This being an election year in the US, international actors are attempting to anticipate what the outcome will mean for issues and policies that are of concern to them. Moreover, Americans are also preparing for whether the conservatives or liberals will win and what that will mean for their pockets respectively.
Moreover, under the shadow of worsening European and American economies, budding banking scandals, and the approaching fiscal cliff, partisan politics is likely to be to more acute than usual. Larger philosophical debates about whether the system is meant for the few or many have already erupted. The dialogue involves how to balance between the influences that have acted over American politics at different times in history, such as free trade or protectionism, isolationism or engagement, tax break or hike.
One of the critical looming battles that will complicate the coming American elections is how to address the coming ‘fiscal cliff’. A bi-partisan Super Committee was formed last August and instructed to come up with a working solution to the mounting budget deficit by Nov 23rd, 2011. Many seasoned politicians, including Senator Kerry, had warned at the time that inability to find a solution by the deadline, as occurred, would make deficits a major issue in next year’s presidential election. By law, the committee’s failure to develop a budget deal automatically triggers spending reductions on October 1st 2012, cutting $1.2 trillion from the military, education, health care and other priorities over the next decade. In addition, Bush era tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year as well.
The major bone of contention between the Republicans and Democrats is obviously what programs to cut. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had alerted lawmakers last year not to implement a “doomsday mechanism” that would have resulted in Pentagon budget slashed by $600bn, saying that these cuts could severely threaten US national security. The cuts were only supposed to kick in if the Super Committee fails to secure a deal on budget savings.
On the other hand, President Obama faces stiff opposition from the Republicans on increasing tax on the rich to tackle the alarming US deficit. The Republicans have opposed the plan such as the ‘Buffet Tax’.
The debate between the two parties is reflective of their traditional worldview. The Republican’s do not like to tax the rich and see it as counterproductive in promoting more investments. Moreover, they like to cut social programs, from which mostly the lower middle class and poor benefit. They are considered strong on issues of national security and thus they defend defense budgets. On the other hand, Democrats usually increase social spending that results in bigger government and want to tax the rich more and the middle class less.
The prominence of the debate on fiscal matters has given rise to the popularity of Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party believes in a nationalistic agenda with focus on balancing the budget and stopping the deficit spending. More specifically, it stands for ending the influence of special interest.
American System And Public Frustration
In the present state of recession, the stalemate over the deficit has increased public frustration and alarm. The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks reflected in May:
“The American decentralized system of checks and balances has transmogrified into a fragmented system that scatters responsibility. Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money, but it gridlocks when it tries to impose self-restraint.”
He went on to comment on the strong role technocrats are beginning to play in the affairs of European Union:
“Decisions that reshape the destinies of families and nations are being made at some mysterious, transnational level. Few Europeans can tell who is making decisions or who is to blame if they go wrong, so, of course, they feel powerless and distrustful.”
The unfolding economic recession and banking scandals in the West reveals what the unchecked association between money and power can do to the system. The representatives of the people are now caught between serving powerful interests groups or the welfare of common people, and the recent scandals reveal they have repeatedly chosen the former. The political leaders are dependent on funds they generate from the interest groups to contest elections, and they cannot afford to alienate them.
In a surprising ruling in 2010, the US Supreme Court gave corporations the permission to spend unlimited amounts of money to get their favored candidates elected and the despised ones defeated. The dissenting justices opined, this “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”
A Washington Post editorial noted at the time:
“It was wrong because nothing in the First Amendment dictates that corporations must be treated identically to people. And it was dangerous because corporate money, never lacking in the American political process, may now overwhelm both the contributions of individuals and the faith they may harbor in their democracy.”
Since 9/11, on matters of foreign policy and national security, both parties want to appear strong. The parties have tried to differentiate their policies before the elections, but once in power, they have stuck to continuity. For example, after Bush, President Obama increased drone attacks in Pakistan many times over. Most of the other red lines established by Pakistan were crossed on Obama’s watch. The policies regarding Iran have also remained consistent.
It can be hypothesized that military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has more to do with American economic realities than any fundamental change in policies. The complexity of foreign policy and novices of the American public in this regard means more dependence on the state institutions to run the show.
The grave local and global challenges being confronted by US are multifaceted and may not be resolvable by the politics of election cycles. The political jockeying can help parties win elections, but if they are able to actually resolve issues, is questionable. In fact, the problems and challenges are getting worse. If and when, America develops the will to conduct a system level correction, it will have profound global implications.