Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do voters want?

The Nottingham University professor, Steven Fielding, has published two posts on the excellent university politics blog, Ballots and Bullets, dealing with the issue of what voters want - and therefore vote for - in their political leaders.

His first post was written after Theresa May appeared on the One Show.  In explaining why she would take part in a light entertainment magazine show, he noted that not only was she after its audience - some 5 million probably not very political viewers - but also needed to use the show to develop her empathy with voters.  Reasoned argument does not penetrate particularly far in a modern election, and some might dispute that two or three repeated mantras amounts to reasonable argument in any case. What voters are looking for is someone they can both admire as leaders and support as individuals who understand their own circumstances.  Fielding notes Aristotle's argument on "ethos, pathos and logos" in developing his point.

In his subsequent post, Fielding looks at the desire for voters to have a "strong and stable" leader.  Again, one might dispute whether the facts of May's leadership thus far really merit those words (weakness in the face of popular press campaigning and U-turning on budget promises within days don't constitute either strength or stability) but the reality is that she and her campaign managers have been successful in instilling that as a feature of her leadership.  Fielding references the arguments on "strong man [or person]" leadership from Plato, via Carlyle to Archie Brown (who disliked it but acknowledged the public's desire for it).

Fielding's two posts are engaging and accessible for A-level students, and help to consider what the features are for a successful leader in elections (both American and British).  They also illuminate the ongoing problem for anyone who thinks electoral politics is about an engagement of rational ideas, competing for the available political space.  It isn't and probably never has been.  It is about an engagement with the gut instinct of voters, the vast majority of whom are not interested in the minutiae of ideas.  Most voters, indeed, are not particularly exercised by the idea of democracy itself (the number of non-voters certainly indicates this, while even those who do vote contain a large number of agnostics who wouldn't miss the process if it were abolished).  What exercises them is the need for food, shelter, jobs and the chance of leisure - all exercised without obvious government presence.  If they do want to acknowledge a leader, they want that leader to look as if he or she knows what they're doing, makes occasional obeisance to the people's condition, and harasses their enemies with the minimum of actual conflict.  Currently, May understands that better than Corbyn.  Much better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How voters think....or don't

There was a fascinating piece on the "Today" programme this morning (scroll to 1:20:35).  Listen to these voters try and identify party policies (they mostly fail), and then explain why it doesn't matter anyway.  They may or may not be a representative sample, but these ordinary voters are classic examples of the principle of voting with the gut rather than the mind.  They are happy that they don't really understand any policies, it doesn't matter what detail parties promise as "they all promise the same and never deliver".  The personality of the leader is the most important thing.

Parties spend a lot of time developing their manifestos.  Voters spend a lot of time ignoring them and then claiming the promises don't amount to a hill of beans anyway.  Win the battle of perception and you've pretty well clinched the election.  That's Lynton Crosby's key understanding, and Theresa May - neither particularly strong or particularly stable as it happens - is his most obedient pupil.  Of course she's winning.  Policies have nothing to do with it.

One friend who has been canvassing for the Lib Dems reported a voter telling him that it was important to vote for Theresa May as she needed all our support to negotiate for Brexit.  That's nonsense and it doesn't actually mean anything.  But it is the simple mantra put out regularly by May and co, and a voter who doesn't spend much time thinking about politics has swallowed it whole.

Want to be depressed about human nature?  Want to understand Thomas Hobbes a bit more?  Follow an election!



The failure of Republican leadership

It is truly stunning that the President of the United States has almost certainly given classified information to the Russians because he loves bragging and has no control over his tongue.  He has himself pretty well admitted this in his latest tweets (here and here).

It is worth taking a moment to think about how extraordinary this is.  The president of the United States gives intelligence to the Russians!  This was the stuff of jokes not very long ago, or far fetched political thrillers.  Now, it's real.

Now consider the reaction of the Republican leaders on the Hill, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.  They hounded Hillary Clinton over her emails (though no significant information was ever discovered to have leaked) and set up numerous committees to investigate the Benghazi Embassy attack.  They portray themselves as American patriots.  With the exception of a half-hearted mention by Ryan, they have had nothing to say on this issue.  No comment on the fact that the president has given classified information to a hostile power, endangering the intelligence relationship with an ally in so doing.

Ryan and McConnell have spent a long time demeaning themselves and placing party interests before country, but so far this is their nadir.  It's ok to put intelligence lives at risk and betray your country's secrets if it means keeping a Republican in the White House.  McConnell has already shown how little he regards America's once revered constitution with his party games over the Supreme Court.  Ryan's whole mission in his political life has been to cut funding to any form of welfare programmes. Not exactly a couple of inspiring political heroes even before the Trump juggernaut exposed their self-serving, vindictive and malicious political dealing.

Donald Trump is a braggart and a moron who has little idea of the implications of his actions.  His only defence is that no-one expected any better of him; his whole political adventure has been to extend the brand of Trump and give his barely thought through political beliefs a megaphone to the world.  But Ryan and McConnell have come through political life.  They have brains of a higher working order.  Unlike Trump, they do know exactly what they are doing.  And it is one of the most depressing political spectacles ever witnessed.  Not since the days of Franz von Papen have we seen such naked political self-interest and cowardly retreat from morality give service to such an unspeakable populist power.

 When the history of the decline and fall of the American Republic is written, Ryan and McConnell will have prominent roles.  But why would they care?  What is the future of the republic compared to their political careers?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Firing Comey won't hurt Trump

President Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, just after a former fired Justice Dept official, Sally Yates, had been giving damning evidence to Congress, is an extraordinary event.  But not unprecedented in style.

Trump has fired Comey while Comey is overseeing an investigation into Trump's links with Russia.  Back in 1973, Republican president Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox while Cox was investigating Nixon's links to the Watergate break-in.  Reports have not been slow to raise the links, and Democrats on the Hill have quickly referred to the Comey firing as "Nixonian".

Nixon's actions led to his eventual impeachment.   But enemies of Mr. Trump shouldn't be too keen to expect significant retaliatory action against him.  Here's why.

1.  Nixon's actions came after a slow-burning revelation of the internal paranoia of his presidency through initially unregarded reports in the Washington Post.  By the time Cox was fired, the Nixon White House was already in a state of siege.

2.  Nixon faced a Democrat controlled House and Senate ready to use their significant constitutional power to investigate him.

3.  Trump faces a House and Senate controlled by virtually supine Republican leaders utterly in thrall to his presidency.  Ryan, McConnell, Nunes, Grassley and others have all shown their willingness to roll over in front of Trump if it furthers their judicial or economic agenda.

4.  Trump still retains a strong support from his voting core.  This won't budge.  He has already faced down public protest over a range of other unorthodox or unethical moves in his frist 100 days; this is simply one more.

5.  The presidency was still regarded as having to work by understood ethical and political standards under Nixon.  He breached those, and thus began his downfall.

6.  There has never been an understanding that Trump will use the presidency in a dignified or ethical way.  Media and political opposition have failed to shift this narrative, due to Trump's continuing hard-line support from his activists and an extraordinary abdication by Republicans of any thought that they will offer independent scrutiny of the president.

7.  Popular pressure is all, but it has to be seen to be large and widespread.  After Nixon's firing telegrams and messages poured into Congress and the White House from concerned citizens.  It suggested a general shift in the public mood away from the president.  Trump can remain secure in the knowledge that the base which put him into office still would so again.  Millions of opponents in Calfifornia or New York will have no impact on him.

8.  The Democrats have colluded in undermining Comey, notably Hillary Clinton herself.  She has consistently blamed him for her own election defeat and been supported in this view by supporters such as Chuck Schumer.  This makes any opposition they now express to Comey's firing extremely suspect.  They should have kept quiet and understood the need to coalesce around an independnet minded Director who was, after all, appointed by a Democratic president.

No-one can tell how this latest abuse of presidential power will run.  Trump is still at the beginning of his presidency, he enjoys support where it matters, and neither the media nor Democrats have yet found a way of seriously challenging him.  They may still not have managed to do so in four years' time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

US Politics - A-level round-up

Parties

Democrats in the House

While Republicans have effectively divided into two warring parties over the Obamacare repeal, Democrats have retained a strong congressional unity, says the Washington Post’s Daily 202.

Key points:

1-      Democrats have voted with consistent unanimity in rejecting repeal proposals, even those up for re-election in Trump states and districts
2-      The House Democratic caucus has changed since Obamacare’s passage in 2010.  “Blue Dogs” have been wiped out and the party’s base has moved left; of 34 Democrats who opposed Obamacare in 2010, only 3 are still sitting in 2017 and they are all opposed to GOP repeal attempts.
3-      The Democrats are reacting to the so-called Resistance movement’s pressure from outside the House; similar to Republicans and the tea party at the beginning of Obama’s presidency
4-      House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi acknowledges it is easier to mobilise votes against something than for something and imposes strict discipline on her caucus
5-      In a Washington Post interview, also promoted in the Daily 202, Pelosi noted the importance of keeping the Democrat tent a wide one, incorporating pro-lifers as well as abortion rights activists.

Democrat Problems

“Commentary’s” Noah Rothman says the Democrats have been learning the wrong lessons from their 2016 defeats:

1-      Blaming Hillary Clinton and other external party factors for their defeat, the Democrats have concluded that re-energising their base is the way forward
2-      The problem is that the Democrat base was already energised in 2016 – but for Donald Trump
3-      The so-called “Obama Coalition” seemed to show that Democrats no longer needed their white working-class voters; 2016 showed that Clinton could not keep the “Obama Coalition” in place – perhaps no other Democrat can
4-      Democrats are thus allowing a new and radicalised base to drive them, whilst ignoring the original white working-class base which used to win them elections





Hillary Clinton on defeat

Hillary Clinton has been speaking about her reaction to her defeat in an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour.  Whilst accepting “personal responsibility” for the defeat, she also cited other factors as being decisive – notably James Comey’s re-opening her email case, the Wikileaks hack of John Podesta’s emails, and misogyny in politics.   Clinton’s campaign has also been the subject of a “tell-all” book – “Shattered” – which is hostile to the former Secretary of State’s failed candidacy against Donald Trump, suggesting she was insular, secretive and isolated from disenchanted Democrat voters. 



Race and Parties

Trump and the resurgence of race issues

President Donald Trump has reiterated his admiration for President Andrew Jackson (the first real “Democrat” president), claiming that had Jackson been president later the Civil War would not have happened, in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

Salon writer Chauncey Devega sees this as further evidence of Trump and the Republicans’ neo-Confederate racist leanings.  His key take-aways:

1-      Trump’s inner circle hold white ethno-nationalist, supremacist beliefs
2-      They came to power in part by promoting a false idea of white victimhood
3-      Andrew Jackson, who carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the American west against Native Americans, is an appropriate symbol for this movement
4-      Neo-confederates promote a historical fiction that the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights
5-      It is no surprise that the KKK endorsed Donald Trump
6-      Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act gave birth to the modern, white supremacist Republican Party.  It “transformed the party of Abraham Lincoln into the party of Jefferson Davis”.
7-      The Trump Administration’s treatment of undocumented Latino immigrants is redolent of the hunting of fugitive slaves before the civil war.
8-      Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to be dogged by allegations of a racist past.

Historical note: The Washington Post noted that Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi sat beneath a portrait of the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln, while Trump espouses the virtues of the first Democratic president Andrew Jackson.