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What happens when two-thirds don’t vote

14 November 2014

Justin Lewis-Anthony analyses the results of the US mid-term elections - and the consequences for American democracy

HOW much does it cost to run an election? In the case of the mid-term elections concluded in the United States last week, a little more than $4 billion.

Almost all of that was spent on advertising, and most of the advertising budget was spent not by the candidates for Congress and state legislatures, but by "Super PACs" (Political Action Committees), who were given power to spend unlimited amounts of money by a decision of the US Supreme Court that equated spending money with the exercise of free expression.

The most expensive election was the contest between Kay Hagan (Democrat) and Thom Tillis (Republican) for the US Senate, costing $113 million. Tillis won by two per cent of the votes cast.

The overall result was a sweeping victory for the Republican Party. It took control of the US Senate, strengthened its power in the US House of Representatives, and won 31 out of the 48 governor elections being held.

Some of the results were surprising, to say the least. Utah, a conservative western state, still heavily influenced by its Mormon founding and history, has elected a black, Republican woman to the House of Representatives. Tim Scott has become the first African-American senator to win election for the Republicans in the south since immediately after the American Civil War.

The media, on both left and right, presented these events as a decisive rejection of the "hope" and "change" represented by the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008, and his re-election only two years ago. Is something significant happening? Is this upheaval?

PERHAPS not so much. David Brooks noted in the New York Times last Friday that Republicans elected in the mid-terms were people with strong connections with the foundations of American civil society. In this way, Republican successes in federal and state elections mark the end, Brooks hopes, of the "fever swamp" of the "Palin spasm". The so-called "Tea Party" section of the Republican Party, an anti-government contrarian movement, portrayed itself as a grass-roots organisation, but was, in reality, funded covertly by unimaginably wealthy business interests. It has lost out in the resurgence of what Brooks calls the "beau ideal of American Republicanism": the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church, fervently devoted to national defence, and demonstrates "loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust".

Brooks's estimation is perhaps over-optimistic. The Republican majority in Congress is big enough to overcome internal filibustering from the Democrat minority, but not to overcome a presidential veto. President Obama is still able to veto any legislation that might cut at his legacy policies, such as the extension of medical insurance nicknamed "Obamacare".

The tactical, political question for the new majority leadership is how will it help or hinder a Republican presidential candidate in two years' time to see a series of bills passed by Congress and vetoed by the President? Some commentators from the conservative National Review have advised the Republicans to continue doing nothing, allowing the country to atrophy, or await the election of a more amenable president, depending on your point of view.

At the same time, President Obama has promised (or threatened) to make greater use of executive orders to pass legislation that would get stuck in Congress, such as immigration reform. This is either a pragmatic response to a broken system of governance, or a naked bid for dictatorial powers.

FOR most of my friends and colleagues, all this is immaterial. It makes little or no positive difference to their everyday lives. The only direct impact is the onslaught of attack advertising paid for by that $4 billion.

Americans today are approximating to anarchists of the 1970s: if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it. Hence the surprisingly small numbers of people who participate in mid-term elections. In the UK, voter turnout of 43 per cent for the European Parliament elections in 2014 was deemed a serious threat to the democratic mandate of the institution. In the US mid-terms, a 36.4 per cent turnout is being reported.

None of this has done anything to diminish the American expectation of leadership. Those successful candidates were successful in as much as they persuaded voters that they would be good leaders. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) promised that her experience castrating pigs on her farm would assist her in dealing with the Washington establishment - and was elected. But as Derek Olsen, an Episcopalian layman, has said about a dispute affecting part of the Episcopal Church: "Bold and decisive leadership sounds great - until it happens to you, and the bold and decisive decisions aren't something that you like." Bold leadership is something people want and need - for other people.

Almost 200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the power of voluntary civil associations in the young country: "In the United States, associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society" (Democracy in America, 1835). At the same time, he noted presciently, these are individuals, with a strong awareness of their individuality: "They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands."

The Revd Dr Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students and Director of Anglican Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary. He writes in a personal capacity.

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