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When future historians review today’s British and American election campaigns, they may marvel at what we didn’t talk about. The two campaigns — which have hit full speed simultaneously even though the US votes 18 months after Britain — omit some pretty big issues.
The US looks set for a fairly traditional right-versus-left punch-up, in which both parties make untenable promises about taxes and spending. The battleground of the British election of May 7 appears equally limited. Labour is campaigning on the National Health Service and living standards, and the Conservatives on leadership and the economy, says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. Then there’s immigration. When Ipsos Mori polled voters in March, 27 per cent named it the most important issue. Other topics barely feature.
Today’s frightened, abused politicians dare not offer voters anything grander. But the non-issues of these elections tell us something about our era. Here are a few:
Their collapse caused the economic crisis. But the big parties aren’t arguing about how to prevent another collapse. Many banks remain too big to fail yet continue to invent exciting leveraged products that are hard to see, let alone regulate, notes Dutch author Joris Luyendijk. Few voters care.
The British elections could easily lead to the UK’s exit from the European Union. After all, if David Cameron is re-elected, he has promised a referendum on EU membership by 2017. Britons might feasibly choose Brexit. That’s a big deal. However, only 1 per cent of voters told Ipsos Mori that the EU was the most important issue.
Almost the entire world
In the American campaign, foreign affairs have shrunk to the three I’s: Iran, Israel and Isis. In the British campaign, foreign affairs have shrunk to nothingness.
Some US Republican candidates don’t believe climate change exists. However, that barely matters, because climate change will barely feature in either the American or British elections. The British pollster Michael Ashcroft says: “The Greens want to save the world, which . . . doesn’t sound to most people like a bad thing. But people wonder how much this would cost them.”
A note to climate deniers: yes, I am familiar (from many previous emails) with the view that climate change is a moneymaking scam cooked up by socialist pseudoscientists hoping to create a world government under Al Gore. Still, you’d think we pinko liberals would be banging on about the topic. We aren’t.
This is the ultimate goal of the polity but seldom an election issue. In 2006, when the economy was humming along, Cameron did say that “improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times”. Politics, he added, shouldn’t be “just about economic growth”. But after the crisis hit, politics became just about economic growth again. “Feelgood” issues such as work-life balance are still treated as almost entirely personal and apolitical.
Perhaps the biggest change since 2001 is the disappearance of privacy. Yet the most prominent candidate promising less surveillance is the not very prominent Republican Rand Paul. By and large, voters seem happy for intelligence agencies to know everything about everyone.
A female American president is a historic prospect. However, most voters seem unbothered. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll in January, two in three respondents said Hillary Clinton’s gender wouldn’t affect their vote. Of those to whom it did matter, over two-thirds said it counted in her favour. The few who openly rejected a woman president were mostly Republicans anyway.
In short, to quote the satirical magazine The Onion: “New Poll Finds 74% of Americans Would Be Comfortable Blaming Female President for Problems.” This is quite a turnround: 20 years ago, Hillary was widely considered too pushy even to be the president’s wife.
Only the US Republican base remains antsy about gay marriage and abortion. As Indiana’s embarrassment over its anti-gay law showed, mainstream voters no longer want politicians to be guardians of sexual morality. That’s why Republican candidates are trying not to talk about sex, even though Democrats wish they would.
How times have changed. When Monica Lewinsky resurfaced recently, as a campaigner against internet trolls, she seemed a relic of a bygone age, like a prehistoric person wandering out of a cave wearing a bearskin. Yet only 17 years ago her affair with Hillary’s husband prompted his impeachment. The affair arguably even changed history by deciding the 2000 election: George W Bush’s promise to “restore honour and integrity to the Oval Office” was understood as ruling out oral sex there.
Though oral sex probably shouldn’t be a campaign issue, the coming elections do seem narrow. The knee-jerk response is to blame the politicians. That would be wrong. Cameron, Ed Miliband and the current heads of the Bush and Clinton parties are fantastically uninspiring but also clever, well-informed and cautious. Given that an election is a market in which politicians offer goods they think voters want, it makes more sense to blame the narrowness on the electorate.
Illustration by Luis Grañena