By Tom Switzer
The anti-Democrat mood among voters reflects a deeper US malaise.
WHEN Democrats won the White House and scored supermajorities in both houses of Congress in 2008, the conventional wisdom heralded a new progressive era in American politics. Democratic partisan James Carville wrote a book titled 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Left-liberal journalists predicted the ''death of conservatism''. Amid the Democratic euphoria, Barack Obama's policy trifecta of stimulus, bailouts and healthcare overhaul meant that Washington was decisively rejecting the right and moving leftward.
Until this week, that is. According to the polls, today's mid-term election for all 435 House seats and 37 spots in the Senate will be a forceful repudiation of President Obama's agenda. Independent voters are favouring Republicans by nearly 20 percentage points. Veteran Democratic lawmakers are fighting for their political lives while many southern Democrats are repudiating the White House's legislative agenda. And, notwithstanding the weekend efforts of satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the party's left-wing base is losing faith with Obama over Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and what activists see as policy timidity.
No wonder the experts agree that Republicans will regain the House of Representatives and slice into the Democratic majority in the Senate. But will the coming avalanche of Democratic losses mark the dawn of a new day for the US right? And will the election represent a new morning for America?
Left-liberals are clearly in the political doldrums, but after a cold look at the evidence, conservatives might decide to take the champagne off the ice. Indeed, the larger cultural picture - in which this week's election is but a minor political datum - remains strikingly bleak for the US generally.
Republicans will win anywhere between 40 and 60 seats in the House (more than the 39 they need for a majority) and between six and 11 seats in the Senate (they need 10 for a majority). Polls, however, show that voters distrust Republican legislators more than Democratic ones. The difference is that the latter have presided over a 2 percentage point rise in unemployment and higher debt and deficits over the past two years.
Some argue that the Tea Party's success in Republican primaries is evidence of a rejuvenated right dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism and commitment to small government. But while the Tea Party is tapping into the economic anxiety and political estrangement that voters feel across the nation, the movement itself has its fair share of problems.
It not only sports a few clowns and creeps who make embarrassing pronouncements; it is also leaderless and riven by chronic divisions over social and foreign policy. Moreover, it is not clear whether the Tea Party resonates with the broader electorate. After the 1994 mid-term election, congressional Republicans also rode an anti-tax, anti-Washington wave to power. Yet their overreach on various issues, culminating in the government shutdown in 1995, led to widespread public angst and Bill Clinton's remarkable re-election to the presidency a year later.
In any case, doubts dog the ability of the conservatives to practise what they preach. It's one thing to cut taxes; it's another thing to cut welfare entitlements. After the congressional gains in the Bush years, for example, the Republicans became the don't-rock-the-boat party, content to feed different types of pork to different special interests. Not grounds for optimism.
Nor does any of this bode well for liberals in a nation whose centre of political gravity is still to the right. Gallup polling shows 54 per cent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives, with only 18 per cent liberals. Americans are pragmatic people who shun ideologues.
We know that some in the Tea Party scare centrists - think of Delaware candidate Christine O'Donnell, the former anti-masturbation advocate who ''dabbled'' in witchcraft. She will almost certainly lose a seat the Republicans should have won. But many liberal Democrats are also ideologues: many have mistaken their 2008 mandate for an opportunity to implement the most interventionist and expensive agenda since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
Which brings us to the roots of US despair. Not only do they go beyond ideology and political brand, they stem from expectations about America's right to economic prosperity and world leadership that no administration or congress may be able to meet - especially at a time of economic decline and increasing global multipolarity.
Americans are in the midst of near-double-digit unemployment, skyrocketing national debt, home foreclosures and a deeply unpopular war. They are in a foul mood, suffering from a lack of confidence and overwhelmingly believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. All of this has given rise to rapid mood swings within the electorate, epitomised by Obama's fall from adulation to contempt within two years.
Conservatives may have much to smile about when Republicans make big gains in the House and Senate elections. But they will be winning by default.
The true angst in America goes deeper than this week's mid-term election.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of The Spectator Australia.