Myths About the US Election

Judging from the general mood on talk radio, Facebook, and anecdotal conversation, many South Africans are confused about the recent mid-term elections in the United States. I thought I’d try to clear up a few of the more common misconceptions:

1. American voters are stupid, irrational and/or evil

South Africans tend to look at the features of American democracy that seem most alien—the tea parties, the “birthers”, the histrionics on cable news channels—and conclude that the recent swing towards the Republicans must be motivated by some combination of anti-government hysteria and racial resentment. But voting Republican was arguably the rational choice for Americans to make. During the last two years, the economy has continued to undergo a jobless recovery, with the unemployment rate hovering at slightly under 10%. With the Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the presidency, there was only one party in power and only one party to blame.

Of course, the Democrats don’t see it that way. They would argue that 1) they’re still cleaning up the mess that was created under the Bush Administration, 2) many of the economic problems are the result of structural forces, such as the shift in global manufacturing from the West to China, that neither party really knows how to deal with, and 3) without Democratic policies such as the stimulus bill, the unemployment rate would be even worse. These arguments are all true (with possible exception of #3, which is difficult to verify empirically). Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the voters for demanding that parties succeed in spite of the structural obstacles they face. When the ruling party in a democracy is unable to deliver results, it makes sense for the voters to punish them and give the opposition a chance.

2. This will mean a major change in US economic policy

As a corrective to the first point, it’s worth keeping in mind that the mid-terms will almost certainly not result in significant shifts in US economic policy. The Republicans will extend the Bush tax cuts and block legislation that the Democrats have already given up on (eg. cap and trade, immigration reform), but they won’t be able to repeal Obamacare or introduce the sort of radical cost-cutting measures that the Conservative-LibDem coalition has pursued in the UK.

If the Republicans in the House overreach, then Obama can position himself as a check on Republican extremism. Similarly, if the economy improves then Obama will still get much of the credit, regardless of who controls the House

The Republicans often sounded radical during the campaign, but in practice their policy options will be constrained by at least three factors: President Obama and his ability to veto legislation, the ongoing gridlock in the Senate, and the reluctance of Republican legislators to offend their own voting constituencies.

In some cases, one wishes the Republicans were more radical. Two thirds of the US federal budget are spent on Social Security, Medicare, and Defence. The US could save a huge amount of money simply by means-testing Social Security (much of which is currently spent on people who are relatively rich) and scaling back foreign military commitments. It’s unlikely that either item will make it onto the Republican legislative agenda, however: the first offends elderly voters, and the second alienates defence contractors.

3. Obama is finished

The silliest myth is the idea that Obama is now a lame duck president, and that we are witnessing a new right-wing realignment in American politics. The American electoral system is one that amplifies changes at the margins: for all the talk of the largest congressional turnover in 70 years, only 52.41% of the electorate voted Republican this year. For the Democrats to win a landslide in 2012, all you need is for 4% of Americans to decide they made a mistake in 2010, which is not a wildly implausible scenario.

Besides, there is no correlation between the success or failure of an American president’s party during mid-term elections, and the likelihood of a president winning re-election. This makes intuitive sense. American politicians (including Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and arguably Obama himself) have a long tradition of interpreting their mandate too broadly in the aftermath of electoral victory. If the Republicans in the House overreach, then Obama can position himself as a check on Republican extremism. Similarly, if the economy improves then Obama will still get much of the credit, regardless of who controls the House. But if the Republicans control Congress and the economy fails to improve, much of the political rationale for voting Republican will disappear.

There is another possibility to consider: a period of divided government might be a genuinely good thing. Ronald Reagan is generally remembered as a successful president, and he had to work with a Democratic House throughout his presidency. The same is true of Bill Clinton, who had to work with a Republican House for six years. By contrast, George W. Bush’s presidency is usually considered a failure, despite (or perhaps because) his party also controlled Congress for most of his two terms. Many of the more successful pieces of legislation in modern American history, such as the 1986 tax reform act and the 1996 welfare reform law, were the result of compromises between presidents and legislators from different parties. With some luck, power-sharing between Barack Obama and the Republican House might turn out surprisingly well.