From the U.S. to the U.K., new political winds
Thursday's elections in Britain could be a harbinger of what is likely to come to America in the not-too-distant future: new movements and even parties that shake up the political system. Cleggmania shows that even the most tradition-bound electoral systems are facing the pressures of rapid change made possible by modern communications. These movements may not win out of the gate, but they will become significant political factors.
While the Constitution established three branches of government, the system of political parties grew up outside of that, securing itself through what were at first formidable local infrastructures and later with skillful redistricting, ballot-access laws and contribution limits that worked to preserve the status quo. In the 1940s, this really was a red or blue country, with about 85 percent of voters identifying as Republican or Democratic. Today, about 40 percent of Americans are political nomads, wandering from party to party in search of a permanent home. They peer at more than 100 varieties of coffee drinks at Starbucks and wonder why they have only two bipolar choices in politics.
Generally, three triggers produce change in political systems: pent-up dissatisfaction usually brought on by a bad economy or a corruption scandal; ideological rigidity that leaves some voters cold; and an exceptional leader who crystallizes these feelings and turns them into action.
In Britain, the scandal over parliamentary expenses and frustration with the economy produced great demand for new choices. Nick Clegg is a dynamic leader who was able to increase support for his Liberal Democrats through the country's first televised debates. And he set off a firestorm.
In the United States, two mainstream movements have tried in recent years to capitalize on strands of dissatisfaction: John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who adopted liberal social and environmental views, got a modest amount of support from better-educated voters and college students as an independent presidential candidate in 1980. Barack Obama did particularly well with what would have been Anderson constituencies.
The second attempt was by independent tycoon Ross Perot. His voters were primarily concerned about reducing the size of government and the deficit (large aspects of today's Tea Party agenda). At its core, the movement behind Perot was anti-government, while Anderson voters were for restrained but activist government.
Both efforts tried to seize on dissatisfaction with the economy and a system driven by partisanship. Neither had a leader dynamic enough to succeed. Both also rejected ideological extremes that were seen as too rigid and out of touch. Today, strong reassertions of ideological extremes are taking place in the Democratic and Republican parties; witness conservative and liberal primary challenges arising against incumbents. While the country is moving to the center and record numbers are registering as independents, the Republicans are effectively being driven, and pressured, by Sarah Palin, and the Democrats by MoveOn.org.
Several factors could trigger the growth of these kinds of movements here. The Supreme Court has made it easier to launch massive paid political advertising campaigns; the Internet has made it possible to mobilize millions of voters quickly. From Connecticut to Pennsylvania to Florida to Utah, the pattern is emerging that when the left or right extremes mount a primary challenge, the incumbent can move outside the party -- and win. More and more candidates, especially self-funders, are considering the independent option.
There is also a structural problem -- socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left. It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.
From the Democratic perspective, Obama can forestall these developments if he brings down unemployment and contains the deficit. Then, the Republicans might find themselves fracturing between the Palin wing and the rest of the GOP. That would put them in the wilderness for a long time, but a splinter party free of the religious right would have long-term opportunities.
But if the deficit continues to mushroom, health care festers and the economy nose-dives a second time, the growth of new parties and movements would be hastened. It may not happen in 2012, but one of the next three presidential elections is likely to feature a major new player under a new banner. The conditions are simply too ripe.
The writer is chief executive of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. He was a pollster and adviser to Bill Clinton from 1995 to 2000 and previously did work for Rep. John Anderson and Ross Perot. He also worked for the British Labor Party in the 2005 election.