Yesterday afternoon while trying to reset my brain from the fog of the first few days of a new year, a friend was talking to me about the big electoral year ahead of us. American, UK and Irish general elections (among millions of others going to the polls including… Russia) could shift the entire cultural paradigm for this decade. The shocks of 2016 where only a minor mandate for change, as the inability of Trump and Boris Johnson in particular to implement meaningful long-term reforms has demonstrated.
Trump came up with my friend, he is convinced he won’t make it this time. I am more fatalistic and think he will win, along with the bookies and seemingly every American pundit. Even the most ardent Democrats are exhausted by an ailing elder statesman in Joe Biden. His Afghan withdrawal, necessitated in part due to foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration, was shambolic and anyway it was clear from his days as VP to Obama that he never supported the intervention there. He has been a domestic president, the inflation reduction act being one of his largest achievements which observers fear has sowed the seeds of protectionism.
Aside from the stances over immigration, his seemingly impeachable moral character with the Christian right, his debt-funded tax cuts or his ‘America First’ isolationism; I think Trump will win in part due to the legal issues he currently faces. You read that correctly, I think the legal challenges will actually help rather than hinder Trump.
So much of the last decade was a smashing of the status quo, however it came at a cost to institutions and to the unwritten rules of politics. In the UK these are convention, custom and tradition which can often become absurd or archaic like Parliament’s attempt to control the political agenda under Theresa May’s premiership.
But if one thing unites American and in particular English attitudes to political culture it is sport. In all sports there is one golden thread, the “level playing field.” There are deviations to this, such as players being removed to be sanctioned for incursions of the rules, but this tends to be a high bar and generally doesn’t interfere with the principal of a level playing field.
What the of Trump being taken off the ballot? Is it a red card of last resort or a piece of judicial activism slapped down by liberal judges? You could perhaps deduce by now my own opinion on the matter. I believe it is entirely proper on the basis of evidence considered in court and released to the public domain of state officials being asked to “find votes” and riotous behaviour incited by someone who most definitely knows better.
However sadly, I feel that I am in the minority. In our culture, particularly the English speaking world, this sense of a ‘level playing field’ has resulted in a “ballot fundamentalism” which used to sound like a terrific idea in the 1990s and 2000s when the electorate where broadly supporting of globalising liberal democracy – which policy elites loved. However today they have different ideas and this tests the limits of the rules, customs, codes and ethics meant to guardrail democracy.
Ballot fundamentalism is all you are left with when screams of “once in a generation” or “stop the gridlock” or indeed “stop the steal [so that my guy can steal]” are hurled instead of policy or values based political debate taking place. Can we ever escape ballot fundamentalism? Is it good? Is it just a manifestation of populism or something deeper? In 2025 we will have our answer.