Those not well versed in US politics have a hard time understanding how it works, if that’s the appropriate word, including a lot of Americans. I suppose the hardest part for most is the absence of strictly left wing and right wing political parties. To understand that, to the extent it’s understandable, one must go back to the nation’s origin when Parties first appeared on the political scene.
The Fathers (no Mothers) of Confederation were all wealthy and white and the issue of the well off and the not so well off wasn’t part of the great Constitutional Conference of 1787 in Philadelphia which concentrated on where power should lay, the states or the federal government.
It’s often difficult for people in other lands to get their heads around the fact that this watershed conference of more than 4 months dealt almost exclusively with how 13 political entities could be melded into one nation yet not have more populated states run roughshod over the smaller ones, It was this problem that spawned, much due to Benjamin Franklin, the notion of an Upper House, the Senate, with two members from each state. This was especially important for presidential elections, more then than now, where the winner didn’t get that way because of receiving a majority of votes but, rather from States through the Electoral College – in golf parlance, match play not medal. This anachronism, which should have been passé 200 years ago remained because change would require a Constitutional amendment – not easy to get at the best of times.
George Washington, the revered Father of Confederation, was dead set against political parties but could not change politics. When Thomas Jefferson, became the third president, he represented the Republican Party (which, to further muddy the waters, spawned the present day Democratic Party) and the Federalists, represented in the person of Alexander Hamilton (later killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice-president).
The question of who wields power, came to a head in the Civil War, which was about slavery but seen by the South as a question of their rights, as states, to have such matters part of their domestic affairs thus their exclusive prerogative. The war greatly expanded federal power but certainly didn’t end the demand from States, especially in the Deep South, to have exclusive power over civil rights. This strongly held view was especially evident in the 1950s and 60s as the great battle by African-Americans fought for their rights.
After the Civil War a stranger political phenomenon emerged. Because of the history I’ve just outlined, the Democratic Party, represented big business and property owners in the South while in the North it espoused the causes of the poor and disenfranchised, while the Republicans stood for business and the landed “aristocrat”.
This strange political dichotomy was dramatically changed by Richard Nixon who took the Republicans and their tepid view of civil rights into the South and badly damaged that Democratic Party fiefdom. All this by way of answering the question “why is there no party of the “left” in the US”?
There was a Socialist Party under Norman Thomas in the 20s and 30s but he ran several times for president all unsuccessfully. There have been attempts to form a left wing party since but they have never caught on except as spoilers – John Anderson and Ross Perot of the right and Ralph Nader from the left come to mind.
Of course, no election is about just one issue but the November election is coming closer than those in the past. Much of that has been caused by Mitt Romney, the Republican standard bearer, whose questionable business history has helped President Obama to isolate him from mainstream America. Romney isn’t unique because he represents the wealthy and big business – Richard Nixon and the two Bushes did that. What’s different is that Romney comes in as the business candidate just when business has been exposed as morally challenged, to put it mildly.
Ironically, this issue has sideswiped President Obama who saw evil businesses hugely subsidized only to then pay those subsidies out to themselves. Obama didn’t cause the stock market crash nor the consequent Recession but has borne the brunt of it because of Politics, American style which goes something like this – the brokerage houses went broke through gross negligence and new president Obama followed the advice he got, threw billions at business for which he was roundly criticized not so much by his own party as by right wing Republicans (perhaps a redundancy) which, wanting to deflect the light away from the crooks, pilloried Obama for the very policy a Republican President would have put in place. This goofiness is not new, You’ll no doubt remember 2004 when Bush the Younger, a draft dodger, made his opponent John Kerry, into a coward despite the fact that he was a much decorated war hero. I must pause for a moment to admit that even though we’re the mouse lying down elephant, US politics puzzles us too. Canadian Prime Ministers have at best been brushed aside by presidents. Lyndon Johnson habitually called Prime Minister Lester Pearson: Mr. Wilson”; John Kennedy called Prime Minister Diefenbaker a platitudinous bore; while Richard Nixon called Pierre Trudeau an “asshole”, the last two descriptions probably being bang on,
There has been another development in American Society which has not manifested itself in a presidential election – the decline unto death of the middle class. President Obama has been speaking “leftese” more and more in recent days sensing that while many were once comfortable Republicans they may now be ripe for the plucking. He’s talking a lot about the huge gap between the poor and the wealthy, with not much left for the rest.
This subject is not helpful to Romney who made his money flipping paper money and can hardly call himself a friend of anyone other than the well-to-do. There is a very long road left until November. As former Prime Minister Wilson of the UK once said, “in politics, six weeks is an eternity”
What new issues will arise? Will there be major gaffes? How will the debates go – they should be good for Obama who is a smooth talker while Romney is anything but. The challenge for President Obama is to do as Harry Truman did way back in 1948 – run against a hostile Congress, and, of paramount importance, concentrate on speaking for the people who are hurting from (mostly) Republican past sins.
If he does this there will finally be a US presidential election where the main issues will be a Republican Party painting itself as the voice of business and the well – off, whom he will claim will, if not hit too hard by taxes, will create the wealth needed to employ the badly off on the theory that if the rich get richer they pass their money down to the poor. This theory, Mr. Obama will point out, is, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words, “Trickle-down theory – the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows,”
There will be many other debatable subjects but I suspect that the issue that governs the politics of most countries, left versus right will finally take it’s proper place in the hurly burly of the coming Presidential election. American politics which has hitherto been mostly about where you live, may finally be more about how you live.