American Politics as Seen from the 2010 Midterm Elections

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 15:37
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 The midterm elections are an important event in US politics. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Republican Party scored its biggest victory in decades, reclaiming the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority, netting 6 Senate seats and gaining the majority of state governorships. For President Obama, who showed such great promise just two years ago, and his Democratic Party this was a record defeat.

 We can see how American politics really works by looking at the midterm elections of 2010.

 The economy is key

 Almost all US media blamed the Democratic Party’s losses in the midterm elections on the state of the economy. Two years ago Obama was able to come to power with a high reputation because of the Bush administration’s mishandling of the economy, leading to world-wide economic turbulence and domestic economic recession. American media commented that people gave Obama two years to fulfill his campaign promises, but at the end of that time the unemployment rate was higher, more Americans were living in poverty, the fiscal deficit was higher and there were a great number of non-performing loans in the financial sector. The American economy had not only failed to recover, but was still facing the danger of hitting bottom again. Although Mr. Obama repeatedly reminded voters during the campaign that his government had put the economy on the road to recovery and kept it from being even worse, they weren’t listening. According to some media reports, most voters used the midterm elections as a way to pass judgment on the economic performance of the Obama administration.

 This shows that the economy is key in the politics of any country regardless of the social system. The economy is important to the prosperity of the nation and the well-being of the people, and politics is merely a concentrated reflection of the state of the economy. People always base their assessment of government performance on the state of economy. All the wild claims and promises in the world cannot make up for bad economic conditions. There is no essential difference between the United States and other countries in this regard.

 Money is decisive in election outcomes

 The campaigns of the 2010 midterm elections were exceptionally fierce. Time has shown that in Western countries the fiercer the campaign is, the more money the candidates spend. According to media reports on spending estimates, the midterm elections cost over US$3 billion and the final numbers may surpass US$4 billion or even US$5 billion, exceeding the cost of the 2008 presidential election and thus becoming the most expensive US election in history.

 The Supreme Court of the United States struck down a ban against corporate political spending on free-speech grounds in January 2010, allowing corporations to spend freely on election ads. This ruling removed limits on corporate involvement in politics. Businesses and political organizations were able to spend directly on commercials for or against candidates in the midterm elections of 2010 resulting in a flood of campaign ads and even the emergence of many organizations handling the ads. According to media reports, more than 500 such groups were registered, including one called American Crossroads that raised and spent over US$50 million in the 2010 midterm elections.

 Financial regulatory reform was one of Obama’s major achievements, but it was unpopular with Wall Street. According to reports, the finance, insurance and real estate sectors gave hundreds of millions of dollars more to GOP candidates than to their Democratic counterparts in the 2010 midterm elections. Some media estimated that Wall Street contributed nearly 11 times as much to GOP candidates as to Democratic ones. Goldman Sachs, which had been a big contributor to the Democratic Party, giving 75% of its political contributions to Democrats in the 2008 election cycle, shifted the majority of its political contributions to Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.

 In fact, money talks in American election campaigns. The former Obama supporters on Wall Street turned against the administration in the midterm elections, leading to a sweeping victory for the Republican Party and a crushing defeat for the Democratic Party. In dealing with the international financial crisis, Obama called greedy Wall Street bankers “fat cats” and struggled hard to promote the passage of a financial regulation bill, even attempting to dismantle banks once considered “too big to fail,” an admirable effort from America’s first black president. In spite of his courage, Obama tasted the bitter consequences of displeasing the powers on Wall Street in the midterm elections. Once again, people got to know the powerful role of money in politics in the United States. It looks as though Obama’s financial regulation bill will probably be watered down, become twisted or fail completely.

 Limited choice

 Does American democracy really mean the people have a free choice as claimed? In fact, it provides voters with limited or even unsatisfactory choices. The fixed two-party system in the United States forces people into choosing between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Voters can only choose either the “donkey” or the “elephant” and do not have the option of choosing a “horse” or a “camel.” The Tea Party is going nowhere, though it emerged as a dark horse in the midterm elections and was said to be supported by nearly 20 percent of the voters.

 The voters clearly know that the Bush administration created the financial crisis that led to the economic recession. Their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration does not mean they were satisfied with the Bush administration or that they would like to go back to the past. Some Americans have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They can do nothing but resign themselves to refusing to vote or choosing the better of two evils.

 In fact, American democracy is controlled by the two parties. Moreover, political parties, not voters, determine the results of elections. They manipulate the nomination of candidates, fundraising and organization of campaigns in both congressional and presidential elections. Only occasionally is the pattern broken by a few independent candidates. The two parties controlling the system cannot afford to have a third party take over.

 Democracy always has leaders, meaning there is no such thing as totally spontaneous and free democracy. The most important function of modern political parties is to lead democracy, though the leadership style varies along with the nature of parties in different countries.

 Emphasis on the short terms

 Two years ago, Obama loudly proclaimed “change” and “Yes We Can” and was elected President. Two years later, he not only hasn’t met any of his goals, but has suffered a serious setback in the midterm elections to boot. In all fairness, two years was not enough time to solve the mountains of internal and external issues created by the Bush administration, a herculean task. It was truly unfair of voters to punish Obama for this. This is how US elections work, however, and voters were growing impatient and unwilling to see things Obama’s way.

 Catering to the voters and giving top priority to winning votes inexorably leads to overemphasis on the short term. The ruling party often seeks quick results by focusing on national issues that the majority of voters care about, only emphasizing current issues while ignoring the long term. The opposition does the same and opposes whatever policies the ruling party proposes just for the sake of opposition, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. Obama’s healthcare and financial regulation bills would obviously be beneficial to American society in the long term, but would not produce the intended results in a short time. As a result, they became a major burden to the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. According to a New York Times article, under the current political system of the United States, people know the true situation and the right policies “but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them.”

 Overemphasis on the short term has already become obvious right after the midterm elections. In order to stimulate sluggish economy, the U.S. Federal Reserve has twice in a row substantially eased monetary policy, printing vast sums of dollars. This aroused indignation around the world, but is only a classic short-term fix for the American economy. Obama obviously did this under the pressure of American election politics to help his 2012 re-election bid, so what else could you expect him to do?

 “Campaigning is different than governing,” Obama said after the midterm elections. He spoke the truth, unveiling the essence of American politics.

 Political impasse

 Following the midterm elections, the Democratic Party is still the ruling party, with the Republican Party dominating the House of Representatives and the two parties fairly balanced in the Senate. This political status quo was called the American impasse by an American newspaper. Obama will have a hard time implementing his policies under the new political pattern. In domestic affairs, the Republicans will strongly oppose Obama’s healthcare bill and financial regulation bill, which are the major achievements of the Obama administration. Republicans may use Congress to deny federal agencies the appropriations needed for implementation of the two bills, even though they cannot repeal them due to the complicated legislative process. In terms of external affairs, Obama helped bring about the Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty just before the swearing-in of the new Congress. Although the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was approved by the House of Representatives, the bill died in the Senate. In fact, Democrats will find it nearly impossible to pass climate change legislation because climate change skeptics dominate the Republican Party.

 The United States and other Western countries often boast about checks and balances in their political systems. In practice, however, the system of checks and balances often results in political impasse, leading to indecisiveness concerning issues where everyone knows the correct approach. Humanity as a whole is facing more and more challenges and global issues such as international financial security, global economic stability, climate change, food security and weapons proliferation, which are becoming more complex and acute. If the United States, the world’s largest developed country and economy, is unable to act responsibly due to political impasse and the pressure of election politics, humankind’s ability to address these common challenges will be weakened. This is real cause for worry.

 Reform and innovation are vital to a political system because an ossified and stagnant political system will suffocate itself. The United States is no exception. While doing all it can to spread its political model around the world, perhaps the United States should also examine and consider its own issues.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.1, 2011)

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