Why the world relates to US elections

14 Sep 2008, 0055 hrs IST,
Shashi Tharoor

The US presidential elections have entered the home stretch. As i write, in the wake of the Republican Convention, the respected Zogby/Reuters poll has just put the Republican ticket of senator John McCain and governor Sarah Palin ahead of the Democratic pairing of senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden, by 49.6% to 45.7%. Obviously, this may change even in the few days before this column appears in print, and further changes are inevitable during the seven weeks that still remain before Election Day on November 4. In 1980, it was only after the presidential debate in October that the challenger, Ronald Reagan, broke free of a statistical tie with the incumbent, president Jimmy Carter, and went on to win decisively. At lunchtime on Election Day in 2004, pundits were confidently predicting a Kerry victory on the basis of exit polls, before Bush turned it around with the results of the second half of the day. As American sports commentators like to say, "it ain't over till it's over."

But one thing is clear. The country is closely divided ideologically - each of the last two elections came down to the wire, with the final victory a matter of a handful of electoral college votes (and in 2000, the loser, Al Gore, actually won more popular votes than the winner, George W Bush). At long last, American democracy has truly evolved a two-party system that the rest of the world can relate to.

For decades, the rest of the world saw the contest between Democrats and Republicans as rather difficult to take seriously. Even the names of the two main parties are carefully unideological labels which blur into interchangeability (after all, every Republican is a democrat and every Democrat a republican). The populist consumer advocate Ralph Nader likes to charge that they are really a one "Republicrat" party. I remember the 1960s British comedy revue Beyond the Fringe making the same point. "The Americans, like us in England, have a two-party system," Dudley Moore explained to Peter Cook. "They have the Republican party, which is like our Conservative party, and they have the Democratic party, which is like" - pause - "our Conservative party."

As late as 2000, many foreign observers saw the election as a case of "Bush versus Gore, Bore versus Gush, what's the difference?" The two parties' presidential candidates, time after time, tended to be unideological centrists whose main differences were defined by their personalities - what one comic called Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. Indeed, in comparison with the ideological gulfs that divide the main contenders in other democracies, America's Democrats and Republicans seemed to disagree only tangentially. The French political scientist Maurice Duverger once explained that politics in India involves conflict over basic principles and in Britain, conflict over subsidiary principles, whereas in the US, party politics amounts to a conflict without principles. For both parties agree on most things: liberal democracy, free-enterprise capitalism, low taxes and superpower status abroad.

And where they disagree - as on how much to tax whom, on cultural values, on economic interventionism - the disagreements used to cut across party lines. From 1966 to 1978, Massachussetts was represented by two senators, Edward Kennedy and Edward Brooke, who voted identically on virtually every issue, stood for the same sets of beliefs, and were elected to office by broadly the same political constituencies - except that Kennedy is a Democrat and Brooke was a Republican. The continuing presence, till very recently, of conservatives in the Democratic Party and liberals in the Republican, demonstrated that both are essentially loose coalitions held together by little more than tradition, habit and convenience.

Things began to change from the Goldwater-Reagan era, when the Right began to articulate a distinct ideology. The late Republican senator Sam Hayakawa justified switching from the Democratic party in a memorable metaphor: "If a man is drowning 50 feet from shore, a Democrat would throw him a 100-foot rope and look around for other good deeds to perform; a Republican would throw him a 25-foot rope and ask him to swim the other 25 feet because it is good for his character". The implied thesis: the Democrats are big-spending do-gooders, the Republicans principled votaries of self-reliance.

Republicans tend to believe that the rich are the engines of prosperity for the nation as a whole, while Democrats think the rich should be taxed to help the poor, the old, the disadvantaged. Historically, both parties may, in Marxist terms, represent the interests of property, but they have evolved in a way that makes the Republicans espouse the larger, and the Democrats the smaller, propertied interests. It was a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery; but his stance well served the need of the rising business-industrial class for mobile labour. As that class became more powerful, egalitarianism came to be associated with the Democrats, who took in waves of immigrants and claimed for themselves the mantle of "the party of the little man".

Thus, "big business" goes mainly Republican at election time, while the corner storekeeper usually votes Democratic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the 1930s, forged the modern Democratic coalition - a Depression-spurred alliance of labour unions, racial minorities, Southern rednecks and Eastern intellectuals, all united in their need for state intervention in the nation's economic life in order to survive (the "New Deal"). The process came to a peak in the "New Frontier" and "Great Society" social programmes of presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, which promoted civil rights, strengthened social security and unemployment benefits, introduced medicare for the elderly and promoted affirmative action for minorities.

But the Democrats were victims of their own success. More on how, and on America's choice this year, next week....

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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