Archive for the ‘Agonism’ Category

The end of UKIP?

24/08/2016

A piece questions the future of UKIP, “THE past couple of months have hardly been an advertisement for the competence of British politicians. Yet few blunders have been as avoidable as that made by Steven Woolfe, an MEP for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who on July 31st submitted his application for the party leadership 17 minutes late. He blamed a malfunctioning website for failing to accept his papers (others pointed out that he might have had more luck had he not waited until 25 minutes before the midday deadline to apply). Mr Woolfe had spoken of the need to “professionalise” the party. On August 3rd UKIP’s governing body ruled that he would not be allowed to stand in the contest. Mr Woolfe had been the front-runner; his exclusion leaves a field of six, and many possible paths for the insurgent party”.

It continues, “After the Brexit vote, which it was instrumental in helping to win, UKIP should be on a roll. Instead, it has reverted to its favourite pastime of infighting. One faction, which includes the outgoing leader, Nigel Farage, argues that the party should focus on winning seats in northern England and Wales by appealing to disaffected, working-class Labour voters. Mr Woolfe, a mixed-race former barrister who grew up in a tough part of Manchester, had seemed perfect for the job, combining a hard line on immigration with talk of improving social mobility. His supporters may now shift to Diane James, the party’s deputy chair, who has stronger support in the south.  Another camp wants to make the party more emollient in the hope of appealing to moderate voters. It includes Douglas Carswell, the party’s sole MP, who criticised the “angry nativism” of some Brexiteers during the referendum. This group seems to have united behind Lisa Duffy, a local councillor from Cambridgeshire. Yet for all the talk of contrasting visions for the party, the split is really about personal differences, says Matthew Goodwin, a UKIP expert at Kent University. Indeed, Ms Duffy, the supposed moderate candidate, recently said that she supported a “total ban” on Muslim state schools”.

The article mentions that “First, Mr Farage and his supporters will seek to change how UKIP works. In a recent article for Breitbart, a right-wing news website, Mr Farage described the party’s high command as “total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks, to attend [party] meetings that normally last seven hours”. He and others have been considering adopting a decentralised model in which party members have more say—similar to that of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement—for the past year or so, says Mr Goodwin. It is likely they will try to push ahead with such plans now. If that fails, a split could be on the cards. One former aide to Mr Farage, writing on Facebook the night before Mr Woolfe’s exclusion, vowed to “declare full-scale war on UKIP” if Mr Woolfe was blocked from running. Arron Banks, a prominent donor, tweeted that Mr Woolfe’s exclusion would be “the final straw”. Some have suggested that a new party could be created from the remains of the Leave.EU campaign, which Mr Banks founded and to which he gave £6m ($8m) during the referendum”.

It ends “Despite its achievements, which include winning 12.6% of the vote in last year’s general election, UKIP has never had much institutional ballast. During the 2010 election campaign its then-leader, Lord Pearson, admitted when quizzed on the party’s manifesto: “I haven’t remembered it all in detail.” If the popular Mr Farage were to leave UKIP, many of its members might follow suit. Yet he and his supporters will surely be loth to abandon a brand they have spent years building. The squabbling has only just begun”.

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Changing ideology

10/05/2016

An interesting article argues the traditional ideological questions are disappearing with dangerous consequences for democracy, “This year’s U.S. presidential election is pretty extraordinary. Who would have possibly predicted the stunning rise of Donald Trump and the shrewdly calculated provocations of Bernie Sanders? But the United States isn’t the only place where the politics of liberal democracy have taken an unexpected turn. Just read Pierre Briançon’s sharp take in Politico Europe on the recent collapse of Europe’s traditional left-wing parties. He makes a compelling case that they’ve hit rock bottom. The dismal economic situation, the challenge of terrorism, and the refugee crisis all pose problems to which Europe’s traditional leaders — and, above all, those on the Left — have no coherent answers. As a result, he concludes, “The European Left often looks divided into two camps: One loses elections, the other doesn’t seem interested in winning them.” True enough. And yet the European Right isn’t doing itself any favours either”.

The piece adds “As British journalist Freddy Gray points out in the Spectator, traditional conservatives are also in disarray. “Everywhere you look, in country after country, batty nationalists are winning and conservative pragmatists are running scared,” he writes. “The victory on [April 25] of Austria’s Freedom party candidate, Norbert Hofer, who likes to carry a gun, is just the latest in a series of gains for this new right-wing populism.” The new generation — which includes Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage — has knocked establishment conservatives for a loop”.

Yet the problem with this is the definition of these people as “traditional conservatives”. Traditional conservatives seek to slow change rather than accelerate it. They are sceptical of human nature and thus grand projects. Thus, the worship of deregulation and the free market are not “traditional conservative” principles. Furthermore the notion of the organic society has been lost leading to ignoring the poor with no thought given to the moral or social consequences for the state’s withdrawal. 

The piece adds “Gray notes that Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party mayor of London, has begun positioning himself as a kind of Trump-in-waiting. Johnson aims to undermine his rival (and, technically, boss — as head of the same party), Prime Minister David Cameron, who is desperately working to stave off a potentially disastrous defeat in next month’s referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. In case you haven’t been following the Brexit controversy, Johnson wants the U.K. to leave, while Cameron wants it to remain. That divide, which appears to be growing increasingly bitter, reaches all the way down through their party. Just like Republicans in the United States, British Conservatives are — to quote Gray — “tearing [themselves] apart.” Even as political conflict intensifies, there’s a sense that the old ideological divides are breaking down”.

Importantly the author notes “We still categorise our politicians as “right” or “left,” usually without remarking that this is a distinction that dates back to the French Revolution. Yet the “conservative” Trump, who spent much of his life flirting with Democrats, doesn’t look at all like someone intent on preserving the status quo. He’s an aggressive insurgent, openly waging war on his own party even as he dumps its once-sacrosanct principles of free trade and open borders. (Which perhaps helps to explain why American über-conservative Charles Koch recently hinted that Hillary Clinton might make a better president than The Donald. After all, she started off as a Goldwater Republican, and she has shifted positions so many times since that it’s hard to tell what she really believes.) For his part, Trump even has admiring words for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — a weakness he shares with his European counterparts like Farage, Le Pen, and Orban. For 20th-century conservatives, defending freedom was the sine qua non, the indispensable belief. Now it’s an accessory”.

The author rightly notes “Indeed, some of these profoundly un-conservative conservatives openly flirt with authoritarianism and racism in ways that would have appalled their Christian Democrat ancestors who helped build the EU in the decades after World War II. Needless to say, those pro-European conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s were motivated by an all-too-fresh awareness of where such flirtations could lead. Orban has candidly expressed his preference for “illiberal democracy” of the sort supposedly embodied by Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If Orban were to make good on his statement by rolling back Hungary’s democratic institutions, that would amount to a revolution from the Right, not a conservative defense of the status quo. Meanwhile, amid a refugee crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Muslims transit through Hungary, Orban has boosted his political profile by describing himself as a stalwart defender of Europe’s “Christian values” — at a time when Europeans are more secular than they’ve ever been. Meanwhile, Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” though neither he nor his fans seem to have a very clear understanding of what the term means. Historically, socialists were the people who believed that the state should own the means of production, or at least control the “commanding heights” of the economy. Sanders’s vague promises of free college education or moves to “break up the banks” are thin gruel by comparison. He may love to rant about Goldman Sachs, but even he’s never proposed nationalising it”.

The piece goes on to mention “It’s particularly ironic that Sanders has assumed the socialist mantle just at the moment when his European counterparts, whom he often holds up as models, are abandoning it. As Briançon points out in his article about the malaise of the European Left, “Politicians such as France’s reformist economy minister Emmanuel Macron hardly hide the contempt they have for a bureaucratic party system where the traditional notions of ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ have lost their significance.” Meanwhile, Britain’s Labour Party finds itself embroiled in a controversy over anti-Israel remarks — some of them with clear anti-Semitic overtones — made by leading functionaries. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to OK an independent inquiry into allegations that his party abides intolerance. Surely nothing shows how far the party has drifted away from its original values of internationalism than this”.

The report notes “The Labour scandal is all too indicative of the general confusion in which we now find ourselves. The old ideological poles of Left and Right once reflected an important social reality, the fundamental divide between the industrial and agricultural working class and the people who ordered them around. Western societies are no longer so straightforwardly organized. The number of people who work on assembly lines and farms has diminished sharply and will continue to do so. The trade union movement, once the backbone of left-wing political parties, has faded. Many members of the modern underclass perform services rather than making things. Manufacturing is steadily becoming the province of small and highly trained elites. Is a Google programmer better represented by the Left or Right? What about a farmer who depends on federal subsidies? Or a super-skilled worker who assembles sophisticated medical equipment? Is someone who works at a peer-to-peer lender a member of the ruling capitalist class? Class distinctions obviously still exist, but they’re far more complicated than they used to be. Today’s big political challenges — gay marriage, Black Lives Matter, the integration of Muslim immigrants — often turn on culture as much as economics. Over the past few decades, both American Democrats and British Labourites have defined themselves as the defenders of the minorities produced by increasingly multicultural societies — only to discover that their old core constituency, the white working class, has turned away, shifting its loyalties to the Trumps and the Farages. But the intellectual blurriness of those new populists, whose popularity owes more to tribalism and gut feeling than coherent programs, leads one to wonder whether they’ll really manage to come up with better answers”.

He ends “What we’re seeing right now, throughout the West, is a political system that is lagging dramatically behind these complicated social realities. (“Is the U.S. Ready for Post-Middle-Class Politics?” one recent headline from the New York Times Magazine asked.) I’m not sure what the answer is. But the problem is definitely attracting attention. A conservative think-tanker proposes coming up with a new name for capitalism. (Good luck with that!) An academic calls for the creation of an American social democratic party — a suggestion that, given the stagnation of Europe’s social democrats, feels a lot like a 19th-century response to 21st-century problems. Yet another public intellectual suggests the founding of an entirely new “Innovation Party,” on the assumption that Silicon Valley will find all the answers. The dismal state of civic culture on Facebook and Twitter suggests that we shouldn’t hold our collective breath. These would-be visionaries could be on the right track, of course. It’s possible that we’re facing some sort of fundamental political realignment, some profound shift in the balance of societal forces, and we just don’t yet see where it’s going to go. But there’s also a more radical possibility: that Western liberal democracy is witnessing nothing less than the end of politics as we know it — to potentially tumultuous effect. Judging by the current convulsions the West’s political system is enduring, I’m not sure that we can entirely rule that out”.

Of course such hyperbole should be dismissed. Ideology will remain but will change. There will still be the haves and have nots, there will still be the rich and poor. So while the lines will blur, the problems will remain. The question about the “free market” and the role of the state have not, and will not, be answered and are thus perennial questions that need to keep being asked, if not answered. They will remain the basis for ideology albeit under a difference guise for years to come.

 

Trump supporters after Trump

27/04/2016

A piece from Chatham House discusses what might happen to those who support Trump after the elections, “There are two clear reasons to believe Donald Trump will not be the next president of the United States. One, Trump may yet be denied the nomination by the Republican establishment’s attempts to derail him; and two, in a general election match up with Hillary Clinton, the odds are stacked against a Trump victory. Yet whether he wins or not, his candidacy will continue to have a huge and lasting impact on American politics. Despite Trump’s persona dominating election coverage, it is a mistake to view his candidacy − and the very concept of ‘Trumpism’ − solely as an individual-driven phenomenon. Support for Trump has emanated from a widely dispersed group of Americans. They share some key characteristics: they are very angry at the political system, they feel voiceless and they are ready to embrace authoritarian solutions. The group is also very white and nationalist”.

If Trump fails, this group will not simply dissipate. If anything, their worst fear − that the system doesn’t work − will be embedded deeper. With all the focus on Trump’s personality, it is easy to forget that he is as much of a symptom of deeper societal division as he is a unique phenomenon. The rise of Trump has highlighted and inflamed deep-seated xenophobia within certain segments of the United States. The fact that Trump refused to distance himself from a white supremacist who served as one the KKK’s most senior officials is extremely concerning. The comparison with President Ronald Reagan, who quickly condemned the KKK when they voiced support for his election, is stark. The loose network of extremist groups that have coalesced around Trump’s candidacy are both driving his support and using his candidacy to revitalize their own groups. For example, Trump’s embrace of an anti-Muslim hate group, the Center for Security Policy, has caused traffic to their website to skyrocket. The damage to American society caused by what many see as Trump’s vindication of xenophobic statements is difficult to calculate”.

The piece goes onto mention “Despite his triumph in New York on Tuesday, the fevered ‘anyone but Trump’ effort in the GOP to deny Trump the nomination may have finally started to work effectively after many weeks of confusion. Party insiders are focusing ruthlessly on pulling as many delegates away from Trump as possible. A concerted effort has gone into gaining control of the ‘unbound’ delegates and there is even an effort to rule Trump retroactively ineligible for his delegate share in South Carolina (given he reneged on a promise to support whoever is the GOP nominee). If successful, these efforts may deny Trump the prize, but only further enrage and energize his supporters. It is easy to imagine this happening if he wins a near majority of the delegates, but is kept from the nomination through a technocratic and insider-dominated convention. Such an outcome could prove successful for traditional Republicans in the short term, but more damaging in the long term”.

The piece adds “Even if Trump manages to win the nomination but loses to Hillary in November, there could be further fracturing within the GOP. Trump supporters may blame the party establishment for ‘sabotaging’ his candidacy from the start, while many who already oppose Trump within the party will feel that their view of Trump as an electoral risk has been vindicated by the result. There is work to be done in understanding the true effect of Trump on the Republican electorate, but it is hard to see Republican primary voters becoming anything but more anti-establishment and more willing to embrace obstructionism among the Congressional caucus. Many of these voters may be more willing in the future to get involved with their local party and change the apparatus from within. White nationalist groups that have already been making robocalls on Trump’s behalf may decide the time is right to try and influence the Republican Party from the inside”.

It concludes “Trump’s candidacy will also likely contribute to other worrying trends in American politics. The Republican Party fracture, already clearly evident since the Tea Party came to prominence in 2010, looks set to worsen. The anti-free trade movement, long popular on the left, has found new supporters on the right − and Paul Krugman may well have a point about America facing a ‘protectionist moment’. The unusually high levels of political polarisation witnessed during the Obama years could be surpassed by even higher levels of division. In a political system reliant on partisan cooperation for any form of governance this makes every challenge even harder to solve. At 69 years old, this might be Trump’s last chance to win national office. But even without Trump, the movement behind him will find new leaders. Many could run for state elections or Congress. In the not-too-distant future a more credible successor to Trump may emerge and run for president. If such a candidate can articulate a similar vision to Trump, but can avoid the sexism and unforced errors that have stalled Trump’s momentum, they could conceivably be more effective. It is possible that Trump’s biggest legacy may not be his effect on the November election or the towers he has emblazoned with his name, but the political movement he has initiated”.

“The alliance of oligarchs and corrupt officials will stand strong”

02/03/2016

An interesting piece argues that the oilgrarchs really run Ukraine, “After hours of public bashing by lawmakers in the session hall of Ukraine’s parliament, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk rose from his chair, visibly nervous. These were the last minutes before a no-confidence vote that he and his government were likely to lose. Nevertheless, he did his best to make his case: “We inherited a plundered country, with the Russian army and Russian boots marching on Ukrainian territory. We had no army, no money, no public administration. But we kept this country together. I ask you to respect that,” he said, clenching his fists. But the speech seemed to fall flat. This would surely be the end of Yatsenyuk and his cabinet, Ukrainians all across the country thought, as they followed the scene yesterday on live television and on the internet. But suddenly, Mustafa Nayyem, a well-known reformist legislator, saw a sight that must have chilled him to the bone. Moments before the vote, dozens of legislators from a range of parties, all affiliated with powerful oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoiskiy, and Victor Pinchuk, suddenly left the session floor — they weren’t going to vote against the government. Nayyem rushed to Twitter to warn the country: a backdoor deal had been reached, and the no-confidence vote would likely fail”.

The piece adds “Just hours before the vote, Ukrainians had been sure that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was finished: his popularity ratings were dismal and international pressure to remove him for failing to tackle the country’s massive corruption was rising. In recent weeks, one top reformer after another kept resigning from the government, citing the impossibility of making any progress in a system that was still corrupt at the very top. Finally, on February 16, President Petro Poroshenko himself called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation, officially ending their two-year post-revolutionary alliance. Yatsenyuk and his cabinet were due to defend the performance of their government over the previous year on the parliamentary floor. After hours of heated debate, the gathered lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the report as “unsatisfactory,” by 247 votes out of 339. The success of a no-confidence vote, due to take place just 10 minutes later, seemed a foregone conclusion”.

However the report mentions that “the campaign against Yatsenyuk collapsed in a matter of minutes, leaving Nayyem — and everyone else — with dropped jaws. First came the walkout. Then, almost three dozen legislators from President Poroshenko’s party failed to support the no-confidence vote. In the end, the no-confidence motion gathered just 194 of the 226 votes it required. Yatsenyuk and his government had survived. After the vote, most of the gathered legislators were dead silent, as if stunned — and the minority that opposed the motion erupted in cheers. Ukraine’s rent-seeking oligarchic elites were free to celebrate their latest and greatest victory against the forces of reform since the 2013 Euromaidan revolution”.

The author writes that “There are no party lines, no real policy debates, no ideological clashes: just cold-hearted vested interests and short-term alliances between various oligarchic groups. The second you accept that, and stop seeing Ukrainian politics through the political lens of the developed world, you’ll see what I see: a simple pushback by oligarchs against internationally backed efforts to finally rid the country of the corruption that inspired the Euromaidan. For too many of the current elite, a new prime minister could mean a shake-up of the whole government, and possibly a restart of much-delayed reforms that would threaten their financial interests. Or it could also mean more competition for resources — a further takeover of some of the top positions in government by business interests connected to President Poroshenko’s ruling party. Either of these scenarios would be a loss for the vested interests. Preserving the status quo, in which everyone’s territory has already been carved up and divided, was the optimal equilibrium for Ukraine’s top kleptocrats”.

He mentions that “that clusters of corruption thrive inside almost every party, including that of President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, the Opposition Bloc, and others. Further, the various corrupt forces successfully cooperate with each other, even when they are not “formally” allied politically. For example, a productive alliance that protects corruption within the energy sector reportedly exists between political and business elites tied to the fugitive former President Yanukovych, current President Poroshenko, and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. The same is true of the reformers: you can find brave fighters for change not only within heavily corrupt parties but inside the corrupt government as well: from the anti-corruption crusader Serhii Leshchenko of President Poroshenko’s party to reformist Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko. Unfortunately, these reformers are outnumbered by the kleptocrats. The West shares the blame for the reformers’ failure to win the fight for change in Ukraine. As direct stakeholders in its future, with billions of dollars already invested through bailout loans and aid, the country’s foreign partners and supporters have been remarkably idle in pushing for specific reforms. Many have closed their eyes to exactly how much power the vested interests among the post-revolutionary political elites still wield”.

Worryingly the piece goes on to make the point “Now, as the political crisis mounts — and, perhaps sensing weakness, Russia-backed separatists probe the country’s defenses — Ukraine’s Western partners may find themselves facing much higher costs to fix the mess. Ignoring complex crises hasn’t worked very well for the developed world in recent years, and Ukraine is just another illustration. It’s true that in recent months we’ve seen growing pressure from the country’s international partners demanding real reforms. But that should have happened two years ago, not two months ago”.

He suggests a way out of the mess, “There are still ways for the West to avoid a full-blown Ukrainian collapse. First, it must fight hard for the remaining reformers: as long as the hands of powerful people like Minister Jaresko or anti-corruption crusaders like Mustafa Nayyem and Serhii Leshchenko aren’t tied, there’s a chance that the country’s development will continue. Secondly, the West shouldn’t fall for the cheap theatrics of a “political cleanup” that are being propagated by the country’s ruling elites. In an apparent alliance with various political groups in parliament who have ties to the oligarchs, President Poroshenko and his Solidarnist party have built up suspense by keeping allegedly corrupt officials in place, accumulating negativity around two specific people — Prime Minister Yatsenyuk andProsecutor General Viktor Shokin. Now, by publicly bashing the former anddumping the latter, these elites hope to release the pressure and convince the public and the international community that a cleanup is underway. But after two years of empty promises, neither Ukrainians nor their foreign partners should be satisfied. In Ukraine, it doesn’t matter who runs the government or the General Prosecutor’s office. With Yatsenyuk and Shokin or without them, the alliance of oligarchs and corrupt officials will stand strong — unless we stop paying attention to personalities and demand real, structural reforms”.

He concludes “If this charade doesn’t stop, the system will just keep replicating itself without ever changing — and the hopes of yet another Ukrainian revolution will have been betrayed”.

“Appealing forlornly to its better nature”

27/01/2016

A piece from the Economist discusses President Obama’s last State of the Union and his appeal to agonism and argues that it showed both his weaknesses and virtues, “TO HEAR most of the contenders for this year’s presidential election tell it, America is in a horrible state. Republicans both mainstream and whacko, from Jeb Bush to Donald Trump, describe a country enfeebled militarily, ailing economically and culturally corrupted by seven years of Democratic rule; on the left, Bernie Sanders describes an economy rigged against ordinary Americans. In his last state-of-the-union message to Congress on January 12th, Barack Obama delivered a rebuke to that miserabilism—and to the ugly nativism it is fuelling among voters”.

The author goes on to note that “During his first presidential campaign, Mr Obama promised Americans a lot of change they would like. In what is likely to be his last major speech before the process of electing his successor begins in Iowa on February 1st, he talked more of the historic change globalisation is making, to the workplace, pay packets and complexion of American society, in turn creating much of the anxiety and resentment his would-be successors are pandering to”.

The writer notes that “It is not certain that America will master the turbulence. “Progress is not inevitable,” he warned, disabusing those conservative critics who accuse him of holding a Pollyanna-ish view of history. “It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation…? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for?” This was genre-busting stuff. The annual presidential address to Congress is traditionally a wishlist of legislative business for the coming year, with, in the final year of a presidency, an additional trumpeting of the incumbent’s record”.

The piece notes that the speech had some of this by exhorting “Congress to approve the recently concluded Pacific trade agreement, pass legislation to authorise the ongoing American operations in Syria and Iraq and work on criminal-justice reform, one of the few remaining causes that has bipartisan support. He also noted many of his achievements; in presiding over impressive job creation, health-care reform and America’s first national effort at mitigating carbon emissions, for example”.

However the core of the speech, as the piece mentions was “an effort to stake out, ahead of Iowa, the ground for legitimate debate in a civilised society. America has not, Mr Obama ventured to suggest, gone to the dogs. Its economy is the envy of the world. Its armed forces are unrivalled. So is its global leadership. “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.” On that basis alone, anyone promising extreme solutions to America’s problems should be mistrusted. And where they threaten the principles of fairness and rule of law, the basis of America’s strength, they must be disdained. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” said Mr Obama, in a nod to Mr Trump’s promise of mass deportations and a blockade of Muslims. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.” The job of politics is to settle finer debates, about the role of the state in apportioning wealth (“The American people have a choice to make”) and the exercise of America’s undimmed power. It was in this didactic spirit that Mr Obama defended his record. On the state, he argued that it was reasonable to worry about overburdening business with regulation, but illogical to reduce welfare payments, as most Republicans want, at a time of wage stagnation and rising insecurity for millions of workers”.

The writer adds that “On national security, he protested, in a tacit response to his many critics, that escalating the wars in which America is already embroiled will not make it safer; “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire…It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq.” This was vintage Obama, disdainful of the tribal emotions that have subsumed American politics, cerebral, unrelentingly reasonable. No doubt, it reminded many of his critics, who represent around half of Americans, why they abhor him. Mr Obama said the one big regret of his presidency was that partisan divisions had got worse during the course of it; but America is in no mood for healing. Sitting behind Mr Obama, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, wore the impassive expression of a man who dared show no flicker of approval for a president his party despises—even when Mr Obama denounced the business-throttling red tape it should hate even more”.

The writer continues “When Mr Obama claimed that America was not enfeebled militarily, many Republican congressmen emitted a scandalised gasp. Yet mainstream Republicans candidates such as Chris Christie and Mr Bush, none of whom has denounced Mr Trump’s vile politics half as effectively as Mr Obama, must quietly hope Republican voters imbibe his moral lesson, and reject the rabble-rousers. While he himself must pray that Democratic voters, 30-40% of whom are currently tempted to vote for Mr Sanders, will instead rally to Hillary Clinton who, because more electable, is much likelier to protect his legacy”.

Interestingly the writer goes notes that this is Obama’s weakness, “That, in turn, points to Mr Obama’s weakness, the other political context in which he spoke. The president’s decision not to recite the customary legislative to-do list—as notable by its absence as the victims of gun violence symbolised by a seat left empty next to Michelle Obama—was partly enforced. After a burst of bipartisan co-operation last year, including the overdue passage of a federal budget, he can expect little additional help from Congress. Whatever extra measures he hopes to burnish his record with, for example, to equalise pay between the sexes or increase the modicum of gun control he attempted this month, will probably have to be enacted by executive decree. So were many of his existing achievements, including changes to how laws on immigration are enforced. Although Mr Obama has not used his presidential powers half as profligately as his critics claim—his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both issued many more orders—his inability to get much legislation passed since the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 has made his record unusually dependent on them. And given that most Republicans candidates vow to erase many of those orders, his legacy is one bad election result away from looking rather thin”.

The piece concludes “In his peroration, Mr Obama alluded to that frailty. In the absence of much enthusiasm for electoral reform in Congress, he promised to “travel the country” making his case for it. That desirable change, which he himself once promised to bring about, “will only happen when the American people demand it”, he concluded. As so often, he is right and admirable in his diagnosis. Still, it is hard not to be dismayed by the image he left hanging in the divided House, of the president, once the change politician, reduced to wandering America like a mendicant preacher, appealing forlornly to its better nature”.

Clinton, the progressive with power

23/07/2015

A piece from the Economist discusses the campaign of Hillary Clinton, “HILLARY CLINTON is a fighter. In a very long speech at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City, where she officially re-launched her presidential campaign this weekend, she declared that she is here to fight. She is ready for battle in “four fights” in particular. There is the fight “to make the economy work for everyday Americans”; the fight “to strengthen America’s families”; and the fight to “maintain [America’s] leadership for peace, security, and prosperity”. Last, but not least, she will join the fight for “reforming our government and revitalising our democracy.” At an abstract level, this is all rather unobjectionable. But who, exactly, is Mrs Clinton fighting against? It’s not America’s external enemies she’s itching to take on. She’s not in a lather about the Islamic State. It’s the Grand Old Party she’s got a beef against, and if you’re inclined to support it, Mrs Clinton has it in for you, too”.

This summation is a tad unfair. The GOP have been consistently responsible for the many, though obviously not all of the problems in modern America, from their obsession of cutting taxes to higher rates of poverty and reduced social mobility to shutting down the government they have helped bring America to where it is today.

The piece goes on to mention “Mrs Clinton’s combative partisanship is a far cry from Barack Obama’s promises to heal the divisions of a fundamentally united nation through edifying speeches and determinedly cooperative leadership. Mr Obama cast himself as a sort of King Solomon, capable of sagely arbitrating the disputes of rival factions from a position of lofty moral as well as political authority. But it didn’t work out as Mr Obama, or his supporters, had hoped. His great achievement, the passage of Obamacare, was the result of a brute-force party-line vote. Subsequent attempts at Solomonic negotiation were repeatedly foiled by the dogged partisan unity of congressional Republicans. Mrs Clinton has advertised her disinclination to reach across the aisle only to have her hand slapped away. Her model of leadership is more General Patton than Solomon. Mrs Clinton does not promise progress through reconciliation, but Democratic victory over the forces of Republican darkness with a combination of superior strategy and force”.

This strategy could be a refreshing change from the naivety of the early Obama years where he was either stupid enough or arrogant enough to believe that he could heal the profound and in some cases, natural ideological divisions within American society. While Clinton’s approach appears, at this moment, to be more brawn it may in the end lead to more compromise with the GOP recognising her as a more serious political operator not to be ignored.

As the report adds “Mrs Clinton promises a Democratic party exhausted by Republican intransigence something much different, and much desired: victory. To Democrats fed up with congressional obstruction, and Mr Obama’s failure to blow past it, this is a most appealing message. And it’s a savvy move, too, converting Mrs Clinton’s lack of charm, and her reputation for shady dealings, into assets. She’s not here to make you like her. She’s here to make sure that you get what you’d like—if you’re a Democrat. ‘A vote for me isn’t a vote for ‘unity”, writes David Frum in the Atlantic, perceptively drawing out the subtext of Mrs Clinton’s speech. ‘It’s a vote to claim a larger piece of the nation’s dwindling resources from people you don’t like and who don’t like you. In an age of increasing partisan polarisation, Mrs Clinton’s openly hostile message verges on a refreshing frankness about the nature of politics”.

The report adds that “Voters also like to be assured that they’re doing the right thing by supporting policies which, incidentally, happen to feather their nests. Take, for instance, Mrs Clinton’s proposals to ‘make it easier for every citizen to vote’ through ‘universal, automatic registration and expanded early voting’. This is presented mainly as a defence of the ideals of democracy, not as a way of making it easier for Democrats to win elections. But she won’t mind too much if you happen to see the big picture”.

If this plan were implemented it would be a temporary loss for the GOP, yet it would also be a challenge to them. They would have to propose policies that would woo these newly enfranchised voters away from the Democrats to the GOP. This would be better both for the GOP and in the end, as Clinton says, democracy.

The report adds “To understand the particular combination of pugnacity and idealism in Mrs Clinton’s announcement speech, it is necessary to understand how the rising influence and confidence of the progressive left is reshaping both the rhetoric and moral worldview of the Democratic Party. The 1990s ‘new liberalism’ of Bill Clinton, a former president and Mrs Clinton’s husband, was a Democratic version of the sunny view, normally associated with the right, that a rising tide raises all boats. The displacement of Bill Clintonian ‘liberalism’ by ‘progressivism’ brought about by the financial crisis and increasing inequality has led to a decline on the left of harmonious ideals of in-it-together mutual benefit. In is place is a combative, zero-sum conception of politics that combines the lofty rhetoric of social and economic justice with a disenchanted view of democracy as smashmouth sectarian conflict. Mrs Clinton is ably capitalising on this development”.

Interestingly the article goes on to note that “Although the populist progressivism touted by such figures as Elizabeth Warren may seem to present a challenge to the relatively conservative Mrs Clinton, it has actually handed her a very powerful weapon. Progressives wax idealistic about democracy, but their implicit notion of practical politics is class war by electoral means. This allows the powerful Mrs Clinton to position herself as her party’s only real hope, while lending moral dignity to otherwise baldly transactional promises to her party’s constituencies. If politics is war, then Democratic success in national politics requires a battle-tested leader mighty enough to vanquish the amassed forces of plutocracy and right-wing reaction. Bernie Sanders, a professorial Vermont senator and, so far, Mrs Clinton’s most significant left-wing challenger, may be able to state the problems, and articulate attractively progressive answers. But he cannot be the progressive answer. What can sweet Bernie Sanders do to the Koch brothers? Throw spare copies of “Manufacturing Consent” at them? Progressivism in both its moderate and extreme versions implies the need for a leader who is a heavyweight slugger, willing to fight at least a little dirty”.

It concludes “This is why, as long as progressivism is ascendant within the Democratic party, Mrs Clinton need not fear a progressive insurgency. In announcing her candidacy by picking fights in terms appealing to progressives, Mrs Clinton has reminded her party that, even if she’s not the progressive hero they might want, she alone has the knockout power they need”.

Conservative victory

09/05/2015

In a mix of pathetic pleading and bullying in the day before the general election David Cameron has “urged the British public not to “do something you’ll regret” as voters head to the polls for the closest general election in a generation. With the final round of opinion polls showing Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, the Prime Minister uses a Telegraph interview to urge voters to reflect in the “solemn quiet” of the polling booth before casting their ballot. Mr Cameron says that the 2015 general election will “define this generation” with major constitutional and economic issues at stake for the country. The last round of opinion polls and forecasts from bookmakers suggests that the election will lead to a chaotic result – with Labour and the SNP vying with the Conservatives, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, to form the next Government. Senior Conservatives privately hope that, as in 1992, the opinion polls are not reflective of the nation’s mood and that so-called “shy Tories” or people having last-minute doubts over Labour’s credibility could yet swing behind Mr Cameron. On current polling, the Tories are hopeful of winning at least 290 seats – potentially as many as 300. They require at least 323 seats to claim a majority in the House of Commons and would therefore need the support of at least one other party under this scenario”.

These gains have come at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems went from nearly 60 seats to less than 10. Reports indicate that “Nick Clegg is expected to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats after the party slumped to its worst ever showing at a general election. After narrowly hanging on to his Sheffield Hallam seat with a much reduced majority, Mr Clegg said he would make an announcement about his future after meeting with colleagues today. Nick Clegg came under heavy fire from Labour, which hoped to decapitate the Lib Dem leadership. In the event, Mr Clegg held on, albeit with a reduced majority”.

At the same time as the Lib Dem wipeout the Labour Party has been destroyed in Scotland. The Guardian reports that the SNP “has won an extraordinary landslide victory in the general election in Scotland after the Scottish National party crushed Labour, inflicting a series of humiliating defeats on the party’s leadership. In a series of dramatic victories for the SNP that left Scottish Labour effectively decapitated and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a tiny handful of seats, Sturgeon’s party was on the brink of securing nearly all of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. The SNP swept aside once-unassailable majorities for Labour with swings as high as 35%, as voters threw out Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, its former deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, and Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary. The avalanche also carried off Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary who had been in charge of Ed Miliband’s general election campaign. He was defeated by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student who has yet to finish her degree and who is now the youngest MP elected since 1667. Alexander admitted Scotland’s voters had lost trust in the Labour party, which had started the campaign defending 41 seats”.

Related to this is the loss of many high profile names, “During a night that saw the Scottish National Party wipe Labour off the map in Scotland and a huge decline in support for the Liberal Democrats there were many big name MPs that could not hold onto their seats. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was the highest ranking politician to lose his seat in the general election. The Liberal Democrat, who was at the heart of the coalition government, is one of many who have been ousted from office in the wake of the SNP’s historic landslide. Vince Cable blamed a campaign of “fear” by the Tories for a “terrible night” for the Liberal Democrats as he became the latest in a string of high-profile party figures to lose their seats. The Business Secretary was defeated by Conservative Tania Mathias by 25,580 votes to 23,563 in the seat he had held since 1997″.

The piece adds later that “Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy lost his seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Mr Kennedy has endured the highs and lows of political life. Having taken his party to its best election result since the 1920s, his leadership ended in ignominy when he was forced to quit after admitting a drink problem. But the Liberal Democrats were not the only party to lose high profile figures. Esther McVey, the Conservatives’ employment minister and one of the most prominent female figures in the Cabinet, lost the key marginal of Wirral West to Labour’s Margaret Greenwood by just 417 votes. It had been a bitter campaign, with anti-Tory activists labelling her “evil in its purest form” and “the smiling, jack-vooted assassin of welfare reform”.

In an image reminiscent of Margret Thatcher’s 1979 victory where she promised to “bring healing” and did the exact opposite, Cameron said that “David Cameron has said he wants to govern for “everyone in our United Kingdom” amid growing fears for the future of the Union after Labour was virtually wiped out in Scotland by the SNP. Alex Salmond warned that Mr Cameron will have “no legitimacy whatsoever in Scotland” after he became one of 56 SNP MPs in Scotland. Only four seats went to other parties. The rise of the SNP saw Labour lose Douglas Alexander, the party’s election chief and shadow foreign secretary, and Jim Murphy, Labour’s leader in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats lost Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the Tresury”.

The piece adds “Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and new Tory MP for Uxbridge, said that the Conservatives will need to make a “federal offer” to Scotland. He said: “Everybody needs to take a deep breath and think about how we want the UK to progress. “I think even most people in the SNP, probably in their heart of hearts, most people who voted SNP tonight, do not want to throw away absolutely everything.” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said that the Conservatives will continue with plans to devolve more powers to Scotland and also press ahead with plans for English votes for English laws. He emphasised that Scotland decided to remain in the Union amid fears that the SNP is now likely to use its mandate to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence”.

A piece notes that “The Conservatives are expected to get a 37% share of the national vote, Labour 31%, UKIP 13%, the Lib Dems 8%, the SNP 5%, the Green Party 4% and Plaid Cymru 1%. Ed Miliband steps down after a “difficult and disappointing” night for Labour which saw Ed Balls lose and Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander defeated by the SNP. Nick Clegg said he would quit as leader after a “crushing” set of losses, which saw Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy among a slew of Lib Dem casualties. George Galloway, who was reported to the police for retweeting an exit poll before voting ended, has lost to Labour in Bradford WestNigel Farage has quit as UKIP leader after failing to be elected – although he may stand in the ensuing leadership contest. Douglas Carswell retained his Clacton seat. Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. The Green Party gets one seat after Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010″.

 

 

 

The Tories sink to depths

12/04/2015

As the UK election campaign continues the Tories have openly attacked the Labour leader, Ed Miliband in a highly personal attack.  The Guardian reports that Miliband, “has accused the Conservative party of basing its campaign on “deceit and lies”, in a ramping up of a war of words triggered by a personal attack on the Labour leader by a Tory minister. The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, earlier accused Miliband of planning to “stab the United Kingdom in the back” over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Fallon confirmed that a new Tory government would go ahead with the construction of four new Trident nuclear missile submarines to replace the existing fleet, but said Labour would have to abandon any plans to renew the fleet in order to secure the support of the Scottish National party in a hung parliament.  Fallon told the Times: “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.” Miliband retorted: “Michael Fallon is a decent man but today I think he has demeaned himself and demeaned his office. National security is too important to play politics with. I will never compromise our national security, I will never negotiate away our national security”.

The piece adds “Miliband then went further, attacking the Tories’ campaigning style. “I’ve got to say, I think the British people deserve better than what the Conservative party are offering in this campaign, which is a campaign based on deceit and lies,” he said. The row broke out as Labour prepared to sign off its election manifesto at a “clause 5” meeting of the shadow cabinet together with senior officials from the ruling national executive, the national policy forum and the parliamentary Labour party. The Conservatives said they were moving their manifesto launch to Tuesday, after both main parties announced their intention to publish on Monday. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Fallon said: “We saw in that leadership election just what he would do to his own brother to get into power. People cannot be sure if they vote Labour in England whether they would lose their nuclear submarines because Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP has made it crystal clear she will not support the renewal of Trident.””

The piece adds “Vernon Coaker, who showed his support for Trident by paying his first visit as shadow defence secretary to the Cumbria shipyards that are building the new Vanguard submarines, pointed out that Miliband had already ruled out any concessions to the SNP on nuclear weapons”.

Rather than admit they had gone to far and promise never to stoop to such levels again the Tories stood behind their comments as the day went on, “The Conservatives are standing by an attack on Ed Miliband that Labour said had dragged politics “into the gutter”. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Mr Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour and was now “willing to stab the UK in the back” by doing a deal on Trident with the SNP “to become PM”. Mr Miliband said the defence secretary had demeaned himself and his office. But Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Fallon was “absolutely right”.

Agonism, which seeks to play out the differences between ideologies respectfully in a democracy, has been destroyed as a result of this. As the reports stated there was little that divide the parties on this issue. Instead the Tories sought to paint Miliband as weak rather than deal with where the two parties have genuine disagreements.

“His sixth State of the Union”

21/01/2015

President Obama, last night, delivered the State of the Union. Much of the speech was on the financial crisis with smaller amounts on foreign policy and then education.

A piece from the Washington Post notes that, “President Obama, who took office six years ago amid a historic recession and two U.S. wars, declared unequivocally Tuesday that the nation had clawed its way out of those dire straits, praising Americans for their resilience but also pointedly taking credit for leading the way. ‘America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed,’ Obama said in his sixth State of the Union address to the nation and a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. After years of fighting with Republicans over where to take the country, Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap. He asserted that the brightening economic picture — including accelerating job growth, more people with health insurance and lower gas prices — had proved that he was right, and his adversaries misguided, all along”.

The report goes on to make the point that “The president had been cautious over the past two years not to gloat over news of fitful economic growth, mindful that the economy remained tenuous and public confidence uneasy. But with the jobless rate well below 6 percent, the stock market nearing record highs and his job-approval ratings rebounding, Obama on Tuesday night dropped his veneer of reserve and appeared to delight in having proved his critics wrong”.

The piece adds that “Obama chided Republicans to help improve Washington’s political discourse. He harked back to the themes of national unity that helped him get elected in the first place in 2008 and called for more bipartisan cooperation on key issues. But in doing so, Obama also served to remind the GOP of the reasons their relationship is so fraught — pausing at one point from his prepared text to deliver a spontaneous, and quite partisan, barb. When Republicans jokingly applauded after Obama noted that he had run his last campaign, the president quipped: “I know because I won both of them.” Obama took the spotlight in front of Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) intent on proving that he would remain relevant in the final quarter of his presidency as the race to replace him next year begins”.

This is one of the key problems not just with the GOP. The paper is quite right to point out the desire of Obama to be bipartisan. However, it was the GOP that gave President Obama the opportunity to make his immature comment. If they had not applauded the remark would probably not have been said. Instead, the GOP look childish and partisan as does Obama for stooping to their level. Both need to grow up.

The article goes on to mention that “Just two months after Democrats suffered a severe blow in the midterm elections, when voters handed control of both chambers to the GOP for the first time during his tenure, Obama’s speech came amid warnings from Republicans to avoid divisive rhetoric and policies. ‘Tonight isn’t about the president’s legacy. It’s about the people’s priorities,’ Boehner said in a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday. ‘Making the government bigger isn’t going to help the middle class. More growth and more opportunity will help the middle class, and those are the Republican priorities.’ But Obama had told allies that he would not kowtow to GOP demands despite the party’s new majorities. The president announced early in his speech that he would focus less on the usual laundry list of new proposals — the White House had revealed most of them ahead of time — and instead focus on the ‘values at stake’ for the American people moving forward”.

The piece notes that “Obama laid out proposals to revamp the tax code by raising taxes and fees on the wealthiest Americans and largest financial institutions — and using the money to pay for free tuition for two years of community college and for a $500 tax credit for married couples in which both spouses have jobs. Though the White House knew the ideas have a slim chance of being approved by lawmakers, the point was to start a debate on Obama’s terms. And the president and his advisers were determined to begin to frame his legacy as having delivered on his promise to improve the lives of ordinary Americans”.

Naturally none of these will be passed, which is a great pity, but it is as much legacy building as setting the ground for his successor, most likely Clinton in 2016.

The report adds that “On foreign policy, Obama sought to build on the idea, first enunciated during a lengthy speech at West Point last spring, of a ‘smarter kind of American leadership’ in which the United States balances military intervention with diplomacy and coalition-building. Obama has made the case in recent weeks, as he marked the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, that the nation is safer after more than a decade of combat abroad — even though he authorized renewed U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State militant group. American leadership ‘is stopping ISIL’s advance,’ Obama said, using an acronym for the group. But such a declaration seemed premature, set against images Tuesday of two orange-clad Japanese hostages kneeling in the desert before a black-robed militant”.

This is where reality and President Obama diverge. His desire for a smarter leadership is commendable but it is increasingly looking like a half baked isolationism, at least when it comes to the Middle East. This means that it is the worst of both worlds. Obama neither has the satisfaction of ignoring the problem, yet nor has he the courage of giving it his full attention. It is true that the advance of ISIS has been stopped but they still hold territory and the airstrikes have not been successful in rolling back their gains.

The article continued, “Obama was determined to project an optimistic view of the nation’s future, and he maintained faith that the country could rise above its divisions. He alluded to his own diverse upbringing in Hawaii and Chicago and cited his keynote address as an Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which launched him on the national political radar as a bright young prospect for higher office. ‘A better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine,’ Obama said Tuesday. ‘A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.’ The president acknowledged that he had heard the political pundits declare since he took office six years ago that he had failed to make good on his vision at a time when ‘our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naive.’ To the contrary, Obama insisted, as he pledged to keep working to change Washington, even as he was, in many ways, declaring victory over his rivals”.
In a related article the confidence of Obama is noted, “Seventy seven days ago, Barack Obama’s party lost control of Congress — largely due to his unpopularity nationwide. You’d have never known it watching the president deliver his sixth State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. From start to finish, Obama was supremely confident, challenging — and mocking — Republicans at every turn. Touting the turnaround of the economy, Obama turned to Republicans, who, in classic State of the Union symbolism, had refused to deliver a standing ovation, and joked “That’s good news, people.” On Cuba, Obama challenged those who disagreed with his Administration policies; “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” he said”.

It goes on to mention “more than the words on the page, it was Obama’s tone and overall demeanor that absolutely oozed confidence. He winked. He laughed at his own jokes. And he ad-libbed. Repeating his “I’ve run my last campaign” line, Obama was clearly irked by the sarcastic applause from Republicans in the audience. “I know because I won both of them,” he added, in a rare moment of candour”.

It adds “Obama is quite clearly feeling a renewed sense of purpose and mission — bolstered by the strengthening economy and poll numbers that reflect that growing confidence from the American public. This was the same Obama on display in his end-of-the-year press conference. Supremely confident in his own views, largely dismissive of his Republican critics”.

A modern GOP?

10/12/2014

David Frum writing in Foreign Affairs about the need for the GOP to modernise. He begins “For the six years since President George W. Bush left office, his party has turned its back on him. Bush spoke at neither the 2008 nor the 2012 Republican National Convention. When aspiring successors to his former office mentioned him at all during the primary debates, they cited his legacy as something to avoid repeating. Yet Bush may prove much harder to ignore at the party’s next convention: one of the most mentioned possibilities for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee is the ex-president’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush”.

Thankfully Frum posits the theory that “reports of the demise of the Republican establishment have been greatly exaggerated. The outlandish characters who ran for Senate in 2010 and president in 2012 have mostly faded from the scene. The large donors who supported George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney continue to hold sway within their party”.

Indeed there have been signs of this. Speaker Boehner did try to attack the Tea Party but whatever he did do was not nearly enough. The faction within the GOP still crow about shutting down the Federal Government while others seem totally detached from reality and seem to think less government will mean more “freedom” for everyone when in fact it would only mean more “freedom” or power and influence for the richest. Indeed the establishment has begun to see the light but it has only half the case. It still needs to destroy the tea party and then it will become a viable force in American politics again. If it continues with the first of these but not the second, it will die, as many have predicted.

Frum argues that three issues have led to the defeats of the GOP in the past decade, “First, Republicans have come to rely more and more on the votes of the elderly, the most government-dependent segment of the population — a serious complication for a party committed to reducing government. Second, the Republican donor class has grown more ideologically extreme, encouraging congressional Republicans to embrace ever more radical tactics. Third, the party’s internal processes have rigidified, in ways that dangerously inhibit its ability to adapt to changing circumstances”.

Frum takes the first of these, the elderly, “Throughout most of their lives, members of the postwar baby-boom generation (now in their 50s and 60s) held views considerably more liberal than those of the generation before them (now in their 70s and 80s). As late as the year 2000, only 35 percent of baby boomers described themselves as ‘conservative.’ Then came the financial crisis and the presidency of Barack Obama. The proportion of baby boomers who called themselves ‘angry at government’ surged from 15 percent before 2008 to 26 percent after the financial crisis struck. By 2011, 42 percent of baby boomers were labeling themselves ‘conservative.’ The politics of the soft-rock audience had converged with those of Bill O’Reilly viewers (median age: 72). It’s important to understand what right-leaning baby boomers mean by the word ‘conservative.’ On social issues such as gay rights and the role of women, boomers, like all Americans, continue to evolve in liberal directions. Nor have boomers become enthralled by the laissez-faire agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On the contrary, people who are in their 60s today express much more suspicion of business than this same demographic cohort did in the 1990s, when they were younger and otherwise more liberal. Finally, despite the libertarian language of the Tea Party, boomer conservatives are not demanding to be ‘left alone.’ In fact, 64 percent of boomers say they worry that the government doesn’t do enough to help older people, a much higher proportion than in any other age group — higher, even, than among people in their 70s and 80s”.

It is of course ironic that what Frum labels as conservative is as a result of not enough government intervention. If “the market” had been better regulated those who would have been unable to afford home loans would not have been given them. However, greed and the unrelenting desire for profit, irrespective of the social cost was the only mantra. The consequences of this have been plain to see. The only solution is intense government regulation and oversight on a system that otherwise could not be trusted by itself. Therefore it is not surprising to see that as Frum notes that “they worry that the government doesn’t do enough to help older people”.

Indeed he qualifies this boomer conservativism when he writes “What boomers mean when they call themselves conservative is that they have begun to demand massive cutbacks to spending programs that do not directly benefit them. Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Not surprisingly, then, boomers say they want no change at all to the Medicare and Social Security benefits they have begun to qualify for. They will even countenance tax increases on high earners to maintain those benefits”.

This, far from being a legitimate concern is merely selfishness and should be dismissed. In the specific instance of those not having enough for their retirement if Americans, especially the richest Americans were taxed more, and they worked longer this would not be an issue.

Frum writes that “Republicans have responded to boomers’ fears by reinventing themselves as defenders of the fiscal status quo for older Americans — and only older Americans. In 2005, Bush proposed bold reforms to Social Security, including privatization. But since 2008, the GOP has rejected changes to retirement programs that might in any way impinge on current beneficiaries. The various budget plans Republicans produced in the run-up to the 2012 election all exempted Americans over age 55 from any changes to either Social Security or Medicare”.

He goes on to contradict himself, “People who feel squeezed economically can easily feel that they face a cultural onslaught, too. The baby-boom generation is about 80 percent white. Of the Americans who lacked health insurance prior to the 2008 financial crisis, 27 percent were foreign-born. It’s not surprising that many boomers perceived Obamacare as a transfer of health-care resources from ‘us’ to ‘them,’ in every sense of the word ‘them.’ And when the president who champions this transfer is himself the black son of a foreign father, it’s even less surprising that economically anxious people might identify that president as the embodiment of a direct threat to their expected place in the scheme of things”.

Frum cannot have it both ways. He says that those baby boomers are both increasingly tolerant of gay marriage but at the same time he then says that they are “squeezed economically” which is true but only of small number and at the same time the age group  as a whole has been least affected by the economic collapse. The only point that Frum claims is that they are confused and lash out while at the same time supporting policies that will benefit them.

He makes the valid point that “This generational tension thrusts the Republican Party into an awkward spot. The elderly and disabled consume 41 percent of all federal spending. Any project to reduce federal spending while exempting such a huge budget category would require either drastic additional defence cuts or a desperate political struggle to concentrate all cuts on the comparatively meager federal programs for working-aged Americans and the young. The former necessity explains why the once internationalist Republican Party so willingly accepted the defence sequester of 2011. The latter explains why budgetary politics in the Obama years has grown so polarised: the GOP’s largest voting constituency has convinced itself that it cannot afford any compromise at all”.

He goes on to discuss the wealthy rich that are tilting the GOP, and America, into the abyss, “In 2010, the financier Stephen Schwarzman equated Obama’s attempt to raise taxes on hedge funds with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and in March 2014, Kenneth Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, warned that liberal arguments about income inequality reminded him of Nazi pro-p-aganda. Although Schwarzman and Langone later apologised for their choices of words, the hyperbole revealed how threatened the nation’s richest citizens feel by the political tendencies of postcrisis America. As the party of opposition to Obama, the GOP has benefited from the resulting surge of funds from the frightened wealthy — but that support has come at a heavy price”.

Fairly he writes that “through the long recovery that began in 2009, Republicans offered an economic message of fiscal and monetary austerity. Their donors feared that low interest rates and quantitative easing would generate inflation, so Republicans opposed those policies. Their donors feared that today’s big deficits would be repaid out of future higher taxes, so Republicans had to oppose stimulus spending on roads, bridges, and airports”.

The stimulus, has not been perfect but it has worked overall. The narrowness of the GOP donor base has meant that they are appealing to a smaller and smaller group of the very wealthiest Americans. This is bad for democracy and America. There needs to be a rational coherent opposition that is willing to accept some basic facts about life. The GOP are unable to do this and thus are less and less credible as an opposition force.

The result of serving only their interests is that “As a Democrat presided over the slow recovery from a catastrophic slump, Republicans proved unable to capitalise on his struggles and find common cause with the jobless. During the 2012 election, Romney’s ’47 percent’ gaffe — his private comment that almost half the country had sunk into hopeless dependency on the government — proved so damaging because it was no gaffe at all. Wealthy Republicans had been talking that way all through the Obama years. The dependency idea formed the central theme of a speech that Representative Paul Ryan gave a year before he became Romney’s running mate”.

The dangerous thing, Frum points out is that “So radical was the Romney-Ryan budget plan that when a Democratic super PAC told a focus group what it entailed, The New York Times reported, ‘The respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.’ But ordinary rules about what politicians will or will not do have ceased to hold since 2008. The radicalisation of the party’s donor base has led Republicans in Congress to try tactics they would never have dared use before. During the debt-ceiling debates of 2011 and then again in 2013, Republicans in the House of Representatives came within days of causing the U.S. government to default on its financial obligations. In the 2011 crisis, they succeeded in forcing major budget cuts. The result was the sequester, the supposedly temporary deal that will, if sustained, cut the U.S. military’s fighting forces in half by 2021″.

He notes that “If the voters refused your offer of ham and eggs, it was because they wanted double ham and double eggs. And so a defeated party often directs at least as much of its ire toward its previous leader as it does toward its enemy in the White House. The GOP today is conforming to this familiar pattern, blaming Bush and Romney for straying from conservative dogma instead of grappling with the dogma itself”.

Frum continues that “Bush’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy do explain why the party has veered rightward since 2008. But condemning deviations has also provided a welcome escape from uncomfortable questions about whether party orthodoxy still produces positive results under contemporary circumstances. After all, when it came to economic management, Bush governed very much in the manner of President Ronald Reagan, although he failed to achieve Reagan’s outcomes. Bush cut income taxes — but instead of a 1980s-style boom, he got stagnating wages followed by a severe global recession. Like Reagan, Bush relaxed regulation of business, especially energy and finance. Instead of a surge in productivity, however, he presided over a housing bubble and a spike in gasoline prices”.

He makes the excellent point that “American conservatism in the twenty-first century remains defined by the concerns, issues, and even personalities of the twentieth. When the Republican Party turned its back on what Bush called “compassionate conservatism,” it chose to return to a bygone approach. Today’s GOP thinks it is making progress even as it retraces its steps. Yet there is a limit to how long this backward motion can continue. Party dogma meets electoral reality every two years, and for Republicans, that reality is looking increasingly inhospitable. From 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five of the six presidential elections (two by landslides) and averaged 52 percent of the popular vote. In the six presidential elections since then, however, they have won just twice and averaged just 45 percent of the popular vote. Something is obviously going badly wrong, and has been going wrong for a long time”.

He describes how the GOP is making its own situation worse for itself, “On the economic questions that matter most to them, Hispanics are highly liberal. That same 2007 Pew survey found that 69 percent of those polled wanted the government to guarantee health insurance for all, and 64 percent preferred more government services even at the cost of higher taxes. The reason is straightforward: the Hispanic population is disproportionately dependent on public assistance (22 percent have received food stamps, for example, as compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Poor people are entitled to vote their pocketbooks just as rich people are, and it’s not surprising that people who need government help would pull the Democratic lever more reliably than the Republican one”.

Pointedly he writes that “It wasn’t their personalities that kept McCain and Romney from winning the vote of the female partner in an accounting firm, the Indian American hotel owner, the Japanese American architect, or the gay retired military officer. McCain and Romney were fine candidates. The problem was that they were forced to contort themselves and embrace messages that must-win constituencies found deeply obnoxious. The GOP’s political prospects will brighten only when it finds a more appealing what”.

In a nuanced argument Frum says the the key to GOP success is the “core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges — and open up new possibilities”.

He ends “Conservatives may not be optimistic by nature. But even they should at least appreciate that Americans have never had so much worth conserving. The angry, insurrectionary mood of the past half-dozen years is as unjustified as it is dangerous to the stability of American government. For every action, whether in physics or in politics, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The liberal surge of the Obama years invites a conservative response, and a multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism is waiting to take form”.

Restoring American democracy

07/11/2014

In a superb piece, Christian Caryl writes that American democracy is dimming but offers solutions to fix it.

He opens “The approaching midterm election here in the United States offers fresh occasion for anguish about the fate of American democracy. We have a national vote in this country every two years, and each one offers plenty of opportunities to bemoan the sorry state of the republic. This time it’s the same, only worse. Once again, substantive policy issues are taking a back seat to partisan rancor and vicious negative ads. Once again, record amounts of cash are being spent to promote candidates whose actual ideological differences are often small. Once again, special interest groups are working hard to make sure that their private concerns will shape public policy. And once again, as usually happens in elections where voters don’t have to worry about choosing a president, turnout will end up well below 50 percent. (The figures are even worse — more like 30 percent — for local elections.) All these complaints are familiar enough. Yet there’s something about this particular election cycle that feels even grimmer than usual. President Barack Obama’s approval rating is dismal, but it doesn’t look too bad when compared with the figures for Congress, which are now in the single digits. This has a great deal to do with the deepening paralysis of lawmakers, who increasingly seem more intent on partisan point scoring than on getting things done”.

He goes on to make the important point “What Americans probably don’t realise, though, is that we aren’t the only ones to feel disillusioned. The rest of the world’s countries tend to pay far more attention to us than we do to them, and they’ve noticed what a mess our society is in. I’m not just talking here about the usual agonizing over American “declinism,” the general perception of diminished U.S. influence around the globe. I have a more specific problem in mind: America’s dwindling attractiveness as a model of democracy”.

Indeed Caryl is correct. Across Europe people are disconnected and angry at the unresponsive politicians and bankers who have mired their countries and citizenry in debt that will linger for generations, in the name of saving a “currency” no-one voted for or wanted. At the same time apthy is soaring among established democracies and as has been argued here before the best way to assist in restoring the link between citizens and politicians is compulsory voting. Other measures are needed as well but this measure alone would go a long way in beginning to restore confidence.

Caryl mentions fairly “Larry Diamond, one of America’s leading scholars on global democracy, brought it up in a rousing speech at a recent conference here in Washington. He noted, with admirable frankness, that “we can’t be credible and effective in promoting democracy abroad if we don’t reform and improve its functioning at home.” He used to make this point, he said, as one of his last pieces of advice to Americans who aim to offer assistance to would-be democrats abroad. Now, he said, “it needs to be the first.” He quoted the old Greek proverb: “Physician, heal thyself.” He’s not the only one. Just about everyone you meet in the “democracy bureaucracy” these days says the same”.

He goes on to offer a number of suggestions as to how to begin to fix the problems, “First and foremost, Americans need to stop whining and start reforming. Diamond himself offers a number of good places to start in a chapter of his 2008 book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. I don’t have the space to do full justice to his proposals, but suffice it to say that he offers a series of concrete recommendations on everything from tackling the legalised corruption at the heart of our political system to reducing partisan polarisation and enhancing political participation. The answers include full or partial public financing of campaigns, doing away with gerrymandering, and adoption of instant runoff voting, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference rather than forcing them to vote for only one”.

Caryl takes a holistic picture “Democracy will only win out if it delivers better results: good schools, sustainable economic growth, more income equality, and efficient and accessible health care. America’s current record on these fronts is spotty — which is why eyes tend to roll in other countries whenever we start to sing the praises of our system. There’s a big debate about effective governance going on in the world right now (for a good overview, see The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge). America needs to become a more active participant in that discussion. As Micklethwait and Woodridge note, there are plenty of countries that we, too, can learn from”.

He ends “Yet there’s no question in my mind that people around the world want more democracy. That’s because most people want freedom, political participation, and control over their own lives. But why they should they choose democracy if the way it’s implemented in their own societies results in rampant social injustice, corruption, diminished prosperity, and a decline in personal security? What they want is democracy that works. America used to be the world’s best example of that. Now it’s not. Maybe it’s time for us to clean up our act — and not just for own sake. Bring on those midterms”.

 

GOP, resorting to fear

20/10/2014

A piece from the New York Times discusses the Republican strategy for the upcoming midterms and that it is based largely on fear. Not only does this hurt the public discourse in the long run but it also harms Congress and the presidency itself, thus making the disapproval of democracy even worse.

It begins, “Republicans have made questions of how safe we are — from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous — central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim: President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm. Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed. Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie congressional races together with a single national theme”.

Decision time in Tunisia

29/09/2014

A piece notes the events in Tunisia, “Tunisia will vote in national elections in national parliamentary and presidential elections — marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia’s co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms. Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali’s reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or “Call for Tunisia,” a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali’s former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party”.

Of course the choice is not as stark as this and Tunisia will not become some Las Vegas of the Middle East overnight, should the “secularists” win the votes. The writer adds “Rather than doing what politicians do best — exploiting national divides for personal and political gain — both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus. Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias”.

This is indeed certainly a bold gesture and one that should be warmly welcomed. The danger however is that rather than allow these arguments to be debated in the public sphere as openly as possible, the result of this could be a clositered Ennahda and its followers could feel cheated by being deprived of the chance to vote for it in national elections.

He goes on to note “That being said, these admirable efforts haven’t gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to return for the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia’s fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya’s low-level civil war is also a grave risk. But even if terrorists don’t derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali’s regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali’s dictatorship”.

The writer adds unsuprisingly that “In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of “Islamism-lite” that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent. Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali’s regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation. As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes — a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the election.

He ends the piece “If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly. Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks. The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia’s government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers — many of them reservists — so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps. But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia’s elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya”.

He closes on a note of caution “If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy — all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue. If they do not, and Tunisia’s extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia’s budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria”.

 

End of Christian Democracy?

22/08/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs by Jan Werner Mueller discusses the death of Christian Democracy in Europe. This follows on from the article some time ago discussing the end of European socialists.

He opens “Europe of today is a creation of Christian Democrats. They were the architects of European integration and of postwar Atlanticism. And they were crucial in shaping the form of constitutional democracy that prevailed in the Western half of the continent after 1945 and has steadily been extended east since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Europe’s most powerful politician, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat, as are the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and his designated successor, Jean-Claude Juncker. In last May’s European Parliamentary elections, the continental association of Christian Democratic parties — the European People’s Party (EPP) — won the most seats. Yet both as a set of ideas and as a political movement, Christian democracy has become less influential and less coherent in recent years. This decline is due not only to the continent’s secular turn. At least as important are the facts that nationalism — one of Christian Democrats’ prime ideological enemies — is on the rise and that the movement’s core electoral constituency, a coalition of middle-class and rural voters, is shrinking. As the larger project of European integration faces new risks, then, its most important backer may soon prove incapable of defending it”.

While Merkel, Barroso and Juncker all technically belong to the Christian Democrat grouping, as the author said the label has become meaningless, “less influential and less coherent”.

He gives a brief history noting that “‘Christian Democrat’ is a designation that sounds peculiar to anyone accustomed to a strict separation of church and state. The term first appeared in the wake of the French Revolution and in the midst of fierce battles about the fate of the Catholic Church in a democracy. For most of the nineteenth century, the Vatican viewed modern political ideas — including liberal democracy — as a direct threat to its core doctrines. But there were also Catholic thinkers who agreed with the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight that, like it or not, democracy’s triumph in the modern world was inevitable. So-called Catholic liberals sought to make democracy safe for religion by properly Christianising the masses: after all, the reasoning went, a democracy of God-fearing citizens would have a much better chance of succeeding than one whose subjects were secular. Other Catholic intellectuals hoped to keep the people in line through Christian institutions, especially the papacy, which the French thinker Joseph de Maistre envisaged as part of a Europe-wide system of checks and balances. Most important, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Vatican itself eventually came to see the benefits of playing the democratic game and fostering parties that would defend the concerns of the church. Initially, they did so in bad faith — Christian democratic parties essentially functioned as interest groups within a system whose legitimacy the church continued to reject”.

He goes on to write “As the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has shown, Christian Democratic party leaders eventually developed their own interests. Playing the democratic game brought rewards and resources — and Christian Democrats eventually accepted political participation as legitimate. After World War I, when democracy swept Europe, the Vatican also relented somewhat: having completely rejected an Italian nation-state and prohibiting Catholics from playing any part in it (even banning voting), the pope threw his support behind a new party called Popolari. By uniting peasants and the lower middle classes, the Popolari became the country’s second-largest after the socialists. During the interwar years, relations between Christian Democrats and the Holy See cooled across Europe. The Vatican saw parties that it could control as useful, but it sidelined those that were unwilling to follow instructions from Rome and instead dealt with states directly”.

He adds later that “It wasn’t until after World War II that Christian Democratic parties fully freed themselves from the Vatican and took a leading role in constructing the postwar European order. The circumstances could hardly have been more propitious. Fascism and the war had discredited competing movements on the right. And Christian Democrats were seen as the quintessentially Atlanticist and anticommunist parties in countries such as Italy, West Germany, and other frontline states of the Cold War. Moreover, they now endorsed democracy, though with a caveat: to avoid drifting into totalitarianism, they argued, democratic governments needed to have spiritual underpinnings — something best supplied by the church. In this sense, the Christian Democrats rejected both communism and liberalism as forms of materialism. This stance did not prevent them from eventually making peace with capitalism — while insisting that religion was also needed to hold the evils of the market in check”.

Yet it is exactly these “spiritual underpinnings” that is needed so much nowadays, not just in Europe but across the world. Given the spectacular collapse of unfettered capitalism and the end of communism Christian Democracy with its principles of the common good and care for those less well off coupled with collective responsibility means that it has much to offer modern societies. However the death knell of ideology may have now finally been reversed with the collapse of the old economic order and people realising free market capitalism destroys itself and needs to be severely checked.

The author goes on to make the point “After decades as Europe’s dominant political force, the Christian Democrats are now facing the prospect of decline. Some observers have blamed secularization for weakening popular support. It is true that, since the early 1960s, churches have been emptying across the continent. But the parties themselves had already started to insist that one simply had to subscribe to humanist ideals in order to be a good Christian Democrat. The real problem arose with the triumph of the very political model that they had been promoting since the 1950s. Most central and eastern European countries adopted this model after 1989, but virtually none of them developed Christian Democratic parties in the mold of Germany’s Christlich Demokratische Union or Italy’s Democrazia Cristiana. In some countries, such as Catholic Poland, Christian Democratic groups seemed unnecessary; in others, they turned out to be radically different from their Western European counterparts in two respects: they were vehemently nationalist, and thus unwilling to concede much of the national sovereignty wrested back from the Soviet Union; and they were much more populist, seeing no reason to distrust the simple folk who had managed to survive state socialist dictatorships with their morals seemingly intact”.

He speaks about the death of communism and the subsequent end of “their greatest enemy” and he goes on to write “with it much of the ideological glue that had held often fractious political coalitions together. In Italy, the Christian Democrats had participated in every single government since World War II — the rationale being that the Communist Party, Western Europe’s largest, had to be kept out. In the early 1990s, the hugely corrupt Democrazia Cristiana collapsed. Then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — not a man known for strict adherence to Catholic morals — in effect inherited the party’s votes”.

Yet there are amazingly still those who cling, rigidly to “economic orthodoxy” and still believe in the myth of the market and the “magic” of capitalism. What better way to revive Christian Democracy now and have it balance those who believe in the unchecked market who mistakenly believe that this means greater freedom for everyone, when it fact it only means greater power and influence for the richest in society.

He goes on to make the excellent point “Part of the problem, some observers say, is that the EPP — encompassing no fewer than 73 member parties from 39 countries — is simply overstretched. In the early 1990s, as Helmut Kohl, then German chancellor, and Wilfried Martens, former Belgian prime minister and then president of the EPP, recruited politicians throughout Europe, they maintained relatively low standards, with little regard to the new adherents’ real commitment to party ideals. Kohl was adamant that Christian Democrats had not built Europe just to surrender it to socialists, and that the EPP needed to retain continent’s largest political grouping no matter what”.

He make the argument that “The deeper issue, however, concerns the movement’s ideological distinctiveness. Leaders such as Kohl were willing to take risks for Europe. Today, one is hard-pressed to find any true believers who would put their career on the line for European integration, least of all the current German chancellor. On questions of markets and morality, the Christian Democrats had a prime opportunity to reinvent themselves after the financial crisis: they might have brought back their old ideals of an economy, for example, in which the morally relevant unit is a societal group with legitimate interests, not a profit-maximizing individual”.

It is important to note that the fundamentals of Christian Democracy are not, and should not be tied to the EU. They can and should be separated and indeed had CD not had the baggage of the EU from the outset it would have lasted much longer. Now however the EU is effectively a finished project and but this means those advocates of CD can focus on the true core of it and not be blinded by and unwavering attachment to the EU.

He makes the argument that Europe’s Christian Democrats could also take a page out of the playbook of American conservatives, refocusing on social issues and waging a Kulturkampf of their own against secularism. Some have already tried: during the last decade, the Spanish Popular Party mobilized the Catholic vote against socialist Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, who had introduced same-sex marriage. Contrary to the cliché of religious America and irreligious Europe, there remains considerable potential for such campaigns in some southern and eastern European countries. It is telling, however, that Spanish voters ultimately parted with Zapatero for his handling of the eurocrisis”.

He ends noting “Christian Democrats face a difficult dilemma. Their policy goals are only marginally different from those of Social Democratic parties on economic questions.Kulturkampf is risky, but becoming too mainstream on social matters creates political space for groups that present themselves as genuinely conservative. Political parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, which is mostly focused on opposing the EU but increasingly defends traditional morality, and France’s Front National are the beneficiaries. Most important, Christian Democrats are under intense pressure from right-wing nationalists and populists. And since they no longer dare to defend ambitious plans for European integration, the erstwhile architects of continental unity are more or less defenseless. Their politics of accommodation does not work as a response to the populists, who thrive on polarization and identity politics”.

It is untrue to say that parties, any parties, in Europe defended “ambitious plan for European integration”, if any party in either Germany or France or Spain or Italy, to say nothing of the UK had proclaimed their vision for a united federal EU then they would had recieved no votes. The point is that no parties were honest enough to say were they wanted to take the people in the EU as they knew it would not be popular. Instead they and the EU thrived on technocratic and undemocratic reforms, which ironically is exactly what they created the EU to get away from.

He ends “The European Union will not collapse as a result. The real problem is the half-finished eurozone. As Europeans have learned at great cost in recent years, the eurozone as it exists today is incomplete and incoherent: it is a monetary union that does not allow for the proper coordination of fiscal policies or a real convergence of the participating economies. A flood of cheap money from the European Central Bank — the current solution to the euro crisis — has failed to address the underlying structural problems of individual states and of the eurozone as a whole. Making the euro work in the long run will require a willingness to take political risks and material sacrifices. And the days when Christian Democratic idealism was capable of generating both are over”.

BJP vs Congress

04/02/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs by Sumit Ganguly discusses the upcoming Indian election. It argues that

The piece begins “The vote will pit the forces of progressivism, which celebrate cultural and social pluralism and promote equity and good governance but appears singularly incapable of policy implementation, against the forces of cultural and religious nationalism, which promote rapid economic growth and political order but show little regard for social justice, religious and ethnic minorities, or the rule of law. The outcome of the battle could very well reshape the world’s largest democracy. It is tempting to assume that the two competing visions are neatly encapsulated by the race’s main contenders, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But that would be facile. Congress’ election platform certainly suggests that it remains committed to progressivism. But even a cursory examination of its record in office over the past term suggests that it is not.”

He argues that the BJP falls into the category of “rapid economic growth and political order” but interestingly he writes “has not always maintained political order. Some of the worst communal violence, after all, has taken place under its watch. Indeed, despite the BJP’s critique of Congress’ abysmal performance, it has been unable to offer any viable alternative. Although reliable and valid opinion polls are scant, it should not come as a surprise when neither party obtains a clear-cut mandate.

The Indian public has been greatly disappointed by Congress’ performance as the leading party within the United Progressive Alliance regime, which has ruled India since 2004. During its first term in office (2004–9), the UPA presided over substantial economic growth, successfully concluded a major agreement on civilian nuclear power with the United States, and passed legislation designed to promote greater government accountability. All the while, it pursued generally progressive social policies. However, in its second term, the UPA seemed to lose its way”.

He mentions the BJP candidate for PM, “The BJP’s chosen candidate for the position of prime minister, Narendra Modi, has a disturbing past. It was during his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat that a pogrom against the state’s Muslims took place. Admittedly, the Supreme Court of India has formally exonerated him of all charges. However, he remains a deeply divisive figure. And given his party’s record of hostility toward secularism, it is not difficult to speculate how a government under his leadership might treat ethnic and religious minorities. Even his much-vaunted record of promoting economic growth in Gujarat is not free of blemishes. Although he was successful in attracting investment and promoting industrial growth, his administration did little to promote economic equality or implement existing environmental safeguards”.

He adds that “Indian voters are now faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, they can vote for Congress and the UPA because of their commitments, however flawed, to secularism and social justice. On the other, they may be tempted to vote for the BJP because of the UPA’s failure to promote growth and employment and maintain public order. Either way, they understand that they will not likely get the policies for which they bargained. Instead, they can be assured that they are in for a period of political instability with a fractious coalition regime that is unable to forge a viable working consensus. And that is why levels of participation in the upcoming elections will be crucial. If a substantial segment of the electorate simply stays home, the outcome of the election, already uncertain, could become even less predictable”.

Indeed this is the problem faced by many Western voters with fewer and fewer people seeing the relevance of politics and a worrying preference for manageralism. This had led to greater and greater apthy which in turn as led to a shrinking turnout and a corrisponding lack of legitimacy. The main reason for this is the lack of ideological differentation between the parties.

He ends the piece, “With politics floundering at the national level and flourishing at the local level, it is possible that the elections will result in a disparate coalition of the BJP and one or more regional parties. Such an outcome could well return India to the conditions of the 1980s, when a fractious and unwieldy coalition regime imperiled economic growth, governance, and political order. Given all the variables, it is exceedingly difficult to tell how such a government would actually govern — or attack the myriad challenges that besiege the country. Such a coalition would not be able to tackle the mounting problems of governability, sluggish economic growth, and a drifting foreign policy. The hopes that many observers had for a well governed, booming India ready to take its place in the global order now seem increasingly off base”.

Gone tomorrow?

15/01/2014

A piece in the Economist discusses what appears to be the rise of the right it warns however that there is no guarantee to sustained electoral success.

It opens noting that Julien Rochedy is campaigning for the mayoral elections in France for the National Front.
It adds, “The National Front (FN) has no local office in Montelimar, nor any historical hold here. The town’s narrow streets carry no posters for the evening’s meeting. But in France’s 2012 presidential election, Ms Le Pen grabbed 21% of Montelimar’s first-round vote—more than she did nationwide. So the FN is fielding Mr Rochedy as a candidate in the mayoral elections to be held in March. “I’ve come here a bit like a missionary,” he says cheerfully. That evening a few hundred people turn out, curious to hear Mr Rochedy and his star guest, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 24-year-old niece of the party leader and one of the FN’s two deputies in parliament. Mr Rochedy, author of a book on the decadence of the West and admirer of Nietzsche, is part of a phalanx of young candidates recruited to become the new face of the FN”.
It writes that the leader of the party and her “anti-elitist, anti-Brussels, anti-immigrant stance is playing well with a significant fraction of her countrymen—as are similar messages from charismatic right-wing insurgents across the continent”.
Interestingly it goes on to note that the party, formerly the French fascists, “suggest that the FN could win a plurality of the votes in France. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has similarly high hopes, as does the Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands. Anti-EU populists of the left and right could take between 16% and 25% of the parliament’s seats, up from 12% today. Many of those votes will go to established parties of the Eurosceptic left. But those of the right and far right might take about 9%. And it is they, not the parties of the left, who are scaring the mainstream”.
This is perhaps no bad thing. There are plenty of politicans in Europe and many inside the EU institutions who pay little heed to what the voters think. It is almost as if the people are still obsessed with this strange thing called nationalism while many in the insitutions seem unable to comprehend the people they are supposedly working for. Therefore, if the polls are accurate and if the people turn out to vote, both of which may not be likely, then a EU parliament with a strong bloc of right wing nationalists all making common cause could threaten these elites and a real debate could be had about the future of the EU and where people want it to go, as well as the consequences of their chosen course of action. Lastly, the elites should understand that when the system is not listening to them they will use whatever levers are at their disposal to make their voices heard.
The article goes on, “The response of the political establishment to a tide of anti-European populism which draws on anti-immigrant feeling and antipathy towards Islam has mostly been to evoke the 1930s and hope for revulsion to take its course. “We should not forget”, said José Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, “that in Europe, not so many decades ago, we had very, very worrying developments of xenophobia and racism and intolerance.” It is true that some anti-EU parties are toxic”.
The “benefit” of having these, less than respectable parties in the parliament is that it could force moderation for those calling for unchecked integration, regardless of the consequences. Of couse, as has been speculated here before, if there was a real agonistic political debate, not only within states but across the EU the cosy moderates who accept endless integration, then the peoples of the European continent might not be in this mess.
The piece goes on to mention rightly that “To raise the spectre of a return to 1930s fascism, however, is “not the right question,” argues Catherine Fieschi, director of Counterpoint, a British think-tank. Most of Europe’s populist parties either have no roots in the far right or have made a conscious and open effort to distance themselves from such antecedents. A better question is how far these parties can use popular dissatisfaction to reshape Europe’s political debate, and whether they can use that influence to win real power”.
Indeed, the fact that Barrosso would use the past to support the status quo, irrespective of the historical accuracy, let alone validity of it should not suprise everyone. Any trick will be used, any heart strings will be pulled to maintain the status quo – these tricks should not be tolerated anymore.
The piece goes on to add, “Elsewhere some on the populist right—Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Northern League—want regional autonomy within the EU while others—UKIP and the Finns Party—reject EU membership outright. Those not stained by direct descent from a racist past distinguish themselves from those that are. That is why the FN does not sit in the Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament that UKIP and the Northern League belong to, and why a deal between the PVV and the FN could herald quite an institutional shake-up. What they all have in common is that they are populist and nationalist, that they have strong views on the EU, immigration and national sovereignty, and that as a result they are doing very well in the polls”.

The piece adds later that “The euro-zone crisis, and its aftermath, goes some way to explaining why—but it is far from a complete answer. The populist right is nowhere to be found in austerity-battered Spain and Portugal. But it thrives in well-off Norway, Finland and Austria. Between 2005 and 2013, according to calculations by Cas Mudde, at the University of Georgia, there are almost as many examples of electoral loss for parties of the far and populist right (in Belgium, Italy and Slovakia, among others) as there are of gain (in Austria, Britain, France, Hungary, the Netherlands). But if euro-zone economics are not a full explanation, the crisis has been crucial to setting the scene for the potent new pairing of old nationalist rhetoric with contemporary Euroscepticism. Across Europe disillusion with the EU is at an all-time high: in 2007 52% of the public said it has a positive image of the EU; by 2013 the share had collapsed to 30%. The new identity politics is a way of linking the problems of Europe and those of immigration. It also taps into concerns about the way globalisation, defended by the mainstream political consensus, undermines countries’ ability to defend their jobs, traditions and borders”.

Crucially the author notes, “Young or old, populist parties speak to an electorate which Dominique Reynié, an academic at Sciences-Po in Paris, sees as “existentially destabilised”: confused and anxious about what they belong to, where their country is heading, and whether their leaders can do anything about it”.
 The writer adds, “The problem the populist parties face is that when this sort of protest gains traction its themes can quite easily be grabbed by the mainstream right. When those parties move towards the populists, the populists risk getting swamped even as their messages become mainstream—or, if they attempt to keep a radical edge, being forced back on to the fringes. The tension between influence and power may make the parties’ growth self-limiting. Populist parties that make it into national parliaments can further their agendas by deft horse-trading. From 2001 to 2011 the Danish People’s Party under Pia Kjaersgaard swapped parliamentary support for a succession of centre-right minority coalitions for tighter legislation on immigration. They can also hope to move beyond single issues and get into government. To the consternation of liberal Scandinavians, Norway’s nationalist-right Progress Party, which secured 16% of the vote at recent parliamentary elections, has been welcomed into a minority coalition government. Its leader, Siv Jensen—a sort of Norwegian Marine Le Pen, who talks about the “rampant Islamification” of Norway—has become the finance minister”.
The piece notes correctly the temporary power of UKIP, “The best example of how the new nationalism can pull the political debate in its direction by getting others to ape it is offered by UKIP. It has ten seats in the European Parliament (one of them Mr Farage’s) but none in Westminster; it secured just 3% of votes in the 2010 general election. Yet, as Heather Grabbe of the Open Society think-tank in Brussels points out, good poll numbers and impressive showings in by-elections have been enough to give its views potency, strengthening the hands of hardline Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party. As a result David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, has promised a referendum on British membership of the EU. He also sounds an increasingly hardline note on immigration from the EU, and on the need to clamp down on “welfare tourism”. The opposition Labour Party, relaxed in the past about open borders, now promises to be tougher, too. This success is largely Mr Farage’s. His canny deployment of saloon-bar blokeishness as common sense is the most potent tool of a party which lacks any strength-in-depth and is prone to chaotic squabbling behind the scenes. His importance is typical of the populist parties’ heavy reliance on one-man brands”.
The piece ends, “The quest for respectability has been uneven. Ms Le Pen rejects outright the suggestion that there is anything racist about the party today. Yet the FN recently had to suspend one of its municipal candidates for posting a photomontage of Christiane Taubira, the black justice minister, next to that of a monkey on Facebook. Ms Le Pen herself once compared Muslims praying in the French street to the Nazi Occupation. Her strategy also involves trying to deepen party expertise in a bid to earn policy credibility—not a voters’ worry today, but possibly one tomorrow. She has recruited three graduates of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration to her team; the fact that she wants suchénarques, and that there are énarques happy to work with her, signals seriousness. And she has lined up scores of young candidates, such as Mr Rochedy in Montelimar, to stand at municipal polls. The idea is to secure them local experience to prepare for bigger ambitions in the future”.
It concludes, “Ms Fieschi at Counterpoint argues that the tension between the moderation needed for power and the outsider status that attracts a dispirited public makes such parties “fundamentally unstable” in a way that limits their growth. As Matthew Goodwin at Nottingham University points out, Austria’s Freedom Party imploded after it joined government in 2000 because it could not manage the conflict between protest and power. On this analysis, Europe’s populists may be near the height of their influence. Were the economy to recover and unemployment to drop, their message might fall on less receptive ground. Within the European Parliament, rivalry between them may thwart their high hopes for influence. Ms Le Pen sniffs that UKIP “is a bit too immature” to see beyond the caricature of her party. For the time being, however, a battered Europe is fertile terrain. There is little sign yet of a sustained drop in joblessness, nor decisive economic recovery. Back in the Montelimar café, the patron turns out to be an FN supporter too. “We’re not a racist party,” he insists. His grudge, rather, is against Europe, the euro and the complacent leaders who “got us into this mess” in the first place”.

A return to agonism?

13/01/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the need for the social democratic left in politics to return to its roots, thus saving itself, and society with it.

It opens, When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, social democrats in Europe believed that their moment had finally arrived. After a decade in which European politics had drifted toward the market-friendly policies of the right, the crisis represented an opportunity for the political center left’s champions of more effective government regulation and greater social justice to reassert themselves. After all, it was thanks to center-right policies that deregulated financial markets had devolved into a kind of black hole, detached from the wider global economy but exerting a powerful force on all kinds of economic activity. When the financial services industry finally collapsed, the effects went far beyond Wall Street and the U.S. economy, plunging financial markets and economies everywhere into a deep crisis that has still not been resolved”.

The author writes crucially, “social democrats in Europe sensed a possible silver lining. For decades, they had argued for stiffer regulations to steady inherently unstable financial markets, to no avail. The crisis, it seemed, proved them right. Moreover, in the wake of a massive global recession, millions of people had to turn for support to the welfare systems that social democrats had built and sustained: yet another vindication, they believed. And yet five years later, Europe’s social democratic moment has yet to materialise. Social democrats have won victories at the national level in a number of countries, including Denmark, France, and Slovakia. But these relatively modest gains have been overshadowed by a sense that Europe has fallen into a period of political volatility, a permanent emergency of sorts brought on by the flaws revealed in the euro system and the European Union as the global financial crisis morphed into a eurozone crisis. Even though social democrats have not yet been able to fully capitalise on the situation, they still have a chance to do so, but only if they come to see how the mistakes they made during the previous two decades reduced their political capital and left them ill prepared to take advantage of a political environment that should play to their strengths”.

The writer argues for social democrats to return to thier old ways of challenging unfettered immoral capitalism and at the same time protect the welfare state that so many now rely on during these times. The piece adds that “From the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, they had suffered significant declines in electoral support in key countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom. These declines prompted soul-searching on the European left, which took different forms in different countries. One common conclusion, however, was that as neoliberalism spread and economies around the world changed dramatically, traditional social democratic politics seemed outdated to many voters. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the Democratic Party, led by President Bill Clinton, responded by shifting to the right, plotting a “third way” that accommodated market-friendly neoliberal policies”.

Of course what actually happened was that the so called “New Democrats” in fact adopted, almost wholesale, the GOP platform of mass privitisation and welfare cuts. Naturally other parties joined Clinton in ditching their values and jumping off the cliff. Part of the result of this was a decline in voter turnout. People saw little ideological difference between the parties and saw fewer and fewer reasons to vote.

As the writer says, “The key intellectual shift shared by the many different third-way currents that emerged in the 1990s was their application of pro-market policies to almost every area of governing. Third-way proponents saw social security systems not primarily as insurance against major life risks, such as unemployment, illness, and infirmity, but rather as a means of economic reintegration. Their goal was to transform the social safety net into a trampoline, focused less on addressing the immediate needs of the poor and disadvantaged and more on helping such people rapidly rejoin the economy. In practice, these reforms increased the risk that the unemployed would face permanent downward mobility, with the government subsidizing their reentry into the very bottom end of the labor market”.

The writer argues, correctly that “Still, in electoral terms, the third way worked well, at least for a time. By the end of the 1990s, social democrats led most of the EU states”, the piece goes on to say that “to many voters, the extent to which social democrats had changed their stripes represented an opportunistic betrayal of their core beliefs that left them almost indistinguishable from their political competitors. Such accusations took their toll, but the weakness of the third way became undeniable only after the financial crisis. Suddenly, traditional social democratic warnings about the inherent instability of markets — the kind of talk that third-way leaders such as Blair had left behind — seemed prescient, not old-fashioned. But because social democratic leaders had spent the previous two decades adopting, rather than adapting, neglecting to develop a true alternative to neoliberalism’s insistence on unfettered markets, the crisis found them intellectually unprepared”.

The writer continues, “Today, while they should be riding high, the social democrats appear overwhelmed by the rapid change that is taking place around them — just like almost every other group in the European political ecosystem”. She goes on to add later that “To accomplish those goals in the midst of a continent-wide political crisis, social democrats must abandon their recent obsession with short-term electoral tactics and return to their political and ideological roots, offering voters in their countries a vision of a “good society.” The core social democratic values of freedom, equality, and social justice should be the guiding ideals for a good society that recalibrates the relationship among citizens, the economy, and the state. A dynamic and sustainable economy must be not an end in itself but a means to improve the lives of all citizens, not just a few at the top. The allocation of income and wealth in many places today has little to do with people’s performance; it is mostly the result of power and influence. A good society would reinstate the performance principle”.

She gives the example of Apple. In an old fashioned and paternalistic way, though these are not inherently bad concepts she writes, “It should have come as no surprise that retrofitting the techniques of retail marketing to electoral strategy would not make for coherent politics — it rarely makes for good business, either. Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, understood this well. When asked by his biographer, Walter Isaacson, why he refused to rely on traditional market research, Jobs replied, “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. . . . People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Europe’s social democrats should heed Jobs’ advice and craft a new and convincing political agenda that reflects their core values, rather than trying to reverse-engineer a platform that just reflects what opinion research suggests the public wants to hear. An electoral strategy based on articulating core social democratic values would also offer a tactical advantage. As European societies become more culturally and socially fragmented, trying to target particular groups of voters with tailored messages means chasing ever-smaller segments of society with ever-narrower messages. This divide-and-conquer approach served third-way politicians well during the years of stability and prosperity. But during a crisis or a prolonged period of instability, it has prevented social democratic parties from putting forward broad-based platforms that could unite otherwise diverse social groups around a single economic and political vision”.

She ends the article, “if Europe’s social democrats are to have a real shot at winning office and governing successfully, they need to think big. Rhetorical adjustments will not suffice, nor will simply rebranding third-way ideas for the current situation. To finally seize the moment, social democrats need to return to their roots and offer Europeans a vision of a good society, one that can redeem the promise of social justice and a prosperous economy”.

“Democracies need debates”

21/09/2013

As the impending victory of Chancellor Angela Merkel seems all but assured in the German general election, and article in Foreign Affairs discusses the the predicted result, is entirely negative for the euro crisis and its eventual conclusion.

The author writes, “Germany has been dubbed Europe’s most powerful country, the EU’s “indispensable nation,” but it would be hard to tell from its current election season. The country’s leading politicians have been focused on such weighty matters as whether foreigners should be charged for the privilege of driving on German autobahns and how to calibrate pension rates for civil servants. In the eyes of critics inside and outside the country, the election battle has not only been boring — it has also been deeply irresponsible, a willful repression of the important issues facing the country”.

This failure will lead that to ruin. By being politically astute and ignoring, or sidlining the euro crisis they have only set themselves up to chaos when the new chancellor, whoever that is, must use vast sums of Germany money to bailout the EU and its failed currency. This backlash will be all the worse as they have not publicy discussed it.

Many would argue that it has not been discussed because there is broad agreement but this diminishes the problems and the scale of the solution needed to fix the issue at stake.

The article goes on to describe how this failure, “The real failure is that, in Germany’s first federal election since the outbreak of the eurocrisis in 2010, the fate of the European project has barely figured at all. By now, Europeans should have woken up to the fact of profound financial and political interdependence in the eurozone — yet they still conduct elections as if they were entirely national affairs”.

The piece adds that “The curious sleepiness of the election campaign has to do with two peculiar circumstances. One is that Merkel has sought to recycle the strategy that worked for her four years ago, which goes by the awkward name “asymmetric demobilisation.” Merkel either says as little as possible about controversial topics or explicitly adopts many of her opponents’ positions, in the hope that the supporters of opposition parties will feel that nothing much is at stake, and hence stay away from the polls. It is the direct opposite of the approach she took in the first federal elections she contested in 2005. Then, Merkel staked out clear positions in the name of her prime political value, “freedom” — in particular, an ambitious program of cutting the welfare state. The result was that she almost lost an election that was supposed to be a landslide in her favour.  The lesson she drew was clear: you cannot be attacked for something you have not said, and you cannot be punished for following public opinion rather than trying to shape it”.

They rightly warn of the consequences of this Merkel “leadership“, “The lesson stuck when it came time for Merkel to govern. Critics have called her the first “post-political” chancellor — she is a leader without any trace of ideological commitment. Instead, she is devoted to process over substance, and willing to adopt any policy position as long as it gives the impression of competence and consensus”.

Of course the problem with Merkel’s view, is that ideology is in everything. No decision cannot be called ideological and therefore Merkel is effectively lying to the German electorate. This is much of same tactic used at the heart of the EU. Trying to ignore ideology which is for some reason viewed as inherently bad, and at the same time attempting to reduce everything to technocratic decisions. The result is unelected officials vary exceeding whatever “mandate” they once had thereby engendering dissolusionment and anger in the people of the continent. Sadly their solution seems to be more of the same, in both German and EU “politics”.

The writers mention “the eurocrisis in particular — Merkel has identified the center of German politics and occupied that space squarely. She has also ensured that no serious rival threatens from within her own party. And yet, even though she is obviously the country’s most powerful decision-maker, she has managed to insulate herself from responsibility for any particular political outcome by refusing to be identified too closely with the details of any given policy”.

They add that the oppostion ,”Social Democrats chose a candidate for the chancellorship whose public image is as Merkelian as it gets — minus the reticence. Steinbrück was Merkel’s finance minister in the “grand coalition” between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009. Together, they are often credited with having met the challenges of the financial crisis — and in some sense, that partnership has endured even after the Social Democrats entered the opposition. From the opposition benches, the party has supported all of Merkel’s eurocrisis policies. As a result, the party has no credible way to attack Merkel during the campaign”.

Worryingly they add that “Merkel’s approach — managerial, cautious, incremental — seems to have suited most Germans just fine. They do not feel that the eurocrisis has been truly solved; they have a lingering sense that, after the elections, they will be presented with another bill for Greece. But the last thing they seem to want is some new grand vision for Europe, with more power handed over to Brussels; only the Greens dare to be openly Euro-enthusiastic, and their poll numbers have been steadily declining”.

The problems however they write are manifold, “the true preferences of the German public have become increasingly difficult to discern. It is still unclear whether a substantial number of voters are actually in favour of undoing parts of European integration. A new party, Alternative for Germany, has vowed to work for an ‘orderly dissolution’ of the euro. At present, polls do not indicate that the party will make it into parliament — but many observers feel that election night could hold a surprise. Given the taboo in Germany against policies that are even remotely ‘anti-European,’ prospective voters might have been reluctant to reveal their true preferences to pollsters”.

They add correctly that “given that even Merkel’s own Christian Democrat constituents are not that excited to vote — is corrosive to the political system. Democracies need debates and public discourse, as a way to decide on a direction for a polity. This year, voter turnout is expected to be lower than ever before, and prominent intellectuals have made a point of proclaiming that, for the first time, they will abstain. Suddenly, Germans are recalling their civics lessons about the Weimar Republic and how it unraveled because of a lack of democrats truly committed to the political system; there is a growing, although still rather quiet, fear that a truly charismatic right-wing populist could one day capitalise on the country’s creeping disenchantment with politics”.

This is at the very heart of agonism. Without open and strong debate based on ideas and ideology, people see little point in voting thus leading to the dimunation of democracy and the rise of the very thing Germans were trying to avoid, dictatorship.

They write that “There is another, less obvious worry. Merkel has subtly encouraged European elites that all countries have to watch each other much more closely. She decided at one point that the traditional European institutions for problem-solving and policy innovation — the European Commission in particular — could not be relied upon to prevent another Greece. Instead, she is betting on closer coordination of economic and fiscal policies among independent nation-states, with Brussels having some role in supervising individual national budgets, but by no means in a leadership role. There are good reasons to be skeptical about an approach that empowers national executives at the expense of European institutions and national parliaments. It will lead to a Europe of two parallel universes: on the one hand, the existing EU of 28 member states, which operates on the basis of the European treaties; on the other hand, the eurozone, in which governments make pacts among themselves, sometimes using the EU institutions and sometimes creating new ones ad hoc”.

They concldue “it is an open question whether things can stay this quiet for long. In the absence of explanation and discussion, Merkel’s policy of coordination will never gain legitimacy across the continent. For now, Germany is basking in its economic success and might not have to worry about major sacrifices for the sake of the euro. But if they were ever to become necessary, which remains a very real possibility, German elites might regret their acquiescence to democratic demobilisation”.

“Retreating to its comfort zone”?

14/04/2013

Lord Reid of Cardowan, the former home secretary, said Labour had to move beyond criticising the coalition and must propose its own solutions on issues such as welfare, the economy and housing. David Blunkett, another former New Labour Cabinet member, said the party’s MPs were too quiet and urged his colleagues to work harder at promoting their plans. Their comments followed Mr Miliband’s public clash with Tony Blair last week after the former prime minister warned that Labour was in danger of retreating to its “comfort zone” as a party of protest. Lord Reid, who held six Cabinet posts, including defence secretary and health secretary, said that while Mr Miliband had succeeded in establishing an effective opposition, he had yet to offer an alternative agenda for government”.

 

“Wandering the wilderness”

08/02/2013

There is ongoing discussion with the Republican Party about how to gain greater electoral success after the defeat of the GOP when it could have won in 2012.

The Hill has an interesting article from AB Stoddard who opens her piece noting the short time frame for what has happened “After wandering the wilderness for a few years then winning a historic House majority in 2010, another makeover wasn’t exactly what the party had in mind. With the White House in their sights but out of reach until they overcome certain demographic liabilities, Republicans are searching once again”.

Indeed, after the 2010 midterms  there was such jubilation, and almost an air of arrogance, that the 2012 elections would be a lock for the GOP. It was this arrogance that lead the Tea Party to overreach and overestimate their popularity with the wider American public. The campaign of the Tea Party, like most populist movements, gave more heat than light to debate and it did little to ensure its survival into the long term. The “links” the movement has with the billionaire Koch brothers does little to aid the long term viability of the “movement” either.

She goes on to mention “newly reelected Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has told the Republicans they need to be the ‘happy party.’ Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was more direct: Republicans need to stop being the ‘stupid party,’ he said. And GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway has instructed House Republicans to stop talking about rape”.

This debate is reminiscent of the debate within the Conservative Party in the UK, which after over a almost two decades in power were thrown out in 1997 to face over a decade on the opposition benches. The party as a whole tried to gain ideological purity, which is a noble aim, but the result was the voters only saw the party talking to itself. Some in the party still think this is the answer but thankfully they are in the minority.
Stoddard goes on to write that “Steve King (R), mulling a Senate bid in Iowa, a battleground President Obama won in 2008 and 2012, is one of those worrisome candidates. Bitterness among establishment figures like Rove over the failure of Tea Party-backed conservatives like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and former Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri to win their races in 2012 still lingers from 2010, when the GOP fell short of a majority in the Senate because Tea Party candidates Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado all lost their races”.

She ends her piece “the party is now riven by the fight over immigration reform and whether it will save the party or sink it for good. It has turned Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the Tea Party insurgent who crushed establishment Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in their Senate primary in 2010, into an establishment wimp supporting amnesty. Just ask the editors at the National Review. But standing with him are Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who have concluded that the party can’t win a national coalition for the presidency if burgeoning Hispanic populations turn red states like Texas and Arizona blue”.
She closes that some members are still doing harm to the GOP, even after all that has happened. Until these members can seen sense, or at least be silenced, then the GOP as a whole will find it hard, to say the least, to become a viable force again.

Related matters

03/01/2013

With the notion of America decline having been throughly defeated, attention must now turn to related matters. As the fiscal cliff negotations were eventually finished successfully questions must be asked to to whether the system that was made for the 18th Century has had its day and now must change with the ever increasing speed of the world. This is not to say that a dicatatorship should be established, far from it, there is always a need for agonism, especially in the world of today, however when the institutional system works against the current atmosphere with the system must change or the current atmosphere.

An article in The Economist from some time ago discusses the state of Washington politics. The piece, written in 2010 notes that President Obama “has been unable to enact health-care reform, a Democratic goal for many decades. His cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions has passed the House but languishes in the Senate. Now a bill to boost job-creation is stuck there as well. Nor is it just a question of a governing party failing to get its way. Washington seems incapable of fixing America’s deeper problems. Democrats and Republicans may disagree about climate change and health, but nobody thinks that America can ignore the federal deficit, already 10% of GDP and with a generation of baby-boomers just about to retire”.

The article goes on to say “This, argue the critics, is what happens when a mere 41 senators (in a 100-strong chamber) can filibuster a bill to death; when states like Wyoming (population: 500,000) have the same clout in the Senate as California (37m), so that senators representing less than 11% of the population can block bills; when, thanks to gerrymandering, many congressional seats are immune from competitive elections; when hateful bloggers and talk-radio hosts shoot down any hint of compromise; when a tide of lobbying cash corrupts everything”.

In a recent development however “Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leading proponent of filibuster reform, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has the 51 votes he needs to change Senate rules with the ‘nuclear option.’ The maneuver would be controversial, however, and could heighten partisan tensions at the start of the 113th Congress in January. Republicans say using 51 votes to change Senate procedures — and to prevent the minority party in the Senate from blocking a majority-vote — amounts to breaking the rules to change them”. It goes on to say that under a bipartisan plan “the Senate would adopt an order at the opening of the next Congress that would give the majority leader more tools to overcome procedural barriers to debating bills”.

The Economist article notes that many inside Washington see a more “streamlined” approach as better but the article goes on to say this view is incorrect “Washington has its faults, some of which could easily be fixed. But much of the current fuss forgets the purpose of American government; and it lets current politicians (Mr Obama in particular) off the hook. To begin with, the critics exaggerate their case. It is simply not true to say that nothing can get through Congress. Look at the current financial crisis. The huge TARP bill, which set up a fund to save America’s banks, passed, even though it came at the end of George Bush’s presidency. The stimulus bill, a $787 billion two-year package, made it through within a month of Mr Obama taking office”.

While the piece is correct to say that a more streamlined approach is not the right way to go about reforming things they underestimate the size of the problem. They cite the TARP bill and ARRA that was passed but these were under emergency circumstances when it is easy to get support. More and more Congress is turning into a parliament. People like Olympia Snowe have left the Senate because of the atmosphere and lack of co-operation but by their leaving they only make it more partisan. None of this would matter if America had a parliamentary system with a real whip structure but it does not.

The piece goes on to mention “A criticism with more weight is that American government is good at solving acute problems (like averting a Depression) but less good at confronting chronic ones (like the burden of entitlements). Yet even this can be overstated. Mr Bush failed to reform pensions, but he did push through No Child Left Behind, the biggest change to schools for a generation. Bill Clinton reformed welfare. The system, in other words, can work, even if it does not always do so”.

The article ends strangely, “Obama could pass a lot of green regulation by executive order” this seems to acknowledge the GOP intrasnigance on some issues, but then it goes on the add “It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours”.

This contradictary paragraph sums up neatly the problems in Washington and why it is becoming increasingly so, neither party have much in common and in order to get anything done they must work around the system, not with it. The article’s blaming of President Obama is shortsighted however as he is the root cause, merely a symptom, of the problem.

A related article in the same issue opens noting what highly respected economist Paul Krugman said when he compared mondern America to Poland in the 1700s, the article notes “On his telling, Poland was rendered largely ungovernable by the parliament’s requirement for unanimity, and disappeared as a country for more than a century”. Now, while the comparison is ungenerous to America, it will not disapear, the broad comparison should be noted. This longer piece again echos the previous shorter piece dealt with above when it says “The growing idea among influential pundits that America is ‘ungovernable’ is being driven in large part by Barack Obama’s failure so far to pass some of the main laws he wants to”.

This is despite the fact that fewer and fewer bills are being passed with bipartisan support and both parties are becoming more extreme in their views. The article at the same times blames President Obama for not working with the GOP but then goes on to say “is making ever-louder pleas to his Republican foes to bail him out. They have reluctantly accepted his invitation to a bipartisan summit on health reform at the White House next week (voters do not like the minority party to be entirely obstructive). But with mid-term elections in November, the Republicans have every reason not to throw the floundering Democrats a lifeline”. This undercuts their argument somewhat.

The article then goes on to discuss, in some depth the politican situation at the time it was written, this again undercuts the argument they try to make by focusing solely on Obama, if they really wanted to make the case they would discuss President Clinton and President Bush who both had a hard time passing legislation.

The piece goes on to metion “For most of the 19th century the majority in the Senate had no way to move to ‘cloture’—ie, end a filibuster and force a vote. This (remember Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’) enabled almost any senator to block almost any measure just by keeping on talking. In 1917, prompted by a filibuster against Woodrow Wilson’s wish to take America into the first world war, the Senate adopted Rule XXII, which said that it could move to cloture if two-thirds of senators present voted for it. Today’s version requires the assent of three-fifths of all senators, in other words 60 out of the 100. It may sound arcane, but Rule XXII has big consequences. It means, in effect, that new legislation can be forced to muster a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate”.

Yet again they abolish their own argument that it is down to President Obama when they write “The supermajority rule would be no bad thing if it forced the majority party to reach out to the other side. The Democrats themselves have often been glad of it, for example to block some of George Bush junior’s judicial appointments. And the rule has not prevented Congress from passing far-reaching social legislation in the past. The creation of Social Security in 1935 and of Medicare in 1965 attracted support from both parties. But that was when the ideologies of the parties overlapped in the middle and made bipartisanship easier. Now they have grown more polarised, and in Congress the Republicans in particular have become highly disciplined”.

They attempt to argue that “the moment of paralysis described above is just that: a moment”, yet they ignore the government shutdown(s) in the 1990s and the vitroil of the Democrats under President Bush. The article then goes on to argue ” the White House’s interest in governing by regulation has grown. Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama’s chief of staff, told the New York Times last week that the administration was reviewing a list of presidential orders and directives “to get the job done across a front of issues”. One example is the habit Senate Republicans have made of holding up staff appointments to the administration, often for tactical reasons unrelated to the merits of the candidates. But the president has a countervailing power: he can make ‘recess appointments’ when Congress is not sitting. As soon as the White House threatened recently to do just this, the Republicans confirmed a score of posts they had previously blocked. In short, a president blocked in Congress is not without resources. It is not that long, after all, since commentators were panicking not about the impotence of the presidency but about Mr Bush’s war on terrorism invigorating an “imperial presidency” at the expense of Congress, civil liberties and the courts. War and economic crisis have always augmented the powers of the White House, and for the foreseeable future Mr Obama will continue to enjoy the dubious ‘benefits’ of both”.

Yet surely the number of recess appointments that have had to be made in recent decades shows the Washington is becoming increasingly divided. The piece fairly, “In the end, the question of whether a country is governable turns on how much government you think it needs. America’s founders injected suspicion of government not only into the constitution but also into the political DNA of its people. And even in the teeth of today’s economic woes, at least as many Americans seem to think that what ails them is too much government, not too little”.

Europe’s failed state

04/12/2012

As the EU/IMF/ECB “bailout” package progresses and on the eve on another austerity budget that is about to be announced, some have noted the strange characteristics of Ireland and the Irish.  Indeed it has been commented here before that while riots occur in Greece and mass protests in Spain as the endless euro crisis grinds on the Irish remain passive in spite of all that has happened over the last years.

An article in the Irish Times, mentions that the Irish “lack self-esteem despite a veneer of ‘garrulous sociability and self-deprecating twaddle’, according to the latest edition of the Lonely Planet which has just been published. The best-selling guide book says Irish people’s reputation for having an ‘easygoing, affable nature is justified’, but our reputation for friendliness is mostly a manifestation of our desire to chat – and our lack of self-esteem is our ‘dark secret’. The piece goes on to note “the Irish are ‘fatalistic and pessimistic to the core’, which is why they have accepted their economic fate more readily than the Greeks, who have rioted in the streets”.

A different article writes published earlier this year notes that the institutions of the Irish State have little or no significance or respect for many, though obviously not all, of the country’s citizens. It notes “You forget how tenuous and fragile a thing is the Irish State, how little it means to so many of its citizens. By the State, I don’t mean the nation, the flag, pride in being Irish – all that visceral emotion. I mean, rather, two rational things, one tangible, the other abstract. The State is a set of institutions – the Government, the Oireachtas, the Civil Service, public services, the law, the courts. It is also a broad but crucial sense of mutual dependence – the idea that there’s a collective self that goes beyond the narrow realms of family and locality”. The writer goes on to make the point that “To function at all, we have to make the working assumption that those institutions and that idea are part of what we are, that, however vehemently we disagree with each other about however many things, there is this common ground on which we stand. Even when we rail against the institutions (for loyalty is not the same thing as passive obedience), we do so because we identify with them – they are ours to criticise”. He then argues that “Everyone knows, of course, that there are subgroups – criminals, subversives – who have no loyalty to the State at all, who have contempt for its institutions and who don’t recognise the notion of the common good. But the working assumption is that these groups are small, marginal and outside the mainstream of society”.

Indeed, this notion of the common good seems to have been all but obliterated as a result of Ireland’s bizarre history and culture coupled with the ravages of rabid individualism which is prevalent all over Europe and throughout much of the Western world. He depressingly, continues ” every so often, there’s a moment when those assumptions crumble. The idea that the vast majority of people are loyal to the State is suddenly exposed for what it is: a useful fiction. What happens is that very large numbers of people who would never think of themselves as criminals or subversives reveal the truth that they don’t really have much time for key State institutions such as the law and the courts and that they simply don’t believe that there is an over-arching common good that means anything when you set it against more potent local loyalties”. He gives a concrete example, “This is what we’ve seen over the last fortnight in the Quinn affair. Very significant numbers of decent, respectable Irish people – not a majority but not a tiny minority either – are in literal contempt of the courts. They really don’t give a damn what the courts find – if those findings come into conflict with their own deeper loyalties”. He ends his piece “Nor do these decent, respectable people believe that there is a common good that operates at the level of the State and that could possibly outweigh an almost feudal loyalty to a local hero. The State, for them, is a vague, hazy and distant thing – too nebulous to command any real fidelity. The idea that encouraging the Quinns to siphon off €455 million of public assets might harm their fellow citizens has no meaning for them because, deep down, they don’t actually believe that there are such creatures as fellow citizens”, concluding, “The entire political culture of clientilism encourages people to think about the good of the locality, not of the State as a collective entity. Large parts of the Irish elite have demonstrated, with impunity, their own contempt for the law and the common good by evading and avoiding taxes. And of course the State itself is now a sad and tattered thing, stripped of the sovereignty that gives it life”.

An Irish historian weighs in and says that Ireland is not only economically but morally bankrupt also. He argues cogently “the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence. Taking the long view, perhaps the very impulses that created stability and consensus in the earlier decades of independence also facilitated a fundamental neglect of civic morality and citizenship. This neglect ultimately allowed the sort of ‘systemic and endemic’ corruption exposed by the Mahon report, and as revealed previously by the Moriarty report, what amounted to a devaluing of ‘the quality of democracy itself'”. He goes on to note “There was not enough debate about policy, ideology or the consequences of a ruthless centralisation and authoritarianism. As Garvin observed, in 1922, whatever about devotion to national politics, ‘these unenthusiastic democrats were qualified in their attachment to democratic ideas and were not prepared to trust people with the power to run local affairs'”. Indeed, the nascent Irish state was too homogeneous, being almost entirely Catholic, white and poor. There were no differences in the political parties, a problem that persists to this day, and when a civil war did occur, it was over an irrelevant matter that divided the country then but has no significance in modern times. The writer goes on to mention “This point about trust is vital: if people are not trusted to run their own affairs, they devise other ways of getting things done and with that the likelihood of corruption increases. While there were valiant attempts from the 1920s to clean up malpractice in local government, in the long run local authorities were stripped of most of their powers and the few that they were left with, including the power to rezone land, were abused. In terms of national politics, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were born of Civil War divisions, rather than having competing visions about how to shape society. After the laying of the State’s foundations, the practice of politics became about the spoils of the system rather than engagement with ideas about the nature of citizenship. It was about management rather than vision. It was also about, in a society so homogeneously Catholic, abrogating responsibility to the Catholic church in too many crucial areas, including education, with a resultant narrow focus on what constituted immorality”. He adds importantly “Political culture was male-dominated and a closed system in which those who had ideas about doing things differently were dismissed as maverick, or, worse still, intellectuals”. This anti-intellectualism is rife in Irish culture, he mentions “Bertie Ahern – one of that glorious class of Fianna Fáil politicians first elected in 1977, that included Albert Reynolds and Pádraig Flynn – recorded in his memoirs Bertie Ahern: The Autobiography, he had nothing but contempt for intellectuals challenging the ward boss conception of politics”.

He ends his piece “Another problem was that Fianna Fáil was simply in power for far too long and the longer it held office and dispensed patronage the more perverted the definition of loyalty became, in order to justify cover-ups and lies. Lightweights were rewarded and promoted well beyond their capabilities, which resulted in a considerable devaluation of politics and the status of public office. Those who called for accountability within this culture experienced fear, menace and intimidation. As we edge towards the centenary of the events that comprised the revolution of the early 20th century, we face a stark conclusion: this is a State bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a State whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten”.

Two pieces, published more recently, but on the same topic are also of interest and relevance. One of them reports on a conference that took place in Dublin recently. It mentions “The mistakes made in the Celtic Tiger era might be seen as Ireland’s adolescent stage but there is no guarantee that the country will grow up”. The article goes on to say “Counselling psychologist Elaine Martin said Irish society was trapped in a ‘narcissistic system’ as a result of its colonial past and would need to take active steps to move on to the next phase of development”, adding later that “The Irish tendency to devalue themselves as individuals and as a society and to idealise others were among the traits of a colonised people, she said. This is covert narcissism, which manifests itself in low self-esteem, as opposed to the grandiose narcissism more commonly associated with the term. Both types are characterised by self-obsession. The conference held a symposium on the Irish psyche in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger in which it was claimed that we saw ourselves as a ‘deeply flawed people’. Ms Martin said Ireland needed to develop a sense of identity and self-confidence set apart from its colonial past. She said Queen Elizabeth II’s visit had helped the process, but there was a long way to go”. The piece goes on to note that “New Zealand had sought to move on from its colonial past by promoting traits such as excellence and integrity as values to develop as specific national traits. Ms Martin maintained the relationship between Ireland and its former colonisers was similar to that of a narcissistic family”. The piece ends “Dr Trisha McDonnell, a clinical psychologist, told the conference that Irish behaviour exhibited three postcolonial traits in particular: our deferential attitude to authority; our tendency to avoid the truth; and our communications strategy, which was manifested in a failure to speak plainly and assertively”.

Lastly, another opinion piece argues that no-one is held accountable in Ireland. It asks “What is it with ambitious public sector projects? It seems almost preordained that they end up with eye-watering cost overruns or getting long-fingered indefinitely after being bogged down in controversy. The National Children’s Hospital is the latest project to suffer from the dead hand of the public sector. It’s six years since reports by consultants McKinsey recommended a single, world-class paediatric centre which would amalgamate three children’s hospitals in the capital. Even though the location in the Mater was chosen shortly afterwards, political sniping and growing uncertainty over the location slowed progress. Two chairmen selected to oversee the process ended up resigning. As in excess of €30 million was poured into planning and design, it soon became clear the enormous scale of the development was a major issue. The plan rolled on regardless. It culminated in An Bord Pleanála refusing planning permission”.

He adds a further layer to this when he writes “After all the expensive consultants’ reports, expert groups and glossy plans, no one was accountable for the failure to deliver a project, while the taxpayer has been left to shoulder the burden of wasted expenditure. But perhaps it’s too simple to blame public servants. Is the Civil Service, for example, taking the flak for the failures of politicians or ministers, who have been all too keen to spend millions on half-baked schemes or ill-conceived vanity projects such as the so-called Bertie Bowl, e-voting or the Ppars computer project? For Bill Kingston, who lectures in business at Trinity College Dublin, the answer is simple: the lack of accountability in the public sector”. He goes on to add later in the article “There is also, Molloy says, a lack of expertise. The Civil Service and much of the public sector is based on “gifted generalists”. But it needs to be technically qualified and robust enough to place the public good ahead of the preferences of the incumbent government”.

While Ireland is not about to turn into Yemen or Pakistan, its utter failure to deal with these issues after more than 90 years of independence has effectively rendered it a failed state. Even worse nothing seems to have changed and so there will be another crisis in two decades or so that will set off the same pointless soul searching.

A historic victory

07/11/2012

President Obama has won re-election to another four year term with record high unemployment with the Electoral College giving him 303 to Mitt Romney’s 206, with Obama leading in Florida but still no confirmation. The popular was Obama’s if not a landslide, 60,567,122 to Romney’s 57,744,506. In the ultimate agonist election America chose Obama not only endorsing his health care reforms but also his economic policy that the rich should pay more.

The New York Times reports “The path to victory for Mr. Romney narrowed as the night wore along, with Mr. Obama winning at least 303 electoral votes”. The state of Florida is still to be decided but President Obama having already gained 270 electoral college votes does not need to wait for the vote to come in. The piece goes on to note “A cheer of jubilation sounded at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago when the television networks began projecting him as the winner at 11:20 p.m., even as the ballots were still being counted in many states where voters had waited in line well into the night”.

The article goes on to mention “Hispanics made up an important part of Mr. Obama’s winning coalition, preliminary exit poll data showed. And before the night was through, there were already recriminations from Republican moderates who said Mr. Romney had gone too far during the primaries in his statements against those here illegally, including his promise that his get-tough policies would cause some to ‘self-deport.'” Indeed, the GOP have serious problems with an America that is becoming less white than ever before. Many have noted this trend before but it would be a mistake to permanently write off the GOP from national politics completely. Worryingly for the GOP it notes “Moderates were hopeful it would lead the rank and file to realize that the party’s grass-roots conservatism that Mr. Romney pledged himself to during the primaries doomed him in the general election. Tea Party adherents have indicated that they will argue that he was damaged because of his move to middle ground during the general election”. The piece also notes that “only 3 in 10 said things were getting worse, and 4 in 10 said the economy was improving”.

The Hill mentions that “Romney conceded the race to Obama shortly after midnight, well after it was apparent that Obama had scored an impressive victory.  A short time later Obama addressed an ecstatic crowd in Chicago, with the president offering kind words for Romney and calling for the country to come together”. It goes on to note importantly “Obama’s winning total in the Electoral College is approaching a level similar to the margin he enjoyed in 2008, though his winning margins in individual states are much smaller than they were four years ago. The president has lost only two states to Romney that he won in 2008 — North Carolina and Indiana. He has won the swing states of Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Colorado. He also won Pennsylvania, a state Romney made a bid for at the end of the campaign.  Obama was also ahead in Florida, where networks had yet to call the race in Wednesday morning’s wee hours. Romney clung to a lead in the popular vote for much of the night, but Obama had pulled into the lead after midnight”.

It adds “Obama has said that in his next term, he would like to reach a major deficit-reduction deal with Republicans and win approval of an immigration reform law”. If he  were to not only get support but accomplish these he would truly be a historic, even transformational president. Romney conceded the presidency in a speech he gave to supporters in Boston, the article notes “Romney told a subdued crowd that he had called Obama to congratulate him on his victory, and he wished the president well”. The article goes on to mention “Romney’s remarks were brief, evidence that the Republican nominee had not been posturing when telling reporters earlier in the day that he had only written an acceptance speech to deliver Wednesday night”. The article concludes “Romney had initially declined to concede the race as networks and major news organizations called the pivotal state of Ohio for the Democratic incumbent. Republican aides maintained that Romney retained a shot at the Buckeye State, hoping early voting totals and a groundswell of support could force networks to retract their calls. But that case became increasingly dubious as more and more battleground states came off the board. With the president projected to win in Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, and Colorado, Romney would not have had the necessary 270 electoral votes even if he flipped Ohio and pulled out a victory in Florida, where Obama was also leading”. Perhaps more interesting was the fact that for all the money available to the GOP they still were not able to overcome the voters mindset.

A separate article mentions that the Democrats have kept the Senate, “Democrats will retain control of the Senate next year, having picked up seats in Massachusetts, Indiana and Maine along with holding on to several of their endangered incumbents who were in tough races”. Todd Akin lost in Missouri and Richard Mourdock lost in Indiana partly over their comments over rape and abortion, but as a subtext, Mourdock who was aligned to the infamous Tea Party with its radical, even dangerous populism coupled with its mindless adherence to failed neoliberal economics was a victory for all of America. The article goes on to quote chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) that the GOP have much to discuss following their loss but the article notes that Cornyn “He also warned Democrats that ‘they should not over-read their mandate as reflected by the almost evenly-divided popular vote.'” The same article goes on to discuss how “The party had a major victory with Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s victory in Massachusetts over Republican Sen. Scott Brown”. However, this may not bode well for the senior Senator, John Kerry (D-MA) who it is widely know wants to become Secretary of State. However as has been speculated elsewhere “plucking Kerry from the Senate would reduce that majority further. If Kerry were to become secretary of state — again, assuming Obama wins — Gov. Deval Patrick (D) would appoint someone to fill the vacancy until a special election were held between 145 days and 160 days of the seat being vacated. The messiness of all this is rich with irony. Were Warren to lose to Sen. Scott Brown (R), a Kerry departure to the State Department would make her a shoo-in to replace him — thus, not disturbing the Democrats’ delicate balance in the Senate”.

Lastly, “Independent candidate Angus King won and is expected to caucus with the Democrats, which would turn retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) seat blue”. It is almost impossible to see King voting with the GOP.

“Why to be happy either way”

11/09/2012

Tim Lynch on the debate the is taking place irrespective of who wins in November.

Four more years of what?

31/08/2012

In an interesting article, the Economist poses the question, what would President Obama do if re-elected in November.

It opens, “Obama will address his fellow Democrats at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with little of this hopeful agenda completed. Three million more Americans are out of work than four years ago, and the national debt is $5 trillion bigger. Partisan gridlock is worse than ever: health-care reform, a genuinely impressive achievement, has become a prime source of rancour. Businessfolk are split over whether he dislikes capitalism or is merely indifferent to it. His global-warming efforts have evaporated. America’s standing in the Muslim world is no higher than it was under George W. Bush, Iran remains dangerous, Russia and China are still prickly despite the promised resets, and the prison in Guantánamo remains open”.

Leaving aside the articles foregin policy concerns, the passing of the health care law was a great achievement, yet it would be unfair to blame Obama for the crisis in Europe and debt. Although, the Bowles-Simpson Commission report continues to gather dust this is as much to do with Democratic intransigence over welfare reform as Republican refusal to raise taxes.

The article goes on to say the “defence of Mr Obama’s record comes down to one phrase: it could all have been a lot worse. He inherited an economy in free fall thanks to the banking crash and the fiscal profligacy that occurred under his predecessor; his stimulus measures and his saving of Detroit carmakers helped avert a second Depression; overall, he deserves decent if patchy grades on the economy (see article). Confronted by obstructionist Republicans in Congress, he did well to get anything through at all”, adding “this does not amount to a compelling case for re-election, in the view of either this paper or the American people. More than 60% of voters believe their country to be on the wrong track. Mr Obama’s approval ratings are well under 50%; almost two-thirds of voters are unimpressed”. It goes on to heavily criticise Obama for his negative attack ads on Romney’s personality and career rather than defending his own achievements, which are still, it notes, unpopular.

The piece goes on to say that “even if negative campaigning works, a re-elected Mr Obama will need the strength that comes from a convincing agenda. Otherwise the Republicans, who will control the House and possibly the Senate too, will make mincemeat of him. And, third, it is not just Mr Obama who needs a plan. America does too”. Yet, there are countless reports that advise on how to fix the deficit, mend broken infrastructure and schools. The political process, needs, as has been said before, radical overhaul with a truly powerful executive.

The article ends, “Appealing to the centre is not easy for Mr Obama. His allies on the left are powerful and, in a country so polarised, the middle ground can be a dangerous place. But there are plenty of things that many on both sides of the political aisle could agree on, including tax and immigration reform, investment in schools and aid to businesses that are creating jobs. Crucially, Mr Obama could explain how he intends to cut the still-soaring debt without pretending that taxing only the rich will help in any meaningful way. Mr Obama has a strong belief in social justice. It drove his health-care reform”.

Yet, this is exactly the opposite criticism the magazine just made of Mitt Romney, that he had no beliefs and would bend to the political wind too easily. Surely it cannot be both? Americans have a truly agonistic election. Two distinct candidates offering radically different views. For that, it should be counted as lucky.

Bucking a trend?

11/08/2012

Mitt Romney has finally chosen the vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan (R-WI) who currently serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee. However, history would suggest that in Romney picking a member of the House, he has dared to break with history. The last Vice-President to come from the House was Gerald Ford act Spiro Agnew resigned. The last Vice-President to get elected from the House was in John Nance Garner who was FDR’s VP who was speaker of the House in 1933. A more accurate comparison however is James Sherman who served as William Howard Taft’s Vice-President in 1909! History is not on Romney’s side.

Ryan, 42, only took his seat in the House in 1999 but grew up in the atmosphere of Newt Gingrich and his “Republican Revolution” of 1994. It is clear that Gingrich has had an enormous impact on Ryan. The New York Times reports that the Ryan choice “elevates one of the party’s young conservative leaders to the Republican ticket and intensifies the debate over the size and role of government”. The article adds that “he selection of Mr. Ryan, the chief architect of the Republican Party’s tax-and-spending-cut plan and an advocate of reshaping the traditional Medicare program of health insurance for retirees, was an effort to reset the race with President Obama after months in which Mr. Romney has come under intense assault from Democrats. The decision instantly made the campaign seemed bigger and more consequential, with the scale of the federal government squarely at the center of the debate, even as it shifted attention to some degree away from what had been Mr. Romney’s intense focus, the lack of steady and substantial job growth since Mr. Obama took office”.

The article goes on to say that “Romney, the decision is one of the boldest of his presidential candidacy, which has been guided by a do-no-harm strategy over the last year. It promised to energize conservatives, who had been lobbying for Mr. Ryan and see his budget as the key to unlocking the economy’s growth potential”. The piece sardonically notes that “who has spent his adult life working in the federal government of Washington that many conservatives deplore”.

Naturally the piece mentions that “in making his choice, Mr. Romney took political ownership of a budget that even some Republicans worry could be a liability with voters in November. Mr. Ryan has proposed sweeping changes in entitlement programs like Medicaid and Medicare, which insure more than 100 million people and account for more than one-fifth of the federal budget.”

Interestingly in a seperate piece Rupurt Murdoch, a man seemingly devoid of morals, applauded the choice of Ryan. An article in The Hill mentions that the choice of Ryan “as his running mate was greeted with almost as much happiness in Democratic as Republican circles”. The piece goes on to mention that Obama aide Jim Messina “attacked Ryan for having ‘rubber-stamped the reckless Bush economic policies that exploded our deficit’ and insisted that ‘the Romney-Ryan ticket would take us back by repeating the same catastrophic mistakes.'” The piece rightly points out the fact that “Ryan backs major changes to Medicare and Social Security. His most recent plan called for the elimination of capital gains tax, a move that would most benefit wealthy investors”. In a poll it has been noted that Romney is increasingly unpopular, “40 percent of voters say they hold favorable views on Romney, a number unchanged since May, those with negative views grew from 45 percent to 49. President Obama is still seen positively, with his favorable-unfavorable rating at 53 percent to 43 among all respondents. But his numbers slip to 49 positive and 47 negative among registered voters”.

Ryan has had many disagreements, not least with the Catholic Church, of which he is a member. Ryan, speaking at the Jesuit run Georgetown University, (video) made some remarks about how his faith inspired his budget proposals. Catholic bishops attacked the plan, with an article noting that “the nation’s Catholic bishops reiterated their demand that the federal budget protect the poor, and said the GOP measure ‘fails to meet these moral criteria.'”

An blog post from the Economist makes the mistaken point that “achieving bipartisan agreement on any topic is a rare feat nowadays. So perhaps it’s worth celebrating the fact that, had it been put to a vote, the pick of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running-mate likely would’ve gained support from both parties. Less encouraging is the prospect that both sides will now use Mr Ryan, and his controversial budget plan, to further divide the electorate”. The reason politican are divided is because the electorate is divided. The post goes on to say that Ryan’s plan would balance the budget but “in order to achieve these ends, the Congressional Budget Office says the plan would decimate nearly all government programmes except for Social Security, health care and defence by 2050.This is unlikely to squelch the caricature of Mr Romney as a heartless elitist”. It makes the valid point that “is associated with a specific form of conservatism that is all about insurgency, purity and Washington dysfunction”.

President Obama has a prime opportunity to severly weaken, if not destroy the foundations of neoliberalism itself during this election. If he succeeds he will strike a blow for the common good and against the greed, arrogance and selfishness that has riddled the world for the last decade or more.  Some have mentioned that Romney, in chosing Ryan has made the election as clear a choice as is possible about the size and role of government, the foundations of agonism itself.

Another step on the way

11/07/2012

As Libyan’s went to the polls “to vote for members of a new National Assembly. Despite no modern history of nationwide voting (the country last voted in 1965 in a party-less election) and decades of dictatorship under Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya’s election went remarkably smoothly. Voter turnout was high at around 65 percent. Carter Center observers, among others, praised the voting process, and President Obama issued a statement congratulating Libyans on the election”.

Early expectations seem to suggest that interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance is leading. She goes on to argue that “Jibril’s party is an alliance of numerous groups and is often characterized as being relatively liberal, secular, and pro-business. If the National Forces Alliance wins a majority, it would mark a departure from the experience of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt where Islamists have dominated recent elections. Jibril’s coalition was pitted against Islamist groups, including the party affiliated with Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, and many thought that Libya’s elections would also deliver a victory to the Islamists”.

Fundamentally she mentions that “identity issues largely define Libyan politics–and in an election involving a dizzying array of parties and well over 3,000 candidates, Jibril is a well-known leader with solid revolutionary credentials. Tribal affiliations are important in Libya, and Jibril belongs to Libya’s most populous tribe. Some speculate that women in particular supported his coalition. Jibril, a U.S.-educated Qaddafi-era official who taught at the University of Pittsburgh, has also downplayed his own and his coalition’s perceived secularism and liberalism, so Libyans’ support for Jibril does not necessarily signal their rejection of political Islam”.

While not an immediate danger, a nascent threat is that this personal politics could slip back into a cult of personality. Naturally, this is unlikely to happen for many years but what is needed in Libya, like many others nations, is ideology based politics with agonism at the centre.

She goes on to conclude that “Although the National Assembly was originally tasked with appointing a group to write the country’s constitution, citizens will now vote directly for this committee. This change comes after protests in the eastern region of the country over the allocation of seats in the National Assembly”. This bespeaks a larger issue where the east, around Benghazi, feels less Libyan that the west. A fair allocation of resources, with some local government, and a healthy does of nationalism will over time, erode fear that the east will split, taking much of the oil reserves with it.

What she did not mention however was the increasingly, dangerous security situation. There are groups, many in the east, who are still highly armed. These groups need to be disarmed and from there the government can work to build civil society and the common good where neither had existed before. Disarming these groups will be nothing but difficult however.

Permanently excluded?

05/07/2012

An interesting, though unsuprising piece by Pat Buchnan in the American Conservative argues that among the “controversial chapters in Suicide of a Superpower, my book published last fall, was the one titled, ‘The End of White America.’ It dealt with the demographic decline of the white majority and what it portends for education, the U.S. economy, politics and national unity. That book and chapter proved the proximate cause of my departure from MSNBC, where the network president declared that subjects such as these are inappropriate for ‘the national dialogue.’ Apparently, the mainstream media are reassessing that”.

He goes on to note that “‘Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.,’ blared the Times headline. ‘Minority Babies Majority in U.S.,’ echoed the Post. ‘Minorities Are Now a Majority of Births,’ proclaimed USA Today. The USA Today story continued, ‘The nation’s growing diversity has huge implications for education, economics and politics.’ Huge is right”.

He argues that “Not only are whites declining as a share of the population, they are declining in real terms. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of births to white women fell 10 percent. The median age of white Americans, now 43 and rising, means that half of all white women have moved past the age that they are ever likely to bear more children. White America is a dying tribe. What do these statistics mean politically? Almost surely the end of the Republican Party as a national governing institution”.

He goes on to add, bleakly that “Republicans now depend on the vanishing majority for fully 90 percent of their votes in presidential elections, while the Democratic Party wins 60 to 70 percent of the Asian and Hispanic vote and 90 to 95 percent of the black vote. The Democratic base is growing inexorably, while the Republican base is shriveling”.

While of of this is undeniably true, to say that as a result the GOP is finished is overstating it. Ironically, ten years this year, the famous Emerging Democratic Majority was published. In it the authors essentially said exactly what Buchanan is saying, that as a result of demography and race the Democrats will be continually re-elected. This of course has not happened. Bill Clinton ran as a New Democrat while George Bush, while not as right as some would like did run a conservative administration. President Obama has run a mix of both liberal and conservative, being elected in 2008 as a result of liberal deification and independent pragmatism.

Buchanan goes on to write that “Western states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, which Republican nominees like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan swept almost every time they ran, are becoming problematic for the party. Thus the GOP refrain: We must work harder to win over Hispanics. Undeniably true. But how does the GOP appeal to them? Fifty-three percent of all Hispanic children are born out of wedlock, with no father in the home and many of the moms themselves high school dropouts. Most Hispanic kids thus start school far behind”.

Yet the GOP is not helping itself, being so virulently anti-immigration it appeals to what is a smaller and smaller group numerically but ignores what Buchanan as well as a host of others have noted. Indeed this is in large part what President Obama is trying to do with his new immigration policy. Others have argued that the should change its immigration policy but keep its social conservatism. While there is much to recommend this general attitude, some issues will too work against the GOP if they do not change. Attitudes to homosexuality are rightly becoming more tolerant, but there is one issue that could divide socially conservative Hispanics and the Democrats, abortion, where attitudes are going in the other direction.

Buchanan goes on to argue that “why should Hispanics vote Republican? The majority of Hispanics are among that half of the population that pays no income tax. Why should they vote for a party whose major plank is that it will cut income taxes? Hispanics benefit disproportionately from government programs. Government puts their kids in Head Start before public school and provides them with Pell grants and student loans after public school. From kindergarten through 12th grade, government educates their kids for free. Government provides them with free or subsidized health care through Medicaid and clinics. Government provides their families with public housing and rent supplements. Government provides the food stamps that feed the family. Government provides them with an annual earned income tax credit, a check just for working. Government provides all these things, and what are Republicans going to do? They promise to cut government”.

While this might all be true for now, rightly or wrongly, the GOP is seen as the party or business. Eventually the current generation of Hispanics and Latinos will enter business and become receptive to the GOP message.

As a result of these changes that are also occurring, agonism in America will continue.

Manager-in-chief

01/07/2012

Amid the LIBOR banking scandal that is engulfing the UK and soon the United States, some are questioning how far David Cameron is to blame.

The article opens noting that “Cameron should have been able to handle the press better than any previous prime minister. He is the first to have been a professional public relations man, more highly qualified than anyone he went on to hire”. The piece goes on to note that “This makes it all the more baffling that he made such a hash of things, both in opposition and in office, leading to a situation where he ended up giving evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice”. While this is true the scale of the media crisis is enormous, though largely of Cameron’s own making. This is especially true with the continuing debacle over the disgraced Jeremy Hunt.

The piece adds that “Cameron felt he didn’t need newspapers. He won the party leadership in 2005 to the amazement of a sceptical press, and thought he could carry on without toadying to Fleet Street. But this was changed by the election-that-wasn’t two years later: for him, a near-death experience”. Yet, the Conservatives could have won an majority, and been on coalition anyway with the Liberal Democrats, the UK recognised the historical failure of its first past the post system and adopted some form of list PR system. This would have given Cameron his majority without the pressure that comes with a percieved failure to gain one under the current failed electoral system.

The article adds crucially “Cameron is a victim of his own success. For seven years, he was one of the most effective media networkers in London. He left the Home Office in 1994 to work for Michael Green, head of Carlton Communications and then seen as a potential rival to Rupert Murdoch. The young Cameron brilliantly navigated the world of media and politics, fixing his boss up with anyone from an industry rival to Gordon Brown. He holidayed with journalists, while keeping up superb political connections. This skill is easy to disparage, but it is incredibly valuable in television, where success depends on government regulation like no other. Cameron’s ability to win people over, a charm that springs from his essential decency, went on to work just as well in politics”.

This ability to network is especially noted when “journalists whom he invited around for dinner would come away amazed at how little he had to say about politics. It is hard to fill a newspaper column saying what an agreeable leader the Tories have. Even in politics, Cameron tries to assuage restive backbenchers by inviting them around for dinner and some charm. His guests are always flattered, but not always politically persuaded”.

The writer notes that “to Cameron, politics is social”. Cameron is culturally a conservative but a highly educated, urbane one with pragmatism. While these are all good traits, the writer argues that “Family connections took him into the Tory party in the first place and his mother-in-law introduced him to Carlton Communications. What some may see as nepotism, he will see as surrounding himself with competent people in whom he can absolutely trust”. Fundamentally he mentions that “One prominent minister, a Cameron loyalist, complained to me recently that he’ll never be promoted because he’s not in the gang. ‘It’s not a government, it’s a chumocracy,’ he moaned”.

He concludes that “The Coalition does, of course, have radical policies. You can be an enthusiastic advocate of school and welfare reform, but even now Mr Cameron himself makes little mention of either. He is, in many ways, a post-ideological PM who used his superlative social networking skills a little more than he ought to have done”.

Ideology is more important now that perhaps ever. Only then can agonism take hold and legitimacy rise.

Sign of things to come?

10/06/2012

Walker wins Wisconsin recall election having offered clear, unambiguous platform. Will it be repeated in November?

Hollande v Merkel

09/05/2012

After the expected victory of Francois Hollande in the French presidential election there is much discussion as to what will happen next.

Within less than 24 hours after Hollande was declared the winner. Some have noted that ” the first time in 24 years, the French have elected a Socialist, François Hollande, as their next president. According to exit polls published at 8pm Paris time on Sunday evening, Mr Hollande secured a convincing 52% of the vote”. Yet what was perhaps most interesting and relevant was that in this age of voter apathy to politics turnout was extraordinarily high with early figures suggesting “at 5 p.m. local time in the second round of the presidential election stood at 71.96%, down from 75.11% at the same time in the previous election in 2007”. This is because of two distinct visions being offered, agonism, one cuts and austerity offered by Sarkozy and a radically differing vision offered by Hollande. This gives the voters a clear reason for voting and enforces Hollande’s legitimacy.

It was reported that Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany said “Europe was in the middle of a debate and that France under its new president would bring its own emphasis. However, she said they were talking about two sides of the same coin, as progress is only achievable through solid finances and growth”. Others have reported that “German government will allow a victorious Francois Hollande to ‘save face’ while expecting him to uphold French commitments to Europe’s budget treaty, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. Schaeuble’s comments are the clearest indication yet that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is preparing for a Hollande victory at France’s presidential election on May 6 after publicly backing Nicolas Sarkozy to win a second term. Earlier today, the German government said that diplomatic contact had been made with the Hollande camp. France’s Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande waits to take part in the TV show ‘Le grand journal’ on a set of French TV Canal+ on May 4, 2012 in Paris, two days before the second round of the French election. ‘We’ve told Mister Hollande that the fiscal pact has been signed and that Europe works along the principle of pacta sunt servanda,’ meaning agreements must be kept, Schaeuble said in a speech”. The report goes on to mention, ‘I’ve said that everybody who gets freshly elected into office must be able to save face,’ Schaeuble said. ‘So we will discuss this with Hollande in a very friendly way. But we won’t change our principles'”.

The Telegraph notes that “European allies are flocking to his cause from left and right, he claims. Not even Austria supports Germany’s austerity drive any longer. This then is the birth of a Euroland growth bloc with well over 200m people and a commanding majority vote in the European Council, a defining moment in this saga. Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank is quickly bending to the new political dispensation with calls for a ‘Growth Compact’. The Commission – liberated at last – is finding ways to “extend deadlines” on fiscal targets”. Importantly the piece notes that “The unratified treaty can of course be renegotiated, or disappear into the dustbin where such reactionary rubbish belongs. Mrs Merkel cannot push it through the Bundestag in any case without the Social Democrats, who are warming to Mr Hollande. Mrs Merkel will have to relearn the forgotten art of compromise. Unable to dictate terms, she may struggle to deflect the ruinous implications of monetary union onto other EMU countries for much longer. It is worth remembering that German taxpayers have not yet bailed out anybody, whatever they may believe. Berlin has rejected all forms of debt pooling, Eurobonds, or fiscal transfers, understandably since full budgetary union would violate Germany’s constitution and eviscerate their democracy”.

Another piece mentions how “The message that came through strongly from France and Greece at the weekend was that austerity does not rule OK. Mrs Merkel was effectively told to ‘get lost’ by one of the new political leaders in Greece – Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras – who’s plea was to end the ‘bail-out barbarism’. Mrs Merkel or the markets are more likely to tell Greece to ‘get lost'”. Yet despite this, he writes that “providing a mixture of austerity and growth that would keep the eurozone intact and the markets happy is comparable to seeing pigs take to the sky. Markets have been making sympathetic noises about the growth case but they have exercised Merkel-style discipline in keeping tabs on any attempts to stray from fiscal salvation”. He concludes arguing rightly that Merkel “cannot afford to be too generous because of the fragilityof her coalition, German public opinion and market makers worried about any policy drift”.

So as ever, whether the eurozone survives or dies is depending largely on the electoral forces of one large well run state. Whether Hollande will buckle or not under the power of this state is unclear but not for long.

On the doorstep

27/04/2012

As the phone hacking scandal continues, with Jeremy Hunt’s position looking increasingly tenuous, reports are now clearly showing the depth of Prime Minister David Cameron’s  role in the scandal.

Media reports note that while Rupert Murdoch was giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry he “showed that the two men had met on at least seven occasions since Mr Cameron became Prime Minister. Downing Street has previously acknowledged only that the Prime Minister had met the media tycoon twice since May 2010”.

In the immediate aftermath of the hacking scandal Cameron “published details of his meetings with media executives and editors. In the House of Commons, he pledged to MPs that ‘every contact’ had been made public”. Therefore, only two possibilities emerge, either Cameron was incompentent and did not know what he was doing, in which case his hold on office will be tenuous, or he knew what he was doing and lied to the House of Commons, in which case the consequences are as of yet unknown, but undoubtedly extremely serious.  Either way the sharks are circling Cameron.

The article goes on to say “it emerged that only one-to-one or ‘substantial’ meetings were disclosed officially, whereas Mr Murdoch recorded meetings at social dinners and other events. Mr Cameron had previously been reluctant to disclose details of his interactions with people connected to the Murdoch empire, including the recent admission that he had ridden a horse owned by Rebekah Brooks, one of Mr Murdoch’s former key executives. The inconsistencies between the recollections of the two men regarding their meetings are expected to form a key part of Mr Cameron’s cross examination at the inquiry when he appears within the next two months”. Whether will still PM by that time is hard to tell.

The report mentions that Cameron “admitted ‘we all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch’. But a Downing Street spokesman denied the meetings listed by Rupert Murdoch took place. ‘We are confident the list we published is correct,’ he said. Sources said the situation might be explained by different definitions of what constitutes a meeting”. The article goes on to note that “Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, officially raised the issue with the Speaker of the Commons, asking whether the Prime Minister had ‘misled’ MPs”.

During his evidence Murdoch Snr said that there was a cover up at the now defunct News of the World “newspaper” and conveniently he didn’t know anything about it.

Peter Oborne has discussed the very real possibility that this could sink Cameron, and perhaps even the government. He writes, “if even a fraction of the allegations are proven, then the case of News International will go down as the greatest criminal/corruption scandal, by far, in modern British history”. Interestingly he makes the point that “News Corporation did not publish yesterday’s deadly emails out of spite, as some have claimed, in order to take down David Cameron’s government. They were obliged to publish them only after Lord Justice Leveson ordered it”.

Oborne goes on to write that “incidental details, such as Mr Cameron’s employment of the disgraced ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson or the Prime Minister’s ill-judged socialising with Rebekah Brooks, are enjoyable. But they don’t matter that much. However, there is emerging circumstantial evidence that the Cameron government entered into what looks suspiciously like a Grand Bargain with the Murdoch newspaper empire before the last election. It may have gone like this: the Murdoch press would throw its weight behind the Conservative Party in the 2010 general election, and in return the Conservatives would back known Murdoch policy objectives”.

Oborne adds, “in an important development, it emerged that Mr Hunt spent five days at the NewsCorp headquarters in the United States, very shortly before James Murdoch personally told Mr Cameron that he would be swinging his newspapers behind the Tory party at the looming election”.

He concludes “the charge that the Cameron government has done commercial favours for the Murdochs in return for political support is very serious. This, if true, would amount to corruption. Certainly, if proven, it would force the resignation of Mr Hunt. But it is not impossible that the Government would fall”.

As has been noted, Cameron’s lack of firm belief in any ideology, and therefore agonsim, has lead him down a path were power is the only goal and everything that gets in the way, no matter how immoral, can be explained away in these deeply relativistic times.

Rising belief?

22/04/2012

As France goes to the polls of the first round of the presidential election, the rise in popularity in the left in France shows people want the “certainities” ideology and not the tecnocratic “visions” offered by Hollande/Sarkozy/EU.

The answer to the problem

18/04/2012

The way political parties are funded is an issue of unusual contention.

In the current US electoral cycle much has been made of super PACs as a direct result of the Citizens United decision. An article in the Economist notes that Super PACs power “has already reshaped the presidential campaign—and its influence is only likely to grow”.

It notes that “Laws passed in the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal strictly limit the amount individuals and groups can give to campaigns, to $5,000 per election cycle in most instances. The intention was to eliminate gifts big enough to be seen as bribes”. Naturally however, “determined donors with clever lawyers have long found ways round the limit, largely by spending money through groups that are notionally independent of any campaign and concerned with ‘issues’ rather than elections. Thus in 2004 admirers of George W. Bush spent millions to depict his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, as a cowardly subversive”. The article adds that “in the name of free speech, the Supreme Court not only declared this sort of electioneering legitimate, but also freed unions and businesses to engage in it along with individuals. As long as they are independent of all parties and candidates”. The result is unlimited sums of money that distort the discourse toward wealthy vested interests and away from the common good.

The level of freedom is only enhanced as a result of “the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has defined independence so narrowly that it is almost meaningless. A candidate’s former staff members can (and often do) run super PACs backing them, and the candidates themselves can appear at the super PAC’s fund-raisers”. The notion that these super PACs can remain independent is laughable when such close links are allowed as a result of the judgement of the Court.

Regretabbly, President Obama has joined the fray and “has stopped discouraging outside spending on his behalf, and now says he will send cabinet secretaries to fund-raisers for his super PAC. Most of the presidential super PACs rely on a handful of extremely wealthy individuals. Mr Obama’s received $2m from Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Hollywood mogul. A vast share of the money given to Mr Gingrich’s comes from the family of Sheldon Adelson, a casino tycoon. William Dore, an oil-services magnate, and Foster Friess, a wealthy mutual-fund manager, are the principal donors to Rick Santorum”. This allows a tiny fraction of extremely wealthy people to have their candidate and the views they support get most attention, and support. This all but eliminates any meaningful debate and destroys whatever level of agonism there is left. The article notes that these organisaions can, and have revived campagins that were all but dead, eg Newt Gingrich.

Even worse, the article mentions that, “In theory, super PACs must reveal who their donors are. But the requirement is easy to evade. One businessman who gave $1m to Mr Romney’s super PAC did so through a shell corporation which disbanded shortly after the donation was made. It was only when NBC News revealed the manoeuvre that he identified himself”. Even the IRS has a role in the sorry state of affairs, as the article says that “Another tactic involves giving money to an outfit classified by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a 501(c)(4). These groups, whose main purpose is supposed to be “social welfare” rather than electoral politics, do not have to disclose their donors. In practice, the IRS seems to take a rather lax view of what constitutes electioneering”.

The article goes on to state that most outside spending “goes toward negative advertisements, notes Mr [Anthony] Corrado, and whereas almost all of it used to be devoted to the general election, some is now seeping into primaries. The result, he says, will be to further polarise politics”.

The article concludes, depressingly, that “the current muddle also endures because there is little agreement about what should replace it. The system that prevailed before the Supreme Court blessed super PACs was just as despised”.

The British PM, David Cameron, rightly, come under fire recently for holding dinners, for six figure sums in Downing Street, for wealthy backers of his Conservative Party. Questions about these donors influencing policy abound.

Thankfully, some in America are seeing sense, a poll released by USA Today said that 69% want super PACs outlawed. Notably, the article says that “Seventy percent of Democrats and 55% of Republicans want to outlaw super PACs, as do nearly eight in 10 independents”.

The answer to this is clear. Ban corporate donations, heavily restrict the amount individuals can give, and have them named. Then have the government give money as a proportion of votes recieved to each party after the most recent election and have it all enforced by an independent voice.

No going back

30/03/2012

As the US Supreme Court begins to hear arguments of the revised health care law of President Obama, Justice Kennedy, unsuprisingly, as well as Chief Justice Roberts key to the decision. So, whatever way the Court decides,  more antagonism, more division and less agonism will follow and from this, the discourse suffers.

Too effective

25/03/2012

The former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, in an article lauds the American Constitution. However, he does say that “Worrying whether a particular country’s constitution is fit for purpose can seem a pointless activity. In the end, these problems are self-correcting: if a constitution doesn’t do its job, if it doesn’t strike the right balance between the interests of the governed and the need for good governance, then it collapses”.

The only problem with this is that it may take decades or centuries for a country to collapse, as he puts it, all the while the citizenry either do not see, or refuse to see the problem with their governing structures. This may be because of the media or vested interests or even the politicians themselves who refuse to see that the way a country is governed is not working anymore.

He goes on to write, justifably that “For more than two centuries the US Constitution has regulated the affairs of a great continental democracy, steering it through good times and some pretty bad times. For many Americans, the Constitution is an almost sacred text”.

He goes on to describe how difficult running the mission in Afghanistan was. He notes that the Constitution “seemed to obstruct rather than encourage the better governance of the world’s greatest republic” and how it reminded him of a previous report he wrote in the early 1990s on a similar topic.

He mentions, rightly how “the most obvious difficulty was in generating what I call strategic stamina. Stabilising a country in the state Afghanistan was in when the American-led coalition precipitated regime change in the autumn of 2001 takes decades, not years. But a political system in which most elected representatives are running for office most of the time finds it almost impossible to give such projects the sustained attention – and resources”. This is an echo of Niall Ferguson’s  Colossus which argues that America has two problems it must fix if it is to remain powerful, its debt and its ADD problem.

He concludes arguing that “The distribution of power between the executive and the legislative branches of government, and within the executive branch, also seemed to create more problems than it solved. In so many respects, the Constitution is an 18th century solution to an 18th century problem – an over-mighty Georgian monarch. The result – the shackling of the chief executive through a series of legislative controls – means that the executive can hardly spend a cent without the prior consent of the legislature.”

Finally he writes that “Worse, and perhaps more corrosive, the legislators have a big say in how that money is spent, thus exposing those running almost continually for re-election to huge outside pressures from lobbies of one kind or another. Within the executive branch, the hundreds of posts filled by political appointment mean that few if any senior federal officials spend more than four years in a job. Those chosen for such posts may be well-qualified professionals, but too often an 18th century system of patronage is used to reward political loyalty”.

He closes noting ” I cannot help observing that, while Europe’s problem may be that it does not have a working constitution, America’s may be that it has a constitution that works too well”. Now more than ever with no end to a return of agonism in sight, a powerful Hamiltonian system is needed to correct the excesses in the system and end the needless checks and balances that used to work.

Quality of debate

30/11/2011

On the continuing drama that is the reform of the National Health Service in the UK. Max Pemberton highlights the importance of the House of Lords. He notes that the upper chamber is “a stuffy, esoteric and anachronistic institution that rarely registers in the collective consciousness in any substantial way”. He says that after the House of Commons voted to pass the legislation, “attention rapidly shifted to the Lords in the hope that the legislation would be stopped.”

He mentions how the debate was “earnest, sincere and thoughtful way the peers spoke, even those with whom I disagreed. Unlike in the Commons, there is an air of genteel reverence and politeness to the Lords’ debate. No braying and shouting here”. Pemberton again notes his opinions about the Bill saying, rightly that it “is a bad piece of legislation that undermines the very essence of a nationalised health-care system. It only succeeds in opening it to private companies that will place profits before patients”.

He mentions how “The crossbencher Lord Owen tabled a motion to set up a special committee, which would spend the next few months studying the constitutional impact of the reforms. This was rejected by 330 votes to 262. Labour’s Lord Rea had wanted the second reading to be refused altogether, on the basis that the Government had no mandate for the reforms.This was defeated by 354 votes to 220.”

Having watched the debate in the Lords he says that despite the vote, ” I was left with a new-found respect for this chamber. It would be easy to dismiss the Lords as out of touch and arcane. In fact, it is full of people with remarkable experiences who can bring real depth and perspicacity to debates in a way that career politicians in the House of Commons cannot”, he continues saying “it was the likes of Lord Walton of Detchant who stole the show. Aged 89, he was a doctor before the NHS even existed and spoke passionately, without notes, about the horrors he had witnessed before the NHS was created. I listened to his speech intently and was immeasurably grateful that we have in this country an institution that gave him a voice.”.

He concludes that “The Bill is now at the committee stage, where peers examine every line of legislation and debate it. Once again, the eyes of the nation will be fixed on this House to do their best to minimise the most noxious elements of this legislation”. For the common good, society should hope he is right.

The need for ideology

26/08/2011

In a blog post Toby Young examines the problem of the Left. Yet, problems for the Left mean problems for society and therefore the common good itself.

While is thesis is not new it is especailly pertinent. He notes that “Labour’s success has traditionally been dependent on an alliance between the traditional working-class and middle-class liberals and that coalition has now collapsed”. It is the radically divergent views of these two groups that lie at the heart of the problem, with the middle class moving further left, especially on social issues, while what is left of the working class is being courted by various shades of Right. Taking the UK example with fascist, BNP, small state nationalists such as the United Kingdom Independence Party in addition to the Conservative Party.  

Indeed it was Tony Blair who revolutionised the Labour Party by bringing it much further to the Right than he should have but the electoral success was undeniable winning three general elections in a row. Young notes that Labour lost the 2010 election and while this is due to both economic and other factors he argues that “the Social Democrats were by the Swedes, polling their lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage was introduced in 1921. This was the first time in the Social Democrats’ history that it lost two elections in a row. Only 22 per cent of those Swedes in work voted Social Democrat in 2010, a number that fell to 13 per cent in the Stockholm region”.

He points out that “One of the reasons socialists believe history is on their side is because they think capitalism is inherently unstable, lurching from one crisis to another. Yet the financial crisis of 2007-08 has sent voters scurrying towards the Right, not the Left”. Young argues that crucial to understanding this problem is immigration. with “educated liberal elites who control most Left-wing parties are pro-immigration. Not only do they believe in its economic benefits, they believe in the virtue of diversity as an end itself. The traditional European working classes, by contrast, are suspicious of immigrants and worry about them taking their jobs or – worse – taking money out of a welfare pot they haven’t contributed to”.

Taking the Swedish example he mentions the fact that “Of the one million immigrants who’ve entered Sweden since 1990, three quarters of them aren’t in full-time employment. These are the welfare free-riders that the Right-wing Sweden Democrats drew attention to in their 2010 election campaign, polling 5.7 per cent of the vote”. Young goes on to mention the resentment felt by many who, in some states like Sweden, pay high taxes but have numerically small numbers of people abusing the system but causing problems for the Left and a pool of disaffected voters for the parties of the Right.

This however is the tipof the iceberg he mentions citing as an example the fact that “the Left fared equally badly in the recent Finnish elections, yet only 2.5 per cent of the population of Finland are foreign-born, most from Russia, Estonia and Sweden”. What is apparent is “the fracturing of both the state and the super-state as sources of tribal identity. The European Union has only ever commanded the loyalty of the liberal middle classes”. The working classes see supra national institutions like the EU as a threat which brings them to vote for UKIP or the True Finns.

He adds that “More surprising has been the decline of the state as a unit capable of commanding people’s loyalty. In Scotland, the beneficiary of Labour’s desertion by working-class voters has been the Scottish Nationalist Party and that, too, seems a pattern likely to be repeated elsewhere. Ethnicity in Europe is beginning to trump more abstract sources of collective identity”. He seems to be implicitly supportive of the “clash of civilisations” thesis that has been so widely discredited. 

His remedy is that ” the Left needs is an intellectual colossus, someone capable of articulating a vision that re-unites the liberal intelligentsia with the traditional working class and persuades them to put the interests of the collective – whether the nation state or something larger and more abstract – before those of their family and their tribe”.

A state without a period of sustained agonism is a very dangerous thing. Balance must be brought back and the need for ideology asserted forcefully.

The case for Huntsman

22/08/2011

Interview with the GOP nominee. Whether it be 2012 or 2016 is anyone’s guess.

Perry the conservative?

26/07/2011

There has been much talk of a lacklustre GOP field for the upcoming presidential election. However, many conservatives of a certain bent are looking to the governor of Texas, Rick Perry to answer their prayers.

Perry will pobably enter the field though though if he does decide to it will have to be soon. He is widly popular in his home state having been elected in his own right three times and is thus the longest serving governor in Texas history, the Economist notes that “There is, after all, a decent chance that he might win”. Not only that but “His most recent primary, against the popular Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010, was not expected to be a walkover but he made it one”.

Texas is booming unlike much of the rest of the United States, and the article notes that it “It is already the second most-populous state after California and is growing fast. Newcomers are attracted by the absence of state income and capital-gains taxes, cheap housing and, compared with most other parts of America, a steady stream of jobs. How much of this is Mr Perry’s doing is debatable”.

The article argues that much of Perry’s record chimes in with the Tea Party mood but it concludes that “closer national scrutiny will expose the seamier side of Texas’s low-tax model, including an underfunded school system and an inadequate safety net”. Not only that but people for all their talk of “freedom” from the state they actually like having a net their when things get bad.

A seperate article notes that Perry’s conservative credintaials are not as strong as some might think. It notes that “he bypassed the Texas Legislature and signed an executive order mandating that all girls entering the sixth grade receive a vaccine that helps protect from some strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer”. The article notes that social conservatives were enraged by Governor Perry’s actions and forced the State Legislature to overturn the order, which it did by a massive majority. The article argues that “Perry’s reasoning for the order was simple: Cervical cancer was a public health hazard, and requiring vaccinations was no different from provisions mandating polio vaccines”.

It goes on to note how an Arizona anti-immigration law was passed, after which Perry said “‘I fully recognize and support a state’s right and obligation to protect its citizens, but I have concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona and believe it would not be the right direction for Texas'”. The article also notes that he endorsed Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

Like it or not, should Perry run and get the nomination, Americans will be faced with a proper choice as to want kind of government they want, one way or the other. All the debate would need after that is some politeness.

Dream ticket?

29/06/2011

People are, unsurprisingly, not happy with the current batch of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination next year. President Obama the UK Economist says is beatable but only if they nominate the right man.

Simply put, Obama “has a huge war-chest, his own party firmly behind him and a rare capacity to inspire. Yet he is vulnerable”. The economy of course is the weak link. This election is perhaps more crucial than most as the choices that the next president will face will decide the future direction of the US for the next decade, perhaps two. As a result “the best thing for America—is to force voters to confront the hard choices their country has to make. ”

 The article mentions two senarios; firstly with his approval ratings above Bill Clinton’s when he won re-election in 1996 against a similarly unsuprising GOP field, Obama has a good chance of winning a second term. However equally important to bear in mind is that fact that  George H W Bush “was coasting towards re-election; by November 1992 the president was toast—and the main reason was a sluggish economy. This recovery, in the wake of the worst financial shock since 1929, is even slower. Growth in the first quarter was a feeble 1.8%. The unemployment rate actually rose, to 9.1%, in May”.

Obama will have to dodge arguments from both his left base and the centrists, “What happened to his promises to do something about the environment or immigration or Guantánamo? Why should any businessman support a chief executive who has let his friends in the labour movement run amok and who let his health-care bill be written by Democrats in Congress?”

The GOP on the otherhand if they want to get elected have to answer serious two policy questions, “how to get more people back to work, and how to fix the deficit.” In stinging and largely deserved criticism “When it comes to encouraging jobs, the Republican failure is largely one of inventiveness. They focus merely on tax cuts and slashing red tape”. Not only that but the article makes the point, long made before but no less relevant now that the GOP “seems to understand the difference between good spending and bad. Investment in roads and education, for instance, ought not to be lumped in with costly and unreformed entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare”.

One such commentator who thinks that he’s found his dream ticket is Juan Williams. He notes that as many as 45% think that the GOP doesn’t have the right candidates.  As an interesting point of comparison “the current split is a long way from the same point in 2008 when 72 percent of Republicans said they were pleased with candidates running for the nomination”.  He notes that the field is basically set with Jon Hunstman due to enter imminently. He says the none of the current candidates will beat Obama.

 Yet, he argues that former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, “and [Senator Rob] Portman would be a great bet to carry the 47 electoral votes from Florida and Ohio, so creating a huge problem for Obama’s effort to win the 270 electoral votes it takes to claim the presidency”. On the supposedly controversial Bush family name he argues that “any backlash against the idea of a third President Bush is not going to be big enough to turn any red state into a blue state. On the other hand, Bush’s brand name, intellect and stable personality could win back some key states for the GOP such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana”. He also notes Governor Bush’s ability to bring in Hispanics with genuine, and much needed border reform. 

Finally, as has been mentioned here before, “Portman, the former U.S. Trade Representative and President George W. Bush’s budget director can seriously campaign as Mr. Fix-It for the economy”. If they were to team up it would give the Obama campaign serious headaches as well as starting a proper national debate between two distinct ideologies, with agonism guaranteed.

Polite agonism?

26/06/2011

Jon Huntsman has finally begun his presidential campaign for the Republican party nomination at the same time as fundraising staff leaves the Gingrich campaign.  

Huntsman, launching his campagin, “speaking with the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline as his backdrop in an effort to evoke Ronald Reagan, who held a campaign event from the same spot a generation ago, Huntsman said he would bring to the presidency a focus on substance and not on politics”. Whether this is true or not, it is refeshing to even hear it, when many demanding the GOP have no dealings with the Dems while at the same time maintaining the Congressional system that forces the two parties to work together. Huntsman added that “his campaign against the president for whom he’d served as ambassador would boil down to policy, not attacks on patriotism”, this is however his only real choice after taking an administration job he can’t turn around a attack President Obama who offered him a job which he accepted. This of course does not mean that there are not substantive ideological difference between Obama and Hunstman but these can’t be aired in an agonistic way without causing deliberate offence.  

His opening speech of his campaign rightly “focused primarily on the nation’s fiscal challenges, and he called for overhauls to entitlement programs and the tax code.” Huntsman does however have huge challenges with “a Gallup poll last month found only 1 percent of Republican primary voters would choose him”.

On a related point, Huntsman has refused to sign pledges “meant for candidates having to do with taxes and abortion rights”. This will cost Huntsman the Tea Party vote but that doesn’t lose him much sleep. Yet it does position him as a serious credible candidate in the GOP field with Mitt Romney as his main (perhaps only) real rival.

Huntsman will, if he continues on this track, bring reasoned debate to a crucial election with tough choices for whoever wins. Others think he’s setting himself up for a 2016 run and praise his “ambition and disicpline”.

Eternally passive

24/03/2011

After all that has affected Ireland the country is surprisingly peaceful when there were Greek riots, huge Spanish marches as well as the usual French demonstrations.

This passivity and lack of any real public protest has been examined recently, the writer says that “weak infrastructure of dissent explains this moderation/passivity”. He says that “those at the top – be they bankers, bureaucrats or politicians – have paid little if any price for whatever role they played in the disaster”.

He writes to explain this requires historical analysis is needed. He notes how social passivity in Ireland is not new and how the “Civil War, for instance, was a brief and unbloody affair compared with other conflicts of that kind in Europe over the course of the 20th century – from Finland in the 1920s to the Balkans in the 1990s”.

He says that fascism and communism that were sweeping Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, from the UK with Oswald Mosley to Stalin in the USSR, where all but ignored in Ireland, he notes that, “Those (anti-democratic) ideas were almost completely ignored and, more generally, no country in Europe has been so little influenced by new political ideas”. He cites as another example Irish passivity to the economic crisis of the 1980s that affect Ireland.

The reasons for this he says,  Ireland has an “underdeveloped infrastructure of dissent” and the reason for this is chiefly due to the lack of any real divisions within Irish society. Since the 1920s Ireland, at least the 26 counties, have been overwhelmingly Catholic, and collectively have had a perception of historical oppression with further united the country together. The journalist writes importantly how, “Among the most important reasons in explaining the absence of such divisions was the long struggle for statehood, which unified many forces in society that would otherwise have been at loggerheads”.

He cites how the State has a high degree of legitimacy, as there was a clean slate with no past injustices, as a result, “An anecdotal example of this legitimacy and the limited suspicion of how the State exercises power is that political conspiracy theories are far less frequently heard in Ireland than in other European countries”.

Now however Ireland is undergoing huge strain, with great pressure being put on the relationship between what is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as an increasingly out of touch and unrepresentative establishment and the worst off in society suffering most.

Perhaps this passivity is beginning to change?

New government formed

10/03/2011

The new session of the Irish parliament began after the recent general election. As feared, Fine Gael and Labour joined together to form a government and have produced a coalition agreement. Gone is any hope for agonism, for now.

Fine Gael which holds 76 of the 166 seats is expected to receive ten ministries with their coalition partners getting the remaining five in addition to the attorney general’s post. Enda Kenny was elected prime minister by the newly assembled parliament by 117 votes to 27 and has received his seal of office from President McAleese.

His Cabinet consists of:

  • Taoiseach Enda Kenny
  • Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore (Labour)
  • Minister for Agriculture, Marine and Food Simon Coveney (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs Jimmy Deenihan (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte (Labour)
  • Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn (Labour)
  • Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation Richard Bruton (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Finance Michael Noonan (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Health James Reilly (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter (Fine Gael)
  • Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin (Labour)
  • Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton (Labour)
  • Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael)

Kenny has created a new ministry that of Children which previously been a secondary post under the Minister for Health. Notably, the Finance Ministry has been split into two with one being held by a Fine Gael while the other, Public Expenditure and Reform, being held by a Labour. Also notable is the merging of the Defence and Justice Ministries into one. What should be borne in mind is that of the fifteen Cabinet ministers, ten have prior experience in previous governments, albeit, quite some time ago.

Some in the media are arguing that the number of women is low and that they are not given better ministries – this is of no significance to the running of Ireland or fix its current crisis. Commendably at its first Cabinet meeting the government took a pay cut. Kenny’s first engagment will be to “travel to Brussels this afternoon for a meeting with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, ahead of meetings of the European Council and the euro zone heads of government”. This is notable as at the same time the EU changes its mind, not that is will alter Ireland’s inevitable default.

Any belief that Irish politics has changed is not to be believed. Fine Gael and Labour having a history of coalition government before, though admittedly not with this majority,  and Fianna Fail on the opposition benches.

Labour will be forced to make cuts, often to the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and it is possible that they too will face a Fianna Fail type moment at the next election with massive losses by being attacked by and ideologically much purer party. While any middle class support drifts away to another party, possibly Fine Gael.

What is certain is that Ireland’s politics is in flux with no outcome determined yet.

Irish election – Part II

02/03/2011

With the final results for the Irish election in, excluding the speaker, Seamus Kirk, the seat allocation is as follows: Fine Gael 76,  Labour Party 37,  Fianna Fáil 19, Sinn Féin 14, United Left Alliance 5 and an assortment of Independents getting 14 seats. After the last election the parties excluding the speaker were: Fianna Fáil 77, Fine Gael  51, Labour Party 20, Green Party 6, Sinn Féin 4, Progressive Democrats 2, Independents 5,

With the lower house due to meet on 9 March (Ash Wednesday), formal discussions to form a government will be extremely fast with any hope of an FG government backed by like minded independents fast fading. With this, any sort of agonism that was hoped for by having Fine Gael and a number of like minded independents join together is all but gone. The result of which would be to have Labour as the dominant opposition party instead of the disgraced and incompetent Fianna Fail, thereby relegating FF to a long deserved obscurity. Not that it is of any relevance, but FF only have males in the party after the election in addition to only having only one representative for the capital, Brian Lenihan with no MPs in counties Kerry Meath, Tipperary and Roscommon at all, with long time incumbent and prominent member Mary O’Rourke losing her seat also.

However, the 31st Dail should be an interesting one as a small number of Socialists were elected as well as the like minded Sinn Fein and ULA which will challenge the new coalition on every and every measure.

Now it is almost certain that there will be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition with talks already underway but not expected to take more than a few days due to a lack of any real ideological difference between them. FF are the majority opposition party but only just, however it will be interesting to see what FF do, as the manifesto of Fine Gael is so close to that of Fianna Fail that FF should wholeheartedly back whatever the coalition does in office if not FF will rightly be leveled as hypocritical.

Once the coalition talks are complete the ministries will be assigned.

Estimates for the 31st Dail

23/02/2011

People are finally coming to terms with the view that Fianna Fáil will do better in the election than opinion polls suggest.

Not only that but Fine Gael will probably do less well off than expected and fall short of an absolute majority and need Labour to join with them, giving FF a chance to regrettably come back from the brink of extinction.

It says that “Fine Gael’s position is solidifying (not surging) and Labour is slipping slightly (not falling). The Greens look unlikely to return any seats. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin also seem not to be moving”.

Predictably people should “consider that all polls are underestimating Fianna Fáil for a number of reasons. One is that people will be shy of admitting to vote for Fianna Fáil, particularly in face to face interviews because of a stigma attached the party now”.

Sadly, “It’s difficult to come to any firm conclusion about whether Fianna Fáil estimates are about right or systematically below the real vote intention. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see Fianna Fáil closer to 20 percent in the final results”.

This would translate into “Fianna Fáil return 25-29 TDs (incl. Seamus Kirk [speaker]); Fine Gael would win 65-69 seats, a good deal lower than the estimates Adrian Kavanagh predicts; Labour would win 33-37 seats and Sinn Féin 17-21 seats”.

This is perhaps the closest realistic estimation that has been seen. Previous figures quoted here by others put FF on 16 seats while FG were on the high 70s, neither of which is likely even after all that has happen to Ireland.

Unless Labour see the light and has has been discussed here before, stay out of government and make sure that FG are squeezed in government and FF fade into irrelevance in the opposition, while Labour bide their time for the future.

With the most likely possibility of a FG/Labour coalition offering no policy/ideological difference hopes for agonism in Ireland remain a distant dream.

Labour under pressure

20/02/2011

Finally the centre is being squeezed out of Irish politics, or at the very least is under pressure.

In an interesting post about the Labour Party’s increasingly slipping poll numbers, the author describes  how the other party with which is it vying for the largest number of seats, Fine Gael, is not in the same position.

Fine Gael it says “has had very little policy competition. The PDs are gone, which removed an old threat for Fine Gael whenever it moved too close to the centre”. Thus FG are free to roam the centre ground as they see fit, Labour on the other hand have the problem of “If it wanted to position itself in the centre, it had to be careful not to concede too much ground to ULA or Sinn Féin candidates”.

Not only that but FG have skillfully warned Labour’s large group of middle class supporters that Labour is a high tax party. However this should not be all that surprising being a party of the left, yet not when the middle classes are so heavily involved it its support base.

If that were not enough Labour has to be careful as should “be careful not to concede too much ground to ULA or Sinn Féin candidates” on the left. The author goes on to say that “each time Labour mentioned more tax than cuts (to protect its left flank) Fine Gael could attack it as a high tax party”.

Whether any of this will happen and FF support will really collapse and at the same time FG will manage to get enough seats only to need support from independents and keep Labour on the opposition benches is too soon to tell, with the Irish electorate keeping their real intentions, for want of a better word, in pectore.

Least worst option

16/02/2011

The question of political parties is pertinent due to the recent posts. Are they the best way of expressing ideology/vision of society or are there better ways?

In an article examining the UK Conservative Party. It makes the valid point that “before last May, Britain did have political coalitions of a sort. The main parties have themselves always been uneasy alliances.” Every party has factions or wings that are more left or right and this at times creates tension. As the article says of the Tories, “The party’s right grumbles about the prime minister’s policy sops to his Lib Dem coalition partners. The left provocatively suggests an electoral pact with them.” As the magazine states looking ahead, “The antagonism between Tory left and right could be one of the main political themes of the year”.

The article says of the right of the party that they “are not as preoccupied with economics as the ‘dry’ Thatcherites of yesteryear. If they were, the government’s ferocious spending cuts would keep them happy”. It argues that the “right resents austerity when it is applied to defence; it wants Mr Cameron to revive his former reverence for the family”.

In contrast “the new left—including the Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude, and the backbencher Nick Boles—are iconoclasts who define themselves by their zeal for giving power away. They have diverse views on economics, crime and Europe, but share a commitment to stronger local government and more control for ordinary people over public services”.

In light of these very serious differences it is hard to see how the party can govern effectively. There is an argument to be made for smaller more ideologically cohesive parties. This would in turn provide the voter with a clearer idea of what he is actually voting for.

However, the problems with this is that single or small issue parties, whatever the electoral system, rarely have the following needed to get into office. The other option is to have many small single issue parties form a coalition. This would to be the best, yet there would be a high chance of the coalition falling apart due to infighting of the parties and the government needed the support of many or all of the parties in government to function.

The only other alternative is what we have now, where broad parties such as the Democrats in the US or the UK Labour party have factions but come together because they share the same basic beliefs. The only problem this creates is that the party leader needs to be very adept at controlling these factions.

On the specific example of the UK Conservatives, the “new shape and character of Tory divisions actually helps Mr Cameron in some ways. Because the right is now as cultural as it is economic, and the left more enthusiastic about decentralising power, both can rally around Mr Cameron’s idea of the ‘Big Society‘”. Finally it warns that the “downside of Mr Cameron’s vast self-belief is complacency, often manifested in an inattentiveness to his own political backyard. If he needs the support of his right flank in a future crisis, he cannot be sure of getting it”.

So regrettably broad tent parties are here to stay but only as the least worst option, nothing more.

Ups and downs

13/02/2011

The Economist takes a look ahead at the next eighteen months for President Obama. It discusses his preformance and prospects for reelection.

It notes how in his State of the Union address that he told Congress that America had to “out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world” and be “the best place on earth to do business.” The article notes how “After the thumping of the mid-terms, the man who had developed flat feet suddenly got his moves back”. However this fails to overlook the fact that there was “no change in President Obama’s job approval rating after his State of the Union address”.

The SOTU was, it generally is, short on detail but having said that his “job approval rating for the week of Jan. 24-30 was 84% among Democrats, 45% among independents, and 15% among Republicans”. However it bears noting as Gallup says that polls so far ahead of an election “have little election forecasting validity”. However President Obama stands a fair chance of getting re-elected, especially when there was a recent round of moves within the White House which included Bill Daley becoming Chief of Staff but also Jay Carney becoming press secretary and Gene Sperling formerly of the Treasury being moved to become NEC director. It is notable that Sperling and Daley both worked in investment banks at various times in their careers.

The Economist goes on to point out that  Obama’s victories include “repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces and ratification of the New START deal with Russia”. These achievements while notable are of little or no significance to the vast majority of Americans. It mentions that despite his majorities in the 111th Congress Obama “did not give Mr Obama the power to enact every measure he wanted (an energy bill and immigration reform were two that fell by the wayside”.   This is just farcical, to be in charge of both houses of Congress and yet be unable to pass major legislation because your own party doesn’t agree with it makes little sense. The world has less and less time for this idiosyncratic way of doing things.

It contrasts Newt Gingrich who presided over the “Republican Revolution” of 1995 and the current speaker, John Boehner “a pragmatic politician who has in the past worked comfortably with Democrats”, it adds with a note of warning however that “But many of the new Republicans in Congress think they were sent there to slay Leviathan, not rub along pleasantly with the big-spending Democrats. Behind them, the grassroots of the tea-party movement are already spiky with indignation after the compromises of the lame-duck session and are standing guard against further betrayal”.

It says the Obama will try to protect his healthcare bill in the Senate but the courts are having major problems with it as it stands and the Supreme Court may well rule on it yet. The budget deficit did get a mention in the STOU speech, the deficit reduction commission headed by Bowles-Simpson “to cut the deficit to 1.2% of GDP by 2020 and reduce the debt to 60% of GDP by 2023 via a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. Mr Obama acknowledged in his speech that they had made ‘important progress’, but said he did not agree with all their proposals, and gave no impression he would implement any”. 

The article notes that Americans like divided government, “Its fans say that it forces politicians from opposite ends of the spectrum to seek common cause in the centre”. That made sense fifty years ago, however that does not take into account the inceasing divisions of the GOP and the Dems today. America needs less checks and balances and more action through unified government or else people of all stripes are going to start wishing the world wasn’t run by China.

Election 2012

14/11/2010

Congratulations on your re-election Mr President.