James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist, famously put electoral politics in a nutshell: “It’s the economy, stupid”.
In other words, people look into their wallets and vote accordingly. The party that delivers, or credibly promises, better economic prospects wins. Simple, isn’t it?
It is. It’s also demonstrably wrong. And, like most political fallacies, this one is based on a false premise.
In this instance the false premise is what I call ‘totalitarian economism’, an attempt to reduce the entire complexity of life merely to economic considerations. However, life in general, and human behaviour in particular, refuse to be squeezed into the Procrustean bed of economics.
One wonders how Carville would comment on this political conundrum:
Labour was in government for 12 years. During this tenure the party presided over one of the greatest economic disasters in Britain’s history. Moreover, its policies not only dumped the country into short-term economic trouble but also compromised its economic structure in perpetuity.
This confirmed the widespread opinion that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy, and the party’s subsequent four years in opposition reinforced this perception.
The Tories, on the other hand, traditionally enjoy a reputation for economic competence.
Those who understand such matters better than the average voter may argue that this reputation is undeserved, certainly in the last couple of decades. But this is neither here nor there: it’s not switched-on eggheads who decide elections. It’s the average, which is to say clueless, voter.
Nonetheless, standing for office in the midst of a catastrophic recession, and against the party widely perceived to be responsible for it, the Tories failed to win an outright majority. The people clearly didn’t vote with their wallets. So what did they vote with?
Once in office, the Tories, even though hamstrung by being married to a party that champions all the Labour ideas times ten, managed to drag the country out of the Labour recession. Moreover, they delivered an economic growth way in excess of anything currently achieved by other European countries.
Again, the aforementioned eggheads may argue that this is phoney prosperity specifically geared to the 2015 election, after which it’ll collapse. But Mr Average Voter doesn’t analyse such issues at depth – he skims along the surface. And on the surface of it the Tories are living up to their reputation for always being able to disentangle the Labour mess.
In spite of that, one poll after another has been consistently putting Labour ahead by a huge margin, enough to put them into government with a commanding majority. Clearly, the voters involved in such surveys don’t peek into their wallets before expressing their preference.
Then the Tories come up with a hugely popular budget, perceived to sort out many concerns of the electorate, mainly its older – and rapidly expanding – part. Not only was the budget instantly hailed as a tour de force, but Labour was unable to counter it with anything other than vaguely negative noises with no discernible substance to them.
Thus both the Tories and Labour have acted in character, or rather perceived character. People’s wallets, already thicker than under Labour, look like they’ll soon bulge to bursting. They also look as if they’d return to their former consumptive gauntness should Labour get back in.
One would suggest that there goes the next election, signed, sealed and delivered to Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the budget, when its effects are at their strongest, Labour is still in the lead, albeit by a single percentage point.
Most of Mr Carville’s British colleagues confidently predict that once the post-budget bounce is attenuated, Labour will reclaim their commanding lead and won’t relinquish it until the election. That will mean at least another six years of blows raining on the economy, which may well drop it down for the count.
So do you still think it’s the economy, stupid, Mr Carville? Do you still think people vote with their heads firmly buried in their wallets?
It’s typical of our harebrained, materialistic modernity to insist on physical explanations for what is clearly metaphysical in nature: human behaviour. This isn’t to say that it’s impervious to physical factors – only that it isn’t wholly, or even mainly, determined by them.
Here I like to shift into politics the term hitherto restricted to theology: apophatic. Apophatic theology proceeds not from what God is, but from what God can’t possibly be given his absolute goodness.
Translated into elections, apophatic politics means voting on negative rather than positive assumptions. In simpler words, it’s voting not for but against someone or something. And, if experience teaches us anything at all, our electoral politics is determined by apophatic, in this instance irrational, reasoning.
Voters don’t weigh the pros and cons dispassionately: they go with their hearts. And that organ has been conditioned by at least a century of socialist propaganda to generate hate more easily than love, envy more readily than any constructive emotions.
If British (and other Western) voters have demonstrated anything, it’s their readiness to disregard their own self-interest for the sake of indulging their complex resentments. Their neighbour’s failure means more to them than their own success.
Thus the numbers in Tory ledger sheets matter a lot less than the number of Old Etonians in their cabinet. Their accent on economics matters less than the accents with which Tory politicians speak.
Once again, I’m not suggesting that the Tories can cure our economic ills – I rather tend to side with the economists who point at the structural cracks in our economic masonry that can’t be papered over by cosmetic improvements.
It is, however, a fact that the average voter sees the Tories as being more economically trustworthy than Labour. In this perception, put in such relativistic terms, I’d side with the average voter.
If Carville’s formula were true, Labour would be dead and buried. As it is, we may well enjoy six years of the Milibandits running the country – into the ground.
Apophatic politics rules, okay?