A winning alliance that puts democracy in peril

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Political positions that depend on fomenting anger against internal and external enemies create the extreme partisanship evident today in Italy and the US. Abuse displaces dialogue, and majorities prefer simply to outvote minorities than to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.

I have been in the US for two weeks now and have not seen a Wal-Mart store. The world’s largest retailer is ubiquitous, but not in downtown Chicago or coastal California. The places I have visited gave Al Gore 159 electoral votes and none at all to George W. Bush. I have met plenty of Republicans, but they live and work in states that were Democratic in 2000 and are likely to be so again in 2004.

So I have encountered one strand of the coalition that put Mr Bush into the White House in 2000 and may keep him there in 2004, but not the other. The modern Republican party gains its financial backing by espousing the interests of business and rich individuals, and its electoral support by adopting the social concerns of middle America.

Kansas is not on my itinerary. It is not on many itineraries. But Kansas is in middle America, in every sense. And, despite its depressed agriculture and struggling manufacturing, the state went for Mr Bush in 2000 and will almost certainly do so again in 2004. And some of its poorest counties gave the president his largest majorities.

Yet the best of the tirades against Mr Bush that you find in the bookshops of Boston and San Francisco is by a journalist born and raised in Kansas. It is to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? that I owe all my modest knowledge of that state.

Mr Frank’s thesis is that the Republican party is now controlled by a relatively small group of people who appreciate its pro-business stance and are the substantial beneficiaries of its tax cuts. They become a political majority by adding in the votes of much poorer people whose votes are cast on social rather than economic issues. And so the platform consists of successive rounds of tax reduction, free trade – so long as it does not damage domestic farmers or manufacturers – and less regulation. This is combined with hostility to abortion and stem cell research, opposition to gay marriage and support for the death penalty, whipped up with fear of terrorism. The whole package is wrapped in the American flag.

The subtle point he makes is that the programme delivers on its economic agenda but not its social one. Abortion continues, the war on drugs is never won, nudity, bad language and gay rights continue to spread. And it is essential that it is so. The anger of America’s rightwing commentators – Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter – is that “they” never listen to “us”: the weapon would lose its power if it ever seemed that “they” did.

Silvio Berlusconi’s success in Italy is Europe’s analogue to this Republican coalition. A billionaire businessman makes the preposterous claim to be a populist leader, defending ordinary people against a contemptuous intellectual elite and a politically motivated judiciary. Mr Berlusconi relies on the same combination of corporatist economics and social authoritarianism that has captured the US.

The opportunity existed in Italy because of the vacuum left by the collapse of its corrupt traditional political elite, and the trick will be harder to pull off in other European countries. But it is only necessary to read Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper to realise that similar constituencies can be found everywhere.

Despite these appeals to social concerns, economic interests remain strong influences on political allegiance. Black people, Hispanics and unionised workers still vote Democrat in decisive numbers; California’s wealthy Orange County is overwhelmingly Republican. Political structures polarised between a party of the haves and a party of the have-nots are not edifying. But such structures are stable and moderating: both haves and have-nots can achieve a majority only by appealing to people who do not fall clearly into either category.

That is how effective democracy was normally uniting: but these new and cynical coalitions, which combine populism with economic inequality, are inherently divisive. Political positions that depend on fomenting anger against internal and external enemies create the extreme partisanship evident today in Italy and the US. Abuse displaces dialogue, and majorities prefer simply to outvote minorities than to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns. History has frequently shown how such polarisation can ultimately undermine democracy itself.

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