Man walks into a column, no.37: Schism

In the week since starting arbitrary constant‘s >ahem< ‘coverage’ of the United States 2012 presidential election, I’ve come across three fascinating pieces of evidence confirming how this race is both entirely predictable – in its ideological flavour – and completely unpredictable, when seen in an historical context. How lovely.

And how stressful. As a wannabe Yank (a Wank?) I feel the ups and downs of Obama’s Presidency as keenly as the peaks and troughs of the season my beloved Italian Robins are having (already). After the fleeting boost afforded by the President’s majestic if predictably ignored jobs speech (a boost for me, that is, I don’t think it had any real impact on Swindon Town FC), a sense of deep hopelessness has set in once more.

This mood was captured rather well in this first piece: an article in the Washington Post describing how within a matter of weeks the ‘brief, transcendent commonality of purpose’ post-9/11 had evaporated as the political parties set to arguing afresh. What were they arguing about? In an echo of today: how best to stimulate a fragile economy. By the time five years had passed a ‘deep political schism was evolving’ (can a schism really evolve? Anyway).

What I found really interesting about this review, though, were the comparisons with key moments in history which notably failed to bring about any lasting political unity. Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, for example, FDR’s Democrats almost lost the Senate, and Wilson’s lot did lose it, a week before Armistice Day in 1918. So much for national unity.

What is different though, this time around, is the extent of the division between the Republican and Democrat parties. A study by political scientists concluded that they haven’t been this far apart – ideologically speaking – since the 1890s. Crucially, this means that Washington can’t get anything done – it’s gridlocked – which pisses the electorate right off, and so voters are volatile, chucking politicians out much more easily. Which has, in the words of the Post’s scribe, ‘reinforced the impulse for short-term political gain at the expense of anything that would lead toward co-operation and consensus’. This is why we’re already seeing talk of bipartisanship over jobs evaporating away as quickly as the morning mist over the Potomac River.

It’s hard to imagine a more striking and strikingly gruesome example of the gulf in American political ideology than the Republican audience’s reactions during the second televised debate between the Party’s presidential candidates. When the moderator of the debate noted that during his tenure as Governor of Texas, frontrunner Rick Perry had allowed more than two hundred people to be executed, the audience cheered.

Think this couldn’t be sicker? Well: know that the latest man to be executed was thus sentenced on the basis that he was more likely to commit further violent acts because he was black. If it wasn’t so horrendous it would be comical. (Since then the Supreme Court has asked for the sentence to be reconsidered, not that it will necessarily be overturned.)

So the prospect of a Republican presidency – a Leader of the Free World who has never been troubled by loss of sleep over the thought of so many dead men – is both inevitable and terrifying. Unemployment has not been this stubbornly high in the run-up to an election since the 1940s. It’s all over bar the shouting, isn’t it?

But, as so often, history can give us hope as well. This piece in the Economist offers a glimmer:

There is no clear correlation between unemployment rates and election results, for example. Franklin Roosevelt got himself re-elected under even grimmer circumstances; Richard Nixon won a second term despite a sharp rise in unemployment, and so on.

The counter examples continue. North Dakota has the strongest job market in the country, yet has seen the biggest fall in the President’s approval rating. The first of the Bush presidents failed to secure a second term despite surfing a wave of prosperity. Truman won during an even bigger economic slump than the one Obama finds himself in.

Because elections are complex, after all, and ultimately unpredictable. Remember how the wind fell out of the sails of the McCain campaign after his misjudged handling of the financial crisis? Latest polls show that whilst a generic ‘Republican candidate’ would beat Obama, it’s too close to call against either of the current frontrunners. So I’m hoping that Perry gets the nod and that more voters get to see more of a man steeped in a certain brand of Texan justice.

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