The most frequently referred to exit poll statistic was that moral values was the most mentioned issue, and the president captured more than 80% of those who made this assertion – leaving little ambiguity about whose interpretation of moral values was operative. The dominant post-mortem lament is that this segment of the electorate might be forever lost to the Democrats so long as it is animated by non-negotiable views on abortion and gay rights, because these views have also been non-negotiable in the core of the Democrats’ constituency and leadership.
Whether this values assessment of the election is on target may not be the most important fact about it: that may be whether the Democrats’ liberal-leaning leadership comes to, or continues to, believe that they were victimised by a conservative, values-based populism. With that as a starting premise, and since they cannot move ideologically far in that direction, an alternative course may be to offer a competing form of populism. They may fall back on economic populism. The president, having named reform of tax and social security systems as top priorities, has opened the door to the possibility of economic populism from the other side.
Strains of economic populism were already present in the rhetoric of vice-presidential candidate John Edwards’ stump speech decrying “two Americas”. Similarly, one of Mr Kerry’s most memorable pre-convention sound-bites was the attack on “Benedict Arnold CEOs”, seeking tax or wage advantages offshore. Strains of economic populism are already hard-wired in the policy positions of organised labour. The unions, while down to about 13% of the private sector workforce, remain a key Democrat constituency, having spent about $150m on the 2004 election campaign. Being unable to move to moral values populism, economic populism may seem to be an effective, as well as a natural, course for the loyal opposition.
fDi’s readers generally have a direct interest in the global expansion of trade and investment. To the extent that the president’s political opponents seek to change the subject to economic populism, globalisation may come under increasing attack.
Daniel Malachuk is senior managing director at CB Richard Ellis Consulting, New York. During his career, he has advised many of the US’s leading companies and has worked in the White House.