Friday, May 20, 2016

Sanders, Trump and the challenge to parties

A month or so ago it looked as if the Republican convention would be the best spectacle for those who love a bit of political anarchy.  With Donald Trump marauding his way through the Republican primaries, faced by establishment opponents who clearly loathe him, what would have been better than a convention which tried to overturn the popular vote and insinuate a more acceptable candidate.  This would be a better spectacle even than Ronald Reagan's attempt to usurp the nomination of sitting president Gerald Ford in 1976.

Yet in such a short space of time the Republican conflict appears to have died down in the face of a pretty well invulnerable Trump candidacy and it's the Democrats who look like hosting at least a fractious, if not fully contested convention.  While Republican leaders accept the inevitable and start looking to make their peace with the candidate they desperately didn't want, the Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination strides on, now even bringing violence and chaos in its wake.

The difference would seem to be party loyalty.  Trump himself may not be particularly loyal to his newly acquired Republican brand, but he's holding the good hand.  He's the presumptive nominee.  Those old establishment Republicans - or, to be more accurate, those new establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio - are going to hold their noses and endorse Trump, because they need their party to win in November.  And win not just the White House but Congress as well. Trump can corral the Republican party because the party needs him.

The Democratic party, meanwhile, neither needs nor wants Bernie Sanders.  The problem is that Sanders will fail to get the Democratic nomination but will still need to create the maximum disruption against the party in order to gain any traction.  Like his fellow insurrectionist, Sanders has no loyalty to the party whose label he recently adopted.  In a two-party system, both he and Trump saw their only chance for presidential success as being to take a major party hostage rather than run as a failed Independent.  Trump's gamble has succeeded, Sanders' has failed.  But Sanders' momentum is such that he can at least keep going, and since he's not really a Democrat that party's leadership appeals to him will have no impact.  Any more than Republican appeals had any impact on Trump.

Effectively what we are seeing are the attempts of two maverick insurrectionists to turn the party system against itself.  It is arguably the logical consequence of a political system which forces everyone to adapt to the two-party system.  If that's all you can use, then it is hardly surprising that the parties themselves become a target for otherwise independent, or socialist, or Green, or whatever other type of candidate who might be out there.

As it stands, then, the Democratic convention is going to be the most exciting.  Sanders is looking to gain traction in the California primary and has made no bones about taking his fight all the way to the convention floor.  The cries from the Clinton camp, and the establishment Democrats, will fall on deaf ears because Sanders has no use for party unity.  The slightly maudlin calls for Sanders to accept his defeat graciously so that Clinton can look to the general election battle against Trump are mis-directed and misconceived.  There would be no need to make appeals to Sanders if Clinton had managed to effectively dispatch his candidacy via the primary vote.  His continued campaign is as much an indication of her serious electoral difficulties as it is his own stubbornness.

2016 will not mark the end of the two-party system in American politics, but it has shown just how it is possible to subvert the parties in the interests of outsider campaigns.  The establishment - in either party - rules no more.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"We're nicer than you" - the Leave campaign's misleading siren shout

It’s always interesting to see how groups regard themselves.  It is not unusual for any sort of group to take a rather positive view of itself and, by contrast, demean other groups.  Nowhere is this more likely than in the tribal bear-pit of politics.  Political parties have long had a rather favourable view of themselves which doesn’t seem to have been readily passed on to anyone outside their nicely insular organisations, and now the two sides of the European referendum campaign are at it too. 

The loudest bleaters seem to be the Out campaign.  Barely a week of the campaign goes by without a slew of Outers complaining about the tone and attitude of everyone else.  There was a particularly concerted campaign today to claim that they themselves were all lovely, decent people while the mean old Remainers are unpleasantly attacking them.  In particular, various Leave partisans professed to be wounded and upset by the terrible attacks launched against their de facto leader, Boris Johnson.

We should certainly take these with a hefty shovelful of salt.  Firstly, Mr. Johnson’s incendiary comments are deliberately aimed to provoke mass outrage and they succeed wonderfully.  His most recent invocation of Hitler as a sort of pre-cursor to the EU is precisely the sort of ludicrous, over-the-top assertion that Mr. Johnson has made his stock in trade for years.  As a historical observation, it is panders to the outer fringes of myopic lunacy.  Whatever Mr. Johnson’s intelligence, it is certainly great enough to understand that there is no comparison between the dictators and monarchs of history trying to subjugate Europe, and the rather more collegiate endeavour – no matter how flawed – of the European Union.   Also, barely a week after his mayoral predecessor, Ken Livingstone caused such outrage with his own Hitler comments, it is inconceivable that Boris didn’t know that using the H word would do the same for him.

Boris wanted us to talk about him, and about Europe, probably in that order, and he succeeded admirably.  He is also perfectly capable of throwing brick-bats towards the Remain campaign, and especially the Prime Minister, who he accused of deviously planning to sell Britain to the corporate backers of the EU campaign during his battlebus tour.  It was Boris, also, who described David Cameron as “demented” for suggesting that leaving the EU would lead to “bubonic plague and world war three”, neither of which Cameron had in fact specifically mentioned in his speech. (The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland penned an interesting piece associating Boris with Trump as one of what he called the "post-truth politicians".)

As for the Leave campaigners themselves, they have emerged from one of the most vicious training schools of fratricidal politics that Britain has ever seen – the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party.  Nothing has ever been too extreme for the sceptics, and we saw some of their parliamentary ilk seek yesterday to try and sabotage their own government’s Queen’s Speech as they apparently plotted to defeat it in an unholy alliance with Jeremy Corbyn.  Last week they unloaded shed-loads of venom on the governor of the Bank of England for having the temerity to suggest that there might be economic consequences if we leave.  Before that, Barack Obama was their target - an unprincipled president who had dared to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.  And ITV, of course, has been threatened with reprisals for not doing the Leave campaign's bidding, with a sinister reminder that the present lot in No. 10 won't be there for very long.  Not exactly a litany of loveliness and politeness I'd say.  

Euro-sceptics, and now the Leave campaign at large, have always portrayed themselves as plucky little mavericks fighting against the fascistic vested interests of the state and the EU.  If you want to stick with misbegotten historical analogies, that’s about as accurate as suggesting Hitler was simply a brave German freedom fighter. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An evening at the asylum

I went with at least a partially open mind when I attended the premier of “Brexit: The Movie” with friends last night.  Whilst believing that a vote to remain in the EU is probably best for the UK’s future, I’m nonetheless familiar enough with arguments about a democratic deficit and trade strangulation to be swayable on the crucial issue of our continuing membership of that flawed body.  So I was attending the IEA sponsored movie in the hope of hearing some of the rational arguments that appeared to have been missing from the campaign trail so far.

Alas, such optimism was terribly mis-placed.  First of all, it was apparent that what we were attending was less a general audience viewing of a carefully established case, and more a sort of rally for the committed Brexiteers.  There they all were, bow-tied up to the nines, greedily clutching champagne glasses on entry, double chins wagging away in righteous sympathy with each other at the Odeon Leicester Square.  I hadn’t come across such a very distinctive gathering since my days in the Young Conservative movement, or that time I went to the South African embassy to hear why apartheid was really quite a pragmatic idea back in the 80s.

But each to their own.  So what if the audience was a caricature of the metropolitan Brexit supporter, wanting not so much to leave the EU as leave the twenty first century.  They were perfectly entitled to gain solace by watching a film that helped articulate their wildest dreams and ambitions.
So we settled back in the cheap seats and waited for our intellectual Brexit fare to materialise on screen.  After all, the side that so regularly scolded the Remainers for their emotive “Project Fear” would hardly play the same trick themselves.  Would they?

Turned out they would, and more.  As the film began, there was little effort to drop us into the argument gently.  The first minutes were occupied with a selection of outraged middle-class tones competing with each other to screech out the worst offences of the EU.  After this political ice-plunge, the film’s presenter, Martin Durkin, took us on the sort of guided tour of the Bad EU that you might find in animated educational films for children.  His tone remained relentlessly patronising and light-weight throughout, as if we were somehow too stupid to be given any serious evidential meat.

Durkin’s potted history of the downfall of Europe included a paean of praise to post-war Germany, condemnation of over-regulated 1970s Britain, and some hilarious racial stereotypes, like Italian factory workers downing tools to snog a curvaceous woman, or eager-beaver Asian lab assistants exhibiting their maths skills.  In between the cheap animations and terrible sketch-show attempts we kept cutting to some talking heads.   Although the film’s case appeared to be that Brexit was on the side of the entrepreneur and the small businessman, all of the talking heads appeared to belong to rather inconsequential and definitely unproductive journalists and think tank authors.  It’s not that I don’t think Janet Daley or James Delingpole have a right to be heard.  It’s just that I don’t think penning “Why oh Why” columns for the Telegraph, or selling “My not very interesting memories of Dave Cameron at uni” to the  highest bidder qualifies them as particularly good spokespeople for the plucky industrial spirit the film seemed to want to identify itself with.   

The most egregious talking head, though, was Kelvin Mackenzie.   You’d have thought by now that Kelvin would be willing to spare the world his carefully manufactured down to earth “say it as I see it” salty wisdom.  Not a bit of it.  There’s still plenty of unfathomable rage waiting to find its inarticulate way out of Mackenzie.  What’s worse is the sheer hypocrisy of the man.  There he was, praising the “little man” and piously harping on about the awful abuse of power without a moment’s reflection that one of the worst abuses of power conducted in the modern age was by one K. Mackenzie.  No-one has ever managed to shit so relentlessly on an already ground down mass of people than Mackenzie as editor of the Sun, when he savaged the reputations of the dead and the friends of the dead Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, following as he did the dictates of one of the most corrupt police forces to have operated in the UK.  Abuse of power?  Lack of accountability?  Never were both more in evidence than in that wretched man’s tenure at the top of Murdoch’s calamitous empire.

By contrast, Simon Heffer’s faintly ludicrous comment in the film that if his whole family had to eat stewed grass as a result of leaving the EU it would still be worth it was merely barking rather than mendacious.

Heffer’s comment was loudly applauded by the audience of Brexit true-believers, but they applauded a lot.  Whenever Farage, or Dan Hannan, or Douglas Carswell appeared on screen to give us their well-cut middle-class faux outrage about the EU, the applause rippled around the auditorium.  There was some irony in these champagne quaffing, bow-tie clad Brexiteers clapping the regular mentions of the mythical “little man”, but then the evening seemed to be about fantasy for the most part in any case.  A cinema was an entirely appropriate venue.  And we had the bad guys to boo at too.  Edward Heath of course, although that other election-winning Tory, David Cameron, just about made it through unscathed, even if the tension when he appeared on screen was palpable.  Oh, if he would just leave office and let Boris or Michael take over, then all would be well with the world.

There was some meat buried in the film.  There were some genuinely strong points to be made about the collapse of the British fishing industry, or the struggles faced by Tate and Lyle.  It’s just that they seemed smuggled in amongst the more satisfying polemic, or the lengthy section on the wonders of Switzerland. 

With the end credits rolling, as the chant to “Leave, leave” started to gather pace amongst the committed, we took their advice, and left.  It had been an interesting evening.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Is Hillary's lack of the "vision thing" a real problem?

There is an interesting article up on Politico, strikingly headlined "How Hillary could win the election and lose the country".  Writer Todd Purdum considers the problem of a centrist, status-quo candidate becoming president (Hillary) in a year when all of the drive and momentum has been on the side of the radical, change-politics-now candidates.  Not unreasonably, he points out Hillary Clinton's lack of a clearly articulated vision and essentially postulates the idea that she might win the election by default - in that the Republicans will choose a virtually unelectable candidate in either Trump or, less likely, Cruz - but then fail to appease a country seething with discontent once she's in office.

It is an alarming thesis but one that may also be giving too much credence to the noise coming from the energised masses of left and right.  It is in the nature of democracies to go through regular convulsions, and for the reporting media to announce these as the critical convulsions of an era.  Such is modern democratic politics.  But it is also worth noting that the majority of people vote for little more than a relative competence in governance and stability on the home front.  These are unexciting attributes that are hardly going to rouse great audiences or inspire click-baiting readerships, but they are the greater part of a country's polity.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton's advantage as a candidate is that she does not arouse unreachable levels of expectation, and that she offers instead a rational, pragmatic competence in governing.  Yes she does have her guiding principles - the traditional Democratic ones of greater fairness, positive but non-confrontational diplomacy, a broad liberal belief in the beneficial impact of wise but not over-reaching government.  Certainly it's true that, set against the moral certainties of a Sanders or a Trump these are significantly less exciting attributes.  But there is an argument that Clinton is winning the Democratic nomination - and is odds-on favourite to win the November election - because most Americans prefer to embrace the less exciting, but likely more productive, option.

Donald Trump is generating enormous publicity with his campaign, and can claim to be providing a voice for the voiceless in his brash comments, but in so doing he is also turning many Americans away from him.  The elderly Sanders has managed to tap in to the holy grail of youth support, but youth is ever fickle and unrealistic, unmatured by the wisdom of years which show that compromise and realism offer better paths forward amongst diverse and contradictory humans than the apparently clear-sighted vision of idealistic politics.

It is noteworthy that in Mr. Purdom's vigorous article, he devotes a paragraph to re-living the exalted rhetoric of previous presidents.  Observing that the key power of the presidency is the power of persuasion, he cites again Kennedy's words about passing the torch to a new generation of Americans, or Reagan's "morning in America".  These were powerful pieces of rhetoric, but they were just that, and neither Kennedy - cut off too early but already arguably in the throes of seriously under-performing to the high-blown tones of his inaugural speech - or Reagan, who ended his years enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, were able to translate their flights of rhetoric into reality.

More recently, it is often stated that one of President Obama's persistent problems throughout his eight year presidency has been that no achievement or policy could ever match the soaring heights of his first election's rhetoric.  A brilliant candidate became a troubled president whose achievements live consistently under the shadow of the expectations he aroused.  More notably, possibly, is the fact that Obama's popularity is growing as he works out his last year because his rational, reasoned speeches stand in such stark contrast to the populist and unrealistic rhetoric of some of his would-be successors.

Hillary Clinton is not a great candidate.  She is a work-horse determined to be a realistic president.  She has produced thought-through positions on many areas of policy but can't easily translate this into neat, visionary sound-bites.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that her failure to be a rabble rouser means that she has somehow missed the mood.  If her presidency begins with a sense of realism rather than over-articulated optimism, she may in fact have hit just the right spot and be in a position to tackle America's problems with the effectiveness of a political pro, rather than doom herself to disappointing her supporters because she raised up a whole level of unattainable aspirations.

The politicians we deserve

We are a democracy, and so we get the politicians we deserve.

If we derive our news from personality-obsessed newspapers who fail to do even basic grunt-work to hold our representatives to account, well so be it.

If we look out onto the world of politics and simply sigh that they're all corrupt, and politics is boring in any case, well that's our right but don't then complain that nothing better is available.

If we are angry or annoyed that the campaign on one of the most important issues in a generation - the EU referendum - is being somehow trashed on both sides by outrageous, emotive, headline-hunting rhetoric, well we might just want to reflect on who the well-paid campaign leaders and researchers are aiming at.  Us, the voting public.  And they've mastered enough polling and marketing material to believe that their campaign is the very one we respond most to.  Had they bombarded us with information, boring but rational argument, a careful consideration of the volume of detail available to understand the pros and cons of EU membership; well then we probably wouldn't have listened.

If we think that the election to run one of the biggest cities in the world has become mired in name-calling, sleaze and racism, and seems moreover to be conducted by seriously uninspiring candidates fit possibly to become the middle-managers of a small business enterprise rather than visionary leaders of a great and complex city, well that too is due to the latitude we've extended to the current comedy occupant.

That's the thing about democracy.  It is about us.  We, the people.  We, the people who have the right to hire and fire our law-makers, hold them to account, reward the good ones and consign the bad ones to Trotsky's dustbin of history.  Instead of which, bored by real politics and by the necessity of being properly informed on issues of the day so that we can use our democratic right in a duly informed manner, we allow our politics to be become neglected and then subsumed by the same misshapen characteristics that prevail on those venal curses of modern entertainment, the reality television shows.  After all, that's what politics has really become.  A nationwide reality show, without the same level of viewers or attention afforded to the Saturday night versions.  Our politicians even talk with the same verbal incontinence of reality TV performers, as witness Ken Livingstone's current strife.

Of course some people recognise the situation we're in.  The Times lambasted Jeremy Corbyn as being a leader of "incompetence and nugatory intellect" in a striking indictment of his record and abilities.  The Guardian's Sonia Purnell penned a withering critique of outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, a man allowed to get away with promoting himself exhaustively over eight years when he should have been applying himself to running London.

The occasional philippic railing against our leaders and our current status is not, however, enough to force any sort of change.  Neither is racing to the nearest and loudest "anti-politician", who usually turns out to be simply another politician with a more raucous tone.

If we want to change our democracy, and the calibre of our representatives and leaders, then we, the people have to change it.  We have to interest ourselves in more than the personalities of the contest.  We have to search out real information, and demand accountability from it.  We should be joining parties to understand and influence them from the inside.  And dare I say it, as a teacher of politics, we need our schools to be more pro-active in the education of all our students in politics and civic responsibilities, not just the motivated few who choose to pursue the subject at A-level.

Maintaining a healthy and effective democratic state is not just the prerogative of the few who gain election to office.  It is the duty of all of a democracy's citizens; a deep duty that is more than the occasional shouting in support of a media bandwagon.  When we vote in our various elections on Thursday, or in the referendum on June 23rd., we might just want to ask, as we consider the choices in front of us, whether the act of voting is merely the first step in our democratic engagement.  If the choices before us this year so appall or scare us that we think about being more than just voters on the end of a process, then our democracy might be renewed after all.  Because as a democracy, we get the politicians we deserve.