Meanwhile, in America...

Philip Bobbitt

Philip Bobbitt , the acclaimed constitutional historian, reflects on the deeper meaning of the much-misunderstood US mid-term elections

15 November 2018 12:21

The results of the US mid-term elections are now largely in, but their significance for the future is not clear. Did the Democrats win the national contest by winning at least 34 seats (some 10 districts are still being counted) and taking back the House of Representatives? Or did the Republicans prevail by increasing their Senate majority by at least one seat? And what about the statehouses where the Democrats went from 14 to 23 governorships, but Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidates outside the Republican establishment appear to have prevailed over well-financed Democratic challengers in Florida and Georgia? How can these results be reconciled?

The first thing to recognise is that the electorate voted against change, even though this disposition manifested itself in different ways, depending on the scale of the constituency being contested. Thus, in the House races, voters reacted to Trump as a shatterer of norms. In these more personal races where candidates are more likely to be known by voters, House constituencies abandoned the movement for widespread change represented by Trump precisely because of the changes he has brought to presidential norms of behavior – the careless but apparently irresistible deceptions, the plangent but menacing vulgarity, the personal attacks on opponents, the press, the intelligence and justice agencies, the bullying tweet showers that began each day. Therefore, the electoral advances by the Democrats came in districts where Trump had decisively won the presidential election when he was a candidate without a public record; these voters repudiated their own choice for president when he appeared to imperil the imagined or remembered status quo of civility and dignity in the White House.

But voters in the Senate seats up for election also acted against change. Here the agent of change was not the president, but the Democratic national party, as it was portrayed as the advocate of open borders, identity politics and cosmopolitan indifference to American interests and values.  For those Senate elections, the Kavanaugh debacle was just as decisive for the Republicans as Trump’s incitement to violence was for the Democrats in the more local elections, when the pipe bomb threats and synagogue shooting occurred.

In both cases, American voters objected to the apparent abandonment of conventional rules, by which the State was expected to enforce the moral and cultural norms and customs of the ‘nation’ – the dominant ethnic, cultural and historic founding group of the society. Trump was seen as an amoral figure no less threatening than the NFL players who refused to stand for the national anthem.

Though it is often said that the US is a deeply polarised society, the ‘poles’ are harder to locate in the actual American geography of values. In fact, there is a vast common ground even if it has been vacated by the political parties and the media. As a recent study concluded, ‘the middle is far larger than conventional wisdom suggests, and the strident wings of progressivism and conservatism far smaller’ (8 per cent and 25 per cent respectively). The poles in American society are not so much magnetic in themselves, as they are repulsive to the energies of vast groups, the way one magnet repels another. So it is not hard to come up with a political program that would unite most of the country.

Though it is often said that the US is a deeply polarised society, the ‘poles’ are harder to locate in the actual American geography of values.

This program would emphasise the bipartisanship that is indispensable to passing legislation when the Senate and the House are in the hands of different parties; moderation in the public behavior of the President, perhaps even some fact-checking by his staff before his impulsive tweets are let loose; greater inclusiveness by the Democratic party, that claims to pride itself on inclusion (consider for example the New York Times columnist whose essay was entitled, ‘Democrats Need a Rural Strategy’, who helpfully explained that this strategy definitely did not include ‘centrists’ who might appeal to  the alienated heartland, but rather ‘candidates who can excite base voters’, even though the Democratic base is quite remote geographically and culturally from the rural areas of the US.) It would mean a greater check on the White House by Republicans in the Congress who have, on the whole, been embarrassingly supine, and some friendly criticism of the excesses of the anti-white, anti-male, anti-establishment, anti-American-legacy movements by the Democrats, whose adherence to civility has been spotty (as when left wing writers characterize advocates for civility as ‘pearl clutchers’, implicitly casting themselves in the role of more muscular figures, not shy about a little profanity; it doesn’t take a psychotherapist to detect essayists anxiously eager to assert their masculinity vis à vis their threatening right wing opponents.)

Surely after the midterm elections that, while apparently contradictory, can be deconstructed to reveal such cohesion, we can expect such changes in party behavior. Right?

Not a chance – because the drivers of the change that the public fears and resists are not the political parties at all, which are merely reacting to these historic changes.

The industrial nation-state, a constitutional order that arose in the US and in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century and has come to dominate all modern states, depended upon the cultural and political preeminence of a particular nation, whether it was the English in Great Britain or the Russians in the Soviet Union, whose ethos provided the cultural metric by which the legitimacy of the State was judged. The industrial nation state said, ‘give us power and we will improve your material well-being,’ which was to be measured against the well-being of the dominant national group.

Surely after the midterm elections that, while apparently contradictory, can be deconstructed to reveal such cohesion, we can expect such changes in party behavior. Right?

That constitutional order triumphed, first eclipsing the imperial order of the state-nations it challenged and displaced, and then concluding a century long war to determine which form of the industrial nation state would shape the international order – communism, fascism or parliamentarianism. No sooner had it reached the apogee of its success with the end of this long war, then it became evident that the inventions that delivered that success – the creation of weapons of mass destruction, a global system of trade and finance, and an international system of human rights – were destabilising the legitimacy of the leading industrial nation states. WMD became increasingly commodified and began to slip beyond the control of the major states; the control of national currency and state debt was conceded to the global market; new technologies, originally financed and developed by industrial nation states for security purposes, now undermined the cohesion of publics and fragmented any national consensus; and transnational threats like AIDS, SARS, global networked terrorism, and most significantly climate change posed mortal challenges to this constitutional order, whose very nationality crippled the collaborative efforts necessary to cope with these novel threats.

In the face of such developments, the State attempted to reform itself, moving from regulatory regimes that used law to defy and control the market for moral and cultural objectives, to de-regulatory regimes that attempted to use market mechanisms to address the nation state’s goal of ever-increasing well-being through ever increasing wealth. The reaction to this abandonment of cultural hegemony has been ferocious in country after country. National identity – including the suppressed identities of nations like Catalonia, Lombardy, Scotland, Native and African Americans and others – surged as a political objective. The question of the hour – who are we as a nation? – was pressed insistently on every state.

The problem is that the proffered answers to this question – whether by Trump or Corbyn – are not responsive to the challenges of the future that crippled the legitimacy of the industrial nation state in the first place. Whether it’s Viktor Orban or Bernie Sanders, their proposed answers only make sense inside the fading paradigm of the industrial nation state. They may be attractive as emotional therapies, but they do not realistically address the causes of decay in the currently prevailing constitutional order. The result is a sense of heightening frustration that resolves itself in insult and the search for scapegoats.

Until we face forward, recognising the common threats that the future embodies, there will be no consensus politics, no bi-partisanship, only name-calling and expressions of mutual contempt. The manufactured authenticity of the reality tv show will, for a time, supplant the search for realistic policies based on facts, scrupulous honesty and humility before the challenges we are at present refusing to confront.