US booms and mid-terms loom, with culture wars taking centre stage

It's not the economy, stupid

American identity is increasingly the central issue

It’s now only just a couple of weeks till the mid-term elections in America. Participants on both sides are calling this the most important mid-term election of recent years, although how much of this is hyperbole and how much they really mean it is open to question.

Certainly the advent of Donald Trump has ratcheted up the pitch and the urgency of US political rhetoric, and it’s been interesting to see how a President who has lambasted “fake news” and who recently praised a Republican politician who physically attacked a journalist, is suddenly himself keen to court the press.

The President himself, it seems, also thinks there’s enough at stake to warrant him holding his nose as he courts the fourth estate.

Of course, he always has his backstop - if the media sets his words in a context that’s not to his liking, then it’s the return of “fake news.” The Associated Press found this to its cost this week, and in a rare retraction NBC news even corrected the way it reported one the President’s quotes in the face of Presidential criticism on Twitter.

But if it is true that the stakes are as high as the participants say they are, then that’s surely more to do with the culture wars than to any wider issues of the US economy or global standing. Sure, President Trump cuts an unusual figure on the world stage that might embarrass some of his Beltway colleagues, but the US economy is powering away and the foundations laid by President Obama and Janet Yellen are proving tough and enduring.

One of the greatest virtues of the current administration is that it is allowing that boom to continue unabated. There is the occasional wobble, of course. The President’s tough attitude towards China could end up derailing global economic growth if the brinkmanship continues on unchecked. And his disparaging of the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve is also a possible red flag.

But on the whole, the Trump administration succeeding in living up to its own promises as far as the economy is concerned. There’s growth, there’s jobs, and although there’s tough talk being bandied around, there are international trade agreements being struck too.

Mr Trump is ploughing his own furrow on foreign policy to some extent. His pro-Israel stance has broken with policy to the extent that it makes overt what everyone already knew: that the US favours Israel over its neighbours to a significant degree.

In addition to that, President Kim of North Korea is firing fewer rockets, and Mr Trump himself hasn’t yet started any wars. That last statement may appear somewhat flippant, but actually US Presidents, in conjunction with their counterparts in the UK, have had a tendency to start all sorts of wars over the past few decades, and not many of them have ended well.

On all that then, Mr Trump can run on his record.

Whether that will be the deciding factor in determining the opinions of swing voters, or indeed bringing out the bases of both parties, is open to question.

The dominant theme in US discourse is domestic, and it’s cultural. Thus, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has proved a polarising event. On the Democrat narrative it’s going to bring out female voters in unprecedented numbers. But on the Republican narrative it’s going to bring out the Republican base in conjunction with those Americans who’ve had enough of political correctness and the intolerance absolutism of liberal ideology.

The US media is now completely polarised, but what the electorate thinks remains open to question. Are the polls that show a swing towards Republicans after months of Democrat dominance really accurate?

Polls are not the predictors of elections they once were. On the other hand, if true then it means that the Republican narrative is resonating in a way that is almost impossible now for Democrats to understand, given how far apart the two sides are.

And therein lies the real risk in US politics. The economic and foreign policies of the country remain largely coherent. But the internal domestic discourse shows increasing signs of instability. Is the US actually a culturally homogenous nation? And if not, what does it mean for the future of the international order? The US mid-terms will provide an interesting insight into the direction of travel.


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