The Magazine

As the World Votes

The era of big government does seem to be over.

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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HALF A CENTURY AGO it was plain which way democracies were heading: left. In the United States, the Democrats held the White House for the nineteenth straight year. In Britain, the Labour party had just created the National Health Service and nationalized the commanding heights of the economy. Europe’s Christian Democratic parties were creating welfare states hardly less ambitious than those advocated by their social democratic rivals. Parties of the right won only when they were led by national icons who promised not to dismantle the welfare state—Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle.

Ten years ago it was plain which way democracies were heading: right. The domestic revolutions inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan seemed to be sweeping all before them. Republicans held the White House for the eleventh straight year and had a president with a 91 percent job approval rating. Thatcher had led the Conservatives to three straight general election victories, and her successor, John Major, would lead them the next year to a fourth. Parties of the right held office in most of Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe and Russia the voters were starting to oust the Communists and former Communists and to install in their places those who had advocated or assisted the overthrow of communism in 1989-91. In Latin America voters elected leaders who promised hard currency, privatization of government firms, freer trade.

Today it does not seem plain which way democracies are heading. Writers like E.J. Dionne proclaim the triumph of "Third Way" parties of the left—Bill Clinton’s Democrats, Tony Blair’s Labour, Gerhard Schröder’s and Lionel Jospin’s Socialists—and declare the Third Way the wave of the future. Former Communists have been swept back into office in several countries in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s president is a veteran of the KGB. Yet the Third Way has not everywhere been successful. Al Gore was not elected president in 2000, despite representing the incumbent party in a time of peace and prosperity. Spain and Italy have switched from left to right. In Latin America, free market policies are under attack in Brazil and Argentina and under siege in Colombia and Venezuela.

What are we to make of these conflicting trends? In the last 15 months I have covered elections in five major democracies, interviewing candidates and key strategists and voters on the street, analyzing preelection polls and election returns. Four of these countries are the four arguably most important to Americans: the United States, Mexico, Russia, and Britain. The fifth, Italy, I have included because—well, because I like to visit Italy. Now the burst of electoral activity is over (the next scheduled general elections in these countries won’t occur until 2004-06), so it’s a fine time to look back and take stock. First, some notes on individual countries.

*RUSSIA, MARCH 2000. This was less in the nature of a democratic election and more in the nature of a coronation. In August 1999, President Boris Yeltsin had installed former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as prime minister. Then, claiming that the September bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow was the work of Chechens, Putin had relaunched the war against Chechnya, to enormous popular applause. And at the end of December, Yeltsin had resigned, making Putin president, and a presidential election had been scheduled for March 26. The only serious competition came from the bedraggled Communist Gennady Zyuganov.

Behind the façade of this turnover of power were widely circulated rumors that the apartment bombings were the work of the FSB (the renamed KGB); the modus operandi was not typical of Chechen operations, the explosive used was difficult to obtain, and the bombs were planted in a way that maximized casualties. The possibility that Putin was part of a cynically planned murder for political gain is chilling. So is Putin’s crackdown, begun before the election and continued with vigor ever since, to silence critical publications and the independent NTV network.

Putin won with 53 percent of the vote, just over the 50percent required to avoid a runoff. Voters interviewed on the street seemed to know little about the man; Putin voters said he was young and energetic, meaning he was not infirm and drunk, like Yeltsin. It was as if they were saying, "We hope the next czar turns out to be a good czar," in a fatalistic tone that suggested they feared he would.

But there were some good things about Putin’s victory. He beat the Communists. They are a ragtag bunch, but it has never been certain that Russians would not vote them back in. In much of the runup to the 1996 election, Zyuganov had led Yeltsin, though he lost the election, and in 2000 he lost more ground. Putin promised to promote the rule of law and hired free marketeer German Gref as his economic adviser. In office, he has moved successfully to allow the sale of land and to impose some certainty on legal rules. If he has persecuted NTV owner Victor Gusinsky, he has also driven out another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. His victory represented a move toward free markets.

*MEXICO, JULY 2000. "¡Hoy! ¡Hoy! ¡Hoy!" shouted the crowd awaiting Vicente Fox at the Angel of Independence statue on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma on Election Night 2000. It was a reference to a mistake Fox had made during the campaign, but also a declaration that "Today! Today! Today!" the ruling PRI party had been defeated for the first time in 71 years. As the crowd jumped up and down in unison, I could feel the ground shake—a reminder that Mexico City is built on an earthquake-prone swamp and that its political firmament was changing beyond recognition.

Fox’s victory was anything but assured. He had trailed or at best run even in public polls; it turned out that pro-PRI news media had been suppressing pro-Fox numbers. The PRI had run a candidate, Francisco Labadista, who could plausibly claim to be a reformer himself, and the incumbent president, Ernesto Zedillo, had led an administration that had helped produce economic recovery and in important ways had reformed law enforcement and freed up the political system. Fox’s PAN party had long been associated with the Catholic Church and with pro-U.S. feeling, while PRI with its anticlerical and anti-yanqui traditions claimed to embody Mexican nationalism. (The PRI’s trademark colors were always those of the Mexican flag; ordered to change them, the party traded the white for a very light gray.)

Fox’s victory should not be portrayed as an undiluted victory for free market capitalism. He declined to oppose the constitution’s requirement that oil production and marketing be monopolized by the state-owned company Pemex. He brought into his campaign and later into his government social democrats like Jorge Castaneda, now foreign minister. He called for cleaning up law enforcement and selling off other state companies. And only one candidate, the leftist PRD’s Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, repudiated the North American Free Trade Agreement; he finished third.

Fox’s victory was contingent on many factors: his personal stature, allowing him to rise above the baggage of his party; an electoral system that is now more transparent and honest than that of, say, St. Louis; Cardenas’s weak performance as mayor of Mexico City, which pushed him down from first to third in polls. But it is also evidence of a basic change in the thinking of the Mexican people, and in particular of the younger generation. Up through 1982, at least 66 percent of Mexicans voted PRI for president. But in 2000, of the 60 percent of Mexicans who were under 40, only 31 percent gave their votes to PRI. The ruling party no longer embodied the nation.

*THE UNITED STATES, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000. George W. Bush won despite running against the incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity. He won despite proposing individual investment accounts in Social Security. He won despite taking stands on abortion and gun control that the mainstream media proclaimed vote-losers. He won despite the bad luck of losing by a few thousand votes Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon, which have 25 electoral votes between them—enough to make the Florida controversy moot, had those few thousand votes gone the other way. And, it should be added, Republicans held the House of Representatives, winning more votes for the House than the Democrats for the fourth election in a row.

As I have written elsewhere (National Journal, June 9, 2001, and in the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2002), the critical demographic divide in this election was religion. Americans tend to vote as they pray, or don’t pray. Voters who attended religious services weekly or more often voted 59 percent to 39 percent for Bush. Voters who attended religious services less often or not at all voted 56 percent to 39 percent for Al Gore. During the 1990s the Clinton-Gore Democrats, through the success of their economic policies and their stands on issues like gun control and abortion, did make some gains for their party, almost entirely in major metropolitan areas among cynical, relativistic, secular voters. But Republicans also made countervailing, though smaller gains, in rural areas and in fast-growing counties at the edge of metropolitan areas, among tradition-minded, moralistic, and religious voters. As a result, Gore easily carried states like New Jersey and California, which the elder George Bush had won in 1988, but Bush easily carried states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, and Colorado, which Bill Clinton had carried in 1992. And note that Bush’s states are growing faster: The 30 states that gave Bush his 271 electoral votes in 2000 will cast 278 electoral votes in 2004.

*ITALY, MAY 2001. This was the biggest victory for the political Right in these five elections. Silvio Berlusconi, whose coalition had lost to the left-wing Ulivo coalition in 1996, won a convincing victory. And this despite the arguably successful record of the Ulivo governments, which had cut Italy’s budget deficits enough for the country to qualify to join the euro—an electoral plus in a country where voters strongly support the European Union and feel no affection for the weak lira. The strongest force behind Berlusconi’s victory was a desire to reduce the size and power of government: Italians speak of lo stato ladro—literally, the state-thief. As one of Italy’s richest men and the owner of three of its six television networks, Berlusconi seemed to have the ability and the brio to get the job done.

Counterattacking was the Italian and European press—Le Monde of France, El Mundo of Spain, The Economist of Britain—which seized on the prosecutions brought against Berlusconi to argue that he was unfit for power. But Gianni Agnelli, a kind of uncrowned king, came to Berlusconi’s defense, charging that foreigners were treating Italy like a "banana republic." So Berlusconi became a focus of national pride, and it didn’t hurt that he was pro-American—supportive of missile defense, dismissive of the Kyoto treaty—at a time when George W. Bush was the object of scorn in most European media. Center-right voters interviewed on the street showed genuine enthusiasm for Berlusconi, and little interest in the charges against him (it is thought that any entrepreneur dealing with Italy’s hyperregulatory state must break the rules). Center-left voters showed little enthusiasm for the government or interest in the Ulivo candidate, the Green former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli. Young voters were especially likely to support Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s government will probably last a full five-year term: He emerged with solid majorities in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In 1994 his government was brought down by the defection of the Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, and in 1996 his coalition failed to win because the Northern League ran separate candidates for the three-quarters of the seats that are elected by district. But in 2001 the Northern League was allied with Berlusconi, and it won too few seats for any future defection to bring Berlusconi down.

*BRITAIN, JUNE 2001. There was never any suspense about who would win in Britain. In September 2000 Tony Blair’s Labour party fell behind the Conservatives in polls during the "petrol" crisis, when motorists couldn’t buy gas. But the moment passed, and Labour quickly rebounded. Except for that one episode, it has led the Tories by wide margins in polls ever since September 1992, when Britain went off the European Rate Mechanism and in effect devalued the pound. Yet views of Labour have changed. Voters interviewed before the May 1997 election showed great enthusiasm for Blair and his "new" Labour party. Voters interviewed this year grumbled about public services, especially the National Health Service, but had little interest in the Conservatives and treated a Labour victory as inevitable.

Blair tried to gin up enthusiasm and boost turnout in heavy Labour areas, but turnout dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent of eligibles. Very few of the 659 seats in the House of Commons changed hands; there was a swing to the Conservatives in most Labour seats, and to Labour or the Liberal Democrats in many Conservative seats, plus plenty of tactical voting, in which large numbers of Labour supporters voted Liberal Democrat or vice versa to keep the Tories out.

Blair touted Labour’s competence at managing the macroeconomy and hailed chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown’s decision to free the Bank of England from government control; the prime minister also promised that Labour would improve the Health Service and secondary education (the government has significantly improved elementary schools) and argued that the Conservatives’ tepid tax cuts would savage services. But he constantly emphasized that New Labour was not rejecting the reforms of the 1980s—Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Conservative leader William Hague argued that a Blair victory would result in Britain’s joining the euro and going off the pound, something which 70 percent of British voters in polls oppose. But Blair promised, as he had in 1997, that Britain would join the euro only if the voters agreed in a referendum. Blair was also at great pains to show that his Third Way government could get along as well with George W. Bush’s Republican administration as it did with Bill Clinton’s Third Way administration. He made it plain that Britain would support the United States on missile defense and would not vocally oppose it on Kyoto.

What do these five elections tell us? First of all, we are still living in the world of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In all five countries the winners accepted the idea that the state should not grow indefinitely and that the market provides solutions for many problems. Russians rejected the Communists for Putin; Mexicans rejected PRI for Vicente Fox; Americans elected Bush; Italians rejected Ulivo for Berlusconi; the British voted for a New Labour party that promises convincingly not to undo the 1980s. The Third Way has some appeal; where it had been adhered to rigorously, by Blair in Britain, it seemed unbeatable. But not in Italy—and not in the United States, where the Clinton-Gore Democratic party, though the incumbent during peace and prosperity, won 49 percent of the vote in 1996 and 48 percent in 2000.

True, arguments for less government do not always prevail either, and some proposals for more government prove popular. But even Tony Blair was at pains to say that he would supplement the National Health Service with private medical services, much to the fury of public employees’ unions. Proposals for less government are not hooted off the stage and are not politically fatal. Fifty years ago politicians of almost all parties agreed that there must be more government and argued only about the extent of it. Today politicians of almost all parties express faith in the operation of free markets and argue only about just how far that should go. Fifty years ago more government seemed the wave of the future. Today we may get a little bit more government here, but we also get quite a bit less of it there. We are no longer in Franklin Roosevelt and Clement Attlee’s world.

Something else these elections tell us is that voters in many very different countries have no visceral mistrust of the United States. Rather, they tend to see America as a friend and an example. European elites may sneer at George W. Bush and decry his support of capital punishment and opposition to the Kyoto treaty. But many or most European voters support capital punishment, and no European government except Romania’s has ratified Kyoto. Vladimir Putin and Vicente Fox, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, in their different ways, want to make their countries more like America. So do the voters who elected them—especially the young, who voted heavily for Fox and Berlusconi. The future, it seems, does not belong to the Left.

Michael Barone is senior writer at U.S. News and World Report and author of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again.