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Since the end of World War II, in both the United States and Western Europe, the best way to win a national election has been to be the incumbent political party. But that 3-generation-old predisposition of publics in Western democracies may be coming to an end.
We may well be entering a political epoch in which the best way to win a national election in the West is not to be the party in power.
For the last 65 years, the world economic order has been vastly favorable to the middle-class citizens and voters in the West with their incomes going steadily up or at least flattening at a predictable and comfortable material level. Moreover, the middle-class fears of economic hardship were virtually eliminated by the existence of the welfare safety net.
Thus, while incumbent governments eventually get defeated due to scandals or simply having worn out their welcome, general public satisfaction with their economic condition has benefited existing governments that as matter of course are seen to be delivering such prosperity.
As a result, in the U.S. — with the exception of Jimmy Carter who won in a fluke, because of the Watergate scandal — neither the Democratic nor Republican parties have held the White House for less than eight years in a row since World War II (A fact since Grover Cleveland left the presidency in 1896.) Similarly in Britain, the Conservative and the Labor Parties have traded periods of rule of 13, 15, 18 and 13 years’ duration (again, with one short exception) since World War II. Germany, likewise, has traded long durations between their Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties of 22, eight and 16 years. Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently in her seventh year. France also gave its Gaullist Party 23 straight years of rule followed by giving the Socialist Party 14 continuous years of rule.
It is this long tradition to which no living memory can recall an alternative that has guided the assumption that incumbent presidents and premiers are favored in re-election.
Also, whether consciously or not, it is this expectation of re-election (in the absence of scandal or other shocking development) that has tended to induce Western governments to kick the policy cans down the road rather than risk unlikely defeat by bold shifts of policy.
But if my theory is right, the electoral ground is shifting under the feet of elected leaders in the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Holland and most of the rest of the democratic world.
In virtually all the democratic countries, the current elected leaders are at 40 percent or below in job approval. Sixty-eight percent of French voters want to replace Nicolas Sarkozy. The Italian government coalition under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a crushing defeat in local elections a few months ago. British Prime Minster David Cameron has climbed back up to a mere 40 percent approval level after having increased his popularity by cutting short his vacation to come back and talk tough about London rioters.
This anti-incumbent bias against Western democratic governments will grow and persist until the correlation of world economic forces are seen to once again be favorable, or at least satisfactory, to the Western middle class.
This is a mighty challenge.
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