Iain Murray is Director of Projects and Analysis at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian
think-tank in Washington DC.
The Times’ Danny Finkelstein suggests four reasons why people shouldn’t be surprised at the election of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, in each of the cases, Danny demonstrates a less-than-perfect understanding of American politics. There is much less here than meets the eye.
First, Danny argues that “The American people are becoming, quite literally, a different people,” because of immigration. Yet it is a truism to say that America is a “nation of immigrants.” America has gone through wave after wave of immigration, but because of the strength and vibrancy of American culture, those immigrants have been successfully assimilated into the American people. Now, it is plausible that the current mass Hispanic immigration might be different, having the characteristics more of a colonization than immigration, but if that is the case Danny should realize the implications, which are serious. I am more optimistic, and prefer to believe that the current immigration will be like the previous mass immigrations, with the sons and granddaughters of current immigrants being properly assimilated. American values will predominate, and a Hispanic surname will be no more a predictor of a vote than an Italian surname is today. If it isn’t, America is in deep trouble, with significant implications for the world.
Next, Danny suggests that “the world is changing and within it America’s place in the world.” Yet foreign policy ended up having virtually no effect on this election, with Iraq being barely mentioned in the real campaign. Danny is certainly right to say that the financial crisis put America on the back foot, but the consensus response, backed by Bush, McCain and Obama, was one that was barely distinguishable from the reaction in Downing Street. The western financial world reacted in lockstep, and merely continued the Blair-Clinton approach of a mixed economy. To suggest that America has been a bastion of laissez-faire capitalism is to ignore history from 1932 onwards. Reagan partially deregulated a highly-regulated economy. Clinton and Bush both added further deregulation, but the failings of recent years are all directly attributable to market reaction to government policy, not the other way round. If anything, the financial crisis demonstrated the failure of Third Way managerialism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thirdly, Danny suggests “American politics is being captured by the rising middle class.” Here Danny confuses the British and American definitions of middle class. In Britain, the middle class is the “chattering classes” these days, for sure. In America, however, the definition is much broader, but is essentially equivalent to the British term “working class.” So, when Danny suggests that half of America regards itself as middle class, he misses this point:
"For example, four-in-ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 say they are middle class, as do a third of those with incomes above $150,000. And about the same percentages of blacks (50%), Hispanics (54%) and whites (53%) self-identify as middle class, even though members of minority groups who say they are middle class have far less income and wealth than do whites who say they are middle class."
What this means is that the “middle class” in America is actually much
different from the middle class in Britain. Fifty-three percent of
middle class Americans, for example, view living a religious life
as very important. Self-identification as “middle class” does not
invalidate the Southern Strategy. In fact, McCain won several Southern
states that Clinton won a decade ago and there are signs in states like
Louisiana that Democrat influence is still on the wane there.
Finally, Danny suggests that “the conventional Republican agenda has
stopped working.” Far from it! Let’s take the suggestions one-by one:
“Cut income tax” – one of Obama’s main campaign points was a tax cut
for 95 percent of Americans. The right has won that argument.
“Fight crime” – as Danny suggests, this issue is not currently salient,
but that position is unlikely to last forever. Any attempt to reopen
the gun debate, for example, is likely to end badly for Obama because,
again, the right has won that argument.
“Reform social security” – both parties realize the social security
system is on the verge of collapse. When it does, it is unlikely to be
the left that wins the argument, having blocked all realistic attempts
“Outlaw abortion” – there are no signs that the pro-choice movement has
won this argument, with the most recent poll showing a 49-47 split between broadly
pro-choice and broadly pro-life positions. And 71% favor “outlawing
abortion” in certain circumstances.
“Support marriage” – all three defense of marriage ballot propositions
on the ballot Tuesday passed, including one in California. California!
So when Danny Finkelstein says “the mainstream Republican agenda is no longer a
winner,” he is completely and utterly wrong. Americans support the
policies, even if they don’t support the party. That should sound
familiar to British Conservative ears.
It is always unwise to ignore Occam’s Razor in politics. The simplest
answer to the question why Obama won so convincingly is Bill Clinton’s
– it’s the economy. McCain was running neck-and-neck with Obama, even
in this supposedly changed America, until the collapse of Lehman Bros.
His inability to articulate a popular yet conservative response to the
crisis rather than signing up for Henry Paulson’s deeply unpopular
bailout plan doomed him. His poll numbers
crashed alongside the Dow. Attributing McCain’s failure to some
fantasy of a radically changed America is to ignore empirical evidence.