The left wing dream of 2008, of a progressive hegemony America, suffered a fatal blow with the Tea Party reaction of 2010, and then died in 2012 with re-election of the 2008 Hope and Change president, who came back as a pragmatic centre-left American president (sort of Clinton without the same tactical genius) narrowly preferable for the median voter to a weak Republican candidate, only half supported by his own party. The 2010 dream of Tea Party conservatism, the dream of small ‘constitutional’ government based on ‘American’ values, and defining Europe as the bad opposite, also died with failure of Tea Party Republican candidates to progress in Congress, and the triumphalist rhetoric innate to that movement was left looking particularly feeble. The Tea Party despite their claims to be an irresistible movement of ‘we the people’, ‘returning’ to the original constitution and vision of America could not get one of their own as the Republican presidential candidate and stalled in capturing other Republican nominations. The extreme social conservative who helped Romney lose by repelling the median voter were often Tea Party favourites. American libertarians (who I wish well in their more moderate forms) divided between those who believe the Republican-Tea Party axis is the last best hope for liberty, and supporters of the Libertarian Party candidates Gary Johnson, who broadened Libertarian electoral appear, but from a very tiny base, so that he still leaves libertarianism as a fringe electoral force.
Both dreams will come back, both are endemic to American politics, but neither can really succeed. The idea that America was born as a perfect polity, Enlightenment secular for libertarians, religious traditional for conservatives, has such a powerful pull. The progressive idea of America as the land of expanding horizons of egalitarian progress in a land free of aristocracy, monarchy, and state church, will continue to drive Obama 2008 style fervour. American ‘progressives’ (i.e. the left) will, however, never convince rural, small town, suburban and low education level Americans that the country needs ever bigger and move active government giving jobs at the higher to people who are nothing like them, and think they known better what is good for them. On the other side, The Constitution is a set of rule for regulating relations between political institutions, and defining the broad rights of citizens, left over from the 18th century. It is not a plan for government, certainly not of the world as it is now. You cannot get a plan for small government whether of a socially libertarian kind or a conservative traditionalist kind through putting the Constitution on a pedestal, carrying it in your pockets at all time, quoting it obsessively, and all the other rituals associated with Tea Party conservatism, or even the less ritualistic reverence of most strands of American libertarianism, all of which come heavily enriched with a need not to be like Europe.
After months of partisan passion and domination of world news, the 2012 general elections in the United States leaves the political pattern apparently the same as in 2010. The Democrats have the Presidency and the Senate, the Republicans have the House of Representatives. There is considerable difference in context. The 201o Congressional elections were a massive rebuff to the Democrats and an apparent indication that a Republican Party fuelled by Tea Party energy could storm back from 2008 on a limit government, free market, constitutional originalist platform. That idea looks very tattered. The Republicans feel back in the House in this election, remained static in the Senate, though the Democrats looked vulnerable as nearly all the contests in the seats in contention this year (about one third of Senate seats are up for election every two years, senators have a 6 year term) were in seats they held. Since the Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney was a moderate (but inevitably painted by the left as the most extreme free marketer you could hope or fear to meet) the Republican conservatives including the Tea Party can blame the moderates, and the moderates can blame the conservatives, and I guess we’ll see a lot of that.
Obama won despite a poor economic situation during his first term, and might have been considered an automatic loser on that basis. However, it cannot be said that he won the election on his brilliant personal campaigning. Famously he flopped in the first television debate with Romney, and even before that appeared to be relying on Bill Clinton to bring inspiration. Give that federal debt grew, the government bailed out the car industry as well as banking (though the latter process started under Bush), new health legislation increased the role of the federal government in that sector, Obama’s re-election should be considered clear evidence that the American people are not uniquely enthusiastic for limited government and free markets. That kind of language is more mainstream than in most other countries, but has been shown to be irrelevant to electoral behaviour. The car bailout, which is particularly scandalous from a free market small government point of view, proved to be very popular. Gary Johnson made some progress with the Libertarian Party vote, but it is still far too small to be noticed in most news coverage. Since the Tea Party Republicans also did not continue to storm the heights of Congress, small government conservative and libertarian did not have a great election. This ought to be a reason for laying off America is a small government, enterprise country in an exceptional way, sort of talk, but it will take more than this election to do that. I’d be very happy to see progress for small government thinking of a kind which is socially liberal, and committed to state provision of core public goods and government efforts to maintain the income of the poorest, but Gary Johnson’s slight improvement on previous unimpressive Libertarian Party candidates is not evidence of an underlying thirst for small government and free enterprise.
Social liberalism made some progress in the elections, with yes votes for liberalising marijuana laws and allowing gay marriage in some states. That may be a sign of accelerating progress to come and is the most welcome aspect of the elections for me. Economic liberty did not fare well, though in some ways it’s difficult to tell. Romney resorted to trade and currency war with China language, the Tea Party is just as much motivated by angry social conservatism as by economic liberty, even though not all Tea Party people are not social conservatives. In reality the Tea Party provides an umbrella for various people who are angry with social democracy (or big government liberalism as its known in the United States) for various reasons. Talk about it being small ‘l’ libertarian is very dubious given that apart from debt and deficit reduction there is no consistent commitment of Tea Party people to any libertarian positions. The obsession with the Constitution in its supposedly original meaning is itself a form of conservatism, a sticking to old institutions and idealising the moment of origin. I guess the Tea Party will gradually diminish though as it reflects quite longstanding attitudes in some parts of the electorate in condemning the American left as un-American and covertly Marxist, or very close, I don’t expect it to just disappear, and when it does leave the stage other movement s will fill its place.
I do not see any shift to social democracy either, just evidence that America is a country addicted to expanding government, which it moves towards and then away from it in a rhythm that overall is one of moving toward big government. The absolutist attitude of the Tea Party, not even once cent in tax increase to reduce debt, whatever else might b of offer, the tendency to link favoured polities to the supposed original meaning of the Constitution, which is treated as an object of civic religion, might evolve towards something more pragmatic, but that’s not what got the Tea Party moving in the first place.
Obama won in both the popular vote and the electoral college, so no pressure on the absurd electoral college. There is a bit of noise coming from the right that he has a weak mandate because the margin in the popular vote is narrow. This is nonsense, in general terms, and in relation to the right’s addiction to claiming a proud defence of institutions going back to the 18th century. Much current rhetoric is all no surrender, and Davy Crockett at the Alamo, or it’s still 2010 so the revolution continues. This kind of fervour is sometimes OK as a political strategy but not all the time. The trouble with absolutism as a strategy is that it is by definition difficult to abandon, without a collapse into cynical pragmatism and even outright corruption since the restraining moral fervour has deflated. On the issue of resolute non co-operation, there is some hypocrisy here on the Democrat side, the Senate majority has been just as obstructive of Republicans as the House majority has been obstructive of Democrats. Obama’s personal style is in the tradition of left-liberal elites who cannot encounter other points of view without patronising them. If there is no change in this on both sides, then getting federal debt down is going to be very difficult, and things are going to get rougher as some kind of new and greater crisis becomes more and more lightly. The first good thing we must hope from the repetition of the 2010 stand off is that Washington representatives will concentrate on compromise, and will tell the Grover Norquists and the Paul Krugmans (very different people, but both key to promoting an arrogant pride in non-compromise and absolutism on both sides) to back off, stand down, step off, and so on. The Democrat absolutists have a new hero in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren. Even before this, there was talk of Warren going for the Presidential nomination. I do not usually do predictions, but I am sure that Warren does not have what it takes. She is not a Reagan or an Obama who can appeal to the hard core on their own side and still sound good to middle of the road voters. She could become the focal point of obstructionism over the next two years, I hope she finds another path
This has been a moderately good election for social liberalism, a really bad one for economic liberalisation, though I would guess we have seen the end of really big intrusions into the market economy on the scale of the car industry bail out and Obama care, so it’s not quite as bad as the economic populism on show in the election suggests. I hope for something like the compromises Harry Truman made with a Republican senate, and Clinton made with a Republican Congress. The party split between different branches of government is the best many libertarians hope for under the current two party system, and I go along with that. If the Republicans are more successful on the economic side, and Democrats are more successful on the social side, this could be a reasonable couple of years. A stand off between two dreams, before one of them roars back in revivalist fervour. A new vision of a libertarianism detached from constitutional conservatism, anti-Europeanism, anti-politics, absurd gurus, anarchist and minarchist utopianism would be good, but is not immediately in sight, not at all.