The tyranny of the majorities

Two recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic argue that losing their majorities could boost the leadership of the US President and our Prime Minister.

This week’s New York Times magazine has an interesting feature on how losing his Senate majority could actually boost Barack Obama and help him to appear more statesmanlike – brokering deals rather than being expected to ram his aims through Congress at the speed of sound. He’ll benefit from reduced expectations and not be held to ransom by his own party, drunk on its own power. Indeed, the writer says that “a dialogue between Obama and a more powerful Republican minority on health care, for instance, might yield a bill that included deeper cost cuts and some kind of meaningful malpractice reform. And if a bill like that received more support from independent voters, moderate Republicans would be reluctant to oppose it.”

Back in the UK there’s a story in the Sunday Times that says that losing the next election could boost the Brownites’ hold over the Labour party. I remember reading not so long ago an interesting blog post by Harvard prof Pippa Norris who noted that when a party is defeated, it becomes less electable because it often loses its centre-ground representatives and keeps the hardliners in the safer seats – who are less able to identify what’s popular with the electorate¹. If Labour lose the next general election, Blairite rivals would be weakened because the party would swing towards its core base. Couple this with the fact that many of Brown’s rivals are standing down at the election and it’s perfectly plausible that Brownites could retain hold over their party.

¹ Near the bottom, she says: “The recent obdurate behavior of the GOP over the stimulus bill is extremely similar to that of the British Conservative party when it experienced a resounding defeat, following Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. Blair, like President Obama’s search for bipartisan solutions, sought to govern by straddling the middle ground. The Conservatives had been in power for eighteen years, and they had become increasingly out of touch with public opinion, which progressively shifted away from a Thatcherite philosophy of ever more tax cuts towards favoring management of better public services. Moreover the 1997 and 2001 elections led to the loss of the more moderate Conservatives, holding marginal seats, reducing the party to a rump of ideological true believers.

Downsian theory assumes that major opposition parties with ambitions for government will move towards the median voter in the pursuit of votes and therefore office. But any successful strategy of casting for votes requires that politicians can identify where these are located. The Conservatives thought that they were articulating popular polices against Blair, but they were stranded far from reality due to errors of selective perception. It took the experience of several resounding election defeats to bring new blood into the opposition party, moving the Conservatives in a more moderate direction under fresh leadership, and bringing a restoration in their viability in the opinion polls.”

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