There has long been talk of polarised politics but perhaps a new PPP (polarised political parity, not public-private partnership) is the message from the elections of the last week or so – the Brazilian run-off and last Tuesday’s midterms in the United States. Both these results technically confirm the worldwide trend whereby every government since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has suffered defeat with the exception of the Emmanuel Macron presidency in France (plus, of course, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who jailed almost all his rivals) but the slender margins undermine this momentum – the 1.8 percent edge eked out by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva makes Mauricio Macri’s 2015 win here look almost comfortable while the Republican majority in the House of Representatives stood to be even smaller than the previous Democratic advantage with no Senate breakthrough at the time this column was written.
In this context the US results hover in a twilight zone between victory and defeat. Victory in terms of a change of House Speaker but falling way below expectations fed by the economic dissatisfaction voiced by three-quarters of the electorate (“It’s the economy, stupid” might have said it all three decades ago but not now). Perhaps the overconfident Republicans pushed their luck in thinking they could present hundreds of candidates denying Donald Trump’s defeat two years ago when the Democrats committed a similar tactical error, believing that the strength of anti-Trump feeling permitted them to humour a party left uninspired by Joe Biden’s leadership with plenty of congressional candidacies. Tuesday’s results thus cannot be seen as black and white although the day when US politics are no longer blue and red seems some way from dawning.
No detailed dissection of Tuesday’s voting here – it is no accident that the axiom “All politics is local” (often attributed to the House Speaker Tip O’Neill four decades ago but actually more than twice older) originated in the United States and those television number-crunchers analysing the vote do not even stop at state level but narrow their scrutiny to Clark County, Cobb County or wherever. The rest of this column will therefore compare the US midterms falling within my newsroom experience since 1983 to their equivalents here.
Starting stateside, four of the six US presidents between then and Biden re-elected but only George W. Bush in a post-9/11 2002 finding any midterm joy, apart from Bill Clinton recovering in 1998 a mere four seats of the 54-seat shellacking at the hands of Newt Gingrich in the previous midterms (when he also lost eight Senate seats). Yet that was not the worst midterm disaster – in 2010 Barack Obama lost all the 63 House seats he had gained in the 2008 presidential elections with the ultra-conservative Tea Party at its peak. With the exception of 1994, all midterm shifts through to 2006 were single-digit and double-digit thereafter with Trump losing 41 seats in 2018, thus making Tuesday’s gains meagre compensation. But a clear anti-government swing in all but two of those nine midterm contests.
My midterm experience here began in that year now enshrined by that successful film Argentina, 1985 – the opposite of an anti-government swing there with the junta trial contributing to that Radical victory (winning in 20 of the country’s 24 districts) but also the Austral Plan bringing monthly inflation down from 30 to four percent in an election also preceded by a somewhat bogus state of siege to sharpen democratic sensitivities. Completely the reverse in 1987 with both the moral retreat of the amnesty legislation following the Easter military uprising and the economic exhaustion of the Austral Plan (What does UCR stand for? Unicamente Córdoba y Río Negro, as the only provinces won by the Radicals, the joke ran then).
Convertibility gave neo-conservative Peronist Carlos Menem a successful midterm début in 1991 – victory in 14 of the 24 districts with the Radicals doubling their haul to four and an unprecedented rash of provincial party wins adding Chaco, Salta, Tierra del Fuego and Tucumán to Corrientes and Neuquén. 1993 with two years of economic success was even better with Menem upping his conquests to 17, including a one and only win in the opposition stronghold of this city. But no hat-trick in 1997 – pushback against Menem’s obsession with a third term knocked him back to 10 minor provinces with the new Alliance of Radicals and dissident Peronists outpolling him by 10 percent and taking power in 1999.
But the 2001 midterms were the beginning of the end for the Alliance, which only won six districts, the prelude to the catastrophic 2001-2002 post-convertibility meltdown. Caretaker Eduardo Duhalde then steered Santa Cruz Governor Néstor Kirchner into the presidency in 2003 with the 2005 midterms decisive in breaking that umbilical cord, the true birth of Kirchnerism. But since then Kirchnerism has not won a single midterm, neither 2009 nor 2013 nor 2017. Just as four US presidential re-elections since 1983 have only been accompanied by two midterm government victories, so Kirchnerism has won every general election this century except 2015 but only that 2005 midterm. And with space running out, let us leave it there.
Last Saturday’s column mentioned Maud Cox’s Guy Fawkes ancestry as one local connection to the Gunpowder Plot of the Fifth of November, 1605, but omitted another. John Mordaunt, who came here after the war, lived in the Córdoba hills until well into this century and attended the 2005 Oxford & Cambridge Dinner, coincidentally held on the fourth centenary of the Gunpowder Plot. He was a direct descendant of Baron Henry Mordaunt, who was among the Catholic peers warned by Francis Tresham, the weak link among the conspirators, not to attend Parliament that day – Mordaunt kept the tip to himself but Lord Mounteagle blew the whistle so that they were waiting for Guy Fawkes when he came to light the fuse to detonate Parliament.