In this post, Łukasz Pawłowski a contributing editor for Kultura Liberalna, one of the groups I met with while in Poland, offers his reflections on the American elections for a European audience. Pawłowski is currently an academic visitor at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. -Jeff
Barack Obama won re-election, his party managed to hold the Senate, and the House of Representatives is still – exactly as before the elections – dominated by the Republicans hostile to presidential administration. Nothing has changed? By no means, potential changes are more than plenty, but the most important one concerns the American right.
The Republicans, who for the last few years have been leaning heavily to the right, lost the second election in a row, and in their own interests, it is better they rethink this strategy. In a rapidly changing American society this party is becoming, as the political scientist Benjamin Barber told “Kultura Liberalna” magazine, “the face of an already disappearing America – white, protestant, poor and rural.” And indeed, exit polls indicate that Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, 73 of the Asian-American and 93 percent of African American. Given that the share of the first two minorities in American society is increasing dramatically fast, GOP should start thinking of how to appeal to them.
Little better did the Republicans do to captivate other important demographic group – the young. Only 36 percent of American voters between the age of 18 and 29 marked the Romney’s name on their ballots. Obviously this does not mean that in a few years, when these young people entirely replace the now older generations, the Republicans will entirely cease to matter – let’s not forget voters get more conservative with age. Yet, in a society as relatively young as American – in 2010 the median age was 37.2 – winning the presidential election without the support of this age group is hardly possible.
Truly terrible news for the Republicans, however, is their decisive loss in the urban areas. In cities with over 500,000 inhabitants, the Democratic Party won 69 per cent of the popular vote, and in those from 50,000 to 500,000 inhabitants, 58 per cent. Given that American society is one of the most urbanized in the world – 82 percent of Americans live in cities or in the suburbs and this number is on the rise – the slump in support of the urban population should be a wake-up call for the GOP to immediately change the direction of the party. In short, the Republicans can either come to terms with the new reality, reduce the influence of the Tea Party radicals and move towards the political center, or further stick to the right corner of the political scene, only watching the central stage where the actual play takes place. Which of the options the GOP takes will have a crucial impact on American politics at least in the forthcoming two years until the next congressional election.
We will see the first indications of the choice made when the negotiations on how to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” begin. In August 2011, unable to come to an agreement on whether the best way to combat the deficit was to repeal tax breaks for the rich – introduced by George W. Bush and supported by the Republicans – or to reduce public spending defended by the Democrats – the two parties made a rod for their own back. It was decided that if by the end of this year no compromise is reached, radical tax increases and spending cuts will be introduced automatically, which in turn will reduce the deficit by about 550 billion dollars over a year, but would also probably send the U.S. economy back into recession. To avoid this, American authorities must agree upon which cuts to delay and which tax breaks to maintain. Until now, any compromise was impossible due to the upcoming elections. The Republicans, counting on Romney’s victory and on regaining the majority in the Senate, were reluctant to make any concessions. This institutional paralysis which began months before November 6th resulted in the lowest approval ratings for the Congress in years. Only 13 percent of the surveyed Americans believed their representatives were doing their job well! If after the election day nothing changes, it is the Republican Party that will be particularly hurt.
The second win has significantly strengthened Barack Obama’s negotiating position. We all remember his gaffe, when in front of cameras he assured the then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, that after the election he will be “more flexible” in his dealings with the Kremlin. Regardless of what we think about these words, Obama actually told the truth – he renewed his public mandate, he no longer needs to worry about re-election and thus can be more assertive in defending his position. The president will now be less willing to give way – and as far as the budget is concerned, he already made some significant concessions – so the ball is on the Republican side.
But what does it all mean for an average European? Surprisingly, quite a lot. If the parties fail to reach agreement, and the U.S. economy after three years of growth will start shrinking again, the consequences will soon be exported across the pond. As (some) economists like to say: “When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” And this is extremely bad news for the old continent, which – as is the case with the oldies – already suffers from a number of other ailments. We should thus keep our fingers crossed for the American right, which is now going out of its mind with anger and disappointment, to return to it as soon as possible.
Originally published in Kultura Liberalna in a special issue on U.S. Presidential Election.