Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized and appalled by the standoff in the US over the closure of the federal government and raising of the debt ceiling. Fortunately, at the time of writing (8pm GMT on Wednesday October 16th), the Republicans (or at least John Boehner and Wall Street Republicans, if not the Tea Party radicals) seem to have accepted some measure of reality and backed off from inflicting financial disaster. It is absolutely astonishing that a political party in the world’s most powerful country could have taken the nation it is organised to serve to the edge of such a high and dangerous cliff. I literally cannot think of any parallel in history without invoking Godwin’s Law.
The implications of this political strategy are numerous and profound. Much of news coverage tends to involve, if not get lost in, procedural detail and personalty conflict, but here I would like to draw out what I see at the epistemological and democratic implications of what we have been seeing. (There’s also the question of what we have been seeing – as I will discuss). Let me tell a story first of all to see why .
My wife is Chinese, and a few years ago I showed her a video of Prime Minister’s Question on YouTube. PMQs has since the 1960s become a gladiatorial spectacle (Peter Hennessy says Harold Wilson was the main instigator of this during his first stint as Leader of the Opposition in 1963-1964) , but it is part of the romance of the House of Commons, where the Prime Minster lays him/herself open to questions from any member of parliament. Few if any other heads of government endure such a weekly inquisition. It’s far from perfect, of course: questions range from sycophantic to contemptuous, and replies from useful to blatantly ignoring the question, according to political expediency. However, merely to be able to “hold the Prime Minister to account” (as the pompous phrase has it) is a great thing. There is no hiding place at the despatch box. My wife, being Chinese, has grown up under the Communist Party and isn’t much of a political buff, so PMQs was something new and astonishing to her. (Can you imagine President Hu submitting to open questions? No, I can’t either). She asked how it worked, so I explained about the two main parties, how the one who wins the election forms the government, the other the opposition, and so on. (This was before the 2010 General Election and the coalition).
My wife said, “Well, why doesn’t the government kill off the other party? They control the army and the police.” (Spoken like a true daughter of a Red Guard).
“Well,” I said, trying to rationalise something I take for granted. “If they did that, their supporters would fight, and then you would have civil war. So the party that loses agrees to be the Opposition, that it will accept the government’s rule, put forward its own ideas, and then try to win the next election.” (She wasn’t too convinced. I’m glad she’s (usually) on my side).
This is how it works in the UK, where we have none (or very few) of the checks and balances of the US Constitution, and central government is about the only show in town. In the US, there are elections to the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency, and it’s practically impossible for one party to hold all three, because the elections are staggered, and because the House of Representatives often goes the other way under a presidency. It was Democratic under Reagan, and has mostly been Republican under Obama. As with the French habit of voting in Presidents and Prime Minsters of opposing parties, voters seem to want parties to bring together the best of their ideas and policies in creative tension. This, indeed, is practically the entire basis of the US political system, where power is always shared and compromise must (or ought to be) be reached. Some may find this horsetrading grubby, after the poetical rhetoric and electioneering grandstanding, but hey – I’d far rather have this than the “strong government” which in the UK led to dreadful laws and misadventures, such as Suez, the Poll Tax and the Dangerous Dogs Act. The complaints when parties reach deals which temper their manifestos I find both childishly naive and incredibly tedious. To be able to govern, you have to accommodate. Bill Clinton, quoted in Alistair Campbell’s riveting Diaries, says, “The art of politics is smiling when swallowing a mouthful of shit.”
While there are great differences in the US and UK systems, both rely on the losing parties in elections, for whatever post or chamber, accepting this and accommodating the winning party. By “accommodating”, this means accepting the mandate given by the people that their manifesto should be implemented. It does not, of course, mean that the winning party can do whatever it likes. It still has to form a government and be subject to the stresses and tensions of the democratic process – the committees and scrutiny, the questioning of the press and public, and the instant verdicts of the polling (an increasingly important component). When a government has substantial authority, these are easier to manage, in the way that winning is easier when you have a reputation as a winner. (But such reputations can vanish almost instantly). But in broad terms the opposition or minority party accepts that it has lost and that the winner can legislate its manifesto. Democratic continuity relies upon this. The ability to form what in Britain is called the Loyal Opposition is the sign of a mature democracy, where parties accept defeat without disputing the neutrality or good-will of state institutions. (Compare with African or post-Soviet elections).
It now appears that the Republicans are no longer willing to be a loyal opposition. Though they only control the House of Representatives, they are not willing to work with the President and Senate to allow their manifesto. Their outright rejection of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, is an affront to the past democratic procedures and practises. Of course, this is the very basis on which these Tea Party representatives were elected – to no longer work with “Washington” as had been done in the past, to fight and oppose no matter what, and to stand their ground ideologically, no matter what the political and governing cost. No longer is this strain of the Republican party willing to work “across the aisle” – which is to say, they are no longer willing to accept the victory of their opponents. Outright, limitless rejection is their only setting. They don’t even have a plan of their own to propound.
The reasons for the rise of this behaviour (it’s hard to call it a strategy, when it isn’t strategic) are numerous and various. I would suggest the following:
- The lack of blocks on political bias on cable news, leading to channels like explicitly partial “news” (infotainment) channels.
- The importance of talk radio, which encourages angry embittered viewpoints, if not outright conspiracy theories.
- The increasing importance of blogs, forums and microblogging to the political process, and the concomitant decline in traditional media. Digital media does not rely on advertisers, and therefore does not need the same degree of impartiality which large advertisers usually desire. People can remain within their own world-view, entirely unimpeded by moderates or even political opponents, in a way that was impossible only twenty years ago.
- The increasing gerrymandering of congressional seats (under Republican-controlled state governments), so that Representatives do not have to unduly trouble themselves with independent/Democratic voters.
The trends represent an epistemological shift. The reality of the Conservative hard-right is not the same reality as your average mainstream person who is exposed to various viewpoints, life stories, ways of thinking and cultural practices. Mainstream popular culture is a wonderfully absorbent thing, and can accommodate oddities and variety, even welcome it. But the conservative/Tea Party mindframe is conditioned by media which need have no admission of difference or variety. The drive for ideological (and life – perspectives are nearly always determined by experience) homogeneity, refusal to accommodate others and unstinting aggression and conflict are a product of this. While cities have always enabled people to find their niches and live within that world-view, whether gay or drug-orientated or political or literary or sports-orientated or whatever, the all encompassing totality of the niche is a new thing. As marketing becomes ever more specific, media becomes more targeted, affirming the world view of its consumers, and so becomes about reaffirming that world view, not presenting new information or facts which might disturb that.
(There is, of course, a hard-core strain on the left which similarly is self-absorbed. Its influence on politics is somewhere around zero).
These trends are not all recent, but have been definitely accelerated by the internet. We are seeing the first digital age politicians, where they get their voter feedback online from those who are bothered enough to contact them. This, though, presupposes a certain predisposition. And as the information loop feeds back, it (as any engineer will tell you) only gets stronger. So Ted Cruz can go on saying that they would have won if they had stuck together, that those who disagreed were weak, sell-outs, feeble, Republican In Name Only. The fool does not realise that winning elections means building coalitions of different voters, not cutting down your core to the true-belivers. But as the feedback loop of supporters howls in his ear, he cannot hear the vast majority of others. Not does he want to.