Two years ago, when Barack Obama was resoundingly elected president of the United States, bringing with him Democrat majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it seemed the Republicans had been sent to political exile for some considerable time.
Obama appeared to represent a new wave in American politics. President Obama himself was the symbol of a youthful, tolerant, cosmopolitan America. He was a generation younger than his Republican opponent, Sen.John McCain. He had used social media on the Internet to mobilize his forces and, as the first president of African-American descent, his election seemed to make a fundamental break with the past.
That was then and this is now. The conventional wisdom that accompanied Obama's rise to power now just looks plain wrong. The right wing in American is resurgent. The Republicans, who were expected to spend years in the political wilderness, this week regained control of the House of Representatives and gained seats in the Senate and the Tea Party, an ad hoc collection of right-of-centre politicians advocating less government, has emerged to focus Americans' anger on the country's apparent failure to recover from the recession.
What happened? Is the resurgence of the right in the United States a uniquely American phenomenon or do we see it repeated elsewhere? How about the election of the right-of-centre Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, Sam Katz's defeat of the left-of-centre challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis in Winnipeg and the victory of the Conservatives in the U.K.?
Much has been made of the anger of U.S. voters. It's hardly surprising. In his presidential campaign, Obama promised change, a new kind of politics and a new beginning. He put a great deal of political capital into reforming health care, but most of the benefits have yet to kick in. But it is on the economy that he and his Democrats have taken the biggest drubbing.
Unemployment in the United States has stubbornly stuck above nine per cent since the recession, but as the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, that number significantly understates the true rate. When the number of people no longer looking for work, and those that have had to accept part-time work, are taken into account the total is about twice as high. U.S. television networks Tuesday night were reporting exit polls that showed as many as 30 per cent of households had at least one person who had been thrown out of work.
Those kind of numbers breed fear. Many Americans just don't think Obama's stimulus package has worked and now they see an economy with huge budgetary deficits mired in debts that will take years to pay down.
The economy also played against the ruling Labour Party in the U.K., but the election of the minority government of Conservative David Cameron had many other factors, not least the unpopularity of the dour labour leader, Gordon Brown. Ford's election in Toronto may have the most similarities with the U.S. election. Former mayor David Miller upset Torontonians with increased spending and what many saw as a capitulation to government unions after a bitter strike that saw garbage littering the streets.
But, as columnist Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in the Globe and Mail, there wasn't a right-of-centre sweep in other Ontario cities. Calgary, often thought of as a right-of-centre city, elected a mayor who ran on a liberal campaign and Winnipeg pronounced itself satisfied with a candidate who has already been in power for six years.
The disillusionment with the Democrats in the United States, though very real, should not be overstated. What was overstated was Obama's own campaign rhetoric, which raised expectations that could not possibly be fulfilled.
In the normal course of events in the United States, the party of the sitting president loses seats in the mid-term elections. Losing the House of Representatives does not mean Obama will go down to defeat in the next presidential election in two years time.
But it doesn't mean he's set to win another term, either. The idea that Obama had built a new liberal coalition that would define the future of American politics has been badly shaken.
It may be that the stimulus packages put in place by the U.S. and the U.K. prevented the recession from turning into a depression, but it is proving a hard political sell.
The connection between the rejection of left-of-centre politicians in differing jurisdictions may be tentative, but it is definitely there. Electorates are worried politicians cannot fix their problems and they might do better voting for less government.
Two years ago, Barack Obama had built renewed faith in a left-of-centre government's ability to have the answers. It's not just in the United States where that faith is on shaky ground.
Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.