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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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.