02 November 2012

The US election and a cautionary tale for the right-wing left

Only a few days to go before the US election now, which I haven't covered in anything like as much detail as the 2008 election. Part of the reason is that the primaries weren't as exciting this time. Although I'd thought there was a strong possibility that Obama would face a primary challenger along the lines of Ted Kennedy's attempted assassination of Jimmy Carter in 1980, that didn't happen; left-wing discontent has been channelled through Jill Stein of the Greens. The GOP contest was interesting in 2011, before the primaries started, as a series of debates even longer than the interminable 2010 UK Labour leadership election threw up one right-wing nutjob after another. Perry, Cain, Santorum... they were all briefly front-runners before the momentum swung inexorably back to Romney.

Ah, yes, Mitt Romney. The supposedly unelectable plank who is, and now within a statistical margin of error of winning the election... based on the polling evidence expertly collated by Nate Silver, this election is going to be probably as close as 2000. At the moment, the popular vote looks pretty much like a dead heat, with Obama ahead by a few percentage points in the key swing states and thus holding an advantage in the electoral college. It's quite possible that Romney could win the popular vote and lose in the electoral college, precipitating another insane result like 2000, when the infamous election thief and war criminal George W Bush squeaked through thanks to dodgy shenanigans in Florida and the bias of the Supreme Court. Somehow I doubt the Republicans will just lie down and die in the face of such a perverse result the way (shamefully) that the Democrats did 12 years ago.... prepare for militia on the streets and civil war if Obama does get in that way.

And that, strangely enough, brings me on to why the last 4 years in the USA, and this election, is a cautionary tale for everyone on what we might call the "right of the left" - machine Democrats hugging Wall Street close in America, that strand of post-Blairite centre-right thinking which identifies itself as left in the UK, and their brethren elsewhere. The right has reached the stage in most "Anglo-Saxon" countries now - the US, Britain, Canada, Australia - where it is in no mood to shilly-shally about or compromise with "centrist" policies, and instead has decided to offer a hard-right blueprint for power. And, very often, the right is succeeding - because it is prepared to chew up and spit out its opponents, whereas the left wants to sit them down for a cuppa and a little "fireside chat". Take a look at what the last 4 years have done to Barack Obama. Elected on a wave of hope in November 2008 - largely because he was not George W Bush - his slogan was "Yes We Can". His margin of victory was clear but not a landslide - 53% of the vote, compared to 46% for John McCain. Nonetheless, this wasn't a disputed skin-of-the-teeth victory like Bush in 2000; this was a real win, and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with large majorities.

Faced with this, the GOP was largely expected to capitulate, bury its head in its hands for a couple of years and re-emerge with centre-right policies that might be at least vaguely appropriate for a 21st century industrialised nation. Instead, what we got was the Tea Party - a bizarre action movie remake of the Republicans as even more hard right than they had been under George Bush. The movement began as an "astroturf" affair with billions of pounds of funding from oligarchs like the Koch brothers, but, once it had dawned on the "average Joe" that Obama was completely in the pocket of Wall St, and completely behind the banking bail-out, the Tea Party became a mass phenomenon. The Republicans simply refused to cooperate with Obama's stimulus package or any other legislation, played as hardball as they could with the new President, and were awarded with control of the House of Representatives and a big swing towards them in the Senate in the 2010 midterms. Before that, it had been difficult for Obama to get legislation through (a Mitt Romney-inspired health care reform act and a badly targeted stimulus package were the only major things he managed before November 2010); after the midterms, the situation degenerated into complete stasis.

The lessons from this episode in US political history are: firstly, being an extremist is no bar to electoral support. In fact, in some situations it may help. The US has changed a lot since Barry Goldwater went down to a 61-39% pasting against LBJ in 1964 on a hard-right platform. Nowadays, if Goldwater were on the ballot he would probably win, or at least be roughly even-stevens with Obama - after all, Romney is, and in many ways he's a pretty lame candidate, certainly the most unconvincing major party nominee since Bob Dole in 1996. At some point the Republicans realised that they could win - or at least be in with a shot of winning - no matter how right wing their platform was, because they had institutions capable of distorting reality to fit that platform. I'm thinking here of FOX News, the whole network of right-wing think tanks, and all the rest of the conservative apparatus. (There is a very good discussion of the development of "movement conservatism" from the 1960s onwards in Paul Krugman's book The Conscience of A Liberal which I thoroughly recommend). There are hints of Hitler's propagandist Goebbels in modern GOP propadanga; they subscribe to the idea that the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. In an environment in which paranoia, distrust and cynicism about authority and the government in particular have (understandably) come to be the mainstream position, there is plenty for the GOP to work with in terms of "myth-spreading". In this environment, the old Clintonite strategy of triangulation is a dead duck. If you move to a position halfway between where you were and where your opponent is, your opponent will keep on moving further to the right until eventually your house of cards collapses. Any left-of-centre politician who thinks triangulation can work as a strategy against the Tea Party is insane.

Secondly, any politician who underestimates his or her opponent is a fool. I haven't had time to watch the presidential debates yet but it's quite clear that Obama came into the debate thinking Romney was a klutz and an easy knockdown. In the end, Romney performed well and Obama ended up looking like a lame-ass. Obama was heading to a relatively easy win (though not as emphatic as 2008) before that first debate; since then, he's been in a razor-sharp contest. There is simply no point in assuming your opponent is an imbecile. The left are particularly guilty of this; I'll let you in to a little secret - DUBYA BUSH WAS NOT A MORON! Sure, he had limitations (which he was well aware of); but he was a skilled political operator and slugger within those parameters. And he was utterly unscrupulous. When the 2015 UK election starts to get down and dirty, Ed Miliband could learn a lot from studying Bush's conduct of himself in the close elections of 2000 and 2004.

Thirdly, anyone who thinks Obama's reelection next week will "see off" the Republicans, or the Tea Party, is a fool. They are very likely to hold onto the House of Representatives and thus will be able to block pretty much every policy proposal Obama makes; and they will be gearing up for 2016, when they will be hoping to bring through a much more able presidential candidate (e.g. Marco Rubio), with a much better chance of winning. Probably on an even more right-wing ticket than this time.

And on that depressing note I finally realise that I've written a mini-essay which is giving me Repetitive Strain Injury. Oh well; you wait a month for a post and then it's a book.

One last thing I wanted to address - the issue of third party candidates. What would I do if I were in a swing state? In all honesty I'd probably vote for Jill Stein. Not because Obama is just the same as Romney.... Romney is undoubtedly worse. But because simply being better than Romney isn't good enough. In the long run, unless enough people on the US left stand up and say "we have no confidence in the Democrats under the present structure, it's a piece of shit and we're not standing for it" there won't be any change. I think the Democratic party is probably going to fall to pieces in the next 20 years anyway... maybe splintering into something in the centre which would absorb all the Reaganite Republicans chucked out of the GOP for being too left wing, and then a hard left-Green bloc. And it's in that left-Green bloc that the future of US progressive politics lies. The sooner there is a left party with 15-20% of the vote, the better; when the US turns into Greece (which can't be far down the line, given the fiscal position), it will be radicals on left and right who reap the rewards. As Tony Benn said in the UK in 1979, "we are going to have a bit more left and a bit more right, and a lot less of the soggy centre". Amen to that.

Lastly I should put in a good word for Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. I disagree with him on a lot of things but this piece by him on marijuana legalisation is first class and I can understand why some left liberals are thinking of voting for him. He seems to be an honest person, something which is hard to find in either of the two major parties.

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