» US ¦ What You Can Get Away With

One thing that surprised me when I first lived in the US, and continues to stand out as an oddity to me is the election of judges. It confuses John Oliver too, leading to this segment on Last Week Tonight:

For me, it’s a great example of an idea I’ve talked about often, that democracy is not just about having elections, and having more elections doesn’t automatically make things more democratic. Democracy is an ongoing process, not a single event, and that process needs lots of different parts to work together to ensure it succeeds.

Electing judges is a pretty extreme example (from the land of extreme examples) but it does get to the point that judges and politicians have different roles within the democratic process, and electing judges starts to confuse the roles. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge at the start of that LWT item, has run for several political roles while serving as a judge, and that sort of confusion between the judicial and the political is common in US politics.

The point is not to say that judges should be free from and challenge or oversight, but that within a democracy not every post needs to be appointed in the same way. Every post in a democracy is appointed in some way, the question is who does that appointment and how – elections are perhaps the most obvious way of doing it, but that doesn’t make them the best or most appropriate in all circumstances.

We’ve seen it in Britain with Police and Crime Commissioners who were brought in to supposedly make accountability of the police more democratic than the existing system of Police Authorities because direct election, rather than appointment through other elected bodies was seen as ‘more democratic’. What we’ve ended up with, however, isn’t any better scutiny or accountability of the police, but a network of what appear to be very well paid spokespeople for the police, who now get brought out instead of the chief constable when the media need someone for a comment.

Democracy is a complex process, and not one that’s easily solved by simply electing everyone and hoping for the best. Sadly, that’s the message we keep getting sold, where an elected mayor trumps a complete lack of democratic accountability. We’re not likely to be electing judges here, but we need to keep making the arguments for real democracy.

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If nothing else, he’s better at using multiple clauses in a sentence than his brother, but it is a declaration surrounded by a whole forest of ambiguity. He’s not exploring running for President but actively exploring the possibility of running for President, an act of unintentional political philosophy that could lead to disaster if he decides he first needs to fully comprehend the meaning of his decision to actively explore this possibility before even beginning to properly explore where it all might lead to.

Of course, it’s in the nature of US Presidential elections that candidates need to go through all the rigmarole of not actively running so they don’t have to answer any actual questions but can still begin to raise the vast funds needed to see if it’s possible to raise the immense funds required to mount a serious bid for the Presidency. There will likely have been a pre-public exploratory phase before all this, just to make sure things won’t completely fizzle out, which is why there’s a big jump from thinking about running for President, and exploring it. One you do privately, the other you do publicly and are pretty much committing yourself to run barring utter disaster – it’s the political equivalent of the one finger that’s just touching the chess piece after the move, hoping you haven’t missed something really obvious now it’s in place.

Once the candidate has formed the exploratory committee, they’re pretty much running for President, even if they’re still being coy about it. In fact, I can only think of one US politician who explored running for President and then decided not to run – the late Paul Wellstone in 1999 – though there are many who explored, ran and then realised they should have explored more.

Jeb Bush becoming President in 2016 would prove my prediction from 2012 correct, even if I wouldn’t want it to be. I do hope his explorations will include an extended discussion of whether history repeats itself, and if so, just how farcical a process the election would need to be to have him elected by the House of Representatives like John Quincy Adams and who the Andrew Jackson of the twenty-first century would be.

(Edit: And just after I posted this, I saw this article pondering on the possibility of the both US parties splitting in two, which is surely a sign of us being in 1824 all over again)

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In the category of ‘small, but annoying, errors’ we have this from the Guardian:

Obama will make history in another way on Monday, becoming the first US president to be sworn in four separate times.

THat should be ‘the first since Franklin Roosevelt’, of course, who got his four inaugurations the old-fashioned way by being elected four times.

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There’s an interesting article on Buzzfeed about American right-wing bloggers and their determination to prove President Obama was somehow unfit or unqualified for office.

(Spoiler: they failed)

It’s interesting because it’s an examination because even though it doesn’t use the word, it’s an examination of political groupthink. We have a group – however informally constituted – who have decided on a plan of action and then continue to press on with that course of action despite evidence that it isn’t working. The article goes through a lot of the ideas that this group were pushing, having committed themselves to the belief that Obama was a dangerous radical and that all they needed was the single piece of proof that would bring him down. (In that light, the belief in, and desperate searching for, the seemingly mythical video in which Michelle Obama used the word ‘whitey’ becomes something like a grail quest)

The consensus that soon emerged on the right was that if Americans were fully aware of Obama’s relationship with extremists like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, they never would have elected him. And since tank-dwelling mainstream reporters couldn’t be trusted to expose The Real Obama, it would be left to the crusading online right to get the job done.

The reality – that Obama is a moderate Democrat, whose political views would likely place him on the centre-right of European politics – just doesn’t get a look in. It’s very easy for us to point and laugh at the Tea Party types because their errors are so extreme. Outside of the bubble. the idea that he’s a radical socialist, a secret Muslim or Kenyan-born is obviously nonsense, but does that help us to forget that we’re sitting in our own bubbles?

It’s easy enough to point to groupthink on the extremes where it’s obvious – the belief that if the Tories swung hard to the right and embraced the UKIP agenda, they’d get a majority, for instance, or the old Left belief that Labour’s mistake was not being revolutionary socialist enough in 1983 – but I think that there are many examples within the mainstream of politics too.

In the closest parallel to Obama, consider the attempts to depict Ed Miliband as some kind of socialist firebrand dominated by the unions. As with Obama, the idea that ‘Red Ed’ wants to take the country back to some cartoon version on the 1970s is barely plausible in the real world but is an article of faith on the right. (The same applies to an extent on the left, though, where the caricature David Cameron drinks the tears of starving children with his nightly caviar)

The problem is that the web has made it much easier to slip into groupthink mode. It’s very easy now to launch an attack on a political opponent, get lots of support and back-slapping from an army of Twitter warriors and congratulate yourself on a job well done, despite the fact that your attack has never registered with the public at all. However, you can point at the blog hits you’ve got, the retweets you’ve received, the likes and +1s you’ve achieved while not drawing attention to the fact that all these are coming from the same pool. It’s a classic reward for groupthink – do something that appeases the group and reaffirms their central idea and get praise, criticise it and get ostracised. (Or at least, not linked to.) Compare that to the work the old political operatives had to do to create their networks.

Of course, you could argue that in order to exist and thrive, political parties have to practice some form of groupthink, otherwise they’ll splinter too easily over internal divisions.

And no, I’m not excluding myself and my fellow Liberal Democrats from falling victim to political groupthink. Indeed, I think much of the party is falling into groupthink mode over staying in the coalition where lots of evidence is being ignored or twisted in order to proclaim that it’s a good thing and that we must stick it out for the long term. Slivers of good news get praised to the skies, while bad news is ignored or rationalised away. Don’t worry about a lost deposit in Corby, praise some local by-election victories instead!

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Because history repeats itself, except for all the times it doesn’t.

Barack Obama’s re-election this week meant that three successive US Presidents (Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama) had all been elected to two terms in office. The only other time this has happened in American politics was 200 years ago, with the Presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

The interesting thing about this is that in both of these sequences, the President who served immediately beforehand was a holder of the office for a single term (John Adams and George HW Bush), who’d previously been Vice-President for two terms (for George Washington and Ronald Reagan). In the Jefferson-Madison-Monroe sequence, the next President was a son of that former President who served for a single term: John Quincy Adams.

As perfect symmetry can’t be achieved unless someone finds a way for George W Bush to run again for the Presidency, the burden of history falls on the other politically-active son of George W Bush, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. To keep up with history, he should win a bitterly disputed election that ends up decided by the Congress, after the ruling party has split several ways. The winner of the popular vote and the most electoral votes (Andrew Jackson in 1824) will then swear revenge, get elected for two terms immediately afterwards and make radical changes to the way the political system of the country works.

Of course, the parallels break down when you look too closely, not least in how James Monroe’s period as President was known as ‘the era of good feelings’ with so little domestic strife that he was re-elected without serious opposition to his second term. When the historians write about this period of US history, I somehow doubt ‘good feelings’ will be used much. However, Jeb Bush is being mentioned as a potential Republican candidate next time round, so maybe history is preparing for the tragedy or the farce.

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There’s been much joking recently about how part of the wake of the presidential election would be a wave of ‘why the US election means we must support my politics’ columns and blog posts. Lo and behold, you can probably find one on most comment sites in the country, but I wasn’t expecting David Cameron to jump on the bandwagon.

He made clear that the Tory right, which is putting pressure on him to campaign on more traditional Conservative themes, should take note of Obama’s success. “I believe that elections are won in the common ground – the centre ground,” Cameron said. “That is where you need to be, arguing about the things that matter to most people – that is making sure they can find a good job, they can build a good life for themselves, that if people work hard and try to get on you are behind them and helping them. That is the message loud and clear from this election as it is from all elections. You win elections in the mainstream.”

The hard right in the US and the UK share a common theme. Namely, that all electoral failure by right-wing candidates has one common cause – not being right-wing enough – and therefore, one common solution – being more right-wing. (The basic principle seems to have been taken from the hard left sometime in the 1980s) Although it manifests itself differently because of the differing media cultures in the two countries – there’s no Fox News or conservative talk radio in the UK, no Telegraph, Mail or Conservative Home in the US – the principle is the same: a right-wing echo chamber proclaiming that success comes only through ideological purity.

The problem is that the promise is false. In the US, right wing talk radio (as exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the like) began its rise from around 1989-90 after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked by the FCC. Since then, the Republicans have won the national popular vote in just one presidential election – 2004. In comparison, the advent of the British right began after the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Since then, Tory leaders have been regularly informed that the path to success lies in going further and farther to the right than Thatcher ever did, and they’ve had a similar sort of electoral success – one majority election victory in 1992, and one plurality of seats and votes in 2010. After William ‘save the Pound’ Hague and Michael ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Howard, the Tories only got some measure of success when Cameron started shifting them towards the centre.

One interesting dilemma that this does pose is that the call of the hard right can deliver some electoral success, though not in major elections. In the US, they have often delivered electoral successes in the midterms (1994 and 2010 are probably the best elections) and over here, UKIP have been successful in European elections. However, the link there is that these are low-turnout elections, and while the right may be good at getting their people out to vote for these, any effect they have is swamped when moderate voters come out to vote in the major elections.

That’s why, just this once, I agree with David Cameron. Salvation for the Tories doesn’t lie in them flying headlong to the siren call of the Tea Party. Their influence comes from the fact that they’re more organised and better funded than the moderates, not from their electoral sway.

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There are possibly historical analogies one can draw that compare to the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US, but there are some you might want to think twice about.

For instance, while there are parallels possible between the US and the Roman Republic (though they tend to fall down under too much scrutiny) it’s worth noting that the Republic spent the best part of a century falling apart before whatever passed for democracy became just a figleaf for an Imperial military-dominated dictatorship, and one of the points often regarded as marking the beginning of the end of the Republic was Caesar leading his troops over a natural barrier.

So announcing the Tea Party’s arrival in Washington as ‘crossing the Rubicon’ might not be the best turn of phrase.

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