Just as they would for a World Cup final, or an Olympic 100m race, millions of people will be glued to their television screens (and probably Twitter feeds) on Tuesday evening (or, more likely, Wednesday morning) to watch the sprint finish of a much more important event. The US Presidential elections are finally happening. If Mitt the Twit wins, the world loses.
At first sight, it seems reasonable that the election is close. American politics is heavily polarised, with only two (plausible) party options at each elections. Barack Obama promised much in 2008, and was inevitably constrained by the political system. Many on the left, such as Paul Krugman, argue that he could and should have been much bolder in his initiatives, with particular regard to the stimulus package that staved off depression, and the health care reforms that were modelled on proposals offered by Republicans (albeit of a different era). Many on the right, meanwhile, set out to stop Obama on Day One, believing him to be an illegitimate imposter, hell-bent on destroying America. They are naturally disappointed that he managed to get anything done at all.
At the same time, it is therefore extremely strange that this election is close. Mitt Romney, an ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ politician, who is able to present himself as just about anything, succeeded in beating off his mostly buffoonish Republican challengers by shifting so far to the right on everything from taxation (no increases, ever), to climate change (pah, liberal hoax), to women’s rights (but he has binders full of them, don’t forget). He too made enormous gaffes along the way, most recently with his claim that 47% of Americans feel like victims, don’t pay tax and would never vote for him. He is also the son of a former Governor of Michigan, George Romney, and a former private equity tycoon. In the current, ‘anti-establishment’, ‘anti-Wall Street’ climate, it is quite incredible that he has managed to get so far. Moreover, he is from the same Republican Party that is responsible for turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit under the Presidency of a certain George W Bush. But by virtually airbrushing the last Republican President from history (note how infrequently his name is uttered, or how he did not even attend the Republican Convention), Mitt Romney can present himself as a fresh ‘change’. (This, despite 17 of his 24 special advisers on foreign policy coming from Mr Bush’s old team). Indeed, he and his Ayn Rand-loving Vice-President, Paul Ryan, would present a change – by rolling back the state (and perhaps even society) to a pre-modern age, that is. Indeed, there is reason to expect the rate of lethal violence to increase if the Republicans recapture the White House, as – with the exception of the Eisenhower years – has always happened in the past hundred years.
Should we care so much, if we don’t live in the US? While Mr Obama and Mr Romney disagreed quite strongly (or sleepily, apparently) in the first two debates, in the ‘debate’ on foreign policy there was little substantial dispute between the two. But that does not mean they would be the same in the domain of foreign policy. That debate, as the Princeton professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, points out, contained almost nothing beyond discussion of the Middle East and China, in which the usual platitudes were uttered. Very little, if anything, was said on climate change, world trade, poverty, energy, NATO, or the Eurozone (although apparently the US will turn into Greece if Mitt is not elected). That was not a debate about foreign policy, but a way for the two candidates to win independent voters with narrow interests in swing states. It should not be taken too seriously as a sign that the two men agree.
More useful would be to look at their parties. One is almost wholly infected with the idea that climate change is not man-made, so does not require any remedy or policy solutions (but hey, if the rest of the world wants to damage their economies by abating pollution and curbing emissions, that’s their problem). One still holds the thoroughly discredited idea that hard power is the most useful foreign policy tool, and that multilateralism is a conspiracy. One still has neo-conservatives posing as “experts” within it. One would start a trade war with China.
I am of course talking about the Republican Party. The Democrats are not angelic (which political party is?), but they remain a far better alternative from an international perspective. They may be too happy to use drones, but I don’t expect an invasion of another country (Iran included) anytime soon. And they wouldn’t fall over themselves to scrap the EPA – for they generally accept that sometimes heretical thing called ‘science’.
While we might deplore the frequently mendacious nature of political debate in the US, at least deliberation about political ideals is, to an extent, occurring. Viciously partisan it may be, but the discussion often centres around which values should underpin (capitalist) society. Those on the radical right yearn for total economic liberty, accompanied by the enforcement of morals (even in the bedroom). Those on the left emphasise substantive equal opportunity, with individuals free to pursue their own conception of ‘the good’. In many ways, this is a full-on culture clash, and to call both Presidential candidates ‘the same’ is ludicrously inaccurate.
(When compared to this, British politics seems completely ‘post-political’, with so much of the discussion focusing on the technocratic: such as about optimal levels of taxation, and efficient administration of the welfare state (through universal credit, for example). The late social democratic historian, Tony Judt, forcefully decried the apparent hollowness in this debate. Little wonder then that Westminster politics is often seen as more wonkish, and less exciting.)
Will Mitt and his protégé, Mr Ryan, succeed in winning the White House and modelling America in their image by slashing spending and inevitably increasing inequality in the process? Nate Silver, a predictioneer of the New York Times, suggests not. By using a complex algorithm – which, as the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman points out is a far more reliable method of prediction than ‘expert judgement’ – that takes into account the significant variables, he gives Mr Obama an 85% chance of winning (as of 4th November). No wonder he, along with all other pollsters that suggest Obama is winning, are accused of ‘liberal bias’.
We have reason then, to be confident. But if Mitt Romney is victorious, he, as President of the USA, still has the power to effect change globally. It wouldn’t be pretty. If Mitt the Twit wins, I’ll be emigrating to the Moon.