1 November 2016

Can American politics break its fever?


The American people are, like Bernie Sanders, sick and tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails. And of hearing about Donald Trump’s tax returns, and his sex life, and his ideas about the election being rigged. In fact, they’re sick and tired of this election, full stop.

With a week to go before the US election, all the signs are that voters are less engaged and less happy about their options than ever. True, turnout seems to be holding up, but that is because most people seem to be voting against a candidate rather than for one: as a pair, Trump and Clinton have the lowest approval ratings since presidential polling began.

Even back in May – before the FBI investigation and the rigging claims and the pussy-grabbing – the overwhelming majority of voters claimed to feel disconnected, apathetic and pessimistic about the election process. Now, on-the-ground reports from the swing states paint a picture of naked despair.

If there is a silver silver lining at the end of this democratic sewage tunnel, it is that at least it will all be over soon. Come November 9th, America will have a new president, and the recovery process can begin.

But what if it doesn’t? What if this election season isn’t an exception, but the new rule? In other words: what if this is just the beginning?

Let’s start with what is still the least likely scenario: a Donald Trump presidency. Even from the vantage point of the UK, it’s clear that Trump lacks the temperament, qualifications and pretty much everything else necessary to be an effective president.

True, he has promised – in the fact of such criticism – to “be more presidential than any president we’ve ever had” (apart, he added after a moment’s thought, from Abe Lincoln, and maybe George Washington). But he’s also promised to investigate and ideally jail his opponent, to leave Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic to Vladimir Putin’s tender mercies, to punish newspapers that criticise him and so on and so forth.

So should he win the election, we’re not going to get a reformed character, we’re going to get the same whirlwind of scandal, controversy and outrage – except with Trump having the machinery of state at his disposal rather than just a Twitter account.

But what about Hillary Clinton? One of the claims made for her is that she’ll be able to do deals with the Republicans who are likely to control the House.

Unlike the aloof Obama, she’s willing to get down in the weeds – she has a more impressive track record of bipartisanship as a Senator, and the precedent of her husband’s administration, when a Democratic White House and a Republican Congress brought America bumper growth, a balanced budget, and historic welfare reforms.

But this ignores perhaps the most important factor in the US system since the halcyon days of Bill Clinton: the increasing polarisation of not just American politics, but the American people.

Yes, there are still well-meaning – and despairing – people in the centre. But as the country has sorted itself into like-minded groups, so has the common ground between Republicans and Democrats become vanishingly small.

For example, the same recent polling that found that candidates had record-high unfavourable also found that 97 per cent of Trump supporters had a negative impression of Hillary Clinton, and 90 per cent a very strong one. For Clinton supporters regarding Trump, the figures were 95 per cent and 90 per cent.

So whichever of the two wins power, there will be a large chunk of the American electorate who believe their victory is not just unsupportable but even illegitimate. They are hardly likely to pressure their elected representatives to do deals with the devil in the name of getting the government working.

Indeed, there is another key difference between the first Clinton administration and the probable second – not just that the Republicans have been radicalised, but that the Democrats have too.

Bill Clinton, let’s remember, campaigned as a “New Democrat” and governed as one too. Like Tony Blair’s New Labour, which it directly inspired, the central principle was to jettison traditional Left-wing shibboleths in the name of shiny, modernised and above all electable moderation.

When Bernie Sanders castigated Bill Clinton for being a friend to the corporate elites, nobody gave a damn. The exact same critique, from the exact same person, almost derailed Hillary’s entire campaign this time round – and forced her to tack to the Left on all manner of issues.

Those voters – the new Democrat base – aren’t going to put up with Clinton making ugly compromises with a Republican Congress. They’ll be just as loud, and just as ferocious, as their Right-wing opponents.

So whereas Bill Clinton and his Republican opponents were able to find common ground on measures that promoted growth, there is almost no common ground to be found between Democrats and Republicans today – or if there is, it is over policies that actively harm the economy, such as both parties’ increasing hostility towards free trade. Trump’s love of walls is only too well known, while Clinton, who told Goldman Sachs she loved “open trade and open borders”, still had to come out against the TPP trade deal to appease her base.

So yes, Congress’s dysfunction is in part a product of the system. The level of gerrymandering across the US is such that most congressmen are immune to anything but the most violent swings of the political pendulum. The only thing that could cost them their job is losing the primary, not the general, election – which means that they are overwhelmingly incentivised to take an absolutist line that panders to their base.

The result, over the past eight years, has been legislative gridlock. Barack Obama got a few big things done in his first two years. But after the 2010 midterms, when the Republicans swept the house, he slammed into a brick wall. GOP leaders were very clear indeed that their job was not to give the President any victories – whether that be immigration reform or the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court.

But the fact that the moderate centre in Congress has essentially collapsed is not just because of gerrymandering – it’s because (as The Atlantic wrote in an entire cover story entitled “How American Politics Went Insane”) partisan voters were happy for it to happen. The public told politicians they wanted Washington to work – but made it impossible for that to happen.

In fact, seemingly every structural factor in American politics is working to accelerate this process. In the old days, for example, there was a rhythm to the political cycle: campaign, then govern, then campaign again. But recently, changes to the news cycle, to political funding models and to the make-up and motivation of party activists have combined to change all that.

Essentially, as I write in my book “The Great Acceleration”, politicians today never leave campaign mode: they feel they always need to be fighting their corner, motivating (and monetising) their base, attacking their enemies and putting their chosen messages across. And the rapidity and decentralised nature of social media means that feelings can be stirred up and movements born at lightning speed.

This technology also – as Donald Trump has shown – means politicians can reach an audience without the need for their party’s imprimatur. And it is to that audience, rather than the party hierarchy, that they owe their loyalty. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in that Atlantic piece:

Although Capitol Hill and the campaign trail are miles apart, the breakdown in order in both places reflects the underlying reality that there no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.

In other words, even if a Paul Ryan and a president Clinton get together to thrash out a governing agenda, there is precious little chance that anything can actually be achieved. The House Republican Conference, in the words of one unnamed Republican, is “unwhippable and unleadable”.

And this new Congress won’t just be divided between Republicans and Democrats, but Republicans and Republicans. Assuming Trump is defeated, there is likely to be some kind of civil war between his supporters and conservative movement loyalists. The only thing that will unite them will be hatred of President Clinton and a determination to thwart her agenda – not least for fear of what their supporters will do if they don’t.

Looking at the path ahead, there are numerous potential flashpoints. For example, the next president will be nominating at least one justice to the Supreme Court and probably several more. Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute has already argued that Republicans would be well within their rights to block any liberal justice named by a president Clinton, a position seemingly endorsed by Ted Cruz.

What adds a particular viciousness to this looming fight is the fact that Supreme Court justices are confirmed by the Senate – which, in 2018, is likely to return to Republican control, given that the blue seats up for grabs that year are far more vulnerable than the red.

Spending two years fighting tooth and nail against Hillary’s Supreme Court picks may be a constitutional novelty, but it is not actually unconstitutional – meanwhile, Left-wing activists will find themselves in the unusual pressure of putting pressure on liberal idols such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire post-haste, lest the choice of her replacement fall to a Republican Senate.

If there is a President Trump, of course, the calculus is reversed: his list of potential candidates, already published, contains no one whom a Democratic senate would not die in the ditch to block.

In short, the Washington of Clinton or Trump is as likely to disappoint voters – arguably even more so – than the Washington of Obama. And that’s before you even think about the nature of the personalities involved.

Think back, for example, to the stream of scandals, investigations and allegations that bedevilled Bill Clinton’s administration, the peculiar strain of fury, paranoia and cynicism that the Clinton family seem to ignite in Republican hearts.

Think of the “vast Right-wing conspiracy”, now vaster and louder, with decades more of misdemeanours to draw on. Think of the Benghazi investigation, or Clinton’s email server, or the Clinton Global Initiative, or Bill Clinton’s affairs, or any one of a dozen other issues, all dragged out and litigated and investigated not just by fringe conspiracy theorists but by Republican members of Congress – just as the Democrats will litigate every day of Donald Trump’s business career, every shady deal and grubby legal manoeuvre, should he win.

But if Washington is doomed to disappoint the public, it raises a final question: namely, does it actually matter? Might a divided or even paralysed government not be exactly what America needs? A government that can’t make decisions is one that can’t interfere, can’t spend, can’t regulate – save by executive order.

Research by  Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia has shown, for example, that more government tends to deliver lower growth. Not surprising, given the age-old axiom that the private sector makes the money and the public sector spends it. And didn’t Belgium go for more than a year without a government, and have a perfectly good time in the process?

There’s even a Clinton-related example, of when Hillary’s husband Bill was forced to govern alongside Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans.

Well, yes: the natural dynamism of America’s economy means that it can get away with an awful lot of dysfunction in Washington. But there are important caveats to that.

For example, Bill Clinton was governing with a united Congress – the Republicans controlled both Houses. Hillary (or Trump) will have a divided one – which, as Dorfman has shown, tends to be the worst-case scenario for growth.

The Belgian example is also misleading. Belgium benefited from the fact that the timing of the government shutdown meant it didn’t impose contractionary austerity measures in synch with the rest of Europe. In the US, by contrast, a government shutdown or a debt default would have knock-on consequences for America’s economy and for the world’s.

Also, a partisan, divided and despised government isn’t so much of a problem if things are heading in the right direction. But that’s not the case in America. Federal spending, entitlements and national debt are all eye-wateringly high, and projected to get even higher.

Reform is urgently needed – but neither of the plans on the table come anywhere close, even if they were likely to pass. (Trump’s, for example, would juice the economy by cutting taxes, but would also raise the debt by trillions if his promised growth failed to materialise.) And if that weren’t bad enough, America is also, by historical standards, overdue for a recession.

Meanwhile, there are challenges abroad from a rising China and a revanchist Russia; an ongoing bloodbath in the Middle East and a world that seems to be turning against the free-market ideas that brought it prosperity in the first place.

America isn’t Belgium. It’s the country that’s meant to inspire the world, by the power of its ideological and economic example. That’s why its friends overseas will be praying that this current political mood is a fever that breaks, rather than a permanent contagion.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.