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Election Irrelevance

President Obama has suffered predictably severe losses in the American mid-term elections, in the process relinquishing the Democrats’ control of the senate.  A strong message has been sent to the administration, chant the triumphant Republicans, flaunting their new-found unity.  But what message is that exactly?

The Republicans’ three most important priorities – if I’ve interpreted their campaign strategy correctly – are smaller government, reduced taxes (to get American business moving again) and a much more assertive American stance in world affairs. 

Is that what the electors want?   Apparently so, but is it what they need?

Smaller government – the Defense Department’s budget ring-fenced presumably – implies the loss of hundreds of thousands of Federal and local government jobs, most of them held by low-income workers, many by expanding minorities.  Lower taxes may well, at least in the short term, increase the national deficit, but with no guaranty that tax receipts from the business activity generated will materialise on a sufficiently large scale to reverse the process.  And a more aggressive foreign policy presumably means, in Republican eyes, ‘standing up to’ terrorist organisations more vigorously.  But how much more vigorous is that?  Does it imply intervention in world trouble spots through the use of American troops, the so-called boots-on-the-ground option, the one that Americans rejected by repudiating the Bush doctrine six years ago?

Obama’s essential problem, which the Republicans have exploited effectively, is that, while he has presided over an economic recovery, he has presided over an economic recovery that many Americans believe has been too slow and too selective – moreover, one that is seen to favour those most capable of absorbing the reduced spending power of stagnating incomes.  Obama undoubtedly should have done more to help those at the lower end of the economic scale – Obama-care aside – but whatever he has done has been undermined by his air of diffidence and detachment.  He comes across as a man being swept along by events that he should be controlling.

It is not Obama’s problem alone. 

In Britain the Conservative party is taking, and perhaps deserves, the credit for a growth-led economic recovery but it still trails the left-wing Labour Party in the opinion polls, and is being squeezed on the right by the populist appeal of the UK Independence Party.  Prime Minister David Cameron, like Obama, is seen as much a part of the problem as the solution.  But exactly what is the problem?  In Britain it is defined as the growth of an elitist Westminster political cabal, which, along with its soul-mates in the City of London, has lost touch with ordinary people in the rest of the country. 

The Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom, it is true, but only just, and recent polls suggest that the vote might well be different now.  To which the obvious response is to ask how a supposedly informed electorate can decide in September that it wants to stay in a 300-year-old union but decide in November that it wants out after all?

What Scotland wants is not necessarily what Scotland needs.  That much applies to the whole country. 

UKIP’s popularity is based solely on a return to nationalism and an island siege mentality, a modern version of the doctrine of Splendid Isolation as practised by the Victorians.  UKIP’s platform is narrow and basic: Britain must restrict, if possible eliminate, immigration, and get out of the European Union, away from those meddling continentals, who have never done us any favours and are ungrateful for our many past favours in the other direction.  

There are, of course, persuasive counter-arguments that Britain’s immigrants are filling jobs that Britons don’t think are worth doing, and are therefore doing us the favour.  It can also be plausibly asserted that leaving the EU will render Britain friendless in an increasingly hostile, or at least no longer impressed, world. 

But British voters are not in the mood to listen.  UKIP has struck too many chords, the most resonant of which, sadly, boils down to the absurd belief that most of Britain’s current problems are caused by Johnny Foreigners; that those living in the country should get out of it, and those already out of it, should mind their own business instead of ours.

On this narrow, prejudiced, unthinking, lager-steeped platform a general election campaign is to be fought?  If it is, then shame on us.

What American and British voters ought to be concerned about, surely, is not Bulgarian ladies doing the house-cleaning, nor even the threat of Manchester-born Muslims planting bombs (as real as these threats may seem from the newspaper headlines) but the more profound issues facing the human race.

First, globalisation.  The unification and growing interdependence of financial and commodity markets is a relatively new and altogether misunderstood phenomenon.  It has taken western economics six years to recover from the upheavals caused by the banking crisis of 2008.  Such eruptions are likely to recur at regular intervals, unless governments find the means to anticipate them, and deal with them.

Second, the singular intrusion of technology.  We enjoy the fruits of its inventions in our everyday lives, so we dismiss it as a force for social good.  But little thought has been given to how the post-industrial landscape will look a decade from now.  Technology will employ many millions of workers in the future, but it will displace many millions more, and they will be rendered unemployable unless they learn new skills, of which many will prove beyond them.

Third, climate change.  Deniers have been very effective in persuading us that nothing is going on with our weather, and even if something is going on it is not because of anything mankind has done to it.  Well, they may be right, but what if they are wrong – and there is at least a credible body of evidence to suggest that they might be.

If markets crash and technological wonders start to defy our efforts to control their consequences and water, say, becomes so scarce that it becomes an expensive tradable commodity, what then?

Obama may be a lousy President, Cameron an inept Prime Minister, but we are judging them for reasons that have little relevance to the emerging world.  It is going to be a dangerous, hazardous and almost incomprehensible place. 

If so, hands up those who think the Tea Party evangelists of the Republican Party and the Little Englanders of UKIP are giving us the answers.

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