Danny Finkelstein is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about the US elections

Iain Murray is Director of Projects and Analysis at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington DC.

Times’ Danny Finkelstein suggests four reasons why people shouldn’t be
surprised at the election of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, in each of
the cases, Danny demonstrates a less-than-perfect understanding of
American politics. There is much less here than meets the eye.

Danny argues that “The American people are becoming, quite literally, a
different people,” because of immigration. Yet it is a truism to say
that America is a “nation of immigrants.” America has gone through wave
after wave of immigration, but because of the strength and vibrancy of
American culture, those immigrants have been successfully assimilated
into the American people. Now, it is plausible that the current mass
Hispanic immigration might be different, having the characteristics
more of a colonization than immigration, but if that is the case Danny
should realize the implications, which are serious. I am more
optimistic, and prefer to believe that the current immigration will be
like the previous mass immigrations, with the sons and granddaughters
of current immigrants being properly assimilated. American values will
predominate, and a Hispanic surname will be no more a predictor of a
vote than an Italian surname is today. If it isn’t, America is in deep
trouble, with significant implications for the world.

Danny suggests that “the world is changing and within it America’s
place in the world.” Yet foreign policy ended up having virtually no
effect on this election, with Iraq being barely mentioned in the real
campaign. Danny is certainly right to say that the financial crisis put
America on the back foot, but the consensus response, backed by Bush,
McCain and Obama, was one that was barely distinguishable from the
reaction in Downing Street. The western financial world reacted in
lockstep, and merely continued the Blair-Clinton approach of a mixed
economy. To suggest that America has been a bastion of laissez-faire
capitalism is to ignore history from 1932 onwards. Reagan partially
deregulated a highly-regulated economy. Clinton and Bush both added
further deregulation, but the failings of recent years are all directly
attributable to market reaction to government policy, not the other way
round. If anything, the financial crisis demonstrated the failure of
Third Way managerialism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Danny suggests “American politics is being captured by the rising
middle class.” Here Danny confuses the British and American definitions
of middle class. In Britain, the middle class is the “chattering
classes” these days, for sure. In America, however, the definition is
much broader, but is essentially equivalent to the British term
“working class.” So, when Danny suggests that half of America regards
itself as middle class, he misses this point:

“For example,
four-in-ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 say they are middle
class, as do a third of those with incomes above $150,000. And about
the same percentages of blacks (50%), Hispanics (54%) and whites (53%)
self-identify as middle class, even though members of minority groups
who say they are middle class have far less income and wealth than do
whites who say they are middle class.”

What this means is that the “middle class” in America is actually
much different from the middle class in Britain. Fifty-three percent of
middle class Americans, for example, view living a religious life as
very important. Self-identification as “middle class” does not
invalidate the Southern Strategy. In fact, McCain won several Southern
states that Clinton won a decade ago and there are signs in states like
Louisiana that Democrat influence is still on the wane there.

Danny suggests that “the conventional Republican agenda has stopped
working.” Far from it! Let’s take the suggestions one-by one:

“Cut income tax” – one of Obama’s main campaign points was a tax cut
for 95 percent of Americans. The right has won that argument. * “Fight
crime” – as Danny suggests, this issue is not currently salient, but
that position is unlikely to last forever. Any attempt to reopen the
gun debate, for example, is likely to end badly for Obama because,
again, the right has won that argument. * “Reform social security” –
both parties realize the social security system is on the verge of
collapse. When it does, it is unlikely to be the left that wins the
argument, having blocked all realistic attempts at reform. * “Outlaw
abortion” – there are no signs that the pro-choice movement has won
this argument, with the most recent poll showing a 49-47 split between
broadly pro-choice and broadly pro-life positions. And 71% favor
“outlawing abortion” in certain circumstances. * “Support marriage” –
all three defense of marriage ballot propositions on the ballot Tuesday
passed, including one in California. California!

So when Danny Finkelstein says “the mainstream Republican agenda
is no longer a winner,” he is completely and utterly wrong. Americans
support the policies, even if they don’t support the party. That should
sound familiar to British Conservative ears.

It is always
unwise to ignore Occam’s Razor in politics. The simplest answer to the
question why Obama won so convincingly is Bill Clinton’s – it’s the
economy. McCain was running neck-and-neck with Obama, even in this
supposedly changed America, until the collapse of Lehman Bros. His
inability to articulate a popular yet conservative response to the
crisis rather than signing up for Henry Paulson’s deeply unpopular
bailout plan doomed him. His poll numbers crashed alongside the Dow.
Attributing McCain’s failure to some fantasy of a radically changed
America is to ignore empirical evidence.