» US ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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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I’m reliably informed that if I want to be taken seriously as a blogger again, then I must post some predictions for things that will happen in the next year. So, here goes:

1) Wolves will be relegated for the Premiership. Even when relegation is mathematically certain, Mick McCarthy will insist that things can still be salvaged, and will still be sticking to this line when the team are playing in the Championship and being managed by someone else.

2) England will get to the final of the Cricket World Cup and lose. Yes, we’re good at cricket again, but if there’s one thing history shows us it’s that even good England teams lose World Cup finals. Probably to India this time.

3) The coalition won’t collapse and will still be there at the end of the year. As Anthony Wells says, ‘I think we all overestimate the chances of exciting and interesting things happening’ and the imminent collapse of the coalition has replaced the imminent split of the Tory Party and the imminent resignation of Tony Blair as the focus of fevered yet inaccurate political speculation.

4) David Cameron will carry out his first unforced Cabinet reshuffle. Probably a proper reshuffle, in that no Cabinet minister will actually be sacked (no matter how many pins get stuck into Eric Pickles voodoo dolls) but a few may be switched into lower-profile roles or have their departments shrunk beneath them.

5) Sarah Palin will announce she’s running for the Presidency of the US. And, oh my, it’s going to be fun…unless she looks like she has a chance of winning, and then it’ll just be scary.

6) The British media will continue to devote considerably more column inches to American politics than they will to anything happening in Europe. A critical Irish general election? Italy in continuing political crisis? The build up to a French Presidential election? Political fallout from the Eurozone bailout? Pah, who cares about that when there’s a crazy woman from Alaska to talk about!

7) The music media will hype a band up to the skies, who will turn out to be rubbish. This is pretty much a banker – and no, it’s not me showing my age, they’ve been doing this for years (remember Huggy Bear? Romo?) and then sneering at supposedly manufactured pop acts.

8) At least one TV series I like will be cancelled. Another given, just please don’t let it be Being Human.

9) Colin Firth will win the Oscar for Best Actor for The King’s Speech. Pure guesswork, as I haven’t seen the film yet but the combination of British royalty plus triumph over disability should be powerfully irresistible Oscar bait.

10 The last Space Shuttle flight won’t take place next year. The Shuttle programme is scheduled to fly its last mission next year, but I think it’ll get a last-minute reprieve as American politicians suddenly realise their national virility is under threat if they don’t have an operating space launch – after all, the last time that happened, Jimmy Carter was President!

So there we go – I look forward to not reviewing these next year when we discover that the Mayans were great at predicting a coming apocalypse, but were absolutely useless at making accurate calendars.

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Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton

“Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anybody understands Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.”
(Principia Discordia)

A conversation last weekend reminded me that not many people know the story of Emperor Norton, even though many of you will have seen him regularly as I use a picture of him (larger version to the right) as my avatar on Twitter and some other forums.

Joshua Norton was the first – and to my knowledge, only – Emperor of the United States of America (and Protector of Mexico). Now, you might quibble over that description, given that the Constitution of the USA doesn’t mention an Emperor amongst all its clauses and amendements and you’d be right. Unromantic, but definitely correct. You see, while other Emperors waited around for Popes and assemblies to crown them, Norton took a much more can-do attitude to life and simply declared himself Emperor one day. You would expect nothing less from an American Emperor, simply embodying the declarative pioneering spirit of his nation by going ahead and just doing it, then waiting for everyone to catch up.

The punchline, of course, is that eventually people did catch up. Norton’s reign lasted for over twenty years from his proclamation in 1859 to his death in 1880 and he received the sort of attention you’d expect a ‘genuine’ Emperor to get – free meals in San Francisco’s finest restaurants, his decrees and declarations published in all the city’s newspapers, police officers saluting when he passed them on the street and the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens/subjects. A tale is told of him preventing a mob from lynching Chinese workers by standing between the two groups and praying, with no one daring to cross the space he’d created.

As I argued in a post I wrote for The Sharpener a few years ago, Norton was a man who saw a gap in the market for a monarch and filled it. His is a story that reminds us that however often we might fantasise about power and the ways to achieve it, in the end it all comes down to consent – a man can only be your Emperor if you want him to, and if you do feel like having an Emperor, then there are many worse options than one who “shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country”.

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