On Tuesday 6th of November, Americans decided whether to elect Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. The election of the latter would have marked a fundamental shift towards more conservative economic and social policy. The outcome would change the world, and influence our own politics. The repercussions of those choices on our world will be significant, but these are not the only important issues that you need to worry about.
It’s true that America’s economic recovery has been uninspiring yet steady and that there are ways a more spectacular upswing can be enacted – although economics students will argue about the details, meaning and consequences of each action or inaction until the end of time. It is also true that if America sets the wheels in motion on rapid growth, we too will undeniably be buckled in for the ride.
A sudden positive trend in jobs numbers and the feel-good factor that follows, just in time for our 2015 general election, would inevitably benefit the government. This could provide the short term evidence required to claim a mandate for greater ideologically grounded change in British political life, affecting our national infrastructure from health and transport to the economy and education. However, this Mystic Meg moment isn’t the issue gnawing away at my concern for British politics here.
Consider instead the way that America’s political arena has been set out over the last few years, and how the election has been fought by Romney and the Tea Party Republicans. For better or worse, we arguably already see the consequences of the Republican Party’s lurch to the right-wing extremities of their ranks, with the British Conservative Party’s outlying voices becoming accepted more widely by the party’s leaders, even being adopted into the party’s core (witness Nadine Dorries’ steady drift away from the political periphery, and appointment of Maria Miller as minister in charge of Women and Equalities).
In turn, the opposition responds by shifting to the left to demonstrate difference and energise their core voters. Consequently neither side occupies the centre ground with as much conviction as the wider electorate may wish for. Debate becomes polarised and entrenched along party lines, rather than being openly and democratically explorative, let alone progressive.
The Republicans, in Presidential opposition but holding the majority in the House of Representatives, had taken off the gloves in their vow to ensure Obama was not re-elected in 2012 (the party’s ‘prime purpose’, according to Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky). Not only do they employ filibusters and reject bills for jobs growth in order to keep Obama’s good news minimised, they have fully embraced ‘post-truth politics’.
Political journalist David Roberts of GRIST argues that in an era of ‘post-truth politics’ electoral candidates choose to base campaigns on misinformation. He asserts that the Romney/Ryan campaign has “lied with abandon”.
The media, of all political leanings (even the hard-line faithful Republican drum-beaters at Fox News), have confronted the Republican campaign with their regular lying, and the response is pretty much “Yeah? So what!”. As one campaign spokesman stated, “Fact checkers come… with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Roberts’ blog post points out that traditionally, when a politician is presented with proof they lied, they’ll maybe apologise, correct themselves, or at least stop telling that lie. But what if those rules go out the window and they just keep repeating the lie? What is the role of the media when they hold people to account but are summarily dismissed as irrelevant by campaigners? How do we engage with that?
These questions and so many more are being raised as a result of the American election campaign, and the outcome of the vote will determine the path of future election campaigns in the USA and – given our major parties’ recent eagerness to adopt US style campaign tactics – here too. If post-truth politics is seen as having taken the win, we could be in for a rough ride in 2015.