The election tells us several things. First, and one I've blogged before, is that triangulation, third ways and the rest of the Blair/Clinton consensus are dead. The idea is that you identify the two (left/right) positions on an issue and define yourself in opposition to both of them, under a banner like "moderate" or "centrist" (but emphatically not "compromise"). Supposedly, you can then lock up the supporters of both alternatives in their own little ghettoes and secure the support of a majority in the centre. It's an idea with plenty of history - Macaulay remarked that Henry VIII "on the same day beheaded Papists and burned Hot Gospellers, for their divergence from his one central and artificial compromise", and supposedly the way to succeed in the Foreign Office's recruitment process is to buy a pipe, puff on it through the seminar, and then sum up with a "balanced appraisal of the consensus". But - and I've said it before, here - as a political operations manual it's dead.
The reason is that appealing to a centrist majority only works if the majority really is centrist. Look at the election map - doesn't look terribly amenable to compromise, does it? Look at the figures - the focus on so-called "values". These are things people consider to be of identity importance. Principles. You can't be a moderate neo-conservative, and if there's one thing the Republicans showed this time out it's that they understand and embrace and enjoy the era of polarisation we are living in. If you'll excuse self-quoting, in November last year I posted following:
"The French presidential elections last year were a fine example - the centre ground simply shrank away from under Lionel Jospin's feet, moving out to its ideological camps on both sides of him. Jospin seemed untough and lacking in clear values. In the foreseeable future, elections will be won by building out from the centre. We need to consider how to use the polarisation to mobilise our side, to play them at their game."Some things in that direction worked. The mammoth voter mobilisation, for example. But the campaign strategy didn't take into account the reality of a polarised political culture.
One of the Great Triangulators of the 1990s, Tony Blair, can hardly be particularly pleased with this result. He couldn't have been, whatever the result, because his triangle is breaking down. Had John Kerry won, it would have been an embarrassment for Tony Blair, but the pressure from Washington to support the War and pull away from Europe, to dump multilateral institutions - in a word, the polarisation - would have let up. Blair would have been back in his old model of triangulating between a basically friendly Europe and America, and would have a valuable opportunity to dispose of some toxic waste. But now, the pressure will be back on with a vengeance. Blair tends to speak of Britain as a bridge between the US and Europe, but the position of a bridge attached to two piers moving apart from each other is highly unenviable. If you like, you can think of that metaphorical bridge as being vaguely triangular, the US and Europe being the two ends and Blair being - hey! - the keystone in the arch. And triangulation cannot co-exist with polarisation.