Tag Archives: US politics

The Oregon protest shows how different America is from Europe

What if a group of armed citizens seized a bird reserve in the Lake District and proclaimed their right to cut down trees and graze cattle on public land for free? It is actually unthinkable, on so many levels. And yet this is more or less what has happened as a militia group led by Ammon Bundy seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on 2 January. They’re still there, as the law enforcement agencies deal with them gently, letting pressure from local residents undermine the occupiers’ resolve. Such incidents are rare in the US, but not unthinkable, and that reveals a lot about the difference between our nations.

Of course Oregon is not like the Lake District. In the US West the Federal government owns huge tracts of land, and regulates, and charges for, its use by farmers and loggers and many others. In our National Parks the government places onerous regulations on private landowners. But that is even worse, probably, from the point of view of the Oregon protesters. They are building their case on an American idea that citizens should be self-sufficient, and that government agencies are violation of basic rights and freedoms.

That idea, of course, comes from America’s frontier history. Back in the 19th Century, and earlier, the settlers mostly did have to be self sufficient. The whole appeal of film dramas such as Westerns builds on this.  These frontiers have only formed a minority of the American nation, of course, and yet they command a special place in the American soul, for those of European (i.e. white) heritage. We may imagine how those of native American or African, and even Hispanic heritage work on a different version of how America came to be what it is. The European settlers came out to America to be free of oppressive governments. It is hardly a coincidence that movements like the Oregon protestors are white, and tend to have racist tinge.

Descendents of the Europeans who stayed behind have an utterly different outlook – though that racist tinge is there too, overlaid by an often intense nationalism, which has been subsumed by American nationalism in their descendents. For us government is part of our everyday lives. For some it represents the democratic will of the people; for others it a perhaps regrettable necessity. But we crave the order governments create, and feel that such things as welfare safety nets are part of what it means to be civilised.

And this is as true of the English as it is of their French and German cousins. Some English like to think that they are culturally apart from the rest of Europe (a delusion that their Scots compatriots in Britain tend not to share). We hear talk about common law and Anglo Saxon freedoms. And it is true that the English and British are different in many ways from other Europeans. But then so are the French, the Germans, the Danes, the Spanish, the Czechs, and so on. The idea that the British are uniquely different is a misconception. And a huge amount of history and culture binds us together as Europeans, and separates us from the United States in particular. Our attitude to the role of the state demonstrates that more clearly than anything else. Remember that many Americans feel that free ownership of military weapons is a fundamental right, and a vital protection. Europeans think that’s nuts.

That gulf between Europe and the US is clearly seen in US politics. Republican politicians only have point to Europe or Canada (which follows many European attitudes) to scare their supporters. To them these places are self evidently awful places to live in. Which puzzles, Europeans and Canadians profoundly. What is so wrong which lower levels of poverty, better health outcomes, longer holidays, and a lower chance of dying a violent death? We (and they) just don’t get it.

But two notes of caution for Europeans. First is that the US is not monolithic. I have already pointed out that many Americans do not share this anti-state vision – and the proportion of non-whites in the country is rising. That, perhaps, explains much of the violent polarisation in the country’s politics at present. Most Americans think that the Oregon protestors are crazies; that includes most people who live near Malheur. It’s always a good rule to avoid national generalisations; that is as true of Americans as it is of anybody else.

The second note of caution is that there is a positive side to this American idea of self-sufficiency, alongside its delusional aspect. It makes Americans more entrepreneurial and innovative. Americans can rightly point to their extraordinarily strong economic performance. And I think it helps to question what state agencies do and what they are for – though, I should add, I don’t think that US government agencies are any less inefficient than European ones.  Closer scrutiny does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

But personally, I am very comfortable in my European skin, much as I admire so much about America. And those Oregon protestors sum it up why quite nicely.


The slow suicide of Britain’s two party system. Only AV might have saved it

Two-party politics used to be the norm for developed democracies. Most countries’ politics were divided between tribal blocks based on the urban working class and on the aspirant middle classes. But the dominance of these two blocks has faded in most countries. There are two interesting exceptions: the USA and Australia. Here in Britain two-party politics looked as if it would triumph with the demise of the Liberal Democrat,s and the No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011. But now the system is its death throes.

It is worth considering the architecture of two party politics for a moment. Electoral politics is dominated by two political parties, each of which may govern on its own, without the need for support from smaller parties in coalitions or pacts. Each of these parties has a tribal character, defining themselves as much in opposition to the other as by their own core values. But there is an undeniable class base two. This divides the country into heartlands, where one or other of the parties dominates to the exclusion of all others, and marginal territory, contested by both parties, where elections are won and loss. Many, if not most, politicians build their own careers in the heartlands, where advancement depends on internal party politics, rather than winning over marginal voters. This leads to the system’s major flaw – the political classes are more worried about their own backyard and internal politics than in appealing to the electorate at large. Or they worry about marginal voters to the exclusion of the heartlands. Distance between voters and politicians grows.

The breakdown of this system follows the weakening of class loyalties from the 1960s onwards. New parties have emerged, from the liberal centre, from populist anti-political movements, from environmentalists, and from parties based on regional identity. In much of Europe coalitions became commonplace. Electoral systems played an important role. Those with proportional representation (PR) were the first to find that one party could not govern on its own. But in countries with single member constituencies one party could still aspire to win on its own. France’s two-round system promoted pacts and alliances between parties, and the major blocks split into separate parties – before the whole system started to be challenged by the populist Front National. Countries with First Past the Post (FPTP) systems have placed a greater role on party solidarity. But in New Zealand disillusion with two-party politics led to the introduction of PR; in Canada each of the two party blocks suffered existential crises that allowed more modern alternatives to replace them, at least in part. Australia’s AV system seems to have entrenched the two party system there, however. I will come back to that.

In the biggest and oldest developed-world democracy of them all, however, the two party system remains completely dominant. In the USA there is no alternative to the Republicans or Democrats, although the occasional challenge comes and goes – even as more and more voters self-describe as Independent. But the US system of democracy is unique. Apart from the widespread use of FPTP (some states use a two round system – which is why the Louisiana Senate race is not yet over after this month’s nationwide election), I think there are three, inter-related factors: primary elections, decentralised  power, and direct executive elections. Each party’s candidates are selected using primary elections which include much more than official party members. Such elections are part of the formal, state electoral process. Voters may register as Democrat or Republican. This allows them to take part in publicly-run primaries; in some states primaries are open – any voter can take part. That makes heartland elections competitive – and not a matter of manipulating small groups of insiders to secure your party’s nomination. It helps that each party’s national leadership is weak – so wheeler-dealing in Washington will not help a political career by much. This is a function of a system where much of the power is wielded at state level. One of the factors that keeps party functionaries weak is the prominence of direct executive elections, notably for President and state governors. In these cases personality often matters more than tribal allegiance.

It is an interesting paradox – for the two party system to be robust, the party leaderships must not be too strong. This allows the primary system to flourish, and gives outsiders a chance to break into politics. But party solidarity is important enough for those in power to rig the system to provide incumbent politicians with electorally safe seats through the gerrymandering of boundaries. A diminishing proportion of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive between the two blocks. A large proportion of the important politics is now in the tribal heartlands, and not in marginal territory. As a result of this, it would not be right to describe the state of politics in the USA as healthy. There is increasing polarisation, which is causing deadlock and the prospect of extremist policies. Most Americans seem fed up with the state of politics in their country, though not necessarily with the system itself.

Another case study in the survival of two-party politics is Australia. Politics is divided between two long-standing political blocks: Labor and the Liberal party, though the latter is a coalition of state parties (some of which refer to themselves as National or Country). There have been challenges to this duopoly over the years, but these have not made headway. No doubt there a number of factors that have contributed to this – but I think one factor is critical. And this is the AV electoral system. The legislature comprises single-member constituencies, and there is a single election day. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not achieve more than 50% of the votes casts, the lower ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed. This is a bit like the French two round run-off system, except that with a single election day there is little scope for political deal making over second preferences. It is so important for candidates to maximise first preferences that it best not to talk too much about second preferences.

This makes it very hard for challengers to win seats. First their first preferences have to overhaul one or other of the two main parties. But to do so they cannot say “vote for me to keep the other guy out”, because that is an argument for second preference votes, not first. Second preference votes are useless without sufficient first preferences. And then, of course, you must have sufficient first and second preference votes to get a majority. In marginal seats challengers will be beaten by the lack of first preferences; in heartland seats there will be lack of second preference votes. As a result almost all seats go to one or other of the blocks. In 2013 in order to turn out a lacklustre Labor government, voters opted for a Liberal one that is now pushing forward a series of extremist policies on the environment and immigration.

So what of Britain? For a long time the main challenge to the two party system came from the Liberal Democrats, based in the liberal centre. It was skilful in winning seats under FPTP by establishing a local base, and then winning tactical votes from the weaker of the two blocks. This allowed it to win a substantial block of parliamentary seats in 1997, but not the balance of power until 2010. It then entered coalition with the Conservatives. And then disaster struck – the transition from a protest party to one of government was too much for the voters, and its poll ratings collapsed. Labour and Tory politicians breathed a sigh of relief – normal two-party politics could be resumed.

Ironically, in view of the Australian experience, the Lib Dems placed some hope by proposing to change Britain’s FPTP system to AV. This would have helped the party in the short term, where it had built up a sufficient local base to win second place in first preference votes. Both major parties agreed with the Lib Dem analysis, and for that reason opposed the change (Labour through faint praise rather than explicit opposition). In a referendum on the change in 2011 an overwhelming majority opposed AV. This seemed to secure the future of two-party politics.

But unlike the US, Britain’s politics is highly centralised. Party managers in Westminster like to keep a tight grip on their parties. And, again unlike the US, executives are elected indirectly, and candidates must master the internal politics of their own party in order to progress to high office. The idea of primary elections has not been allowed to gain traction. The Tories have moved small steps towards it, but without being able to harness state resources. The public has no way to channel its disillusion with politics than to vote for insurgent parties – since they are denied a role in the main party elections. And this they have been doing by supporting the populist Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Unlike the Lib Dem challenge, these insurgencies have affected the main parties’ heartland voters. They are creating unbearable pressures with both party blocks. The Conservative and Labour leaders try both to fend off the insurgent challenge, and to retain the political centre – and as a result both appear weak, driven by events rather than leading them. This is creating unbearable strains and it seems likely both will fracture, especially if they have to endure the pressures of being in government. Labour face calamity in Scotland, as the SNP overturn their heartlands. In England Labour are a fragile coalition of public sector unions, liberal centrists and heartland machine politicians; each’s expectations of the party seems completely incompatible. The Tories look likely to fracture over Europe.

Ironically, if both parties had embraced AV, they would have been in a stronger position to fend off the insurgents and maintain party solidarity. And yet this is just another face of a bigger problem that both party’s face. their obsession with winning the next election has meant a loss of strategic focus. The demise of the two party system looks alarming, as fringe parties gain prominence. But in the long term it is to be welcomed. As the USA and Australia shows, a two-party system is too easily captured by political extremes.



Can the Republican tide in the US be reversed? Maybe not.

I hate to comment on the politics of other countries. I know more than most British about the US political scene, but I’m no expert. Still, wider lessons about the process of politics can be seen from the US. And they are rather worrying.

As a liberal I root for the Democrats in the US elections – though their record on some issues, such as business regulation and education is not good. So the scale of their defeat in this year’s mid-terms was a shock: not just in the Senate, but in state gubernatorial contests too. I had subscribed to a rather optimistic theory: that where California goes, so the rest of the US follows. In California the Republicans did very well, until, one day they didn’t. And then it was all over. They were overwhelmed by demographic trends – especially the rise of the Hispanic population. They had so misused their period in power that they had damaged their brand beyond repair to those outside their diminishing band of natural supporters.

So perhaps 2014 is their high water mark, as was the Pete Wilson governorship in California , which ended in 1999? Alas I fear not: Republican strategy and tactics seem far to solid for that. These elections were revealing. Republican success was largely driven by low turnout. Younger voters, and those from minority groups, failed to turn up to vote. That seems to be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy. This is achieved through relentless negative campaigning that has poisoned the political process. Their opponents go in for negative campaigns too, but they lose more from the diminishing reputation of politicians as a whole. Republican politicians are not well regarded by the US public. They just keep winning.

The insidious thing is that the Republicans are using their short-term successes to rig the democratic process in their favour. This is conspicuous in three ways. First, Republican governors have gerrymandered Congressional districts so that they can win comfortably in the House of Representatives even if they lose the popular vote – as happened in 2012. Second, Republican sympathising justices in the Supreme Court have destroyed attempts to regulate campaign finance – in the guise of supporting free speech. This includes the ludicrous proposition that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. This unlocks the door to vast quantities of money from billionaires, like the Koch brothers, who want to impose their rather bizarre world view on voters, and to fund all that negative campaigning. There is already well-funded right wing news media. Third, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, in the guise of limiting electoral fraud. This is aimed especially at blacks. These ratchet up a series of advantages for the right. There is no sign that they might be reversed.

Of course, the success of the right is not just because of the malign influence of shadowy billionaires corrupting the political process. They have a well-motivated core group of supporters, who hold to a strong series of myths about the American way. This core, with strong conservative religious attitudes, a hatred of central government and taxes, and a belief in American exceptionalism, make American politics a very strange place to Europeans, including us British. This core support can’t be taken for granted by political leaders, as the “Tea Party” rebellion has shown – but there is no equivalent on the left or liberal wing of US politics.

So it does not take a huge amount of paranoia to picture a Republican strategy. The rising anti-Republican demographic groups find it more difficult to vote, or find that their vote affects the outcome little. They grow frustrated, but generalise their frustration to the entire political process and political class, and this leads to political apathy. Meanwhile the right consolidates its control over the whole process.

What can go wrong? Over-reach by the right can lead to a backlash, which in turn leads to electoral upsets in areas that are less easy to rig – such as the Presidency and the Senate. This happened under the Presidency of George Bush Junior – when many Republicans thought that they had won for good, and the feeding frenzy of their corporate friends became so conspicuous that the public were motivated to vote against it. Republicans may lack the discipline to avoid that mistake again. In due course the left might reform itself into a more coherent and robust political movement that will overcome the increasingly rigged electoral system and media.

Does it matter? The irony is that the conventional wisdom on the political economy is shifting steadily leftwards. The ideology of laissez-faire and small government that took off in the 1980s has run its course. Increasingly it seems that a healthy economy needs more taxes and a bigger role for government. Republicans want to take their country in the opposite direction. This will simply feed the crisis of capitalism, not resolve it. The American economy will start to fall apart. Also the tendency of Americans to use world politics as an extension of domestic politics will only get worse. American bullying plays well at home, but is counterproductive in its actual effects. A properly engaged, constructive role for the world’s only superpower is less likely. And climate-change denial seems to be one of the core beliefs of the right – this will make global progress harder – though a failing US economy will offset this somewhat. Ultimately, this attempt by the right to reverse the tide of history is the most likely cause of its failure in the long term – but it could take a decade or more.

Are their further political lessons? The American political system is unique. Two party politics is deeply entrenched, and the electoral system promotes it. But it can lead to what amounts to minority government, and it can be captured by extremes. In Australia we have seen this too: disappointment with a lacklustre left of centre administration has led to the capture of the government by the wayward right.

Britain may escape this fate. The wayward right is progressively taking over the Conservative Party. But many of the wayward millionaires that are behind this trend have lost patience, and are supporting the Ukip insurgency instead. This is ruining the chances of a takeover of the right – though a weak Labour leadership means that we can’t rule this out. Ironically the rejection by the right of electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Vote (the system in Australia) is probably a shot in the foot. This naturally tends to push politics into a duopoly, as the Australian experience shows. Now electoral chaos is likely to discredit First Past the Post, and any reform is likely to towards proportional representation.

The multi-party, proportional model of politics has its faults. But increasingly it seems to be a better direction to take – it is less open to capture by the extremes. I hope that Britain will follow that path.




The US election -why does the world hate the Republicans?

I do not advise citizens of other countries how to vote.  It’s very bad manners.  But there’s something very striking about viewing today’s US elections from outside that country: how few foreigners support the Republicans.

This is unsurprising amongst my own contacts and Facebook friends – they are largely Liberal Democrats, with the odd Labour supporter.  In the US these would be well within the Democrat family, with an outlok that largely fits the American understanding of the term “liberal”, a dirty word to Republicans.  But a number of opinion polls show that support for the Democrats is widespread right across the world.  In this instance Britain is very much at one with the rest of Europe, rather than part of some Anglo-Saxon block that some Britons suppose exists.

It is not immediately obvious why this should be so.  It is true that Republicans are generally more socially conservative that those outisde America, or those that are politically aware, anyway…but that really is the Americans’ own private business.  Mitt Romney is a perfectly intelligent and plausible presidential candidate, when looked at objectively, with much much more experience in getting things done than has Barack Obama, in the public sphere as well as in business.  Furthermore, the Republicans believe in strong U.S. armed forces, something that the rest of the world has been free-riding off for a long time, though we might not like to admit it.

So what’s the problem? Perhaps it is economics.  The Republican attitude to the US financial state defies mathematics – to think that its massive fiscal deficit and national debt can be tackled without rasing taxes.  But I’m not sure how much people in other countries understand this debate.  Something deeper does lie behind it though: the belief that the state should provide a minimal social safety net if anything.  The idea of a welfare state is pretty much consensus in Europe, so this is a clash.  Republican Americans are convinced that Europe is a basket case as a result – though things look different to us.  To the extent that we think about the US, we would worry about the breakdown of social cohesion as a proportion of the population gets stuck in an underclass.  But I don’t know how troubled Europeans are about this really.  And non-Europeans may well be more sympathetic to the Republican view on this.

I think there is soemthing bigger going on.  We associate the Republicans with a particular world view that combines a sense that the US has a wider mission in the world with an almost wilful ignorance of what is actually going on.  Many Americans feel that it has carte blanche to interfere in other countries’ affairs to protect their interests and advance their view of civilisation.  But that does not seem to imply making any attempt to understand the complexities of what is happening in the rest of the world: simply dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. Everybody will have some example of how this paradox has led to injustice and suffering.  It might be George Bush’s “War on Terror”, or the Iraq war and, especially, its aftermath.  Or else it is an unquestioning support for Israeli government policies, on little more than the idea that they are “people like us”…a situation that is drawing the world ever closer to a war with Iran.

Democrats get credit for trying a bit harder to understand to understand and respect the rest of the world.  Bill Clinton and Mr Obama stand in clear contrast to George Bush Junior.  Mr Romney’s campaign has not reassured non-Americans that he is any better than Mr Bush – though I personally believe he is head and shoulders above him.

There is an asymmetry about all this.  America appears on our TV screesn and cinemas every day.  American news is world news.  A lot of people outside America feel that they know about America, even if they actually know a lot less than they think.  But it is not true the other way around.  Few Americans seem to care about the world outside their country, except to the extent that it is a nest of vipers posing a threat to their wellbeing.  Fewer still will care what the rest of the world thinks about their election.

And yes, I too hope that Mr Obama will win, though I’m not as scared as many are of Mr Romney.  I also hope that the Democrats will hang on to the Senate, and do well in the House of Representatives.  Except that a small part of me wants the Republicans to win all three elections, and so have nowhere to hide from the impossibility of their policies, so that a t last America can start to move on.