This year sees America engaged in a titanic political struggle between two radically different systems.
You already know that I am not referring to the policy differences of the Republican and Democrat parties, which are microscopic at best. Nor is the contest between the differing outlooks of the candidates, as both of them view the world from the same tiny, myopic eye. No. The real contest will centre on the methods used to secure a majority of those who can be bothered to vote. What makes this doubly interesting is that what is happening in America is not just confined to the States, but can also be detected in other political systems in the so-called 'advanced democracies' of the World.
Up until recently both the main political parties in America have been dedicated to the same political modus operandi, and both would still claim to be fully committed to it today. To give it a title that would not be off-putting to its advocates, we could call it the "Unite the Nation" strategy.
The underlying theory is that the party, whether it be Republican or Democrat, should reach out to everyone in the nation and try to win them over with the quality of its arguments and the intelligence of its ideas, all based on principles of universal application. The presumption here is that politics is not about identity, but is purely a cerebral and moral exercise: quality over identity.
In this theoretical universe, well-presented Republican policies should be capable of appealing to Black and Hispanic voters and be countered by well-argued Democratic arguments equally capable of appealing to gun-toting rural Whites and Christian conservatives. This is the myth of the 20th century in American politics, and it is one that both parties still pledge their allegiance to, but like most myths it exhales from a corpse.
To understand this system more clearly, it might be better to describe it in more operational terms. It could be more effectively described as the "Taken For Granted" (TFG) system because, rather than aiming at anything so grand as actually uniting the nation, the system works by taking core voter groups for granted and then moving in as strongly as possible to hoover up the swing and uncommitted voters in the centre.
This has been the pattern in many of the advanced democracies and explains why the main parties in these countries tend to coalesce around the same narrow range of policies. It also means that success has come to those parties that have betrayed their core voter groups the most. This accounts for the success of the Democrats in America and the Labour Party in the UK, both parties that have defined themselves by epic betrayals of their roots, but it also applies almost as well to their opponents.
Success under this system comes from tricking the party's core supporters into believing that you still represent them, while shamelessly making a different appeal to the uncommitted centre. Blessed with stupid enough core voters, the Reps and Dems have been free to enter a bidding war for those in the centre and become essentially the same party.
Supported by the electorate's poor powers of perception and its historical enthusiasm for vacuous presentation, the TFG system has long been the dominant style of politics in the advanced democracies. But the weakness of the system is that over time it breeds cynicism and apathy, even with an electorate as gullible as America's.
As cynicism and apathy blossom, the support from the core groups declines and starts to hollow out, so that even if the party can appeal successfully to the uncommitted middle, it nevertheless faces the danger of defeat if its rival manages to keep its core voters on board more successfully. This has led to the rise of a new political paradigm, which, in the context of the Republican Party, is sometimes referred to as the Sailer Strategy. However, since the paradigm applies to both parties, it can be more accurately described as "Core Voter Mobilization" (CVM).
CVM is antithetical to TFG, as the greater the mobilization of core groups, the less appealing the party becomes to uncommitted and swing voters, and vice versa. Of course an extremely adept politician can combine both appeals or skilfully balance them, but in general it is a zero-sum game with gains in one direction leading to losses in the other.
The choice therefore for the presidential candidates is whether to electrify their base and ensure high core votes and apathy in the centre, or whether to risk taking their core voters for granted in an attempt to bolster their appeal to the uncommitted and intrinsically more apathetic voters at the centre.In an election with a high turnout the TFG approach works best, but with falling turnout CVM works best. In American politics the long term trend is towards lower turnouts and greater voter apathy, which means the CVM model is gradually becoming ascendant. This is powered by America's growing diversity combined with the effects of the TFG system which progressively devalues the political process by undermining actual representation.
So, which party is where in this changing political ecosystem? The Democrats, by the very nature of their core supporters, namely self-conscious minorities, is a CVM party. This also explains the mysterious advent of a mediocre and inexperienced senator as presidential candidate in 2008. Obama's main asset was simply his Blackness, as it served as a CVM device for Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and self-loathing White liberals. The party didn't even have to offer these groups much in the way of political favours, thus allowing it to better compete for the uncommitted middle.
The Republicans by contrast, as a party supported by a much less racially conscious demographic, namely normal Whites, is still operating in TFG territory. This means its instincts are to betray its core supporters as usual, hoping they will be stupid enough to vote for it, while at the same time reaching out to those groups that are reluctant to support it. If this approach results in intense apathy and cynicism and a hollowing out of support among its core groups, then the party will be forced to move into a more CVM approach.
It is unlikely that Romney can win using a classic TFG approach. To some extent he must apply CVM methods. Obama's challenge is to mobilize the Democrats already identitarian voting base without also antagonizing the Republican voting base and triggering identitarian counter-voting behaviour. Overall Obama has less to do, as his voters will vote for him more for who he is than what he offers. Romney meanwhile will be engaged in a move on the centre that threatens to create disinterest to the front and apathy to the rear.
Whoever wins, of course, will be unimportant, but the process of the 2012 election will likely see a strengthening of CVM politics in one form or another, leading ultimately to a more overtly ethno-political system that will probably result in the fragmentation and collapse of the two big parties.