US elections still matter — even if the parties flip their positions
The governing party will continue to affect the politics, economics and culture of the world
There will come a point in our lifetime when China nominally overtakes the US in GDP terms. It still won’t be a rich country, as it has about four times as many people as the US, and China’s GDP figures are manipulated by crude economic tricks such as purchasing power parity, so it will not be the most powerful, and certainly not the most influential, country in the world.
We are unlikely to see any Chinese institution supplant Harvard or Hollywood, nor can anyone see Mandarin overtaking English (either the Jersey or the New Jersey version) as the world’s leading language.
Even with China as titular number one it is hard to see people risking their lives to move there. And few countries, not even Myanmar, aspire to its political system.
So US elections matter, especially when they provide a decisive outcome.
From the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the direction was towards free markets and smaller governments. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 on the back of his catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” yet two years later in more benign economic times his Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives.
At least at the time there was a lot of agreement between the parties on what came to be known as the Washington Consensus, free markets and lower taxes. If anything, it was the Democrats who were keener on regulation in the 1990s than the Republicans. If it hadn’t been for Clinton’s pragmatic probusiness approach the US might have adopted a more closed architecture on the internet and made it hard to start up new websites.
Now it is the Republicans, or at least President Donald Trump and his hangers-on, who are in favour of a protectionist approach. It is not the first time the parties have flipped positions — from the mid-19th century until at least the First World War it was the Republicans, the party of northern industrialists, who favoured high tariffs. Then for about 50 years until Clinton’s rise they switched sides.
Clinton’s legacy has been tainted by his personal shortcomings, but his economic record was outstanding. He left a budget surplus, and was fortunate enough not to be confronted with any serious wars — his terms spanned the time between the first and second Iraq wars — so the US ended the 1990s in far better shape than it began them.
Yet that did not help Clinton’s successor, Al Gore, when he went up against George W Bush in 2000. Of course, it was a controversial election decided in the end by the Supreme Court, but there’s no doubt that if Clinton had been allowed to run for a third term he would have walked it. And more people related to Bush’s B-plus intellect than to Gore’s wonkishness.
This week’s midterm elections might not change much in the way the US presents itself to the outside world. The president still has substantial freedom when it comes to foreign affairs.
The house may be back in Democratic Party hands but it can’t prevent Trump from seeking another photo opportunity with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, or even imposing sanctions on Iran.
The Senate has a lot more influence as it can vet incoming members of the administration, influencing both foreign and domestic policy. It is sad to see centrist Democratic senators such as Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri lose their seats, as they represented a bridge between the staunchly Trumpite Republicans and their “liberal” (left-wing but not quite socialist) colleagues on the Democratic side.
The house tends to attract a more radical fruitcake element
— I won’t name anyone, but a Democratic house, with a relatively thin majority should still bring some sanity to the domestic debates such as the future of the Obamacare health system.
Many journalists are also hoping that the house will start a slew of investigations into Trump. This will certainly be financially good for at least one sector — my own in the news media. Even overseas, people can’t seem to get enough of Trump and his increasingly ridiculous antics. In fact, many of the dwindling band of Republican intellectuals (as rare as marketing actuaries) have now publicly disowned him. George Will of the Washington Post is a good example.
Just about everybody I talk to here in Johannesburg sees the Democrats as “our side” .I realised that in my dozen or so visits to the US, I had barely set foot in a Red (Republican) state. I may not be typical, as on my last visit to New York I did not even set foot on the US mainland, but then there is enough to do in Manhattan to keep you busy for several lifetimes.
Like most visitors, my trips have focused on the northeast and the three West Coast states, all Blue/Democratic.
I have also been to Virginia and Colorado, but these states are moving more into the blue column. Republican moderates such as Bill Weld in Massachusetts or Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey are almost extinct.
Too many Republicans have a “guns and God” approach, to which anyone from Europe, or even Canada, struggles to relate. In SA we can picture these, as they are mirrored in Afriforum.
But imagine Afriforum expressing its views at an international conference. Along with their counterparts from Waco, they might not even pass the dress code at Davos.
Yet the text books said it would be impossible to win an election simply by pandering to the white redneck vote. Many Democratic congressmen were complacent about bringing out the vote in 2016, but proved much more effective this time around. In fact, new voters were the key to most victories, not, as you might think, disillusioned Trump supporters coming back into the fold.
Photo-op: President Donald Trump’s Republican Party lost the House, but retained the Senate on Tuesday, which means the House is likely to see a greater level of sanity in debates about health care, immigration, gun control and other domestic issues.