The US mid term elections were held this week and the general consensus amongst the main stream media is that the Democrats and in particular Barack Obama were humiliated. In the senate the Republicans gained seven seats and two further seats are still in play. They have a clear majority. In Congress the Republicans reinforced an existing majority. Obama faces two years where he has no control over either house.
I feel a bit sorry for him because he has been blamed for the result. He is not the only left leader in the world (in the very broadest sense of the term) to be facing pressure. In the United Kingdom Ed Milliband is under some pressure and elsewhere in the western world progressives are also struggling. There is this tension between playing the political game and winning support by triangulating issues and keeping support with the base and energising ordinary people with the promise of real change. It is clearly difficult if not impossible to do both.
What happened in the US? The reports are that young and latinos did not vote. This problem also occurred in the 2010 mid term elections. Maybe the Democrats will always struggle if there is not a presidential election happening at the same time to energise turnout. And maybe leaders need to deliver on the hope and change that Obama promised.
The impression I have is that Obama has struggled at both edges of his support. The right were attacking him for Obamacare which I think is a wonderful policy. When senior Republicans suggest that he is responsible for the appearance of Ebola in the United States you realise that things have turned really weird. And the opposition to doing anything about climate change suggests to me a level of belligerence and stupidity that cannot be matched and that is deeply damaging to humanity’s future interests.
The news is not all bad. Five US states had votes on whether or not there should be an increase in the minimum wage. Each proposal passed convincingly. These were not necessarily liberal states either. The results were Alaska (69:31), Arkansas (66:34), Illinois (67:33), Nebraska (59:41), and South Dakota (55:45). Three of these states returned Republican senators. Those basic decent policies can win every time no matter what is happening at a political level.
Ad submitted a guest post that expressed things far more eloquently than I could. Here it is …
The scale of the recent defeat by the U.S. Democrats resonates with the pounding Labour and Labor took in NZ and Australian elections this year. It’s rare to see parallel scales of defeat, common failings, and common lessons. Reviews months ahead becomes mere exercises in nostalgia.
Neither Labour, Labor, nor Democrats had a coherent set of policies, none were sold well, and all three political leaders were competent but quick to compromise. Resultant NZ government, federal Australian government, and U.S. Senate and Representative houses are shaping up as far more conservative than we’ve seen for decades. Across the western world we’re shut out, and it’s cold out here.
This is despite core policies associated with the losers working well and being remarkably popular. Obamacare has performed well. As has Kiwisaver. Nor was there lack of support for policies to campaign on. New Zealand’s public resoundingly opposed asset sales, and supported the Capital Gains Tax. U.S. state by state support for minimum wage increases was massive, even in staunchly conservative states.
Obama has two months and two years to govern, but his track record of egregious compromise has damaged any future legacy he might have and damaged his party such that by 2016 Republicans could well run all three governmental layers. Labour’s incoherence to the public remains such that National could run both New Zealand and Auckland within a single party by 2016. Did I mention the cold?
Looking back on Gough Whitlam, LBJ, or Clark, we can see that truly pathbreaking strides in Australia, the U.S., or New Zealand are highly concentrated in a few brief windows of overwhelming progressive dominance. We now also know that lasting progress depends on building on those foundations, and protecting them from erosion until the next opportunity for advancement presents itself. Through bold and quickly enacted policy, millions of lives were changed for the better.
At some point the left (broadly) will win again. We need a coalition primed for an uncompromising agenda push. The legacy of that first successful term will ensure the left’s revival for years afterward, and will spur us on to form a further clearly communicated and uncompromising policy enacted within that first window after election. After that, fate’s doors close hard. Democrats, Labour and Labour are all of us dealing with the aftermath of corrosive and sustained compromise, and that’s right across most aspiring progressive/left/social democratic parties in the world.
Voters have told the Democrats, Labour and Labor that we need no more fantasies that compromise will win the public back to our causes. What commenters see as over-defined or prescriptive, the public will read as clear and principled. We need more of clear and principled. It will win the public and it will win the media, and it will win the next term after that. That does not need to be confused with radical. We simply need to be uncompromising and clear, both to gain electoral power, and to sustain it once more. We’ll all be learning that for a while, out here in the cold.