The Democrats suffered spectacular losses in the US mid-term elections, but they still want to impose their views on voters
On Wednesday morning, after his party had suffered spectacular losses in the US mid-term elections, Barack Obama told his country what all defeated political leaders must: “I hear you.” The trouble was that what he had heard was somewhat different from what the electorate had said.
As his press conference progressed, it became apparent that what Mr Obama believed that voters across the country were telling him was that they were fed up with the whole of the federal governing class in Washington for its failure “to get things done”. In other words, it was the obstructionism of the Republican Congress as much as his White House that was the object of national frustration and anger. Which might cause you to wonder why people did not simply stay at home to express their disgust rather than vote so overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.
But we must see the Obama interpretation of events not as outraged vanity (well, not entirely): in fact, it is remarkably consistent with the world view of Left-liberal politicians in other places. Indeed, the difficulties of Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership have some striking parallels with the Obama delusion. The nub of it was captured neatly by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who rode home to victory on the Republican wave and is now most likely to become Senate Majority Leader. He diagnosed the collapse of the Democrats’ popularity as being caused by “…a government too busy imposing its views on those who don’t share them”. The Left has always been comfortable with “imposing its views” on populations, large proportions of which do not share them, because it genuinely believes that those views represent the only possible social good: they are not simply one side of an argument in which your opponents can be seen as conscientious and well-meaning (even if mistaken).
Left-liberal ideology is based on the notion that its programme is the inexorable face of the future: the force of enlightenment engaged in a fight to the death with the benighted past. Those ordinary people who cannot see the light, because they have been deceived by the wicked and self-serving (“class enemies” in the original Marxist formulation) who exploit their ignorance and trick them into voting or agitating against their own true interests, must have this righteous vision imposed upon them for their own good.
It is this doctrine of inevitability that puts Left-wing politics in a realm of its own and justifies its casual attitude to democracy: if you resist, you are pitting yourself against the future. You must realise your error. If you don’t, you may justifiably be dismissed as irrelevant (or worse). Those who refuse to accept the righteous path or who attempt to obstruct it can be assumed to be deliberately malign. Note the similarity here to arguments now being made in Britain by social liberals who insist that anyone who does not accept their prospectus must be ruled out of public discourse.
So Mr Obama – and Mr Miliband, too – face the prospect of carrying on with an ideology that must see itself as the vision of the future, when, in fact, it has become the spectre of the discredited past. The Obama Democrats are perhaps at a greater disadvantage here since they have chosen to lead America toward the economic dilemma that Britain and Europe are now desperate to escape. Bizarrely, the social-democratic high-spend/high-tax economic model that everyone except the diehards of the European Commission can see is a fatal route to decline is the one that the American Left has chosen to adopt.
So what does all this mean for the practical electoral politics of the US and of Britain? The triumphant Republicans are determined to prove that they are not the obstructionists of Mr Obama’s depiction.
Having been characterised as the party of “no” and earned considerable notoriety for their willingness to shut down the federal government rather than give the president what he demanded, they are now making obliging noises about conciliation and compromise. But Mr Obama, in his strangely unrepentant comments of the morning after, made it fairly clear that while he might deign to have the odd conversation with Congressional Republicans, he was in no mind to step back from his own objectives.
His idea of being reasonable, apparently, is for everybody to agree to what he wants. He actually said at one point that if Republicans suggested ideas that he agreed with, he “wouldn’t have a problem” with the fact that they were Republicans. In other words, he would be prepared to make a deal with Evil itself if it was momentarily prepared to be reasonable.
This demonic view of your political opponents is no longer exclusively Left-wing, of course. In the US it has been used by the Right to brand even mildly liberal policies as “socialist” (or during the Cold War, as covert communism). But American politics is, or should be, constitutionally protected from command economy measures and overweening central government, which makes these debates far more febrile than they are in Britain. US presidents who play fast and loose with the Founding Fathers’ intentions are on much more dangerous legal ground than Labour leaders who threaten to seize the levers of economic power. In the UK, this may be the stuff of heated debate, but in the US it becomes a matter for impeachment. The power of a British prime minister with a healthy majority is far greater than that of an American president.
And yet, the electoral problems of the Left here and there are remarkably similar. One useful lesson for Labour from these US mid-term elections is the hazardous tactic of relying on a “rainbow coalition” of marginalised minorities to outmanoeuvre more conservative public opinion. The Hispanic vote that had once gone overwhelmingly for Obama has now fractured. States with large Latino populations sent Republicans to the Senate and elected Republican governors. In UK terms, for Hispanic, read Asian. A Labour Party that insists on the moral absolutism of its Left-wing programme might repel the small-business owners in the Asian community as surely as Obama’s Democrats alienated ambitious Hispanic voters.
All that it takes for a tenuous electoral coalition to fall apart is for the minorities who compose it to realise that they have little in common with each other and an absolute right to judge for themselves what is in their political interests.
That is when the feelings of the great mass of the population – what used to be called the “silent majority” – become inescapable. These are the people who may have been traduced as ignorant or backward but whose solid confidence in their right to hold politicians accountable will not be given up. For all the moral browbeating to which they are subjected, they insist on having their own ideas about what kind of future they want to see.