The recent surprising result of the UK election has implications that both parties here in the US should consider carefully. The British Labour Party was expected to either tie or win by a small margin. Everyone on the left agreed, as did several noted observers from this side of the pond such as economist Paul Krugman and pollster Nate Silver. The party’s message was that the nation is in dire straits with floundering leadership and needs to be rescued by new spending plans. This diagnosis and prescription were both resoundingly rejected by the voters. While it is true that other factors intervened, such as the rise of Scottish nationalism, the bottom line is that Labour completely misread the situation. How could they have been so wrong?
One reason, and an important lesson for both of our parties, is that the left listened only to itself, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was so sure that it understood the needs and desires of the electorate that no contrary messages were considered. Do you think that Hillary Clinton frequently tunes in to Fox News? Do you believe it likely that Ted Cruz is an avid reader of the New York Times? While watching the spectacle of true believers congregating in campaign kickoffs around the US, I sometime wonder if perhaps the enthusiastic audiences are not identical people traveling from place to place. There is a certain sameness about them. But that is not true of our diverse electorate, and therein lies some of the danger to both parties.
All Democratic activists seem to think that income inequality resonates widely. That’s what they hear from their favorite media and what their consultants proclaim. Republican leaders see cutting wasteful social programs and reducing taxes as a policy with universal appeal, or at least by voters who care about our country’s future. Everyone they listen to tells them that. Do you see a common feature here? No one within the inner circles is considering the possibility that they could be even slightly wrong or that the other side may have valid point or two.
Here’s what I think. Both ends of our political spectrum are more motivated by visceral dislike of the other than by any positive plans of their own party. It isn’t that they don’t have plans, some of them quite reasonable, it is that everything is badly distorted by their emotions. The result is not a pretty picture on either side. But more importantly, when they sound the charge in the coming election for their chosen goals they may look over their shoulder and see no one massing behind. That’s what happened to the British Labour Party a few days ago and it could happen to either of our parties in 2016.