The Coming Aftermath

25 September 2012


Excursus on US Electoral Futurism

For the most part I avoid writing about US domestic politics, but I did write a series of posts about the beleaguered Republican Party after its defeat in the previous election cycle. These posts included the following:

The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown

More on Republican Disarray

Of Weeds and Flowers

The Republican’s Existential Crisis

Republican Evolution

Another Nail in the Republican Coffin

Why do I usually avoid writing about US electoral politics? Several reasons. Among these reasons are the saturation media coverage of the event, the fact that I find it all deadly dull, and the likelihood that whatever I write will be misconstrued. Since I am a US citizen and a resident of the US, my objectivity is likely to be questioned, and it would be assumed that I write with a partisan agenda. This last is probably decisive.

While the idea (much less the ideal) of objectivity is not highly valued today, and many would say that the denial of the very possibility of objectivity is one of the central features of postmodernism, I take a great pride in my objectivity, and I would not want to be thought to be just another voice repeating one party line or another. What is objectivity? At least part of objectivity is the continual struggle against anything that might prejudice, distort, or alter that which is demonstrably the case. At least one form of the failure of objectivity, then, is the underdetermination of an account of things. Thus we see that a political perspective is a theory about the world that is underdetermined by the evidence.

Domestic US politics is especially vulnerable to those who are passionately committed to one side or the other thinking themselves into a frame of mind in which they really believe to be true that which they want to be true. The passionate state of mind distorts everything by interpreting it in accordance with an underdetermined political theory. Once a person thinks themselves into such a frame of mind it is extraordinarily difficult to reason with them. It is probably better not to try, so instead we must simply set aside the passionately committed.

If we set such persons aside, there remains a core of commentators who don’t allow themselves to be swayed by partisan rants. Among this core, you would be hard-pressed to find any who thought that Romney would win the election. Now that Romney’s fate has been sealed by the release of the secretly recorded video from Mother Jones magazine, it is worthwhile considering the ramifications of Romney’s coming defeat.

The press must of course pretend that there is still a contest, but it isn’t much of a contest. While recent events have driven home the unlikelihood of a Romney victory in the general election, as I noted above, almost no one really thought he would win. Objective Republicans can read polls just as well as objective Democrats, and they all knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat President Obama in the present election. It is for exactly this reason that several prominent Republican candidates chose not to run. If the president had been viewed as highly vulnerable, stronger candidates who did not want an embarrassing defeat on their record would have joined the contest.

There will be those who say that US presidential elections are always predicated upon domestic economics, and that the softness of the US economy made Obama vulnerable. Yes, that is true, but vulnerability is not always the same as defeatability. It is likely that the domestic economy will take several points off Obama’s margin of victory, but these points won’t be enough to make a difference. A sufficiently large margin of victory can absorb a certain amount of vulnerability.

So my first prediction, apart from the now-obvious prediction that President Obama will win the general election, is that the commentators will wear themselves out telling the public how usual and unprecedented it is for a president to be reelected with the domestic economy in such poor condition. This spin will in turn be further spun to make the claim that President Obama’s reelection represents a truly profound shift in US electoral politics. (It does, by the way, but it will not be the shift that the commentators will identify; I have already identified the actual shift in Appearance and Reality in Demographics.)

Probably many of the commentators who will appear on television on election night have already written their scripts, so that they can appear to have had penetrating insights into the nature of the result spontaneously as the numbers begin to come in. Like I said above, none of this is a surprise to anyone. In fact, the biggest surprise will be to see how exactly the coming aftermath plays out. Here there remain several unknowns.

A careful observer of US electoral history will have noticed that so many statistics are kept on US elections that it is nearly inevitable that every time a US presidential election is held, some statistical trend that has always perfectly predicted the election in the past is upended, therefore demonstrating the “unprecedented” nature of the election. While it is true that some statistical correlations are more robust and significant than others, there is nothing surprising in and of itself that each and every election should involve a statistically unprecedented result. In fact, I would even say that it is statistically inevitable that there will always be statistically unprecedented results. If not, we wouldn’t bother to hold elections, because the outcome would always be determined on the basis of precedent.

One of the most obvious consequences of the Republicans losing two presidential elections sequentially will be a strong call from within the Republican Party to do something — to do anything — to make sure that they don’t lose again. For one party to be permanently shut out of a duopoly on power is for the duopoly to cease to function and for the party out of power to become restive. Such crises often result in highly pragmatic electioneering that focuses on finding a candidate for the next election who can win. All standards other than electability tend to go by the board. Whether this pressure for pragmatism overcomes the the pressure for ideological conformity is an unknown. It is not impossible that “country club Republicans” could re-take control of the party, expel the evangelicals (who would likely go on to form their own minor but ineradicable party), and return to a classic (i.e., pre-Reagan) Republican agenda, but it is not likely either.

Another obvious consequence is that the Democrats, after two sequential presidential victories, may indulge in triumphalism and consequently engage in ideological overreach that will cost them in local elections two years hence. There will be some democrats who understand the underlying demographic realities resulting in their victories, but many if not most will view the victory as an ideological victory and will claim, and perhaps also attempt to live by the idea, that the US electorate is permanently re-aligning itself with a Democratically-defined political ideology. Depending upon how much Democrats attempt to live by this delusion, the Republicans may be able to count upon a reaction that will return them to power — at least temporarily.

One of the medium- to long-term consequences of President Obama’s reelection to a second term and the consequent heightened soul-searching within the Republican party that is sure to follow, will be whether the Republicans choose to change their orientation so that they do not face extinction as a political party. Ideologically motivated Republicans felt that the last election was lost due to a failure of ideological purity. If this faction should triumph within the Republican Party, the party is doomed is irrelevance and eventual extinction. This in itself presents a fascinating problem.

Many commentators over recent years have made a point of reporting the “gridlock” in the US political system. The really interesting question if Republicans fail to reform themselves and if political gridlock persists is this: how can an another party emerge to take the place of the Republican party in the duopoly of the US two-party system in the midst of political gridlock? And if political gridlock has made the US political system too sclerotic even to change, how can the status quo be maintained when the Republicans are experiencing a gradual dissolution as a viable political party?

Whether the coming aftermath is a bloodbath or a re-alignment, it will be perhaps more interesting to watch than the usual US domestic melodrama.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Coming Aftermath”

  1. Interesting comments, but it I would argue that it a plausible narrative of this cycle is that the Republicans nominated a candidate most of them did not like and did not trust and who has had “challenges” to say the least. As the national debt grows, should there come that proverbial bad day when simply printing money does yield to inflation, the old, “Blue Model” (as Walter Mead calls it) will fail.

    The problem with this election is that many people are looking for an alternative to Obama, the Republicans simply selected someone they don’t like. Old school “New Dealism” on steroids won’t survive the fiscal challenges it brings on itself.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m always happy to hear from you.

      Why did the Republicans nominate a candidate that most of them did not like? They did so because their top drawer candidates would not run. Why did the top drawer candidates refuse to participate in this election? Because they did not want to be defeated. Obviously, many influential Republicans more than a year ago already made the calculation that President Obama would be re-elected, and they decided to wait out another four year cycle with the hope for better prospects further down the road.

      As I noted about, in so far as the Democrats view their upcoming victory as an ideological victory, they risk ideological over-stretch, and this encourages them to go further out on a limb with the “Blue Model” (a convenient term, I will admit) and extensions of “New Dealism” that will likely stall the economy and result in a reaction that will return Republicans to power — or elect some not-yet-extant third party who will replace the Republican Party.

      The tone of your comment sounds skeptical to the “big picture” narrative I have sketched, so if you care to take the time I would be interested to know — beyond the current election cycle — how you view the big picture narrative of US domestic politics.

      Alternatively, once the Blue Model reaches its predictable limits, what will replace it? What do the Republicans have on offer? What is the “Red Model”? Tax cuts and cuts in government services? Our tax policies for the last half century — under both Republican and Democratic presidents — have consistently concentrated wealth in the highest income brackets, and this has been destructive of the social fabric of the US. Changed tax policies will almost certainly exacerbate this problem. On this particular point (certainly not on every point) I agree with George Friedman that the future attempt to employ old solutions to contemporary problems will prove spectacularly counter-productive, and the resulting crisis will force the consideration of alternative policies that have not, to date, been contemplated.

      Best wishes,


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