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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Some guy wins, some guy loses

It was tense watching the contest unfold on TV last night, particularly after an early lead had been eroded by some lacklustre moments, but we hung on for a valuable point in Gelsenkirchen. Oh, and yer man, Barry O'Bama, won as well.

US election day saw the usual media bollocks-fest and wanton acts of stupidity on both sides of the pond. Tracking Janet Daley of the Torygraph was a particular joy. Early yesterday she insisted that her sixth sense indicated a Romney victory despite polling data indicating otherwise: "disagreeing with the state polls is not simply a species of Republican wishful thinking". Well, apparently it was. As the night progressed she opined: "It looks as if we may be heading for one of the most perplexing (to outsiders) and unsatisfying (to Americans) outcomes which the arcane US electoral system can produce." I suppose the result might appear perplexing if you relied on Daley for insight, but fortunately few of us outsiders do, and it wasn't at all clear why Americans would be unsatisfied because their votes counted. At this stage the great clairvoyante was still predicting that Romney would at least win the popular vote (he didn't) if not the electoral college, allowing her (in the time-honoured fashion of soothsayers) to claim she was sorta right all along: "both camps were right – those of us who believed intuitively that there was a popular groundswell for Romney, and those who bored for the nation with endless reams of statistical data showing that Obama would win enough states to push him over the line". Damn those statistical bores. Come the full horror of realisation this morning, she promptly changed tack with a post that topped even the previous day's wishful thinking: "US voters still blame Bush for economy: bad news for Labour?"

The most popular theme in the media coverage was the supposed polarisation of US society. Pundits from both sides talked of poisonous division and deep cultural differences. This sort of well-defined opposition is catnip for the media. Nobody wants a polite contest in which the ideological and policy differences are slight. The post-mortem is focusing heavily on demographic change, notably the Republicans' lack of popularity with the growing Hispanic community, and the emergence of a liberal backlash in respect of healthcare, abortion and gay marriage. To Janet Daley's "outsider" this must look like both a titanic contest and the shifting of tectonic plates. The generally hysterical reaction of right-wing propagandists encourages the belief that this is on a par with Gettysburg. It's nonsense, of course. Over the last 4 years Obama has proven to be more of a centrist than his campaign in 2008 implied, while everyone fully expected Romney to shift to the centre if elected. This is not to suggest that there wasn't a real choice on offer, but the degree of difference can easily be over-stated. Obamacare is not the NHS and the auto-industry bailout is not nationalisation. As Gore Vidal never tired of saying: "the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican".

The tendency to present politics in terms of demographics is a reflection of the influence of public choice theory and microeconomics in political science. This is part of the wider neoliberal paradigm that sees voters both as individuals pursuing their self-interest and as members of blocs with common interests to be addressed via fiscal policy. In other words, voters as consumers and democracy as an economic exchange. Over the last 3 decades the act of buying, of expressing choice through money, has been repeatedly upgraded and expanded through technology: credit cards, debit cards, direct debits, buying online, near field communications, mobile payments etc. In parallel, the means by which we gauge the will of the public have expanded beyond the voting booth through the addition of complementary techniques such as focus groups and opinion polls. The latter have taken on such a significance in the US (though the UK is not far behind with the ubiquitous YouGov), that earlier this week their accuracy and interpretation seemed to eclipse the candidates' campaigns. There is irony in the praise being lavished on these "mathematical models" today. It's as if we've already forgotten the idolatrous worship of financial models prior to 2008.

In contrast, while the act of voting is sacrosanct and retains huge symbolic importance, it has become more unreliable and antiquated due to failing technology ("hanging chads") and long queues. While this is often claimed to be evidence of partisan voter suppression in the US, it actually looks more systemic, hence the similar issues experienced in the UK in 2010. With our new found fondness for narrow referenda and superfluous elections, it's surely only a matter of time before you can vote from the comfort of your sofa, at which point the boundary between democracy and the TV studio (and "sponsored messages" in the US) will blur beyond recognition.

In such an environment, where individual "issues" must compete in a market for the voter/consumer's attention, binary oppositions and emotional subjects have a natural advantage. In the US, culture war friction points, such as abortion and gun control, act as proxies for an ideological debate that revolves around the competing claims of personal freedom and collective responsibility - i.e. the gamut of neoliberal orthodoxy. The role of wealth and property is largely absent. There are grounds to believe that US society is far less polarised than is generally thought, and that this polarisation myth serves a political establishment keen to accentuate small differences and a media industry keen to sell conflict. Last night gave little evidence to the contrary.

The privileging of market research in formulating policy is already leading to calls for the Republicans to start grooming Hispanic candidates, though they'll probably end up with an anti-gay evangelical one, while Hillary Clinton now looks a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination in 2016 on the assumption that women are the new black(s). It's also the reason why the American TV networks were confident in "calling" many a state vote last night, often extrapolating from little more than a couple of percent of the votes cast. Janet Daley was wrong because she is a true believer, sensing groundswells and relying on intuition, but at least she has a belief. Beneath the confected bluster and rage, the neoliberal orthodoxy treats the electorate coolly. They are biddable and easily scared. Whatever happens, the party of property wins.

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