Sunday, November 20, 2011

The British are Coming (to U.S. Politics)!

A common refrain on this side of the water is that British politics are becoming inexorably more like their American counterpart across the sea (this, lest you think otherwise, is universally seen as a Bad Thing).  When people say this, they’re usually talking about the incursion of money into politics, the office of the Prime Minister becoming more Presidential, an increased showiness and personalisation, and the general disintegration of an elevated standard of debate that never existed into boorishness.

Some of this is indeed reasonable.  In the interests of fairness I’d hasten to point out that, given a mostly-united party and a parliamentary majority—something that can result from winning only about 35% of the popular vote—a Prime Minister has near-dictatorial powers and can run roughshod over the opposition in a way that Barack Obama can only dream about.

In other ways, I fear that politics in the U.S. are becoming more like British politics in some disturbing ways.  Until Britain’s most recent election (which put the ring-wing Conservative Party into government in coalition with the much smaller and more left-leaning Liberal Democrats—indeed, during much of the ‘00s, the Liberal Democrats were more social democratic than the Labour Party), British governments had never traded in coalitions and always worked with majorities.  This means that because there is only one real branch of government (the absurd House of Lords can only delay bills), one party governed, another one opposed, and several minor parties squeaked impotently.  It’s worth noting that one of these little parties is now roaring from Holyrood, much to the consternation of English politicians who fear that Alex Salmond, Britain’s savviest politician, is undercutting the stark choice they’ve placed before voters in the south.

This formula makes for oppositional politics and interesting television for those who might enjoy the spectre of two not-terribly-intelligent-sounding people hurling insults and accusations across the aisle at one another, every jibe, non-answer, and exercise of blatant pandering accompanied by cheers from one side of the House of Commons and boos from the other.  It means that when the government proposes something, the opposition reflexively criticises it.  It means that if there’s a foul-up in a government department, the opposition reflexively calls for the responsible minister’s resignation without stopping to think about whether an individual is responsible (as opposed to a structure, system or policy).  It means that for internal party reasons, due to ministerial foul-ups, and constant attempts to throw the other party off-guard, cabinet secretaries are constantly shuffled from one department to another, making a mockery of any sort of good governance or democratic governance, and putting a disturbing amount of power in the hands of unelected civil servants.  It has been suggested that Select Committees present a way around this slash and burn form of politics, but we’ve yet to see them exercise any real power over big decisions in government, and they fit uneasily into Britain’s constitutional make-up.

What this all means, though is that there is no room for shared responsibility, no room for a constructive conversation, and very little serious focus on policy. 

And we have seen more and more of this in U.S. politics recently.  Now understand...I’m not calling for the rise of political moderates, centrists or anything along those lines.  On the contrary, I think when people start fumbling around in search of this place called the “Centre”, bad things happen

But I’ve seen many calls for people involved with the Occupy and Tea Party movements to find common ground.  There’s no reason why, even if the two groups disagree on social issues for example, they shouldn’t combine their efforts to criticise corruption in the managing of our economy, or the cronyism that seems rampant between our government and financial sectors.  Or why libertarians on the right and progressives on the left shouldn’t join forces to try to bring an end to our wars in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.

This week there were two good examples of why this descent into oppositional politics (when our elections don’t even have the virtue of yielding clear winners and losers) will prove ruinous in November of next year.

Firstly, we learned that the DNC has apparently put in a request for Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts-era e-mails.  But they’re not interested in any policy questions or matters of serious public interest.  Rather, according to CNN, they are after e-mails associated with the following terms: ‘"delete emails," "flip-flop," "change position," "raise taxes and fees," "move to the right," and "ranked 47th in job creation”.’  Now if Mitt Romney and his people did indeed delete e-mails, that deserves investigating, and legal action.  But surely the DNC has better things to be doing.  It should be making substantive critiques.  It should spend some time actually figuring out what kind of society it envisions, and how it is going to argue for that.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC Chair, is the kind of figure who is a liability to the Democratic Party.  I don’t think party officials realise how bad they look when they spend their time putting out ads like this and this. Given a chance to develop a serious, pithy critique of Republican economic policy, Wasserman Schultz and her staff tend to respond like this.  I don’t think that people who live in the real world respond well to that kind of nonsense.

Next, we saw Newt Gingrich in action.  He accused the “so-called Occupy Wall Street Crowd” of being “destructive, hostile, [and] anti-civilization [...] They want to tear down our country, we love our country and we want to re-build our country, and that’s the difference”.  He went on to accuse them of perpetrating “violence against fellow Americans”.  CNN reported that Gingrich was interrupted by demonstrators, chanting “We are the 99 percent!”  While this might be an under-elaborated argument, it is a firm political statement.  Gingrich, typically, responded as though they were attacking the country: “There is no such thing in America as 99 percent. We are all 100 percent Americans.  We are all part of America”. 

Not only does this response, a typical right-wing reaction to criticism, pretend that what the demonstrators were arguing about was the extent to which anyone is 100% American (as stupid an argument as one could have), it seeks to deny all social and economic differences, arguing that anyone who says otherwise is anti-American, thus foreclosing serious debate.

The election in 2012 will be about who can scare their supporters the most.  We will see a huge surge of funds into Republican Party coffers from the irresponsible scions of the corporate world, unleashed by the Supreme Court, and their PACs like Rove’s Crossroads GPS launching vacuous attacks on Democrats.  We will see PACs like Priorities USA Action launching nasty ads that have nothing to do with critiquing the economic and social premises behind Republican Party policy.  Democrats are setting up an operation that I fear is designed to mimic Karl Rove’s amoral, nihilistic political machine.   

But they run the risk—I hope—of disgusting their supporters, too.  I certainly will not vote for Obama, and I will criticise him every chance I get.  I know that many Republicans feel similarly disenchanted with their party. 

But irrespective of dissatisfaction there is a price that will be paid.  No one will fight for the skeletal social democracy that currently exists in the U.S., never mind for its expansion.  The voices of individuals, who have no corporate ladder to stand on, will be steadily drowned out by the drumbeat of opposition politics.  The Occupy movement will face a serious challenge when it has to decide how to interact with the formal political sphere in the lead-up to elections in 2012.  But I hope that they can articulate some of the concerns and make some of the arguments that President Obama and his party have failed so miserably at in their rush to beat the Republican Party at their own nasty game, the only rule of which is to win at any cost, whether that cost be to democracy, one’s principles, or one’s supporters’ material welfare.

David Weigel wrote recently in Slate that he read Bill Clinton’s recent book, Back to Work, as an admission “that liberalism is basically over”.  I’d prefer to call it progressivism or social democracy, but I think he’s right.  The Democrats appear to be giving up on the few uncompromised ideals they had left.  Fortunately, just as they are holing the ship and readying their life rafts, the passengers have become aware that they’re headed for the rocks, and are preparing to make a collective journey to less morally-becalmed waters.

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