At a dinner table in Akron, Ohio, half a dozen Democratic activists recently took a break from trashing US political activist Ralph Nader for allowing a victory for former US president George W. Bush in 2000 to discuss the material benefits of US President Barack Obama’s first term. One had been able to keep his children on his healthcare plan after graduation; another with a pre-existing condition had been able to move plans without penalty. Then there was an awkward silence, broken by the mention of the jobs saved in Toledo, 225km away, by the auto bailout. That brought us on to Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call to “let Detroit go bankrupt.”
And soon, the conversation is flowing as easily as the beer as talk turns to how bad things might have been — and could yet be — with Republicans at the helm.
Such are the cramped parameters within which Democratic loyalists converse. Questions about poverty, bankers, inequality, climate change or drone attacks are not engaged with a defense of Obama’s record, but avoided with a threat: Romney. Speculation about what Obama might have done differently are met with arguments about what Bush did wrong. Inquire if Obama will get more done if elected, and they shrug and point to the obstructionist Republicans in congress.
Dare to prod further as to why anyone should vote for him given the likelihood that Republicans will win in congress and they will take you right back where you started: Romney. Any question about the good things that might have happened as a result of Obama’s victory in 2008 is short-circuited by a response about the bad things that might happen as a result of his defeat this year. Hope curdled to fear. Everyone can tell you how things get worse; no one can tell you how they get better.
The paradox of large numbers of people investing heavily in a result without expecting a great deal from the outcome is particularly stark during a presidential election. On the one hand, there is the hoopla: the polls, bumper stickers, stump speeches, conventions and debates. All the trappings to celebrate the assumed connection between political power and the popular will. On the other hand, there is cynicism: the low turnout, voter suppression, billionaire donors and contrived controversies. All the evidence of a system corrupted by money and openly rigged.
These contradictions are not unique to the US. Britain is midway through its conference season, where the three main parties lay out their stalls. They have fewer members combined, The Economist reminded us recently, than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Yet we treat their annual gatherings as moments of major national significance.
However, they are particularly acute here because of the dislocation between rhetoric and reality, pageantry and practice, and the nation’s belief in its own democratic values and its actual plutocratic electoral culture. And they are particularly acute now. Obama ran on change — a phenomenon that US elections are not equipped to deliver.
How could they? They adhere to the golden rule that those who have the gold make the rules. That has long been a problem. In 2008, Obama and then-Republican US presidential candidate John McCain spent as much on TV ads in Florida as all the parties spent on the entire 2010 UK general election. Now it is even worse. A few years ago, the US Supreme Court loosened the rules to allow unlimited donations from anonymous sources.