In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the US election, there has been a fair amount of knee-jerk analysis of the demographics of the vote and the possible implications for future campaigns. Many commentators have stated that the Republicans simply have to change (that is, move closer to the so-called centre ground) in order to have any chance of ever winning the presidency again. But, for a party that was perceived by many to have been too extreme to be electable, to have gathered 48.3% of the popular vote doesn’t look like a bad return.
In the rush to suggest what the Republicans should, or shouldn't, do to become 'electable', nobody seems to have considered the possibility that the most important thing in politics might be to have principles and to stick to them. We have become accustomed to the notion that serious (i.e. winning) political parties must be ruthless, focus-group driven, vote-gathering machines, designed to hoover up everyone on the so-called middle ground. It isn’t just that nobody wants to fall out over political ideas anymore, it’s almost as if nobody even wants to have much in the way of political differences. The so-called 'third way’ has become the only way. Given the declining turnout at successive elections, I’d be surprised if that many folk genuinely believed that this arrangement was going well for the liberal democracies.
At any given point in history, there will be certain ideas and philosophies that will be deemed unelectable, but that is not to say that such situations will always prevail. We have no idea of what might happen in the next five minutes or the next five years; we have no way accurately to predict the impact of what Harold McMillan famously called "events, dear boy, events."
It is possible that the middle ground might move. It is possible that conditions may one day prevail in which a political party might be able to stand and win on a set of policies and principles that have not been watered down and hopelessly compromised by focus-group fudging and slavish sensitivity to opinion polls. It would be refreshing to encounter a party with the courage to say: “These are the things we stand for. This is what we plan to do if we get elected. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for us.”
Unfortunately, we appear to be lumbered with a professional political class, ever-willing to adjust its ‘principles’ to appeal to as many pressure groups, minority interests, ethnic factions and voting blocks as possible. It seems that no party can gain power without first bribing the electorate to vote for it. Unless we can break this cycle of electoral sweeteners, the prediction made by the 19th century political writer Alexis de Tocqueville is likely to come true:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
If anyone thinks I am over-egging this particular pudding, I will remind you that there are currently two EU member countries being governed by groups of unelected technocrats. Who would bet against that number increasing at some point in the next eighteen months?