The United States and China have arrived at a temporary truce in a trade conflict that was threatening to further destabilise world equity markets, entrench a global slowdown and cause more damage to a rules-based international order.
However, this is a temporary respite, a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to myriad trade and other tensions that have put the US and China at odds with each other.
For their own purposes and in their own interests, Trump and Xi have come away from the Argentine capital with a deal that papers over differences that extend from China’s activities in the South China Sea to its mercantilist trade policies.
As far as we know, China’s ruthless assertion of its sovereignty over disputed waters in the South China Sea was not a material subject for discussion in Buenos Aires except, possibly, in passing.
China’s rise and America’s relative decline ensure these global economic superpowers will continue to bump up against each other.
So, what was achieved and what are the prospects for an accord reached on the sidelines of the G20?
In their efforts to lower trade tensions and prevent a further erosion of global confidence, Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day extension on the imposition of additional US tariffs on some US$200 billion of Chinese imports.
Trump had threatened to increase tariffs from 10% to 25% on an initial batch of Chinese imports from January 1. He had also flagged his intention to impose levies on another US$267 billion worth of imports if progress was not made in resolving broad-based trade differences.
A joint statement laid out a timeline for continuing negotiations. It reads:
Both parties agree that they will endeavour to have this transaction completed within the next 90 days. If, at the end of this period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10 percent tariffs will be raised to 25 percent.
In return for these temporary concessions, China agreed to:
… purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States to reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product immediately.
China also agreed to crack down on sales of Fentanyl by making it a controlled substance. The US is battling an opioid crisis in which Fentanyl is a lethal component.
In retaliation for US trade actions, China had imposed duties on US$110 billion of imports. A principal component of this is soybeans, effectively killing one of America’s more lucrative export markets.
Trump has been under huge pressure from his Mid-Western rural heartland over a collapse in the Chinese market for American agricultural products.
These are highly complex issues and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, if at all.
In the wash-up of the Xi-Trump discussions it appears China has got more out of the deal than the US – at least for now. It has secured a stay of execution for the implementation of tariff increases and forestalled, for the time being, tariffs on an additional bloc of Chinese exports.
In return, it has agreed to buy unspecified quantities of US products and to talk about differences.
Trump’s willingness to compromise after months of bombast reflects pressures from a shellshocked grain-producing constituency and alarm on Wall Street at prospects of a full-blown trade war.
From Beijing’s perspective, China has demonstrated that its growing economic heft has enabled it to avoid the appearance of yielding to US pressure.
If not a “win-win” for China – as Chinese officials are fond of saying – it is certainly not a “lose-lose”.
In a statement at odds with months of fire-breathing rhetoric over China’s allegedly perfidious trade practices, Trump hailed his understanding with Xi. He said:
This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the US and China.
For their part, Chinese officials were more circumspect.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks were conducted in a “friendly and candid atmosphere”. The presidents:
agreed that the two sides can and must get bilateral relations right… China is willing to increase imports in accordance with the needs of its domestic market and the people’s needs.
Impetus for a face-saving deal in Buenos Aires has been prompted by growing concerns about the global economy. The signs of a slowdown are clear. Trade volumes had begun to moderate in the third quarter, heightening worries of a global retrenchment.
Pressures on emerging markets have been rising and trade tensions have begun to have a negative impact, increasing downside risks.
In its October Outlook statement, the IMF warned about threats to global growth due to trade disturbances.
In their final communique, G20 leaders danced around contentious issues on trade to accommodate American objections to having the word “protectionism” inserted in the document.
In the end, participants settled on the need for reform of the World Trade Organisation to describe a world trading system that is falling short of its objectives. Washington has been agitating for a review of the WTO to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal procedures.
On climate change, Washington separated itself from the other G20 members. All, except the US, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The US announced in 2017 it was pulling out of Paris.
Foreign policy specialists will be sceptical about a de-escalation of trade hostilities given the range of issues bedevilling the US-China relationship.
Reflecting a hardening of US attitudes towards China, and in contrast to the optimism that had prevailed for much of the past two decades, Ely Ratner in Foreign Affairs notes:
Even if tariffs are put on hold, the United States will continue to restructure the US-China economic relationship through investment restrictions, export controls, and sustained law enforcement actions against Chinese industrial and cyber-espionage.
At the same time, there are no serious prospects for Washington and Beijing to resolve other important areas of dispute, including the South China Sea, human rights and the larger contest over the norms, rules and institutions that govern relations in Asia.
A stiffening view in the US towards China is shared more or less across the board. In those circumstances, a temporary ceasefire in Buenos Aires is unlikely to be sustained.
When US President Donald Trump meets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the margins of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires between November 30 and December 1, nothing less than a reasonably healthy global trading system and continued economic growth will be on the table.
It is one of the more significant meetings between two global leaders in the modern era.
The encounter will recall the high-wire diplomacy between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, which signalled the end of the Cold War and, as it happened, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.
World markets unnerved by an evolving trade conflict between the world’s two largest economies will take their cues from this encounter between an unpredictable US president and a Chinese leader who will not want to be seen to yield ground. Or, to give it an oriental description, lose face.
This is a fractious moment in world economic history.
Billions of dollars in global equity markets will rest on a reasonable consensus in the Argentine capital. The two sides will reach for a compromise that will enable relative stability to be restored to an economic relationship that is threatening to unravel.
Since a ragged outcome, or even failure, is in no-one’s interests, it is hard to believe Washington and Beijing will not seek to calm legitimate concerns about the risks of a full-blown trade war and its impact on global growth.
US-China trade tremors are already having an impact on growth projections for 2018-2020.
In its latest World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund reports the world economy is plateauing, partly due to trade tensions and stresses in emerging markets.
The IMF has scaled back its global growth projections from its July Outlook forecast for 2019 to 3.7% from 3.9%. It has marked down US growth by 0.2 percentage point to 2.5%, and China by a similar margin to 6.2%.
However, if trade disruptions persist, fallout will become more serious in 2020 with global growth projected to be down by 0.8%, and with it US and China growth down significantly.
Trade wars have consequences, including risks of a global recession.
All this invests the Trump-Xi encounter with more-than-usual significance. A bad outcome will heighten risks of an accelerating global slowdown.
In the lead-up to the G20, American and Chinese officials have been preparing the ground, with the Chinese side anxious to reduce tensions following a November 1 phone call between the two presidents.
But it is less clear that Washington is willing to ease pressure on China to liberalise further a foreign investment environment, seek ways to reduce a trade gap and make more conspicuous efforts to tone down concerns about Chinese pilfering of its intellectual property.
In a media briefing in Beijing, Chinese officials underscored China’s desire for a reasonable outcome in Buenos Aires. Wang Shouwen, a vice commerce minister, said:
We hope China and the US are able to resolve their problems based on mutual respect, benefits and honesty.
However, Trump is continuing to threaten further increases in tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports now set at 10% but due to increase to 25% from January 1. He told The Wall Street Journal this week:
The only deal would be China has to open up their country to competition from the United States.
Trump also threatened to slap tariffs on an additional US$267 billion worth of Chinese imports if negotiations with Xi are unsuccessful:
If we don’t make a deal, then I’m going to put the US$267 billion additional on [at a tariff rate of either 10% or 25%].
This next batch of Chinese imports might include laptops and Apple iPhones, which are among China’s biggest exports to the US.
Further complicating the possibility of a satisfactory negotiation in Buenos Aires is a lingering dispute between the US and China over reforms to the World Trade Organisation to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal mechanisms.
The US also objects to China’s continued description as a “developing country” under WTO rules. This includes provisions that are favourable to Chinese state-owned enterprises.
A collapse in efforts to reform the WTO would strike another blow at a multilateral trading system that is under more stress than at any time since globalisation gathered pace in the 1990s.
The US-China trade conflict, which is threatening to become a full-blown trade war with unpredictable consequences, cannot be separated from a more general deterioration in relations.
These were given expression last month by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech to the Hudson Institute, in which he lambasted China in a way that prompted talk of a new cold war.
Pence accused China of deploying:
… an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies handed out like candy. These policies have built Beijing’s manufacturing base, at the expense of its competitors – especially the United States.
The US trade deficit with China reached US$375 billion last year – nearly half the US global trade deficit.
None of this augurs well for a constructive resolution of US-China differences at the G20, although you might hope Trump’s approach would be tempered by concerns about the economic consequences of a conspicuous failure.
What seems most likely, given the stakes involved, is for officials from both countries to be tasked with responsibility for addressing a range of American concerns, with the aim of resetting the relationship.
This would seem to be a best-case scenario.
In the meantime, officials working on the draft of a final communique will be struggling to satisfy competing demands from G20 participants for clear-cut statements on protectionism and climate change.
These have been staples of such communiques since the G20 was formed ten years ago amid a global financial crisis.
Washington is reportedly resisting an explicit call to fight protectionism. It is also demanding a watering down of the G20’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Consensus on these issues is proving elusive, further undermining efforts to address global challenges.
This underscores a dramatic shift in the global geopolitical environment since Trump gained office.
At the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, world leaders agreed on a “rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation playing the central role in today’s global trade”.
On climate, the G20 committed itself “to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement”.
Two years later, a “rules-based” trading system is being shredded and the Paris Agreement is at risk of unravelling. These are troubled times, not helped by an American pullback from the stabilising role in global affairs it has played since the second world war.
In October 2005 Stephen Colbert was just starting his eponymous show. It is somewhat chilling to realise that this was when he came up with the word truthiness: it seems so now.
It has taken a while to reach maturity and morphed into the even more menacing trumpiness. Truthiness captures the slippery world inhabited by those unencumbered by books, or facts, context or complexity – for those who just know with their heart rather than their heads – where things can just feel truthful.
Who would have thought that a little more than a decade later, the White House would be occupied by a man who makes the Colbert character seem almost reasonable. Quaintly charming. Trumpiness captures something even more sinister, statements that don’t even have to feel truthful, apparently ignorant rough-hewn words, weaponised for effect. Whatever comes out – alarmingly frequently words that sound as though they emanated from the crib sheet of a propaganda handbook.
In defining these words, Colbert provided a helpful predictor for a president who according to the Washington Post last week, had made 6,420 false or misleading comments in 649 days. That is industrial scale deception – small lies told over and over, medium sized lies that have become a new global lingua franca and big lies that take even his most ardent supporters by surprise and sometimes force a sort of retraction or denial – sort of, but only after they have already infiltrated the virtual world and got a life of their own.
This is not normal. It is not the way we have come to expect even a tainted public sphere, distorted by the commercialisation of public attention, to operate. The president’s mantra of fake news is, as he has admitted, a deliberate and determined effort to undermine confidence in what remains of a rigorous public sphere and professional journalism that takes itself seriously. In the unregulated, “more insidious” domain of the internet this is particularly dangerous.
Such industrial scale deception is at odds with the norms that characterise any flourishing civilisation. If truth is irrelevant to discourse, trust is not merely dented it is destroyed. Other norms of acceptable behaviour cannot be far away. What is happening now, goes well beyond spin or hollow speech. The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen describes it as “corrosive, corrupting and contagious”.
In the shrunken global village this has dangerous implications everywhere, for public and personal behaviour. If the so called, “leader of the free world” can talk the way he does, without regard to fact or feeling, the level of civilisation is turned down everywhere he is heard.
What we are witnessing is behaviour contrary to the long-established moral core of a civilised society, arguably giving succour to evil, and deliberately destroying trust.
Democracy in retreat
So how did it come to this?
It is easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – the news of catastrophe and disaster, the inflammatory US president, the distortion of social media, the global instability of superpower realignment, the palpable threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarian leaders – and that is for starters.
Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, has been monitoring global freedom since 1941, when a very different US President articulated an expansive ethic that has since prevailed in “kin countries” and beyond. With the second world war in full, murderous, destructive fury, President Roosevelt declared that as human beings, all people were entitled to freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship their god in their own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At the time it was ambitious rhetoric, demonstrably at odds with the wartime experience. But it provided guiding principles for a different future.
Last month in a very different context, Freedom House reported that around the world, political and civil rights sunk to their lowest level for a decade.
For the twelfth year in a row, democratic setbacks outnumbered gains. Democracy is in crisis. Values are under assault and in retreat in country after country. Young people are losing faith in politics. Trust has been eroded by commerce and the calcification of institutions. Millions of people are living without the rights we take for granted as a measure of civil, liberal, democratic society. Even nations that like to pride themselves on a deep democratic history are slipping on the scale, as trust in institutions is eroded and checks and balances slip out of equilibrium and technology remakes the way things are done.
Taking a wider view of the state of the globe provides a slightly more reassuring message, that that arc may still be bending the right way. But the tension between individual rights and popular will is fertile territory for authoritarian leaders and their shadow puppets.
Survival is deep in our make up, means we dwell on the negative, alert to threats and dangers, ready to respond to fear. But as Stephen Pinker and Kishore Mahbubani loudly proclaim, the bigger picture is not as bad as we might be inclined to think with one ear cocked to the latest news bulletin and an eye on the real Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
The Human Development Index shows that as a species we are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and 80 in the developed world; for most of human existence most people died around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world’s population; still limiting the lives of too many, but 200 years ago, 90% lived in extreme poverty. In just the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population living with such deprivation has declined by 75%. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. For most of the history of Europe, no more than 15% of the people could read and write, mostly men.
So despite the truthiness feeling that things are going wrong, a lot is going right, for a lot of people, in a lot of countries. But this is a moment at risk of being squandered.
‘Reason sweeteened by values’
Which invites the question of what is at stake, how might the level of civilisation here be turned up, by whom, and to what end?
This was a question addressed by Robert Menzies when in 1959, as Prime Minister, he approved the formation of the Humanities Council, the precursor of the Australian Academy of Humanities. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, and the memory of the hot war still smoking, Menzies declared the Humanities Council would provide,
Wisdom, a sense of proportion, sanity of judgement, a faith in the capacity of man to rise to higher mental and spiritual levels. We live dangerously in the world of ideas, just as we do in the world of international conflict. If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.
Now we are more often likely to hear prominent politicians pillorying the humanities as esoteric and truth-defying, and humanities scholars as ideologues in cahoots with self-aggrandizing scientists who are addressing the existential crisis of climate change for personal gain.
To attack the university system at precisely the moment when it reaches more people, when its impact on the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation has never been higher, seems perverse. Based on medium-sized lies, madness even, from the zone of truthiness.
As the debate triggered by the Ramsay proposal has shown there is a lot at stake. For all the noise in the press, the very fact that there are lots of different ways of approaching the study of civilisations, has not been addressed except by snide, often ill-informed or defensive comments about “relativism”.
I am not a scholar of civilisations or a philosopher, but I am aware of some of the complexity of these debates. The need to define civilisation, and to allow the notion of civilisations, has preoccupied fine minds, and lead to different conclusions. Are there six civilisations, as Samuel Huntington suggested remained when he wrote his most famous essay The Clash of Civilisations? Or the 26, not including the civilisation of the first Australians, which Arnold Toynbee had identified a few decades earlier in his monumental work A Study of History.
Some maintain that civilisations are shaped by religion, others by culture, cities, language, ideology, identity or as a response by human beings to nature.
Civilisations flower and die. Some leave artefacts, buildings and monuments that endure. Others leave stories, philosophies, language, knowledge and ways of being that echo and resonate long after. Some just disappear, some suicide. Others grow and respond to interaction, adapting and changing as they go. And we now know, many leave a measurable trail in the polar ice, as the recent discovery of the traces of lead from Ancient Rome from 1100 BCE revealed.
As Kenneth Clark reputedly said after devoting his life to popularising the study of civilisation, “I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I see it.”
I like to think of it as a shorthand for the way human beings coexist with each other, the world they have created and the natural environment which makes it possible. While recognising the contestability of values, I like the positive humanity of Clive Bell’s notion of “reason sweetened by values” and RG Collingwood’s, “mental process toward ideal social relationships of civility”.
For me, civilisation is pluralist, contestable, open, polite, robust; buttressed by law, culture and institutions and maintained by sustainable economic conditions across time and place.
The need for a bill of rights
The barbarism of the second world war galvanised the creation of civilising mechanisms and institutions. They varied from country to country, with different impacts , but the intention was generally to expand rights and enhance democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 on the 10th of December, was the most singular global response: its 30 rights recognise and spell out “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Its symbolic power exceeds its legal effect, as George Williams has written. It forms part of customary international law and is seen as binding on all nations. It been translated into 500 languages. Australia has ratified two of the most important subsequent conventions which grew under its umbrella to define political and civil; social, economic and cultural rights – so it is not without effect here.
The Universal Declaration may well have faults and limits. Some regard it as “human rights imperialism” used by the West to run the world in ways that will protect and promote its interests. But when expansively applied, rather than as an embodiment of Western hegemony, it remains the best organising principle for civility that humanity has yet been devised. Ask women in Asia, India and the Middle East, democrats in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, activists in China or journalists in Russia.
Australians played an important role in the creation of the Declaration, but we have been tardy about its application. Ours is the only democratic nation which does not have a bill of rights – the only one. This is something that demands pause for thought. It is something we need to address if we are to foster an ethic for a distinctive, hybrid Australian civilisation.
It is probably worth noting in passing that some of the most strident opponents of an Australian bill of rights are also amongst the most vociferous promoters of a narrowly defined agenda to study western civilisation. It is easy in this environment to forget that the demographics are with those of us who see the arc of history bending up. Surveys show most Australians would welcome a formalisation of rights.
Surely a clear statement of rights and responsibilities is central to any attempt to define a civilisation and the way we co-exist, respectfully, sustainably, creatively.
More than a pale shadow
“Person by person the world does change,” Tony Abbott wrote in his essay for Quadrant that marked the beginning of the end of the Ramsay program at ANU. In his final paragraph, the former prime minister suggested that the “hundred bright young Australians” who received the proposed scholarships “might change the world”, and begin “a much more invigorating long march through our institutions!”
That makes me a little nervous. It sounds a bit like a fifth column, though I doubt that the students would be willing fodder for such a scheme. I suspect that if they were to embark on such a long march, they, like me, would prefer an open, inclusive, contested, respectful, non-ideological journey, grounded in the unique nature of this place as home to the oldest living civilisations, a product of British colonialism, the creation of people from every continent and our own imagining.
This country has a lot going for it, but we seem stuck in neutral. We need to regain ambition. To foster a remarkable country, one which learns from the mistakes of past and displaces complacent caution to imagine and create a robust, inclusive, generous, rights-based democratic order that will work well in the very different world of the 21st century.
It won’t come from politicians. It will, if history is a guide, be something that is worked up on the ground, in our universities, in our institutions, in our justice system, in business, community groups and on social media. As it takes shape, the politicians will follow and carry it forward.
There is a lot at stake. Person by person, we can help to turn the level of civilisation up in this place, so that it becomes much more than a pale shadow of the worst of the rest of the world.
This article is an excerpt of the 49th Academy Lecture delivered by Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA as part of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium, ‘Clash of Civilisations: Where are we now?’ held at the State Library of NSW on 15 November 2018. The full lecture will be published in the 2019 edition of the Academy’s journal, Humanities Australia.
The good news if you don’t like US President Donald Trump: he has less than 24 months remaining in his first term in office. The bad news: he now looks to have a better chance at staying in office until 2025.
This year’s midterm elections broke for Trump much more than expected. The Republicans maintained their control of the Senate, picking up key victories in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. And though the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, as expected, this is not the counter-revolution they were hoping for.
Scaring people worked: The Republicans not only held onto power in the Senate, they seem likely to have increased their slim majority in the chamber. Importantly, there will be more Trump Republicans in the Senate.
And several winning Republican candidates, like Mike Braun in Indiana, ran hard on Trump themes like immigration. Their victories show how much Trump’s control of the GOP has increased.
Trump for president in 2020: Trump looks to be in a better position for re-election than many commentators had believed.
The Democrats did take back the House, but that is par for the course in midterm elections. What’s more telling is that they did not invade Trump territory – the deep-red parts of the South, Midwest and Rust Belt – in any substantial way. Winning control of the House could make life difficult for Trump, but the Democrats cannot remove him from office without a sizeable majority in the Senate – which seems a world away.
Also, the midterms should make it a near-certainty that no serious Republican will challenge Trump for the presidential nomination in 2020. He has proven once again that he is an impressive electoral campaigner with a crude but effective grasp of strategy.
There was a Brett Kavanaugh effect: The highly contentious nomination battle over Trump’s Supreme Court pick seems to have energised his base more than the Democrats’. The Democrats in red states who voted against Kavanaugh lost their re-election bids – Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
Meanwhile, the only Democrat to vote to confirm Kavanaugh – Senator Joe Manchin – won his race in predominantly Republican West Virginia.
There is not a Democratic messiah in waiting: Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke looked like he might be this figure – a person to energise the party much the way then-Senator Barack Obama did in 2008 – but O’Rourke lost his race against incumbent Ted Cruz, despite a very tight contest. Democrats still need a platform that is about more than “Stop Trump.”
It is a year of the woman – but not just progressive women: A record number of women (260) ran for Congress this year. Early results suggest that many white, female voters who backed Trump in 2016 went for Democratic candidates this time around, reflecting the salience of healthcare as a key election issue for Democrat voters.
But not all winning female candidates in the midterms were Democrats. Marsha Blackburn, a staunch Trump supporter and demoniser of the Central American migrant caravan, won the race for the open Senate seat in Tennessee.
Hispanics remain a key demographic: Trump was widely condemned for his anti-Hispanic immigrant stance in midterm campaigning. The paradox is that the more Republicans can appeal to Hispanics, the more likely they are to win next time.
There is a lot of purple out there: Americans still rather like split-ticket voting, meaning they are fine voting for different parties on the same ballot. This makes the notion of exclusively red and exclusively blue states an exaggeration.
For example, Democratic candidates picked up governorships in traditionally Republican states, such as Laura Kelly’s win in Kansas over Kris Kobach, a hard-line, anti-immigrant Trump ally. And Republicans won several governor races in traditionally Democratic New England.
The bottom line after the midterms is that Trump is here to stay. And though the Democrats now control the House, this has just offered him a foil – an institution to define himself against – as he moves toward re-election in two years time.
US midterm elections were held today. All 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senators were up for election. Democrats were defending 26 Senators, including some states that Trump won by big margins in 2016, and Republicans just nine.
Democrats won the House, regaining control of a chamber they lost at the 2010 midterms. They currently have a 218-192 seat lead over the Republicans, with 25 races uncalled, and have gained a net 26 seats. Democrats lead the House popular vote by 50.7-47.6, but this gap will widen as more Californian votes are counted over the coming weeks.
The New York Times House forecast currently gives Democrats a predicted final majority of 229-206 and a popular vote margin over the Republicans of 7.1%. Expectations were that Democrats needed to win the House popular vote by six to seven points to win control, owing to Republican gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas.
In the Senate, Republicans hold a 51-45 lead over Democrats, with four races uncalled. They gained Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota. Indiana and Missouri voted for Trump by 18-19 points in 2016, and North Dakota by 37 points. However, Republicans missed out in West Virginia, which voted for Trump by 42 points. West Virginia’s Senator, Joe Manchin, is a more conservative Democrat. The Democrats gained Nevada, somewhat compensating for losses.
The most disappointing Senate result for Democrats is likely to be Florida, which voted for Trump by just 1.2 points. But Republican Rick Scott, the current Florida governor, currently leads incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by 50.2-49.8, with few votes outstanding. Strong rural turnout for the Republicans, and lack of turnout from Democratic-favouring Hispanics, was probably responsible for this result.
A Senate byelection in Mississippi used a “jungle primary” format, where all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ballot paper. If nobody wins a majority, the top two proceed to a runoff. The Republicans will almost certainly win this seat after the runoff on November 25.
In the Senate, Democrats paid the price for a very strong performance when these seats were last up for election in 2012. Republicans will be defending 22 seats in 2020, and Democrats just 12. As the whole House is up for election, it is a better gauge of popular opinion than the Senate.
Trump’s final pre-election ratings in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate were 41.8% approve, 52.8% disapprove, for a net approval of -11.0. Trump’s approval slipped from 43.1% on October 23, a high he had last reached in March 2017.
I wrote for The Poll Bludger on Saturday that the vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric, with which Trump closed the campaign, was likely to be counterproductive in the House, where battleground districts had higher levels of educational attainment. However, the more rural battleground Senate states were easier to win. In my opinion, it would have been better for Trump to focus on the strong US economy in the final stretch.
These results will give Democrats a veto over any legislation proposed by Trump and the Republicans, and they will be able to set up House investigations into Trump. However, the Senate has the sole power to confirm presidential Cabinet-level and judicial appointments. The Supreme Court currently has a 5-4 conservative majority, so Democrats will hope that none of the left-wing judges dies in the next two years.
With four contests uncalled, Republicans led Democrats by 25-21 in state governors, a six seat gain for the Democrats. Governors and state legislatures are important as, in many states, politicians can draw federal boundaries.
Victorian Newspoll: 54-46 to Labor
The Victorian election will be held on November 24. A Newspoll conducted October 24-28 from a sample of 1,092 gave Labor a 54-46 lead, a three-point gain for Labor since April. Primary votes were 41% Labor (up three), 39% Coalition (down two) and 11% Greens (steady). One Nation will not contest the state election.
45% (up two) were satisfied with Premier Daniel Andrews, and 40% (down seven) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of +5, up nine points. Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s net approval was -15, down two points. Andrews led Guy by 45-29 as better Premier (41-34 in April).
Labor led the Liberals by 45-37 on managing Victoria’s economy, a bad result for the Liberals as economic management tends to favour conservatives. Labor also led by 43-32 on maintaining energy supply and keeping power prices lower (42-40 in April). On law and order, a Liberal lead of 46-37 shrunk to just 39-38. Labor led by 33-30 on having the best plan for population growth.
We have had a recent Galaxy poll for the bus association that gave Labor a 53-47 lead. This Newspoll adds to the impression that Labor is pulling away, and should win the election easily.
From afar, the US midterm elections might seem to be all about Donald Trump, and there is some truth to this. The man, as has been the case for some years now, is unavoidable.
More than 700 days after the host of The Apprentice was elected to lead the world’s largest military and economic power, this will be the first chance for Americans to express buyer’s remorse at the ballot box by potentially giving the Democrats control of the House (and less likely the Senate) in order to rein in the president.
Trump himself is not up for re-election, though. Voters will be making decisions about local and state representatives, so it would be a mistake to presume the outcome will be entirely dependent on questions of federal leadership.
Members of the US House of Representatives serve two-year terms, and senators six-year terms. This means that all 435 members of the House and 35 out of 100 senators (33 plus two empty seats due to resignations) are up for re-election on November 6.
Due to the Democrats’ success in the 2012 election, just nine of those 35 Senate seats are Republican-controlled. So the Democrats’ chance of taking the Senate is slim – around 1-in-7, according to FiveThirtyEight.com – despite the fact Republicans currently hold only a narrow 51-49 majority.
For those outside the US, this may seem remarkable, given the profoundly unethicaldecisions enacted by the Trump administration, and the parade of misogyny that surrounded Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court.
And yet, there are a number of plausible scenarios in which the minority party could actually lose ground.
To forge a path to victory in the Senate, Democrats will need to retain seats in states that Trump won easily in 2016 – North Dakota, Montana and Missouri – as well as in Florida, where incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson faces a tough race against multimillionaire Republican Governor Rick Scott.
They’ll also need to pick up a seat or two in the traditionally Republican states of Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi (listed in order of likelihood). The fact that Mississippi and Tennessee are even in play for the Democrats is noteworthy because Trump won both in 2016 by over 15 percentage points.
But given the circumstances, the Democrats remain unlikely to win a Senate majority.
A Democratic victory in the House is far more probable, with FiveThirtyEight.com giving the minority party a 6-in-7 chance to take back control.
Because all House seats are up for grabs, this is the contest that many will view as a national referendum on the Trump administration. And the results will be shaped by voter turnout.
Typically, turnout for midterm elections is older and whiter than it is for presidential elections, and this is a demographic that favours Republicans. The Republicans have maintained or taken control of the House in every midterm election since 1994, with the exception of 2006, when President George W. Bush’s popularity had plummeted to the mid-30s due to his mishandling of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.
According to recent polling averages, Trump’s approval rating has been hovering at just over 40%.
Why is gerrymandering significant?
This election is consequential for far more than the future of the Trump administration. Republican victories in state legislatures and governors’ races, which occur alongside the national election, will provide another opportunity for the party to consolidate its power through gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the underhanded process whereby elected politicians redraw federal and state electorate boundaries to group voters by demographics and improve their chances of success at the ballot box.
These lines are redrawn every 10 years, following a nationwide census. The next census is in 2020, so the lines will next be redrawn in 2021. This year’s midterm election is therefore crucial in determining which party will control each state during the upcoming redistricting process.
Gerrymandering tends to be a tactic of Republicans, who currently hold the majority of seats in 32 of America’s 50 state houses. Furthermore, the task of gerrymandering is more straightforward for Republicans, as Democratic voters are typically packed together in urban centres, while Republicans are usually spread out across states.
In a number of states, Republicans have engineered things so Democrats are sure to win just a few seats with massive majorities, while Republicans are favoured to capture far more by closer margins, for instance a 55% to 45% majority.
Further impeding the Democrats’ chances is the systematic and widespread strategy of voter suppression, which is typically utilised by Republicans to prevent likely Democrat voters, such as African Americans, from voting.
One particularly alarming example has been happening in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is attempting to become the country’s first female African American governor.
Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, also happens to be Georgia’s secretary of state. His office had been strictly enforcing a new law known as “exact match”, under which voter-registration applications are dismissed for absurdly minor discrepancies, such as missing hyphens or slightly mismatched signatures.
As was proven on the evening of November 8, 2016, while polls can show likelihoods, nothing is guaranteed. However, the polls currently suggest that the most likely outcome of these midterms is a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.
It seems likely the House will find grounds to impeach Trump. But, hold your breath – that would be only step one of a lengthy process.
Dismissal of a president requires 67 of 100 Senate votes, a threshold that makes such an event unlikely. Given the president’s propensity for mendacity, it will be intriguing to see whether he is able to avoid any perjury charges that might arise from Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. But again, such charges are unlikely to lead to his removal from office.
Yet who can say? Whatever the outcome on November 6, there is much about the future of US politics – and the global ramifications – that remains entirely unpredictable.
When G20 finance ministers met in Bali last week to review economic developments in the lead-up to the annual G20 summit, they could not ignore troubling signs in the global economy driven by concerns about an intensifying US-China trade conflict.
Last week’s slide in equities markets will have served as a warning – if that was needed – of the risks of a trade conflict undermining confidence more generally.
China’s own Shanghai index is down nearly 30% this year. This is partly due to concerns about a trade disruption becoming an all-out trade war.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde’s call on G20 participants to “de-escalate” trade tensions or risk a further drag on global economic growth might have resonated among her listeners in Bali, but it is not clear calls to reason are getting much traction in Washington these days.
Uncertainties caused by a disrupted trading environment are already having an impact on global growth. In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF revised growth down to 3.7% from 3.9% for 2018-19, 0.2 percentage points lower than forecast in April.
The IMF is predicting slower growth for the Australian economy, down from a projected 2.9% this year to 2.8% next year. The May federal budget projected growth of 3% for 2018-19 and the following year.
Adding to trade and other tensions between the US and China are the issues of currency valuations, and a Chinese trade surplus.
This comes amid persistent US complaints that Beijing has fostered a depreciation of the Yuan by about 10% this year to boost exports, which China denies.
These are perilous times in a global market in which the US appears to have shunned its traditional leadership role in favour of an internally-focused “America First” strategy.
So far, fallout from an increasingly contentious relationship between Washington and Beijing has been contained, but a near collision earlier this month between US and Chinese warships in the South China sea reminds us accidents can happen.
US Vice President Mike Pence’s speech last week to the conservative Hudson Institute invited this question when he accused of China of “malign” intent towards the US.
Are we seeing the beginning of a new cold war?
The short answer is not necessarily. However, a further deterioration in relations could take on some of the characteristics of a cold war, in which collaboration between Washington and Beijing on issues like North Korea becomes more difficult.
By any standards, Pence’s remarks about China were surprising. He suggested, for example, that Chinese meddling in American internal affairs was more serious than Russia’s interventions in the 2016 president campaign.
He accused Beijing of seeking to harm Republican prospects in mid-term congressional elections and Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. This was a reference to China having taken its campaign against US tariffs to newspaper ads in farm states like Iowa.
Soybean exports to China have been hit hard by retaliatory tariff measures applied by Beijing in response to a first round of tariffs levied by the US.
“China wants a different American president,” Pence said.
This is probably true, but it could also be said that much of the rest of the world – not to mention half of the US population – would like a different American president.
All this unsteadiness – and talk of a “new cold war” – is forcing an extensive debate about how to manage relations with the US and China in a disrupted environment that seems likely to become more, not less, challenging.
Australian academic debate, including contributions from various “think tanks”, has tended to focus on the defence implications of tensions in the South China Sea for Australia’s alliance relationship with the US.
This debate has narrowed the focus of Australia’s concerns to those relating to America’s ability – or willingness – to balance China’s regional assertiveness.
This assertiveness increasingly is finding an expression in China’s activities in the south-west Pacific, where Chinese chequebook – or “debt-trap” – diplomacy is being wielded to build political influence.
Australian policymakers have been slow to respond to China’s push into what has been regarded as Australia’s own sphere of influence.
Leaving aside narrowly-focused Australian perspectives, it might be useful to get an American view on the overarching challenges facing the US and its allies in their attempts to manage China’s seemingly inexorable rise.
Among American China specialists, few have the academic background and real-time government experience to match that of Jeffrey Bader, who served as President Barack Obama special assistant for national security affairs from 2009-2011.
In a monograph for the Brookings Institution published in September, Bader poses a question that becomes more pertinent in view of Pence’s intervention. He writes:
Ever since President Richard Nixon opened the door to China in 1972, it has been axiomatic that extensive interaction and engagement with Beijing has been in the US national interest.
The decisive question we face today is, should such broad-based interaction be continued in a new era of increasing rivalry, or should it be abandoned or radically altered?
The starkness of choices offered by Bader is striking. These are questions that would not have entered the public discourse as recently as a few months ago.
He cites a host of reasons why America and its allies should be disquieted by developments in China. These include its mercantilist trade policies and its failure to liberalise politically in the three decades since the Tiananmen protests.
However, the costs of distancing would far outweigh the benefits of engagement to no-one’s advantage, least of all American allies like Japan, India and Australia.
None of these countries, in Bader’s words, would risk economic ties with China nor join in a “perverse struggle to re-erect the ‘bamboo curtain’… We will be on our own”. He concludes:
American should reflect on what a world would be like in which the two largest powers are disengaged then isolated from, and ultimately hostile to each other – for disengagement is almost certain to turn out to be a way station on the road to hostility, he concludes.
Bader has been accused of proffering a “straw man argument’’ on grounds that the administration is feeling its way towards a more robust policy, and not one of disengagement. But his basic point is valid that Trump administration policies represent a departure from the norm.
At the conclusion of the IMF/World Bank meetings in Bali, Christine Lagarde added to her earlier warnings of “choppy” waters in the global economy stemming from trade tensions and further financial tightening. She said:
There are risks out there in the system and we need to be mindful of that…bIt’s time to buckle up.
That would seem to be an understatement, given the unsteadiness in the US-China relationship and global geopolitical strains more generally.
The Wentworth byelection will be held on October 20. A ReachTEL poll for independent Licia Heath’s campaign, conducted September 27 from a sample of 727, gave the Liberals’ Dave Sharma 40.6% of the primary vote, Labor’s Tim Murray 19.5%, independent Kerryn Phelps 16.9%, Heath 9.4%, the Greens 6.2%, all Others 1.8% and 5.6% were undecided.
According to The Poll Bludger, if undecided voters were excluded, primary votes would be 43.0% Sharma, 20.7% Murray, 17.9% Phelps, 10.0% Heath and 6.6% Greens. Compared to a September 17 ReachTEL poll for GetUp!, which you can read about on my personal website, primary vote changes were Sharma up 3.7%, Murray up 3.3%, Phelps down 4.8%, Heath up 5.6% and Greens down 6.0%. Phelps fell from second behind Sharma to third behind Murray and Sharma.
Between the two ReachTEL polls, Phelps announced on September 21 that she would recommend preferences to the Liberals ahead of Labor, backflipping on her previous position of putting the Liberals last. It is likely this caused her slump.
While more likely/less likely to vote a certain way questions always overstate the impact of an issue, it is nevertheless bad for Phelps that 50% of her own voters said they were less likely to vote for her as a result of the preference decision.
This ReachTEL poll was released by the Heath campaign as it showed her gaining ground. Heath appears to have gained from the Greens, and the endorsement of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore could further benefit her.
Despite the primary vote gain for Sharma, he led Murray by just 51-49 on a two candidate basis, a one-point gain for Murray since the September 17 ReachTEL. The Poll Bludger estimated Murray would need over three-quarters of all independent and minor party preferences to come this close to Sharma.
At the 2016 election, Malcolm Turnbull won 62.3% of the primary vote in Wentworth. While the Liberals’ primary vote in this poll is about 19% below Turnbull, it is recovering to a winning position.
Trump, Republicans gain in fight over Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation
On July 9, Trump nominated hard-right judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retiring centre-right judge Anthony Kennedy. The right currently has a 5-4 Supreme Court majority, but Kennedy and John Roberts have occasionally voted with the left. If Kavanaugh is confirmed by the Senate, it will give the right a clearer Supreme Court majority. Supreme Court judges are lifetime appointments.
Although Kavanaugh is a polarising figure, he looked very likely to be confirmed by the narrow 51-49 Republican majority Senate until recent sexual assault allegations occurred. Since September 16, three women have publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when he was a high school or university student.
On September 27, both Kavanaugh and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. On September 28, without calling additional accusers, the Committee favourably reported Kavanaugh by an 11-10 majority, with all 11 Republicans – all men – voting in favour.
However, after pressure from two Republican senators, the full Senate confirmation vote was delayed for a week to allow an FBI investigation. The Senate received the FBI’s findings on Thursday, and the investigation did not corroborate Ford. Democrats have labelled the report a “whitewash”, but it appears to have satisfied the doubting Republican senators, and Kavanaugh is very likely to be confirmed.
Since the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh began, Trump’s ratings in the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate have recovered to about a 42% approval rating, from 40% in mid-September. Democrats’ position in the race for Congress has deteriorated to a 7.7 point lead, down from 9.1 points in mid-September.
Midterm elections for all of the US House and 35 of the 100 Senators will be held on November 6. Owing to natural clustering of Democratic votes and Republican gerrymandering, Democrats probably need to win the House popular vote by six to seven points to take control.
While the House map is difficult for Democrats, the Senate is far worse. Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats and Republicans just nine, Five of the states Democrats are defending voted for Trump in 2016 by at least 18 points. Two polls this week in one of those big Trump states, North Dakota, gave Republicans double digit leads over the Democratic incumbent.
The FiveThirtyEight forecast models give Democrats a 74% chance of gaining control of the House, but just a 22% chance in the Senate.
Republican gains in the polls are likely due to polarisation over Kavanaugh. In a recent Quinnipiac University national poll, voters did not think Kavanaugh should be confirmed – by a net six-point margin – but Trump’s handling of Kavanaugh was at -7 net approval. Democrats led Republicans by seven points, and Trump’s overall net approval was -12. Kavanaugh was more unpopular than in the previous Quinnipiac poll, but Trump and Republicans were more popular.
The hope for Democrats is that once the Kavanaugh issue is resolved, they can refocus attention on issues such as healthcare and the Robert Mueller investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia. However, the strong US economy assists Trump and the Republicans.
In brief: contest between left and far right in Brazil, conservative breakthrough win in Quebec, Canada
The Brazil presidential election will be held in two rounds, on October 7 and 28. If no candidate wins over 50% in the October 7 first round, the top two proceed to a runoff.
The left-wing Workers’ Party has won the last four presidential elections from 2002 to 2014, but incumbent President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August 2016, and replaced by conservative Vice President Michel Temer.
Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad and far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro are virtually certain to advance to the runoff. Bolsonaro has made sympathetic comments about Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. Runoff polling shows a close contest.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, a conservative party won an election for the first time since 1966.