Thursday, July 26, 2012

Money, Politics, and Question Time

The character of Obama’s frequent swoops through the Bay Area have proven one thing beyond all doubt: that money is fast becoming the defining feature of political participation in our country.  Nowhere is this truer than California.  Our state is serving as an ATM for both Presidential candidates, and their interaction with voters is increasingly restricted to that small circle which can afford to write those big checks. 

The San Francisco Chronicle details Obama and Romney’s latest foray into campaigning for cash, outlining not only the $50,000 per plate luncheons (Romney) and $4,277 per minute speeches (Obama), but also the sharp restrictions which are imposed on the press, and the scripted nature of the contact.  Based on the dollar amount, Romney remains the more inaccessible of the two by a long way: the cheapest ticket at his cheapest ‘event’ was $2,500 at the Fairmont in San Francisco; for Obama, it was $100 at Oakland’s Fox Theater, site of Governor Jerry Brown’s most recent ascension. 

Of course I shouldn’t feel too left out...I can still read all about it all in the next day’s Chronicle.  But what we miss is the opportunity to hold our representatives to account.

There is a television programme on the BBC, called Question Time, which I occasionally watch.  It consists of a panel of five or so politicians and other public figures.  The three main (British) parties are generally represented, plus occasionally members of smaller parties, public intellectuals and academics, journalists, cultural figures, and other news-makers.  There is an audience and a moderator.  The moderator (the venerable David Dimbleby, due for retirement) calls on members of the audience, who ask their questions.  By and large, these are intelligent questions, generally informed by the state of the country and the world in that particular week.

This is not, it must be said, a shy and retiring audience, but one which is encouraged to express itself.  And it does.  Members are allowed follow-up questions, they hiss, they heckle, they boo, they cheer, they clap.  Members of the panel quiz each other, launch barbed put-downs, heckle one another, heckle the moderator, prevaricate, hide under the table, and so on.  Even Dimbleby throws a few patrician elbows.  The panellists are high-profile people: cabinet ministers, party leaders, opposition politicians. 

Question Time is part theatre.  But it’s more than that.  On one level its idealistic premise—that even in the face of global financial, military, and other forces, ordinary people can participate actively and effectively in politics—is cheesy.  And indeed, some weeks are boring, and nobody gets seriously heckled and there are no serious revelations.  Sometimes it’s all slogans, talking points and cheap shots.

But sometimes it works.  And when it does, it’s magical.  The show has generated politically defining moments, most of them not anything necessarily to do with what the politicians say of their own accord, but because of a spirited, pointed intervention by an audience member, or the mass reaction of the audience to a particularly ridiculous or ill-considered statement by a member of the panel.  Sometimes (even through the make-up) you can see the blood drain from a politician’s face when an irate Briton stands up and takes him or her to task, always passionately, occasionally even eloquently. 

The show’s other wonderful feature is that it’s not in binary.  The Liberal Democrats (Britain’s third largest party, and one which is currently in coalition with the Conservative Party) probably benefited a great deal from the exposure they received from being allowed to participate frequently.  The leader of Scotland’s Nationalist Party is a frequent guest.  You’ll get veteran left-wing trade unionist supporters as well as the editors of the most rabidly-right wing rags in town.  The leader of a fascist party had a turn on the show (and probably wishes he hadn’t), and the leader of the Green Party (now represented in Parliament by the way) has appeared.  It’s incredibly refreshing, coming from the U.S., to see a participatory program that actually includes a broad spectrum of views. 

Watch it, if you can.  There’s even a ‘Greatest Hits’ video buried somewhere on the site.*

But what does this have to do with the 2012 campaign in the United States?

Democrats campaigning in the Bay Area should be in their element.  It mixes high-earners packing political and economic clout with a vibrant grassroots progressivism that is probably unmatched in the country.  But parts of Obama’s grand tour, credit card in hand, were in danger of being overshadowed by the protesters who took to the streets, particularly in Oakland, to call him out on a wide range of issues.  Clearly people from his side of the spectrum are dissatisfied with the President.  But Obama doesn’t have to answer them. 

Sure, he can sit in the Fox Theater and allude to the protests outside (and to those of us who will protest in November by leaving our ballots blank or voting for a ‘third party’) in passing, but he has total control of the situation.  There’s no risk for the President, he remains unaccountable, no one gets to shout him down or ask him a tough question, or follow up when he fails to answer the tough question.  They can clap, but they can’t hiss.  Moments of dissension are dealt with quickly and efficiently.  And it’s the same for Romney when the SUVs or limos or campaign buses whisk him past the people who’d like to ask him about those tax returns, or the corporations to which he sends birthday wishes, or when exactly he retired from Bain Capital, or why he thinks honest people should suffer when the ‘free market’ leaves them out in the cold.

Obama and Romney, here as with their dabbling in censorship, are trying to take the risk, the spontaneity, and the democracy out of our politics.  Our politics are no longer participatory in any meaningful sense of the word.  Voters have become props and backdrop material for television ads and news segments which are then manipulated. 
Some will say that our politics were never meant to be participatory, that we should quietly elect our representatives and let them get on with things, let them have the debate.  And indeed, that might reflect the intentions of some of our founders and the desires of the corporate interests which dominate the field of governance today, but it is a poor reflection on our civil society if we allow ourselves to be sidelined in our own country in the practise of our own politics.  Some have suggested that ‘social media’ is the best way of ‘taking back’ our politics, but political campaigns have proved as adept at manipulating this media form, and people as inattentive in acting on its revelations, as any other mode of contact.  I think what we need is a less quiescent electorate and a more responsive political leadership.  The ensuing conversation should include a wider array of actors than currently participate.  Could Question Time serve as a model for one method of reinvigorating our politics?

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* John McCain once suggested the introduction of something akin to Prime Minister’s Questions in the U.S. (an institution whereby opposition leaders and backbenchers from all parties have half an hour to question to the Prime Minister each week).  This would be a bad idea on several counts.  First, if you’re after public accountability, it would be like setting the fox to guard the hen coop, the poacher to protect the game park, or the capitalist to regulate the markets.  Secondly, John Boehner couldn’t make it through a question without crying, and even if he did, the reflection from his unnatural tan would turn the proceedings into one big glare for television viewers.  But mostly because PMQs is a total farce which achieves nothing in the way of accountability—it consists of 600, party-disciplined, certifiable lunatics locked in a room screaming mostly lies and insults at one another like children.  In the British case it is made marginally less unbearable by the fact that many members of Parliament can speak in complete sentences and are often quite witty.  Members of the United States Congress posses none of these partially-redeeming features.  Question Time, by contrast, involves the public and is much less scripted. 

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