It may be true that self-interest lies at the heart of voting decisions, but what Americans want has been seen to shift in this latest election, says Peter Knight

Americans voted for Barack Obama because they wanted “stuff”. This is the view of Bill O’Reilly, a right-wing cable TV commentator who works for Fox, Rupert Murdoch’s wildly successful broadcast and cable operation in the US that pushes a right-wing agenda. 

What was this stuff they wanted? Ferragamo loafers? Mont Blanc pens? Retina display iPads?

Maybe. But O’Reilly means things like healthcare, social security and government assistance for the needy – all those things you get in Europe from the taxpayer as a matter of course. O’Reilly is underlining the point that Mitt Romney regretted making to a private fundraiser a few months before the election. Romney stupidly said that 47% of the electorate would never vote for him because they were the non-taxpaying scroungers, believing that government should take care of them. “They will vote for the president, no matter what,” said Romney.

He was silly to be caught saying such politically incorrect things, although he was probably right. If O’Reilly was a fair journalist (some chance) he would have pointed out that the 47% are not alone in their desire for handouts. Political donors and highly active lobbyists are working on behalf of the privileged who are either seeking to keep their privileges or to get more. Economists call this rent-seeking, after the ancient practice of taking the land from the peasants and then charging rent on it.

The Republican donors just wanted different stuff, or rent – such as the lifting of regulations (especially environmental laws), the maintenance of tax breaks and subsidies, and access to public lands for mining and drilling. They want this stuff so that they can have more money to buy other stuff, like those gorgeous Ferragamo loafers.

Clearly, business will have a tougher time with Obama in the White House. For a start, taxes will be higher for individuals and for small businesses who are unable to pay the lawyers who help big business avoid taxes. The US is already a high-tax regime and that’s not good for business. The stuff that the 47% want – and have been promised – will have to be funded by the taxpayer, who will have to pay more tax.

But the environment should be a little better off under Obama. The Environmental Protection Agency, a bogeyman of the Republicans, may now be able to get on with its job of preventing pollution and protecting the environment for the benefits of future generations. Coal miners will lose their jobs as natural gas – now much cheaper because of the success of fracking – becomes the fuel of choice. And maybe the political class may start speaking about the formerly unspeakable climate change.

Crossing the floor

Of course, much depends on Obama’s ability to make deals. The Democrats may control the Senate and the White House, but they have to deal with a substantial Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Maybe the biggest benefit of Romney’s big loss is the opportunity it gives conservatives to understand how much America has changed, both culturally and ethnically. Voters are far more liberal and far less white than they used to be. Capital and the means of production may still be controlled by conservative white men, but the deciding factor in a democracy, the voters, are a rainbow gaggle of reasonably liberal folk who vote for gay marriage and the right to have abortions. 

The great thing about America is that it moves on very quickly. Immediately after the election, people simply changed topic. Other than the sex lives of their generals, a trending conversation was about the 2016 presidential election, which is going to be about women. Not women’s rights, but is it time to break the mould and elect a woman president?

Hillary Clinton is clearly preparing for the race but she already has competition in her party from another woman, Elizabeth Warren, who has all the attributes of a winner: attractive, bright and hugely articulate.

And would it not be fun if the self-styled “soccer mom” who brought such a charge to the election of 2007 climbed back in the ring? The charming Sarah Palin – who claimed foreign affairs credentials because she could “see” Russia from her living room in Alaska – would add a real frisson to the race.

One of the many Palin controversies was her wildly expensive shopping spree in Manhattan to buy designer outfits – proving that everyone loves stuff. The question is, who pays for it?

Peter Knight is president of Context America.


The Responsible Business Summit 2013

May 2013, London

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