The (waning) power of incumbency


The last twelve months have not been a good year politically for incumbents. In the USA, mid-term elections, when all the votes were counted, delivered a stinging rebuke to House Republicans and, indirectly to President Trump. At the state level, eight governorships changed hands. In Europe, Italy and Spain swept previous governments from power while in Sweden, the former ruling party now clings to power as a minority coalition which could topple on any given day. Even in Turkey, the President’s party lost its majority in Parliament. Considering that Edrogan had been seeking a super majority to change the constitution, this counts as a major setback. In Brazil, a fringe former army officer came out of nowhere to win the Presidency from the socialist front runner on a platform largely indistinguishable from fascism.

Meanwhile in Canada, five consecutive provincial elections have ousted the sitting government. A sixth might fall tomorrow and, federally, the Liberal government is trailing the main opposition party, either by a little or a lot depending on which polls you believe. While campaigns matter, it looks grim for one-term PM, Justin Trudeau.

This is clearly not a left-right thing. Where progressives were in power, conservatives and right populists won. Where conservatives ruled, they lost out to left-wing or left populist parties. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a TV comedian with no apparent policies at all defeated the sitting president.

So, what’s going on? I suspect there are many factors at play. Let’s for a moment, leave the ugly stuff aside (the sexist attacks on women politicians and the demonization of immigrants or, if you like, the rich) though they certainly played a factor in some of the races. But in the USA, women and minorities did very well in mid-term elections, and these tactics were failures in Spain and Turkey.

I suspect what is really going on is a deep disappointment and anger at whoever happens to be holding power. People in western democracies no longer feel that they are being served, that their interests are paramount, that they can trust their own governments to protect them. Those governments, they think, are not working for them – time to try something new, maybe even, radically new. Why not, some have said, elect people who have no history in government or politics. They couldn’t be worse, could they?

Well, let me put it this way—I wouldn’t let someone operate on me because they had played a doctor on TV.

Whereas the power of incumbency used to be golden, now it has turned to dross. Politicians have suddenly realized they can win by running against their own history. In Newfoundland, the Conservative leader is running on a campaign that essentially says, I’m not like the conservatives you threw out 4 years ago—even though he comes from the most powerful conservative family in the province. If this kind of thing catches on, maybe we’ll see Trump run for re-election as an independent democrat.

Of course, sitting governments may have to share in the blame for all this. Most governments get elected on the promise to do things differently and often on specific policy proposals they come to find distasteful (election reform, Mr. Trudeau?). Inevitably they disappoint those who had voted for them. Those who had fallen in love with them—well, there is nothing more bitter than a failed romantic relationship.

So, what do we do? Give up on democracy? I hope not. As Churchill put it democracy is a lousy system, until you compare it with all the rest. Besides, politics is not really the problem; economics is. But you’re going to have to wait for that because that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

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