An anti-in­cum­bent mood in the Western world

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

Since the end of World War II, in both the United States and Western Europe, the best way to win a national elec­tion has been to be the in­cum­bent po­lit­i­cal party. But that 3-gen­er­a­tion-old pre­dis­po­si­tion in Western democ­ra­cies may be com­ing to an end.

We may well be en­ter­ing a po­lit­i­cal epoch in which the best way to win a national elec­tion in the West is not to be the party in power.

For the past 65 years, the world eco­nomic or­der has been vastly fa­vor­able to the West’s mid­dle-class cit­i­zens and vot­ers with their in­comes go­ing up steadily or at least flat­ten­ing at a pre­dictable and com­fort­able ma­te­rial level. More­over, the mid­dle-class fears of eco­nomic hard­ship was vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated by the ex­is­tence of the wel­fare safety net.

Thus, while in­cum­bent gov­ern­ments even­tu­ally get de­feated be­cause of scan­dals or sim­ply hav­ing worn out their wel­come, gen­eral pub­lic sat­is­fac­tion with eco­nomic con­di­tions has ben­e­fited ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ments that as mat­ter of course are seen to be de­liv­er­ing such pros­per­ity.

As a re­sult, in the United States — with the ex­cep­tion of Jimmy Carter, whose vic­tory was a fluke re­sult­ing from of the Water­gate scan­dal — nei- ther the Demo­cratic nor Repub­li­can Party has held the White House for less than eight years in a row since World War II. Sim­i­larly in Bri­tain, the Con­ser­va­tive and the La­bor par­ties have traded pe­ri­ods of rule of 13, 15, 18 and 13 years’ du­ra­tion (again, with one short ex­cep­tion) since World War II. Ger­many, like­wise, has traded long du­ra­tions of lead­er­ship be­tween the Chris­tian Demo­cratic and So­cial Demo­cratic par­ties of 22, eight and 16 years. Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel is in her sev­enth year. France gave its Gaullist Party 23 straight years of rule fol­lowed by the So­cial­ist Party’s 14 straight years of rule.

It is this long tra­di­tion to which liv­ing mem­ory can­not re­call an al­ter­na­tive that has guided the as­sump­tion that in­cum­bent pres­i­dents and pre­miers are fa­vored in re-elec­tion.

Also, whether con­sciously or not, it is this ex­pec­ta­tion of re­elec­tion (in the ab­sence of scan­dal or other shock­ing de­vel­op­ment) that has tended to in­duce Western gov­ern­ments to kick pol­icy cans down the road rather than risk un­likely de­feat by bold shifts of pol­icy.

But if my the­ory is right, the elec­toral ground is shift­ing un­der the feet of elected lead­ers of the United States, France, Ger­many, Bri­tain, Spain, Por­tu­gal, Fin­land, the Nether­lands and most of the rest of the demo­cratic world.

In vir­tu­ally all the demo­cratic coun­tries, the cur­rent elected lead­ers are at 40 per­cent or be­low in job-ap­proval rat­ings. Sixty-eight per­cent of French vot­ers want to re­place Ni­co­las Sarkozy. The Ital­ian govern­ment coali­tion un­der Prime Min­is­ter Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni suf­fered a crush­ing de­feat in lo­cal elec­tions a few months ago. Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron has climbed back up to a mere 40 per­cent ap­proval level af­ter cut­ting short his va­ca­tion to come back and talk tough about Lon­don ri­ot­ers.

This anti-in­cum­bent bias against Western demo­cratic gov­ern­ments will grow and per­sist un­til the cor­re­la­tion of world eco­nomic forces are seen once again to be fa­vor­able — or at least sat­is­fac­tory — to the mid­dle class. This is a mighty chal­lenge.

The emer­gence of a more or less fun­gi­ble world la­bor mar­ket means that Western wages will con­tinue to be pulled down by the 2 bil­lion po­ten­tial new work­ers in China and In­dia. The in­stan­ta­neous move­ment of cap­i­tal world­wide puts grind­ing pres­sure on Western em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees to be ever more pro­duc­tive. The delever­ag­ing of ex­cess debt — both pub­lic and pri­vate — in the United States and the rest of the West also is prob­a­bly go­ing to con­tinue to cre­ate eco­nomic agony for more than a decade.

Once it be­comes un­der­stood by Western politi­cians that in­cum­bency is likely to lead to de­feat, not re-elec­tion, a pos­i­tive side ef­fect is likely to be bold, even des­per­ate pol­icy ini­tia­tives by in­cum­bents.

Pres­i­dent Obama may be the last Amer­i­can pres­i­dent (for the du­ra­tion of this anti-in­cum­bent epoch I am pre­dict­ing) who will per­mit him­self to be stuck in a pas­sive con­di­tion and as­sume that the trap­pings of in­cum­bency will nat­u­rally lead to his re-elec­tion.

Whether they are so­cial­ist or free-mar­ket politi­cians, we are likely to see them press hard in the near fu­ture for more vivid ver­sions of their pol­icy pro­pos­als. Kick­ing the can down the road will be seen as risky — not safe — pol­i­tics. We are just be­gin­ning to see hints of this on the Medi­care is­sue.

We also should ex­pect to see ever-stronger third par­ties. This is al­ready hap­pen­ing in Europe, which does not have the strong two-party tra­di­tion we have in the United States. But it will hap­pen in the U.S. as well — and sooner than we may ex­pect.

These third par­ties are likely to have eclec­tic pol­icy com­bi­na­tions. For ex­am­ple, the faste­merg­ing True Finn Party in Fin­land is a mix of cul­tural (eth­nic/re­li­gious) con­ser­vatism and hos­til­ity to the Euro­pean Union, but pro-so­cial ben­e­fits for Finns. The hall­mark of third par­ties will be na­tion­al­is­tic and “do what it takes” eco­nom­i­cally to pro­tect the mid­dle class from the global pres­sures.

If we are lucky in the United States, this will be a his­toric op­por­tu­nity for the re-emer­gence of a starkly dereg­u­lated free mar­ket.

Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s New Deal never could have been sold to the pub­lic in the ab­sence of the per­ceived fail­ure of Hooverism. Dereg­u­lated free mar­kets would not be given a se­ri­ous re­con­sid­er­a­tion across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum with­out the im­mi­nently man­i­fest fail­ure of the Obama model.

Tony Blank­ley is the author of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take to Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” (Reg­n­ery, 2009) and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic re­la­tions firm in Washington.

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