The Libs Are Losing Ground For The Same Reason America Is Tearing Itself Apart
As the United States heads to its midterm elections on Tuesday (Wednesday Australian time), the “united” part of its name is looking pretty ironic.
From the headlines, the US is a nation divided. On the one hand, you have Trump voters who believe he is making their country great again, and don’t particularly want to share it with their browner-skinned neighbours to the south. They love their guns, their God and their flag, pretty much in that order.
On the other hand are the Democrats, who believe guns should be controlled, diversity celebrated and that America’s economic spoils should be shared more equally. Yeah, try putting that into a pithy slogan.
Turn on the cable news networks and depending on which channel you flick to, you’d almost believe you were in two different countries. On Fox News, Trump is an economic genius, whose tax cuts for the rich have reinvigorated the economy, while over on MSNBC, Trump is a latter day Tony Soprano, running a Russian-linked money laundering operation out of the White House, with the FBI Special Investigator Robert Mueller closing in.
The polls point to Democrat gains, but it’s a fierce competition, and nothing is a certainty in US elections -- as the Trump’s surprise win in 2016 shows.
And there is a good reason why the US seems so divided at this moment: its electoral system actually encourages it.
In America, they have non-compulsory voting. In a Presidential election, only about 60 percent of the registered voters bother to turn up. But in the mid-terms -- which only elect Congress -- the turnout is even lower. On average 40 percent of the people who could vote, do.
This means that American political parties have a very different job on their hands to Australian ones.
In Australia, politicians can sit back and relax, knowing that 90-95 percent of the voters will turn out, because it’s the law. That means the job of an Australian politician is to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Have you ever noticed how Australian politicians tend to steal policies from the other side in the lead up to the election? That’s literally because they’re trying to steal voters. Our electoral system encourages a fight over the centre.
In the US, it’s the opposite. If only 40 percent of people turn up, you only need 20 percent of registered voters to vote for you to get half the vote. That means the job of a politician is to excite their base. They don’t have to get to 50 percent to win the election. Getting to 21 percent will suit them fine.
As a result, Republicans become gun-wielding, anti-abortion, anti-immigration nutjobs. It doesn't matter if it doesn’t appeal to voters in the centre, as long as it mobilises those who will be most likely to turn up: their base.
You might think Trump’s on the nose electorally. After all, polls have put support for him at between 30 percent and 40 percent ever since he was elected. In Australia, that would be a disaster. In the US, it’s completely workable.
In fact, because those supporters are so keen on Trump, there’s an argument to say, his low numbers provide a clear strategy for the midterms. As long as he can mobilise his supporters sufficiently with extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric, they may well turn out in numbers sufficient to stem the Democrat’s so-called “Blue Wave”.
That’s why the US seems like such a divided country at the moment. The way voting is structured, there is no point in either side pretending to be like the other side. The job is to appeal to the base, and appear as different as possible.
Weirdly, it happens to explain why the Coalition government is doing so badly in Australia.
The influential hard right of the Australian Liberal Party has become obsessed in recent years with “appealing to the base”. One of the reasons that was touted during the latest leadership spill against Malcolm Turnbull was that the hard right of their party wanted someone who could appeal to the Liberal Party’s conservative rusted-on voters.
What they’re doing is mindlessly translating a technique that works well in American politics, but is the exact opposite of what you need to do when you’ve got compulsory voting. Because everyone votes, the only way a politician can win is to steal votes from the other side of politics. Our system means that politicians can largely ignore their base, because they have to turn up and vote anyway, and instead the job is to reach outside the base to get enough votes to scrape across the line.
We’ve seen just how successful the “appeal to the base” has been for the Liberal Party. Sure, their branch members might well be happier with Scott Morrison in charge, but the plunge in polls shows that by appealing to its base, the Liberal Party has lost the crucial middle. If Morrison starts polling Trump’s numbers, that’s a disaster in the Australian context, not something that can be used as a strength.
But it also means there’s hope in the US. Usually voters ignore the midterms. Trump’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric may well be mobilising his base, but he’s done it so loudly that it may well end up mobilising his opposition, too. In some ways, Trump is doing the Democrats work for them. Fingers crossed.