US election 2012: Justin Webb on America’s stark choice

"Someone called this election '50 shades of grey without the sex'. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Stay up all night"

Social networks? Pah: once again, in America as in Britain in 2010, it’s the telly wot won it, or at least shaped it. An American election campaign that had got nowhere – no real change in the polls throughout the summer – took off when the presidential debates started. And this week we will get the result.


Should we stay up all night? The temptation will be to go to bed; to note that the debates were fun but for the most part the campaign has revealed little about concrete policy, and to leave the Americans to their choice.

Don’t sleep through this. Because, seriously, this night matters. It’s all too easy for us to look at the election campaign and yawn, or grimace, or both; too easy for us to think that because this is not a historic battle that ends in an arresting change personified by the candidate – the first black man or the first woman or the first gay atheist (that last one is still a few years off ) – that somehow it does not count for much.

It counts for plenty. On offer is as stark a choice as Americans have faced in modern times: a choice that could lead them on an adventure that will have an impact on us for decades to come.

And it’s not the foreign policy that will affect us – it’s the domestic changes that could remold America, and us. The world’s richest nation, whose culture still dominates much of the globe, has reached a fork in the road. The route it takes will have a million consequences.

If Mitt Romney wins, his Republican party will almost certainly keep control of the House of Representatives, where US budgets are signed off, and they might win the Senate as well, giving them a clean sweep of Washington power bases.

The conventional wisdom is that Romney would be cautious. I’m not so sure. The pressure from his party will be for power to be used. What that means is a re-ordering of the modern welfare state; medical care for elderly and poor people will be made a matter of personal responsibility or farmed out to the States to deal with. Obama’s changes in medical insurance would be repealed, and in theory, via changes to the Supreme Court as justices retire or die, the old issue of abortion could be re-raised, with the nationwide right that has existed since the early 1970s taken away.

America would begin to feel even more removed from Europe. But it is not just a Romney victory that would change America. Because Barack Obama has a secret weapon. At the end of this year, if the Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on a new tax and spending package, a set of automatic measures must come into effect: the fiscal cliff, they call it. It is quite dramatic: big rises in taxation and big cuts in spending, particularly military spending.

The conventional wisdom is that the politicians reach a temporary bad-tempered arrangement and agree to fight about it later. What if Obama, newly re-elected, does not play ball? What if he allows the nation to fall off the cliff (blaming his intransigent opponents) and takes the consequences? Those consequences would be profound – there’d be a sudden rise in taxation, particularly of wealthier people, that would be inconceivable in any other circumstances. And a sudden cut in defence spending, similarly unachievable by other means.

Bingo! Obama has a pathway, not to a socialist state as some of his wilder opponents allege, but to a nation that looks more like, well, us. Will he seize this opportunity? There are downsides (a big short-term hit to an already faltering economy is one), but the up-side for him is the chance to do what he wanted: to be transformational.

Someone called this election “50 shades of grey without the sex”. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Stay up all night.

Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4. 


Coverage of US Election Night 2012 begins tonight at 11:35pm on BBC1