Those who win elections tend to exaggerate the salience reasons for their victories. Those who lose tend to be over-critical of their campaigns and candidate weaknesses.
As a public choice scholar, I view things differently. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not take the view that most voters do not understand the issues underpinning a major election, though I recognize, of course, that some are rationally ignorant about the spatial positioning of candidates. In a campaign as long-drawn out as in 2012, and especially at the presidential level, voters would have to be hermits cut off from all media communication not to understand the salience issues. The presidential election primarily focused on the economy. The rest was a minor sideshow, exciting to those with a social agenda, but ultimately irrelevant to the average Joe and Jane voter, understandably anxious about the economic future confronting themselves and their immediate families.
Barack Obama campaigned essentially on a platform reflective of continental European social market economics, thrusting in favor of increased government intervention, especially with respect to the redistribution of wealth and income. Mitt Romney campaigned essentially on a platform more favorable to the private than to the public sector than the European models and less favorable to income and wealth redistribution.
Both candidates ran efficient campaigns. The incumbent had the advantage of avoiding primaries. He had the disadvantage – at least in this case – of a poor economic record. The challenger had the disadvantage of having to beat out contenders sucking up to the extremists in the Party base. But he had the advantage of being able to create a platform without much in the way of baggage from the past.
The victory of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, narrow though it may have been in the popular vote, was decisive in the Electoral College. And the actors knew, from the outset, that the Electoral college would determine their fates. The rules are clear, as indeed they were in 2000 when George W Bush defeated Albert Gore in the Electoral College, despite the fact of Gore’s victory in the popular vote. No one should complain about a victory earned under the prevailing rules of the game.
So what lessons do I learn from the 2012 elections?
The principal lesson – of crucial long-term significance – is that the United States no longer is an exceptional nation, at least in the sense that I understand that term. I migrated to the United States in December 1983, because I viewed Americans, at least in their political majorities, as being more dedicated to individual liberty, limited government, private property and the rule of law than was the case in the United Kingdom, even under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. At that time the United States rode number 3 in the world rankings in terms of political and economic freedoms. Among non-city state nations, the United States rode at number 1.
As those who track the rankings know, that status has slowly but significantly eroded over the past 20 years. The United States is no longer in the top ten nations in terms of those indices. At an accelerating pace since September 2007, the United States has jettisoned individual liberties, limited government, private property and the rule of law in pursuit of social market objectives.
This shift of direction has little to do with the political party affiliations of the individuals who have occupied the highest office. Bill Clinton performed better than George W Bush, who, in turn, performed better than Barack Obama. When Republicans controlled both Houses (for a time during the presidency of George W Bush), they performed worse than the Democrats (at least until the first two years of the Obama presidency, when all hell let loose).
The loss of American exceptionalism is a consequence, not of poor governance, but of a changing electorate. Over lengthy time-periods, electoral majorities secure the governance that they seek. Changes in demographics explain in full why the United States is moving towards a social market economy.
American exceptionalism was driven from the earliest years of colonialism through the first 150 years of the Republic by large white male majorities, many enthused by the Protestant work ethic. From the 1920s on, female white voters, of the same European stock, swelled the ranks of such voters. Not all such voters, of course, were enthused by American exceptionalism. However, save for the FDR and the Lyndon Johnson years, those white voters, supplemented by others, proved sufficient to uphold the exceptionalism ideal.
This is no longer the case. On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney secured 60 per cent of the aggregate white vote – men and women combined. He secured 73 per cent of the white male vote. In 1980 that would have carried him easily into the White House. In 2012, given poor support from so-called minorities – 5 per cent among blacks and 15 per cent among Hispanics – the Electoral College proved to be out of reach. The white population in the United States is sliding towards minority status, as European immigration relatively declines and as birth rates among the black, Hispanic and Asian communities far exceed those among whites.
As the state itself grows, under such impulses, so welfare dependency expands. The relationship is symbiotic. That has been the hidden and enormously successful objective of progressive politics since FDR took office in 1932. By 2016, with Obamacare by then controlling one-sixth of the U.S. economy, the impulse will be irreversible.
It is no surprise that sub-populations that live significantly off the welfare state vote for candidates and parties that promise to sustain and to extend that welfare state. As food stamps expand from 31 per cent to 43 per cent of the population, as occurred during Obama’s first term, and as the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms are rolled back by presidential edicts, as occurred in 2012, so the social market economy digs down ever – deeper roots.
The Democratic Party makes one major error in quietly gloating over this transformation. Social market economics is not the monopoly jurisdiction of any single party. By 2014, the Republican Party will have adjusted to political reality. Mitt Romney was its last shot in support of American exceptionalism. Both parties henceforth will become social democratic in nature. And American exceptionalism will be a historical relic.
As Anthony Downs hypothesized in his seminal 1957 book, An Economic Theory of Democracy, political candidates and political parties do not win elections in order to implement preferred policies. They produce policies in order to win elections. Both parties follow that principle. Now the reality check is in, both parties know what policies to produce.