By Matthew Stevenson
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
If the American presidential race ended today, based on the ratings sweeps of the television networks and national polling organizations, President Barack Obama would win reelection, the Republicans would control the House of Representatives, the Senate would have a Democratic majority but a conservative bias, and the United States would be in position for another four years of deadlocked politics.
The irony of the 2012 election is that while Americans tell pollsters that they have little confidence in Obama, none in the economy, and despise the Congress for shrill partisan politics, they will, nevertheless, reelect most incumbents in the November election.
A second irony is that while a majority of American deplore the inability of the president and Congress to compromise on such issues as the deficit, taxes, and spending, when they cast their votes in the various federal races (for the president, senators, and members of Congress), they will be endorsing the stalemate coalition in Washington. What explains such self-destructive voting patterns?
A large reason that electoral politics in the United States no longer “work” is because party affiliation to the Democrats and Republicans changes between the presidential race and those below it for the Congress.
So-called split tickets—when you vote for Obama but then a Republican member of Congress—will not be uncommon in the 2012 election, because in each case, the voter will likely be siding with the incumbent.
Why? I would argue that party affiliation means less and less in American politics, that voters choose their party identity from their parents (interestingly, it is usually from the mother), but then they cast votes depending on economic or emotional issues—regardless of their party label. Few Americans vote “the ticket,” meaning all the party candidates on the ballot.
Nor have the national political parties been successful in branding themselves uniformly across the country. A Democrat in New York might be for gun control, for abortion, and against the war in Afghanistan, while a Democrat in Colorado might have just the opposite views.
On the Republican side, Tea Partyers and those who gathered at the convention in Tampa had the look of extreme social conservatives—against abortion and healthcare reform, for school prayer and cuts to entitlements. Nevertheless, they nominated as their presidential candidate Mitt Romney, arguably (judging by his past policies as governor) the most liberal Republican to stand for the highest office since Gerald Ford or Dwight Eisenhower.
For the moment the biggest beneficiary of schizophrenic voting patterns is Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have languished below 50 percent for most of his presidency. When asked, Americans say that the country, economy, Supreme Court, and foreign affairs are all headed “in the wrong direction.” So why will he be reelected?
Because (I would argue) of a Constitutional muddle in 1789, the American Presidency is a hydra-headed office, combining that of a monarch with the responsibilities of a prime minister. In most countries, these jobs are divided. In the United States, the president has both.
If running for reelection just as prime minister, Obama would be swept from office. Despite running up $5 trillion in new debts over the last four years, the effective unemployment rate is close to 15 or 20 percent, and the only new jobs created have been by Washington agencies that tap phones and promote foreign wars.
If overwhelmed as prime minister, Obama has better standing as a constitutional monarch, someone whose daily branding exercises (all those speeches and beer summits) speak to American self-images about fairness, equality, and justice. By contrast, Romney and his knights errant look as they though they will come for your cattle.
The phrase used in newspapers about Obama is “likability,” but what it means is that he fills emotional and psychological requirements that Americans have about their head of state—even if he accomplishes little as the leader of the Democratic party or the government.
On the job President Obama is not unlike Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, who is admired for her guiding presence over some mythical English ideal, but who no one would want to lead one of the parties in Parliament.
Part of the reason that the American presidency has become detached from the politics of governance is that millions of dollars in corporate funding has transformed the office into cable television’s version of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.
Compare Barack Obama’s stately processions (his entourage is about 700 when he goes abroad, and includes food tasters) with that of the Swiss president, getting around with a Prius and one guard.
If the presidential election is about choosing a prime-time monarch, the races in the House of Representatives and Senate are about the division of national spoils. In chasing the greased pig, the Republican party is ascendant, because of economic discontent.
Whatever their feelings about presidential pomp and circumstance, on state and congressional levels more American voters today are nervous about the economy, the debt to the Chinese, their lack of jobs, and the country’s drift into insolvency.
This frisson will lead to a Democratic president and a Republican majority in the Congress, but a leadership vacuum in the governing coalition. In other words, a logical system of governance—as Mark Twain said “the best that money can buy”— will have produced an illogical government.
Ed. note: this article appeared in French in Le Temps 11 September 2012