Next week, weather permitting, Americans will go to the ballot to choose between an unpopular Democratic president and an uninspiring Republican challenger. The 2012 US election may have become more exciting in recent weeks — the polls indicate a tense finish — but that fundamental quandary remains. President Obama, the great liberal hope of four years ago, has disappointed. He has failed, spectacularly, to fix the American economy. His re-election campaign has been remarkable only in that he has said next to nothing about what he plans to do with four more years in power. As The Spectator went to press, however, it looked as if he would still somehow win a second term.
But conservative Americans ought not lose heart. Even if Mitt Romney does fall short of victory, the dramatic shift towards him in October is not simply proof of Obama’s failings, but of the enduring appeal of the Republican party’s values to the American people. Romney is a deeply flawed candidate — his populism too hammy, his real convictions too elusive, his privileged status too obvious — but in the last few weeks of his campaign, he managed to find a voice that resonated with the electorate. In the televised debates, he successfully savaged Obama’s high-borrowing, high-spending approach to the financial crisis, and he articulated a belief in a free-market system that works for all Americans — not just, as the Democrats like to claim, for the super-rich. In his vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, moreover, Romney recruited a figure who appealed to both conservatives and independent voters, and who could talk about financial matters in a way that made sense to all Americans. Ryan had already published a House of Representatives budget resolution: ‘The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal’ is probably the most compelling attempt by any US politician to grapple with the nation’s metastasising debt problem. It’s hardly surprising that American voters started to swing towards the Romney-Ryan ticket.
Europeans like nothing better than to sniff at the American faith in free markets, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sophisticated people, it is thought, could not possibly believe ‘right-wing’ Republican ideas about small government, freedom and individual responsibility. But the reality is that those values are part of the American DNA, and they are perennially popular. While it is true that a large majority of younger voters now support Barack Obama, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of 18- and 19-year-olds called themselves ‘conservative’, compared with just over one third who said they were ‘liberal’. Democrats like to think that because their party is the liberal political force on social issues, they are on the ‘right side of history’. But the polls suggest that, on matters economic, the popular mood is against them.
The Republican party is derided across the world for its ‘extremism’ and its association with the Tea Party movement. Yet the party’s convention in August was anything but a hate-fest: it was a celebration of good democratic ideas and inspiring speeches. As well as Ryan, the Republicans can boast several rising stars with genuine popular appeal — such as the Florida Senator Marco Rubio or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The Tea Party movement may be rough around the edges, but within it is an authentically American protest at the encroachment of big government on individual liberty. Whatever happens on Tuesday, the future of the American right looks bright.
It did not take long for the green lobby to blame this week’s devastation of New York and America’s east coast on manmade global warming. Climate scientists blamed Hurricane Sandy on rising temperatures and melting ice. They hardly needed to, since images of water lapping in the stairways of subway stations, which could have been taken from The Day After Tomorrow, play on apocalyptic fears that industrial civilisation is a sitting target for disaster of its own making. If you didn’t believe the need for an urgent reassessment of western lifestyles before last Tuesday, then surely you must do now.
Yet the lessons of last week’s storm are the opposite. Grim though the results have been, the resilience of US society has been there for all to see. Like other rich countries, America has emergency plans to deal with this sort of disaster. Technology allowed the path of the storm to be predicted, which together with modern communications allowed the rapid evacuation of vulnerable areas. Solid construction techniques allowed the vast majority of buildings to withstand the winds and the waves.
Development, in other words, saves lives. If Sandy had struck elsewhere, the death toll could easily have reached many thousands. This might seem obvious, yet there is a large body of supposedly enlightened opinion which believes the opposite: that mankind needs to return to a more basic form of existence in order to stave off climate change-related disasters. This is a folly not limited to the further reaches of the green movement. Well-meaning policies to cap and trade carbon emissions and to prevent developing nations realising their agricultural potential will, by stunting economic growth, deprive many millions of the safety which residents of wealthy countries take for granted.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012