There is a scene at the end of the film ‘The Firm’ where the character played by Tom Cruise is chased along the Mississippi bank in Memphis. As we might expect, our hero escapes. I was in Memphis recently, and ‘re-created’ the run along the mud bank, and then across the Harahan bridge into Arkansas – which looks very much like Tennessee, and no sign at all of Bill Clinton.
In my visit to Tennessee one private objective was to pick up a sense of the fractured political climate in the US ahead of the midterm elections – though disappointingly all the people I met were pleasant, intelligent and well informed. On then to New York, where at a breakfast meeting, I spotted Bill Barr at the next table no doubt conspiring on the election with a Republican Senate candidate.
Then, a quick, regular homage to the tomb of Alexander Hamilton (see chapter ten of the Levelling) before a meeting in the new World Trade Centre. The last time I was there, I shared a podium (one the very impressive top floor) with JD Vance, author of HillBilly Elegy, and now a Senate candidate in Ohio.
At the time – I had greatly enjoyed his book – my impression was of someone who was authentic, somewhat unpolished and with strong views. I recall him being very critical of Donald Trump. Since then, Vance has been swallowed up in the bitter morass of American politics, and viewed from Europe, been radicalized. This is a pity given his life story and achievements, but emblematic of the intensity and complexity of public life in the US.
It was always a testing environment – an examination of the period Hamilton lived through (and the fact that he died in a duel), highlights the vitriol of the press and political debate back then (Ron Chernow’s book is a good reference point). There is also a school of thought that holds that the quality of politicians has been on a downward tack since the Founding Fathers, Andy Borowitz’ new book is an example (‘Profiles in Ignorance’).
Against the backdrop of the ebb and flow of the fortunes of strongmen leaders (Bibi is back, Bolsonaro is out, Boris is on tour) and the context of a worldwide democratic depression, the mid-terms are interesting for what they tell us about the theatrical aspect of American politics (notably the Pennsylvania race between Dr Oz and John Fetterman), the pulling power of Donald Trump and the health of American democracy.
In that respect, the barometers to watch are the relative success of ‘non-Trump’ Republicans (for example Doug Ducey in Arizona or Joe O’Dea in Arizona), the extent to which candidates at the extremes of both parties do well (worryingly both Kevin McCarthy and a group of left wing Democrats including Alexandra Ocasio-Castro have tried to suggest that America’s support for Ukraine be limited).
Listening to the debate, it seems that the notion of ‘truth’ is very much up for grabs, both in the sense to which candidates and their supporters have flexible views on the rules of the political process, and to the extent to which they feel their own lives need to correspond to their policies – Herschel Walker the former Dallas Cowboys running back and now Republican candidate in Georgia is a case in point in terms of his stance on abortion.
The race will also give a steer as to the runners and riders in the 2024 Presidential election – I suspect that on balance the Republicans will do relatively well in the mid-terms (a barometer of the extent to which Americans care about the economy versus abortion for instance), and Donald Trump could claim credit for this and declare his candidacy for the Presidency (he is, statistically, the most ‘losingist’ President since Herbert Hoover having lost the Presidential election and the Senate and Congress).
It is not clear who the Democratic candidate might be – officially Joe Biden is a contender and problematically for the Democratic race there are few other obvious contenders (maybe Mayor Pete?). My own view is that the really interesting political figures are found at the mayoral and gubernational levels – Mike Duggan in Detroit and Francis Suarez in Miami.
In previous decades, a relatively good mid-term for the Republicans would have fostered talk of bi-partisan cooperation with a Democratic President – something that Joe Biden excelled at during his career. This time is different. The battle for American democracy may just heat up.