We, the People

Fred Beuttler, former Deputy Historian in the House of Representatives, likes to look at the bigger picture. He says: the heated presidential election in the US is the result of a well-thought-out political system. Interview with Fred Beuttler by Luzia Geier

Read a German translation of this Interview here.

As Deputy Historian, Fred Beuttler worked on Capitol Hill from 2005 to 2010 and was able to witness D.C.’s modus operandi up-close. Since 2010 he has been teaching at the Carroll University of Wisconsin. In an interview with /e-politik.de/ he talked about the growing polarization in American politics and why it does not necessarily have to be considered a bad thing.

/e-politik.de/: Looking at the current presidential race in America from a German perspective, it seems to be pretty aggressive. Has it always been that way?

Fred Beuttler: I am not sure that this roughness is all that unusual historically. American presidential races are often quite rough affairs. There is little tradition of political violence here – no street brawls or things like that. But rhetorically, campaigns do have significant personal attacks on opponents, not just on their policies. This has a long history, with both parties. One could just look back to the famous “Daisy ad” that Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign.

/e-politik.de/: Why is political interaction so personal in the United States?

Beuttler: One major reason for that, I would say, is the weakness of political parties here. There are no party lists, as in a parliamentary system; each candidate is ultimately responsible for their election individually. Parties and political organizations help, of course, but oftentimes only with providing a distinctive brand. Here I’m talking along the range of offices, and not just the president. Richard Lugar for example, a very experienced politician, was eliminated by a little known opponent in the Indiana Senate Republican primary. One of the main reasons Lugar lost was not as much ideology, but something personal – he had lived in Washington so long that he had only rented a small apartment in Indiana to establish residency. He was defeated on basically a personality issue – that he was more at home in Washington than serving with his constituents. This kind of thing happens all the time, and is probably unthinkable in a German context. Thus, personality becomes, if not the most important, then at least a significant aspect of the presidential candidate.

/e-politik.de/: So roughness is rather common. But are the political sides really as polarized and angry at each other as their tone suggests?

Beuttler: I would say yes, and it has grown more polarized over time. There is an ideological division among the political parties as well as among Americans. The parties and especially Congress, from which I know the House of Representatives best, are more polarized than they have ever been in the last one hundred years. The most conservative Democratic is now to the left of the most liberal Republican. There is no overlap on many ideological issues.

/e-politik.de/: Where do these extreme positions come from?

Beuttler: This polarization is the product of a number of factors, including that Americans are clustering increasingly with those who think alike, as well as that congressional districts are drawn to capture and cluster like-minded individuals to get “safe seats”. And it is true that the two parties are becoming “purer” ideologically. The anger you mentioned earlier is a harder issue to measure. Coming from Wisconsin, which had a very angry period last year, including sit-ins in the state capital, and a very divisive recall election, I would say that many people are quite angry. Some people are scared; there have been 43 months of unemployment of over eight percent, but what this does not count is the number of people who have left the workforce. Looking at it as a percentage of the “able-bodied adults,” the unemployment rate is more like over eleven percent. So that adds to the uncertainty and feeds into the anger.

/e-politik.de/: The political rhetoric used in the midst of this polarized climate suggests that this election year will bring major changes to the American people. Is that even true?

Beuttler: Almost every presidential candidate claims that this particular election is one of the most important in the century, with fundamental choices for the future of the country. That said, most elections are not turning points. However, there is a fundamental choice of direction in this election. The main point is the future of the provision for a national health care system. There are a number of provisions that will be rolled out incrementally, most of them after the 2012 election. If Mr Romney becomes president, this would have a major impact. Should the Senate come under Republican control, you could see serious roll-back on a number of provisions of Obamacare. Even if the Republicans do not take the Senate, there will be major changes, mostly at the level of executive orders.

/e-politik.de/: How about Barack Obama and his role as the first African-American president of the United States? Is race still an issue?

Beuttler: It is interesting to look at the changes in campaigning due to Mr Obama’s race. Many people voted for Obama in 2008 because of his race, as they did not want to be seen as voting against him because of it. His vote totals among moderate, white voters were higher than they would have been if he had been someone like John Kerry. Many were genuinely interested in voting for the first black president, especially one who ran a campaign based on being “post-racial“. I am not sure that that is the case anymore; we have a black president, and now Obama is simply the president, rather than the first black president. Now, one can look at some of the rhetoric accusing some of playing the “race card”, but I think the polity is past that – this is really a post-racial election. Those who voted against Obama for his race in 2008 wouldn’t have changed their votes now. But those who voted for Obama because of his race are now looking more at policy issues rather than personality issues.

/e-politik.de/: So what do you think? Whose policy issues will eventually be more convincing?

Beuttler: Well, I am not a prophet, and the perspective would have been different if you had asked me in late September rather than now, in mid-October. Since the first debate, Mr Romney has moved up in the polls; a number of states are still in play, especially Virginia and Wisconsin. But I want to expand this question to the whole political system, for there are elections in Congress as well. Unlike in Germany, the winner of the presidential elections does not necessarily have a working majority. For all the whining about how divisive and partisan Washington is, that is the way it is supposed to work.
The American political system is designed and has evolved to operate on supermajorities. It looks like that the Republicans will keep a majority in the House. The Senate is too close to call, so it is up to whoever wins the presidency. An Obama win will lead to a Democratic majority in the Senate and of course a Democratic president, but a Republican House. That is the same that we have had for the last two years, gridlock. If Romney wins, that means a Republican majority in the House and in the Senate, not a supermajority, but a working majority. This means that something can actually get done. So the only “hope” for “change” in the next two years in American politics is a win for Romney. I think the American people wanted at least something to change over the last couple of years. It gives the Republicans about eighteen months to turn things around. If they won’t, well, then the Founders in their wisdom gave the American people a chance for a mid-term course correction. So no matter what happens in November, we, the people, get to decide in two years to either turn around, or keep going. That’s what I love about the American system of self-government. We, the people, get to decide. It’s our choice.

This article is part of a series on the US-presidential elections 2012.

Read a German translation of this Interview here.

Image copyrights: Public Domain (Beuttler, US State Departement), e-politik (quotes)

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