
It began as a tension between the particularists versus the advocates of strong government amongst the revolutionary party, ie the Whigs.
Right now, the country is split 50/50 right down the middle. Yes, of course the demographic question has had an enormous bearing on the GOP’s failure to take back the reigns of national government this time
But the Republican candidate was also weighed down by the unacknowledged fact that the debt problem originated with President Bush’s low tax/high spend policy in the years before the crash of 07.
It is too often forgotten (in the rush to dismiss them as a right wing loonies) that the Tea Party began as a critical, if popular, protest against the US Republican leadership, rather than an anti-Democrat coalition per se.
As Michael Dougherty puts it in the State of the Union blog at the American Conservative: the GOP has to become a trustworthy governing party again. That’s a tough objective in country of 314,159,265 (at the latest count) liverish radicals.
Taking some pragmatic control in Congress in order to face down the fiscal cliff would be start.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty