Did America Really Shift to the Right?

Republicans made major gains in the recent midterm Congressional elections. They returned to the majority in the Senate and improved their majority in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. Understandably, Republican partisans were gleeful. Their adversaries in the Democratic Party were, also understandably, glum.  Commentators in the mass media pronounced the election a “wave” and speculation turned to what the impact would be of this “shift to the right”.

The problem is that, despite appearances, the election offered no real evidence of such a shift. True, more people voted for Republicans than Democrats. Enthusiasm for President Obama has flattened. Republicans now control all the reins of power except for the presidency, and they control many of the state legislatures and governorships.

All of this does not matter.

At the most obvious level, it does not matter because it does not end political gridlock. Any legislation passed by the Republican majority can be vetoed by Obama. The huge divergence between the parties’ views virtually guarantees that little will get done. Moreover, in 2016 the Democrats will most likely regain the presidency — as well as the Senate, where nine Republican senators will be up for election in states that voted for Obama. The House of Representatives, however, with its gerrymandered districts, will probably have a Republican majority until the obligatory redrawing of electoral boundaries after the 2020 census.

But there are deeper reasons to note the absence of a shift. Let me start by putting the election in perspective.

America is a curious place. Politics are different here, even at the symbolic level.  Unlike the traditional symbolism in Europe, the color of conservatism in the US is represented by the color red. If Americans could understand Italian, the communist anthem Bandiero Rossa (red flag) would puzzle them. The states that routinely vote Republican (and Americans would be equally puzzled by the French term Republicain) are called red states. This is rooted in an accident of art design. The national newspaper USA Today (sort of the McDonalds of newspapers) represented states where Republicans had won with red ink and thus established a national short hand. Blue is reserved for “liberals” — another word meaning the opposite of the term in continental Europe.

But this symbolic inversion is also misleading in suggesting that there is a classic division between left and right, as understood in other countries. The problem in the US is that there is no left, not at least as Europeans would understand it. In the United States the alternative to the Republicans is the Democratic Party. But while the Democrats evince some sympathy for the poor and prefer a larger dose of social justice than is usually meted out by Republican administrations, they are hardly socialists, or even social democrats. The policies advocated in the party platform are much closer to the ideas found among Europe’s Christian Democrats or even among the conservatives in France’s UMP.  By any international standard, the Democrats are America’s conservative party.

Who are the Republicans, then? Well, they call themselves “conservative”, even though they want to roll back all the reforms since the New Deal. There is little they wish to conserve, other than nostalgia for a white, Christian America that never existed. A better term — understood in Europe but baffling to Americans — is “reactionary” (a term Americans sometimes confuse with “reactive”). Republicans are reactionaries.

All right, the American political spectrum is skewed to the right by European or Latin American standards, but doesn’t the victory of the Republicans in 2014 nevertheless indicate a move to the right, at least in American terms?

No. Not necessarily.  Changes at the top don’t reflect changes in American society. Few people chose to vote. Turnout in the 2014 election was abysmal, even by US standards. Two thirds of the American electorate did not vote at all. And those who did show up at the polls are, for the most part, what political scientists euphemistically call “low information voters”.

Few Americans have a sophisticated understanding of politics. Low information voters are easily manipulated. But most politics in America is not about convincing the undecided to recognize the virtues of your cause, it is about getting your sympathizers to show up. This is a hard task because Americans are disinclined to politics. They are low information voters because most do not have a sense that politics at the top affects them, so they see little incentive to learn to learn what distinguishes one candidate from another one.

Since few Americans spend the time to think through their choices (when they make them), they often hold inconsistent views. (Political scientists call ideological consistency “issue constraint”.) At the same time that Republicans took the lion’s share of elective posts, voters also opted for many items on the progressive agenda.  Wherever it was on the ballot, voters opted to increase the minimum wage. In several states, voters endorsed the legalization of marijuana for medical and even recreational use. A host of progressive ideas were endorsed, even in “red” states.

So in many ways it is hard to call the recent elections a victory for the right. Sadly, though, it’s not a victory for democracy, either. That’s another thing America has to work on.

Harvey B Feigenbaum is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

Harvey Feigenbaum is professor of Political Science and International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, DC.