A more conservative America

The outcome of the US election may look similar to that of 2000. But in reality, 2004 is fundamentally different.

The lessons of 2000 involved process - ballots, campaign finance, judicial rulings. The lessons of the 2004 election involve policy - or, to put it more precisely, the unpredicted victory of Republican and conservative policy. This victory has undermined some of the assumptions about the country that dominated election year, including the idea that the American right is essentially marginal and contemptible. And it is a victory that has been won on three fronts - foreign policy, social policy, and economics.

Start with the breadth of the result. Mr Bush collected millions more votes than his opponent. He won more votes even than Ronald Reagan, until now the biggest vote-getter in presidential history. The Grand Old Party locked in its control of the House of Representatives, picking up seats in the south as old Democrats retired. Republicans also gained crucial seats in the Senate, defenestrating the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Those Democrats who did win office often did so with relatively conservative messages. And both Democratic and Republican voters backed numerous Republican or conservative ballot initiatives.

On foreign policy, the result tells us that Americans, like Europeans, are concerned about the world and America's actions in it. But that concern does not translate into the sort of large-scale doubt about Mr Bush's leadership that observers had predicted. It is obvious but still must be said: voters would not have turned out in record numbers for Mr Bush if they had thought his efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East were insane. And they would not have voted for him if they had thought he was the principal source of global instability. In the weekend before the election, American television aired two taped threats from al-Qaeda, one delivered by Osama bin Laden himself. The general expectation was that citizens might react as the Spaniards did to the terrorist attacks just before their election - by heading left. But, as in last month's Australian election, there was no backlash (Tony Blair, who is considering the timing of a British election, might take note). Instead, voters rallied around Mr Bush.

What about social policy? Many observers had suggested over the course of the year that conservative social values were not merely wrong, but were also - and perhaps fatally - passé or limited to the Christian Right. Recently, the New York Times published an 8,000-word article built around the thesis that the gay family had come of age and that the country was ready to formalise acceptance of gay families through legal structures. On Tuesday, however, the electorate rejected that notion, voting, in all the states that took up the question of gay marriage, to ban or outlaw it. The states concerned were not all rural backwaters - one was oh-so-middle-of-the-road Ohio. This outcome leaves those who had assumed that a national shift to the left was taking place looking "coastal" and isolated themselves.

On race, conservatives and their ideas did well. Take Barack Obama, the Democrats' candidate for the Illinois Senate seat. Mr Obama, who is black, trounced his opponent not with the traditional Democratic line on race (colour and ethnicity matter a lot) but with a centrist or even Republican message: America must be "one nation", colour-blind.

Finally, there is economic policy. Throughout the campaign, economic woes were emphasised: the pressures of globalisation, the uncertainty of a shift from an industrial to a service economy, and the attendant job losses. These are bitter problems. Still, by supporting Mr Bush, voters acknowledged that he had got many fundamentals right. After all, "four more years" sounds a good idea if it means an unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent and annual growth of 3.7 per cent.

More intriguingly, voters made clear their position on how such results were achieved. Republican culture has a side that abhors government debt. But Republicans did not slay Mr Bush for his failure to veto big spending projects. Nor did they shy away from him because he talked of reforming Social Security, America's pension system. And they endorsed his focus on making the economy relatively competitive by cutting taxes and taking other supply-side steps. In North Carolina, home state of John Edwards, the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate, voters handed a Senate seat to Richard Burr, a tax-hating Republican, while ousting Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's thoughtful and much-admired former chief of staff. Commentators repeatedly remarked on their surprise that Louisiana had voted in David Vitter, its first Republican senator since the civil war. But what is genuinely notable about Mr Vitter's victory is that he is likely to strengthen the southern tradition of tax cutting.

Before they voted for Mr Bush on these issues, many Americans had already voted with their feet. In the 1990s and since then, the population of the US has migrated to low-tax, small government, socially conservative states. Because their populations are growing, red states are getting more electoral college votes. All this meant that Mr Bush could win the same states in 2004 as he did in 2000, yet collect more electoral college votes.

This is not to say that the US will not shift left again. The point is that the general surprise at the extent of Republican success is important: the America that decided this election is one many of us overlooked - and one worth getting to know better.

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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