Here, as a promise and a make-good to those of you who are looking for something lovely, is a picture from this week’s tour of the mountain passes. Note the bicycle in front of Werner’s car! Now accept my apologies for a second post on how we might reform democracy. The first is here, if you want to visit/revisit it.
There will be more loveliness … But first there’s something I need to get off my chest!
I started writing this a couple of weeks ago – but last night I realised I have to publish it today, since the British House of Commons exercised its democratic power against its PM’s desire to join cause for strikes against Syria.
It started in my “must re-read to be sure I can relinquish it” book-pile. I re-opened ex-White House Press Secretary Scott McClelland’s book “What Happened”. (pub Perseus Books Group, 2008 ISBN-13:978-1-58648-556-6)
McClelland served George W Bush from 1999 when he was Governor of Texas, through two Presidential election and re-election campaigns, and from 2005 to 2006 as Press Secretary, including during the Iraq War.
Second time around, I found his ‘who said what to whom about what” less compelling reading – though the story about the deception and self-deception in selling the necessity for war in Iraq stays absolutely apposite.
What I did grab onto was some of the implications for democracy as it is practised in the US – and whether in fact that form of democracy can itself be saved.
My conclusion: political parties may be fatal to democracy as it functions now.
My question: could we have democracy without permanent parties?
Here’s how I got to there – and I should note these are my conclusions, not Scott McClelland’s, but very much derived from what he describes. The quotes are from his book.
1. The Permanent Campaign. In 2000, Ornstein and Mann published “The Permanent Campaign and its Future”. In short, the permanent campaign initially meant the “process of governing in a way that builds and sustains public support for an administration and its policies”.(p.62) So far, so innocuous. But – over time, the campaign structure and processes of the election cycle has been transplanted into government so that “campaigning and governing have become indistinguishable”. (p63)
That means media management, continuous fund-raising, pandering to interest groups, shaping policies to opinion polls and political initiatives to election cycles etc. It requires partisan politics, because bi-partisan work with its necessary accommodations and compromises damages the brand and alienates donors, interest groups and the party faithful.
2. The Perpetual Scandal Culture. From Nixon on, there has always been some major scandal, and a “scandal industry”, leading to huge distrust and partisan combat. Overlay that with the more current issues around the use of classified information…
3. Politics as war. “The permanent campaign and the scandal culture was bound to lead to growing animosity between the parties.” (p67) But well before that, in the 1960s ideological purists of the New Right and the New Left had polarised positions, and moved “beyond political argument into hatred and vitriol”. Election campaigns (even the primaries!) became knock-down drag-out contests … and this became encultured so it didn’t suddenly stop with Polling Day. And of course, as we know, the first casualty in war is truth – so deception becomes an integral part of politics. Loop Deception back to the scandal culture and coverups, and to the perpetual campaign and people’s awareness of having their opinions managed …. And, in systems terms, you have a nasty reinforcing loop.
4. Coercive Democracy. I had really hoped we’d moved beyond this … but maybe not! George W Bush held this philosophy strongly – that “Iraq was ripe for conversion from a dictatorship into a beacon of liberty through the use of force…”(p129) I listen to some Republican commentators this month, and I fear that may still be a world-view.
Here’s another scary quote, given this week’s political brinksmanship:
“Allowing the permanent campaign culture to remain in control may not take us into another unnecessary war, but it will continue to limit the opportunity for careful deliberation, bipartisan compromise, and meaningful solutions to the major problems all Americans want to see solved”. (p313)
Scott McClelland has several proposed solutions, including establishing a White House office with a Deputy Chief of Staff responsible for governing (that is, holding the President and the system to account over openness, honesty, participation, cross-party consultation etc.)
BUT – here’s the more radical question. Are political parties a fundamental driver of dysfunction? Has this way of organising democratic representation outlived its usefulness? Not having studied American political history I was amazed to read that America’s Founding Fathers were totally opposed to the concept of political parties – they “considered them pernicious”. (p63).
Could we find a way to organise around issues rather than positions? To have people deliberately become “non-aligned” so that parties lose their power? And if they did, then would partisan politics also fade and be replaced by something different and better?
Let’s keep thinking!! (And note that in the House of Commons last night, the voting not to support engagement against Syria crossed party lines. There is hope….)
And by the way… that book’s back on the Permanent Shelf – recommended reading right now.