Post-Democracy

by Henry on February 11, 2013

Charlie Stross argues that we’re living in a post-democratic system.

Institutional survival pressure within organizations — namely political parties — causes them to systematically ignore or repel candidates for political office who are disinclined to support the status quo or who don’t conform to the dominant paradigm in the practice of politics. … The status quo has emerged by consensus between politicians of opposite parties, who have converged on a set of policies that they deem least likely to lose them an election — whether by generating media hostility, corporate/business sector hostility, or by provoking public hostility. … The news cycle is dominated by large media organizations and the interests of the corporate sector. … Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. … So the future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It’s a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state.

His analysis reminds me a lot of Colin Crouch’s brilliant book, Post-Democracy [Powells, Amazon] (nb – Colin is a former supervisor and current friend of mine). If you want to date it back to its original publication in Italian, this short book is now ten years old. I don’t think it has had a big US readership, but it has been quite influential in the UK, and very influential indeed in continental Europe. I gave a talk at the Italian Democratic Party’s summer school last year – three of the other five academic speakers that afternoon based their talks on their disagreement with Colin’s arguments.

Colin’s analysis reaches a similar end-point to Charlie’s, but from a different starting point. Charlie looks to Michels’ iron law of oligarchy to explain why democratic politics is in such a state – those who want to get ahead in political life can only do so by behaving in ways that don’t rock the boat. Colin wouldn’t disagree with this, but he would likely see Michels’ analysis as in need of supplement. After all, Michels was writing about the German Social Democratic Party in the early 20th century, and described tendencies that existed during the heyday (such as it was) of responsive political parties. What are the underlying structural conditions which explain why we’ve seen so much of the life-blood sucked out of democracy in the last few decades?

Colin thinks that these have everything to do with the specific consequences of neo-liberalism. One part of his argument is the common claim that states find themselves constrained by the increased bargaining power of business. But he also points to more subtle problems. In particular, he argues that governments are losing their capacity to do things, as their functions become increasingly marketized. More and more state functions are put out to the private sector (sometimes under direct pressure from multilateral organizations). As this happens, governments lose their capacity to direct and coordinate, and increasingly become just another nexus in a set of anonymous chains of contracting and subcontracting. As the line between government and business becomes ever blurrier, politicians become ever more closely embroiled with business leaders, taking on and representing their interests. The political aspects of the state shrink to a hard and unaccountable core, surrounded by a variety of contracting relationships.

This does not lead to the complete abandonment of democratic forms. We do not live in non-democratic states, but in post-democratic state. As Colin puts it, we are on the declining segment of the parabola, long after the apex was reached. Hence, we still have democratic forms – elections, parties and the like. However, they become increasingly disconnected from mass publics. Politicians and parties simply don’t need public support any more in the way that they used to. A little bit of volunteerism is still useful – even artificial entities such as Berlusconi’s Forza Italia! eventually acquired local branches. But it doesn’t have much connection to policy, which is made in a circuit between business and lobbyists. This results in corrupt relationships and regular scandals, which further devalue conventional politics, and paradoxically render accountability more difficult, not less

Colin’s analysis has some important implications. First – he suggests that this is a perverse outcome for the ideology of neo-liberals, which claimed that marketized relationships would address the problems identified by public choice scholars. But what we have seen is not an expansion of free markets, but instead increased oligopolistic concentration, combined with an ever-larger set of ambiguous relationships in which government and business interests are impossible to distinguish from each other. Colin argues that Hayek never solved the problem of politics – a Hayekian order is unsustainable because businesses can do better from playing with the rules of the game than from engaging in competition. An implication of Colin’s arguments is that the only way that neo-liberalism will work is in a confined system, where there are clear demarcations between politics and markets, and specifically an emphatic recognition of an inviolable realm of politics where the public good, rather than the pursuit of private benefits dominates. How to get there from where we are is less obvious. The old system worked because we had a class which recognized its common interests and was prepared to act on them. We do not have any equivalent today.

There are bits of the book that are outdated. There’s little discussion of the Internet. The world after the economic crisis is a different one than the one that Crouch describes (although, as he discusses in his more recent book, not nearly as different as as one might have hoped). But as its consonance with a post Charlie wrote just a couple of days ago suggests, its main lessons and arguments are entirely relevant today. People who like Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, but want to read something with a broader historical, cross-national and sociological sweep than Chris is able to give in a book aimed at a more general audience will find it invaluable.

{ 152 comments }

1

js. 02.11.13 at 6:09 am

Buying this now. Thanks!

2

js. 02.11.13 at 6:16 am

Also, Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites, obviously—just pointing out typo.

3

david 02.11.13 at 6:28 am

A capitalist elite that happens to capture a considerable chunk of rent, funded via taxes out of national income, will dominate the discourse on what constitute public goods. They will then claim the rent as a reward for providing these public goods. In actuality, the rent paid may have little to do with the marginal cost of public good provision, and more with how large the tax stream can be. Thus, they will both have a (private) stake in increasing the taxable base, and yet a (private) stake in supporting the inviolability of this stream of rent.

The East Asian industrializing states stumbled their way into this solution; it’s basically the dynamic of pro-growth crony capitalism with entrenched on-the-table distribution of the returns to growth, rather than under-the-table corruption.

4

ponce 02.11.13 at 6:32 am

“What are the underlying structural conditions which explain why we’ve seen so much of the life-blood sucked out of democracy in the last few decades?”

Sounds like someone’s suffering from David Broder Syndrome.

The battle between Obama and McCain was about as bare-knuckles a fight as we’ve seen in quite a while.

And the latest battle was a doozy too.

Aging pseudo philosophers doing a bunch of handwaving about political decline was stale two thousand years ago.

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/tacitus-agricola.asp

5

NomadUK 02.11.13 at 7:24 am

The battle between Obama and McCain was about as bare-knuckles a fight as we’ve seen in quite a while.

And the latest battle was a doozy too.

Yes, the suspense was very nearly unbearable.

6

Zamfir 02.11.13 at 7:31 am

In Stross’s piece, I can’t find much examples of obvious failures of democracy. There are failure to do what he considers the right thing, but that’s something else.

His failure list is this:

drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal

With the exception if killing protesters, this looks to me as a list of things that have a broad base of democratic support. Not necessarily majority support, but enough to become part of majority-winning democratic platform.

7

Hidari 02.11.13 at 7:39 am

“Obama and McCain was about as bare-knuckles a fight as we’ve seen in quite a while.”

The real question is why the US political scene has become so polarised about, essentially, nothing. In the UK all the main political parties are essentially identical but at least no one pretends that anything is at stake in our general elections.

The really equal point in the last UK elections was the one all the commentators ignored: that Clegg formed a coalition with the Tories, but that he could equally well have formed a coalition with Labour (and chose not to for reasons of pure realpolitik). The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this was that the basic ideologies of all the political parties were the same and so it doesn’t really matter what party you go into coalition with, but the commentariat wilfully chose not to draw that conclusion.

The only outliers in the UK political scene are parties that offer constitutional change (the SNP, UKIP). No one, at all, offers any real choice in terms of economic policy.

8

Monstroso 02.11.13 at 7:45 am

Culture war, baby! It really does wonders in making democratic spectacle particularly spectacular.

9

Chris Bertram 02.11.13 at 7:56 am

10

Mao Cheng Ji 02.11.13 at 8:20 am

I’d say it’s as democratic as it ever was; smoke~filled rooms and all that. What it is is post~ideological, post~political. Market capitalism, baby!

11

ponce 02.11.13 at 8:21 am

@7

“The real question is why the US political scene has become so polarised about, essentially, nothing”

I don’t think it’s about “nothing.”

Do you know how many Republican candidates(incliuding Mitt) got upset that the government was supplying food to people during the last election?

Food.

The stakes are quite high, but I think that like people have learned to just ignore the fact that 20,000+ children die each day from easily preventable and treatable diseases, the folks who are paid to natter about politics have learned to ignore the suffering that occurs in states the Republicans are in charge of.

12

Bruce Wilder 02.11.13 at 8:26 am

“Obama and McCain was about as bare-knuckles a fight as we’ve seen in quite a while.”

And the latest battle was a doozy too. Yes, the suspense was very nearly unbearable.

Dear me, I hope those remarks were intended to be read as sarcasm.

McCain had the most pathetic campaign in a generation, the topper to which was Sarah Palin! Romney has to have been the most repulsive Republican nominated at least since Benjamin Harrison: a self-satisfied, narcissistic vulture capitalist tax-evader as Presidential candidate? A Mormon in a Party of Evangelicals? The man had to have had more skeletons in his walk-in closet than I have socks in my drawer. (Did you see this Bloomberg item a couple of days ago: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-08/drug-users-turn-death-dealers-as-methadone-from-bain-hits-street.html)

13

ponce 02.11.13 at 8:43 am

Bruce,

Without a candidate as talented as Obama, we’d be living in McCain’s second term.

Or maybe Sarah Palin’s first.

An election where two-three percent of the voters changing there minds changes the results are is a close run thing.

I doubt Hillary vs Krispy Kreme will be a walk in the park for the Dems.

14

Keir 02.11.13 at 8:45 am

If you think that Brown and Cameron were offering the same economic programme, you have a very different criterion for similarity than I do.

15

Bruce Wilder 02.11.13 at 8:59 am

ponce: “The stakes are quite high”

Are they? Are they indeed? There’s a lot of empty prattling about raising taxes on the wealthy, followed by raising taxes on workers. The banksters have immunity; the whistleblowers are prosecuted. $800 million of “stimulus” and $4 trillion of increased debt, and unemployment and underemployment still very high amid a faltering recovery, and declining wages. Instead of torture, we have murder-by-drone — there’s a policy contrast for you. A lot of empty rhetoric about the value of education, but little notice that it comes at the price of debt peonage. A health care reform designed to please for-profit insurance companies and service providers, which has done nothing but accelerate health care inflation in a country with the most expensive health care in the world?

The U.S. has a predator state focused on facilitating rent extraction, particularly from intellectual property. Check out the price of a textbook — and the Obama administration enthusiastic prosecution of grey market entrepreneurs, who import identical textbooks from abroad, where the price is a fraction of what it is here. Or the price of pharmaceuticals. Usury in credit cards and payday loans is big business. Apple has actually been gradually increasing the price of songs sold thru their iMusic store — keep in mind, that the cost of operating the iMusic store is a tiny fraction of what it once cost to deliver CDs at a comparable price point per song. Monsanto wants the Supreme Court to prevent farmers from planting any seed they’ve tainted, which is every seed. And, instead of doing something about global warming or peak oil, we’re poisoning the ground water in a mad dash to burn away natural gas in the most frivolous kicking the can down the road.

Yes, the stakes are quite high, indeed.

16

Bruce Wilder 02.11.13 at 9:02 am

ponce, would you be interested in a stake in an old, but still serviceable bridge to Brooklyn?

17

ponce 02.11.13 at 9:12 am

Bruce,

” The banksters have immunity…”

On January 1st of this year, the tax on capital gains increased 58%, from 15% to 23.8%.

18

Bruce Wilder 02.11.13 at 9:34 am

I’m not getting into the weeds with you, ponce. I’ve made my point, and a thread hijack would serve no purpose.

19

Hidari 02.11.13 at 9:40 am

“If you think that Brown and Cameron were offering the same economic programme, you have a very different criterion for similarity than I do.”

Ed Miliband has made it clear that he will continue David Cameron’s “austerity” programme if elected.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/11/17/uk-britain-labour-idUKTRE7AG22D20111117

20

Mao Cheng Ji 02.11.13 at 9:44 am

“Do you know how many Republican candidates(incliuding Mitt) got upset that the government was supplying food to people during the last election?”

That’s right: it’s all about management. The number of calories to distribute to the poor, to make sure they don’t die. The most efficient way to distribute them, to save taxpayers’ money. The most efficient way to maintain security and military superiority. And, of course, The Jobs, the number of jobs.

All important issues, worthy of your vote. Assuming that ideological struggles are over.

21

Chris Bertram 02.11.13 at 9:45 am

Keir: there’s type and degree. Widespread outsourcing of the public sector to large private companies would be one obvious area of continuity, and PFI was Brown’s baby. Similarly, the Browne Review into higher education was initiated by Mandelson under Labour (and deliberately taken off the table during the election campaign). I have no doubt that higher ed policy under Brown would have been quite similar. Ditto, protecting the City from EU attempts at regulation. Schools policy: a proliferation of academies ….

If your point is that fiscal policy wouldn’t have been as stupid, well fair enough.

22

Pete 02.11.13 at 10:16 am

I have a nasty feeling that this is tied in with post-growth economics – the collapse in growth of GDP per head is definitely happening, whether it’s due to Limits to growth resource depletion or Marxian “decline in the rate of profit”.

While there is more to go round, it’s possible for most people to be better off over time. When it isn’t, then the only way to get more is by taking it off someone else – which the rich and well-connected are much better equipped to do. Hence austerity politics.

23

David 02.11.13 at 10:25 am

I don’t think you can regard neoliberalism as a genuine set of theories, produced by real thinking people, but which failed when implemented. It’s much better to see it as an incoherent but useful set of ideas that was very successful in facilitating the outcomes that those who adopted the ideas wanted. Neoliberalism was never really serious (it was always saucer-cult stuff) but was harmless as long as it stayed in books like Hayek’s that almost nobody read. It became dangerous when wealthy and powerful people realised that it could function as an ideological camouflage for ideas that, if presented squarely, would have been rejected by everyone.
It served three main functions. The first was the weakening of the state in the long term. It did this by redefining the state just as a provider of services, at the lowest possible price. This led to functions being taken away from the state, which meant it became weaker and so less able to do its job. This led to artificial pressure for “reform”, which in turn weakened the state further. Start again from the top.
Second, as a consequence, the creation of large patrimonial networks controlled by the same people, extracting rents for providing the same services that the state previously provided free, or at minimal cost. These days, many people have no alternative but to go through these networks, and as we do they become stronger and the state becomes weaker.
Third, the result has been to drain politics of most of its substance. Almost the only issue now discussed is how services can be provided more cost-effectively (usually cheaper). Much of the political debate that existed until the 1970s has simply vanished. In turn, this makes people reluctant to vote, since they see no point in doing so. It also means that governments which might feel tempted to be activist no longer have the mechanisms to act.
If you think this sounds like Africa, it does. Recent writing on African politics is probably a better guide to what’s going on in western societies today than any number of economic treatises.
This all looks like a great success to me, the more so since most people are not even aware of how the trick has been pulled off.

24

Keir 02.11.13 at 10:37 am

19 is clearly non-responsive to a discussion of Brown’s economic programme. In fact it illustrates the way in which democracy matters: Brown didn’t buy into austerity, he lost, and now Miliband feels forced to sign on (to some extent) to maintain himself as a contender because it’s felt that the people of Britain support “austerity”.

22 — yeah, I don’t think that Brown was sufficiently different on economic matters to satisfy me he was worthwhile, but he was certainly different enough that it’s misleading to pretend otherwise.

25

Phil 02.11.13 at 11:10 am

Chris – that last is quite a big difference. If things had gone differently in 2010 I’d now be cursing Lib/Lab austerity with the best of them, but at least in that scenario we wouldn’t have a government with a positive commitment to shrinking the public sector and (at best) manifest indifference to the hardship caused as a result. There would also have been a level of basic competence in government which now seems worryingly scarce (see Damian McBride’s blog for much more on this).

I don’t think representative democracy is dead. I’d advocate voting Labour next time, just as I did last time, just as I advocated voting for something left of Labour the time before that (when Labour were going to win anyway). The broadening of the range of issues covered by an unshakeable elite consensus, accompanied by an inexorable drift to the right of the Overton Window, are real and scary phenomena, but I don’t think they’ve triumphed.

And this from Hidari is just silly:

Clegg formed a coalition with the Tories, but that he could equally well have formed a coalition with Labour (and chose not to for reasons of pure realpolitik). The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this was that the basic ideologies of all the political parties were the same and so it doesn’t really matter what party you go into coalition with

No, the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that party C has some policies (and realistically achievable medium-term goals) in common with party A (in its current form) but others in common with party B (in its current form). Same as it ever was. A lot of this “politics is dead!” stuff seems to boil down to “radical politics isn’t easy!”. I do think radical politics is less easy than it was even ten years ago, on the other hand.

26

bart 02.11.13 at 11:18 am

@Henry (citing Crouch):
“But what we have seen is not an expansion of free markets, but instead increased oligopolistic concentration, combined with an ever-larger set of ambiguous relationships in which government and business interests are impossible to distinguish from each other.”

Lobby proposals entering directly the texts of EU legislation is one case in point. Here is one worthwhile initiative to make this transparent for the specific issue of data protection:
http://lobbyplag.eu/#/compare/overview

27

Hidari 02.11.13 at 11:26 am

“A lot of this “politics is dead!” stuff seems to boil down to “radical politics isn’t easy!””

I’m sorry I am confused by this. What have the electoral shifts and arrangements, based on no real ideological differences but purely and solely to seize and hold power, of the Labour-LibDems and Conservative parties, got to do with radical politics?

Incidentally it is simply and obviously false that the situation we are in now is “the same as it ever was”. Even within living memory the 1983 election in the UK was clearly ABOUT something. Foot and Thatcher differed, and not about trivial lifestyle issues either, but about fundamental and key economic issues. I am not saying that election was perfect, anything but, but it was clearly a real democratic election. Going even further back, George McGovern clearly had a very different vision of the future of the US than Nixon.

28

reason 02.11.13 at 11:36 am

Bruce,
I mostly agree with you, but I think your cynicism here is hardly constructive. Sure the plutocrats have a strong influence on the major parties (both in the UK and in the US). But the elections still make a difference. Both statements can be simultaneously true. Ultimately, IF THEY REALLY WANTED TO, voters could change things substantually.

It is still worthwhile trying to convince voters that they really want to change things. But in both countries the first past the post systems make it harder. I’m just about in despair of the idiocy of British electors voting against changing this out of spite.

What we need everywhere is for somebody to go out to bat for better democracy, to heck with what the policies are. Cynicism is just an excuse to do nothing.

29

Tony Lynch 02.11.13 at 11:57 am

“Ultimately, IF THEY REALLY WANTED TO, voters could change things substantually.”

Don’t call me “Substantually”!

30

Pete 02.11.13 at 11:59 am

“better democracy, to heck with what the policies are”

IMO, the nearest thing to that in the UK is the Scottish push to independance. Politics is very different there, and it’s not FPTP.

31

Phil 02.11.13 at 12:29 pm

Hidari – two (related) points. Firstly, the fact that the Lib Dems had a realistic chance of allying with either the Tories or Labour tells us nothing about the Lib Dems except that they’re neither to the right of the Tories nor to the left of Labour. It certainly doesn’t tell us they’re a vacuous bunch of power-hungry opportunists who wouldn’t know political principle if it bit them (although this has turned out to be the case). Just about any multi-party electoral system has small parties which can form more than one possible alliance; to interpret this basic piece of electoral logic as a sign of the death of politics is, well, silly.

As for the leap from “radical politics is hard” to “politics is dead”, the thought process I’m describing goes something like “radical ideas are difficult if not impossible to get into mainstream circulation, therefore all the mainstream parties are basically the same, therefore politics is dead”. It’s a genuine problem, but massively overstated. There is an elite consensus on what’s politically possible and what isn’t, and it is narrower than it used to be. But, on one hand, it was never all that broad – universal basic income, nuclear disarmament, abolition of the monarchy, worker ownership of the means of production, all the really good ideas have always been beyond the pale. On the other hand, the space that’s left to us now is narrow, but it’s not non-existent – there’s still an inch between Labour and the Tories, as Richard Neville said, even if the location of that inch has moved six feet to the right since his day. I’ve got faint, glimmering hopes for Ed Miliband, but in a way that’s not even the point; I’d take David Miliband over Cameron – even a NuLab government wouldn’t be quite as smug, vicious, arrogant and incompetent as this lot.

32

Phil 02.11.13 at 12:44 pm

I’m just about in despair of the idiocy of British electors voting against changing this out of spite.

Just for information, I voted against AV because there were no good arguments in favour. I’d vote for additional-member PR like a shot – multi-member slightly more reluctantly – but AV isn’t PR. The people promoting it treated the public like idiots – there was very little discussion of what would actually happen under AV, just a lot of happy-clappy stuff about change!. And when I did make the effort to find out how AV works in practice – via a very long conversation with an Australian friend (who thought it was a great system) – I discovered it was (in my terms) even worse than I thought.

33

Katherine 02.11.13 at 12:50 pm

It’s not that I disagree as such with the statements/description of the current state of democracy, I’m just wondering when this democratic heyday was that we are now supposed to be “post”.

34

Mao Cheng Ji 02.11.13 at 1:13 pm

“when this democratic heyday was that we are now supposed to be “post””

I’d say it culminated in 1968; pretty much world-wide. Downhill from there.

35

Alex 02.11.13 at 1:18 pm

Chris: NHS & Social Care Act; crazy local govt policy; deranged war on housing benefit claimants; killed school building programme; everything has to be an academy (after Brown rowed-back from that).

Also, we dodged a bullet on letting Murdoch take full control of Sky. If hackgate had dropped three months later, Jerry Cunt would have sold him the farm and we’d have Fox UK.

36

Katherine 02.11.13 at 1:19 pm

pretty much world-wide

Depends what you mean by worldwide then, I suspect.

37

reason 02.11.13 at 1:46 pm

Phil,
quick question – why do you think AV is not better than FPTP? It gives you options you don’t have in FPTP, it stops what happened in the US with Gore/Nader from happening at a local level (i.e. people can make a protest vote without it backfiring). I can’t believe rational people voted against, but out of dislike for Liberals. No matter how you rationalise it, it is surely an emotional decision. Saying it is not your ideal system, is just irrelevant. It is better than what you have.

My main argument for it, is it allows minor parties to grow – and so provides competition to keep duopolies honest. Australia just has never been inclined to the sort of extremism that is a blot on US politics. The combination of AV and compulsory voting (which forces the tweedledum/tweedledee voters to vote and so dilutes the influence of zealots) keeps it that way.

38

Sebor Krasna 02.11.13 at 1:52 pm

@7 “that Clegg formed a coalition with the Tories, but that he could equally well have formed a coalition with Labour (and chose not to for reasons of pure realpolitik).”

That’s not what happened. A coalition with Labour was impossible as even with the Lib Dem votes the party would not have had enough seats to form a majority in the Commons. Only the Tories plus the Lib Dems had enough seats overall to form a coalition.

39

reason 02.11.13 at 1:53 pm

Phil,
to give an example of what really happens in Australia – imagine a left wing constituency, where the labour party machine puts up a right wing candidate. And a beaten left-wing candidate runs as an independent. In the UK that would elect a Tory. In australia the left-wing independent would have a real chance.

40

Hidari 02.11.13 at 1:53 pm

” Firstly, the fact that the Lib Dems had a realistic chance of allying with either the Tories or Labour tells us nothing about the Lib Dems except that they’re neither to the right of the Tories nor to the left of Labour. “

But the phrases “left” and “right” don’t really map too easily onto the UK political scene any more, as far as the major parties go, do they?

41

Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.11.13 at 2:03 pm

I’m curious as to how, or to what extent, the notion of a “post-democratic system” differs from the systemic features identified by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers as intrinsic to “capitalist democracy” in their incisive little book, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society (1983). As the title makes plain, they were focusing on the American case, nonetheless, I think many of their points are generalizable, especially in a time and place where neo-liberalism sets the economic terms and conditions of globalization. I’m also wondering if the argument finds any value in discriminating between “welfare state” regimes (liberal, corporatist, social democratic, etc.).

42

SamChevre 02.11.13 at 2:06 pm

This analysis seems to me to suffer from a conflation of “democracy” and “government.”

My analysis would be that the elected portions of government have become most-irrelevant to the actual government, which is more and more the judiciary and the civil service. (Look, for example, at the gay marriage issue–how many times have the courts overturned the voters of California on this one?) I don’t get to vote for the head of the Department of Education, but they give orders that the School Board I do vote for has to follow. I don’t get to vote for the Fed board of Governors. I don’t get to vote for the head of the EEOC. I don’t get to vote for the civil servants in the EPA.

To be remembered–this has consistently been a major goal of the Progressive movement. Making a professional civil service–a technocracy–was an early goal and hasn’t changed.

43

Matthew Yglesias 02.11.13 at 2:09 pm

Politicians and parties simply don’t need public support any more in the way that they used to.

What is the evidence for this? Or for that matter can we get a clearer statement of the claim: Politicians and parties [someplace] don’t need public support any more in the way that they did [at some point in time]. The responsiveness of political systems seems like something that varies quite a bit from place to place. Things may have shifted one way in the Netherlands over the past 30 years, but in another direction in Mexico or Chile.

44

Glen Tomkins 02.11.13 at 2:13 pm

I don’t see any reason to think that what we’re in right now isn’t just the latest period of inter-democracy, rather than some sort of post-democracy.

For most of their histories, any polity I’m at all familiar with has spent most of its time in long stretches during which not much happens, and the play of institutional inertia is left to dominate a public stage in which not much real is happening. For the US in particular, I would say that we had democracy from the Revolution until the election of 1800, then from 1860 to 1866, then from 1932 to 1940, then 1962-1968. The rest of the time we have been in a sort of inter-democracy. There has often been all sorts of sound and fury during those long years when not much was happening, largely no doubt precisely because nothing much real was happening.

Politics is only consequential for fleeting periods before settling into the rut that will continue on until institutional inertia leads to the next crash, and the need that crash creates for a change in direction. The best indicator that we are just in the latest inter-democracy, and not in some end-state, heat death, post-democracy, is that the rails we’ve been running on since FDR and LBJ seem to be heading us straight towards a crack-up. We seem likely to get back to poltics that matters. I hope we don’t live to regret that, as these crashes can be more or less violent.

45

Hidari 02.11.13 at 3:04 pm

I’m surprised that no one has quoted from George Scialabba’s essay “Plutocratic Vistas”.

” America is a plutocracy. Freedom House has long published a comprehensive international index of formal democracy, which the U.S. State Department found extremely convenient during the Cold War. If anyone today published a similarly careful and thorough index of effective democracy — a measure of the degree to which governments solicited and responded to public sentiment rather than money in the formation of law and policy — the United States would surely rank as low as many Communist tyrannies ranked on the Freedom House index.

In truth, American democracy has been a long time dying…”

http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=795&fulltext=1&media=#article-text-cutpoint

46

Chris Bertram 02.11.13 at 3:07 pm

Alex, Phil … well sure, this lot take viciousness and incompetence to a new level. But let’s not kid ourselves about how much of the ideological and institutional spadework was done under NuLab. There are deep continuities too.

47

pjm 02.11.13 at 3:11 pm

Henry, I am heartened that a number of posters are arguing about FPTP, AV, PR because I think that perspective is much more germane than the “post-democracy” idiom. As I understand it, Michels-Crouch argument (have not read the Crouch book) confuses the importance of intra-party democracy and “systemic” democracy, the latter does not depend so much on the former. I take Anthony Downs arguments about the relation of ideology and representative democracy over Michels any day of the week: what keeps parties oriented to the concerns of the their constituents (i.e, the venerable client-agent problem) is electoral competition in a multi-party context (and no, Britain doesn’t really qualify – God knows the US doesn’t).

In short, voters have to have enough alternative choices so they can discipline parties at the polls that diverge from their platform or ideological “soft contract” without making the election of ideological enemy likely. This largely depends on the number of parties (and that on PR). Two many parties can have adverse effects on democracy as well, but a system where two parties can compete for the loyalty of left constituents is superior in promoting democratic culture and participation in a number of ways (including that of reducing of ongoing internecine nonsense). [In the US, to cite the extreme counter example, it is part of case law that politicians cannot be sued for lying during a campaign – let alone ignoring their own party platform].

There are other non-political, sociological issues at work in the “culture” of democracy which have a lot to do with the rhythm of social movements, the decline of community, media, etc., but these are probably more intractable and long-term problems and to some extent peripheral to what Stross et al are talking about.

The UK is a “two and a half-party” system , not quite as dysfunctional as the rare two-party unicorn but it shares many of its failings (the number of parties largely due to FPTP/smd – in other Brit-derived systems bicameral legislatures play a role as well). In the American context, I find it annoying that a certain variety of left commentator insists on bashing the DP over the head for not being a better zebra when in fact it’s a giraffe, not knowing perhaps that American political parties are not parties at all. This is due to the structural features of the American system, and said features have a myriad of consequences (most of them bad for democracy and the voters of all countries). So sectarian DP bashing is a distraction but the facile mainstream touting of the American political institutions (i.e., ignorance of the alternatives) is worse.

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David 02.11.13 at 3:12 pm

“I don’t see any reason to think that what we’re in right now isn’t just the latest period of inter-democracy, rather than some sort of post-democracy.”

There’s a difference between politics (the eternal struggle for power and control) and the political processes of elections and parliaments. Neither is necessarily the same as democracy, but the two should more or less go together, in a healthy democratic system. The system gets out of alignment when political processes no longer produce the results that people want, as has increasingly been the case for a generation now. When people feel that the political process is no longer capable of giving them what they want, they abandon it, and try other political methods, often with very bad results.

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Henry 02.11.13 at 3:19 pm

js. – thanks – corrected.

Matt – this is a pretty pervasive argument in the European party politics literature. See this paper by the late Peter Mair for a more extensive development of the theme that sets out the arguments and evidence.

50

Uncle Kvetch 02.11.13 at 3:28 pm

Did you see this Bloomberg item a couple of days ago: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-08/drug-users-turn-death-dealers-as-methadone-from-bain-hits-street.html

I hadn’t. Thanks for the link.

For-profit methadone clinics.

God help us all.

51

Glen Tomkins 02.11.13 at 3:31 pm

@48,

Well, the point about inter- vs post- democracy was that it seems to me that the current coniition of the political process not producing results is the more usual state of affairs. We’ve had such periods in the past, and always come out of them, sometimes with violence as you point out, but also sometimes without. Sometimes the usual mecahnics of peaceful political change start to work again, there are meaningful choices for a period, the electorate makes one such choice from among real alternatives, and then we have another inter-democratic period of inertia and unchallengable consensus on the basics. Inertia, though, is self-defeating, because blind, so eventually the consensus from the last period of functional democracy breaks down from crashing into realities internal or external it can’t cope with, and we start the cycle over.

52

Phil 02.11.13 at 3:36 pm

Hidari :But the phrases “left” and “right” don’t really map too easily onto the UK political scene any more, as far as the major parties go, do they?

I think there are still more ways in which the Tories are more right-wing than Labour than vice versa. Labour’s own right-wingery is mainly focused on law’n’order and counter-terrorism (and it has longer historical roots than you might think).

In any case, the point I was making doesn’t depend on Labour and the Tories being locatable on a left-right spectrum. For clarity(!):

“the fact that the Lib Dems had a realistic chance of allying with either the Tories or Labour tells us nothing about the Lib Dems except that they’re neither more un-Labour-like than the Tories, nor more un-Tory-like than Labour”

I stand by that (after having read it through a few times).

reason:

My main argument for [AV] is it allows minor parties to grow

One of my main arguments against it is that it doesn’t – at least, it doesn’t allow them to grow as represented political forces in their own right, independent of any influence they may bring to bear on the major parties. I also don’t think it delivers more democratic results in individual seats than simple plurality voting (aka FPTP). I talked about this in more detail in this blog post; see also this one and this one, and collect bonus points for spotting where the titles came from.

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reason 02.11.13 at 3:55 pm

Phil @52
“One of my main arguments against it is that it doesn’t – at least, it doesn’t allow them to grow as represented political forces in their own right, independent of any influence they may bring to bear on the major parties.”

This is only partly true. If the major parties where as crazy as the Republicans are in the US – then smaller parties would grow to significant factors. And in Australia we have seen over time considerable growth and schrinkage of smaller parties.

I find your analysis of “plurality” a bit confusing. It seems as though you treat voters as totally committed to one option or another. I like to put it this way – in Australia we don’t elect the most popular party – we elect the least unpopular party. I think this is in fact a superior way of looking at what you are doing when you vote in an election.

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djw 02.11.13 at 4:07 pm

Thanks for this, Henry. Moving this close to the top of my to-read list.

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reason 02.11.13 at 4:10 pm

For an example of a party growing under AV look at the greens in Australia.

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Katherine 02.11.13 at 4:16 pm

I would say that we had democracy from the Revolution until the election of 1800, then from 1860 to 1866, then from 1932 to 1940, then 1962-1968. The rest of the time we have been in a sort of inter-democracy. There has often been all sorts of sound and fury during those long years when not much was happening, largely no doubt precisely because nothing much real was happening.

I daresay the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s onwards would disagree with you. Women everywhere actually, and a lot of men, would agree that “nothing much real w3as happening” does not accurately describe a period of time during which women got the legal right to equal pay and social attitudes towards women and the role of gender in society have changed a great deal. Feels pretty “real” to me.

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Phil 02.11.13 at 4:16 pm

It seems as though you treat voters as totally committed to one option or another. I like to put it this way – in Australia we don’t elect the most popular party – we elect the least unpopular party.

This is an odd argument to put forward on a thread about the increasing homogeneity of political parties! And I fail to see how the same system can encourage minor parties to grow and encourage voters to make trade-offs and settle for the least-worst – the latter sounds like a model of how to suppress minor party growth. Imposed on a two-and-a-half party system like the English one, it would have been particularly malign – every constitutency would have been a “two-horse race”, forever.

It’s true, AV is effectively an unpopularity contest, and as such it delivers some very chancy results – a lot depends on the mechanics of elimination and vote-redistribution, which in turn depends on exactly who gets exactly how many preferences (I talked about some examples on my blog). It’s not at all clear how AV would have any more democratic legitimacy than the present (awful) system.

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SamChevre 02.11.13 at 4:24 pm

katherine @ 56

I thought women got legal right to equal pay (in the US context) in the 1963 “Equal Pay Act”, which rolled into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Scott P. 02.11.13 at 4:32 pm

“Going even further back, George McGovern clearly had a very different vision of the future of the US than Nixon.”

And yet turnout was higher in 2008 than in 1972. Hard to the defend the thesis that “the parties are the same so nobody cares anymore” given that.

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Substance McGravitas 02.11.13 at 4:39 pm

And yet turnout was higher in 2008 than in 1972. Hard to the defend the thesis that “the parties are the same so nobody cares anymore” given that.

How different are those voting pools? It’s my impression that the ability to be an eligible voter is eroding and certainly the US incarcerates a lot of people, removing the right to vote in many jurisdictions. Got pointers?

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Katherine 02.11.13 at 4:49 pm

I thought women got legal right to equal pay (in the US context) in the 1963 “Equal Pay Act”, which rolled into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yes, in the US. The US=/= the world, and the US does not represent the entirety of democracy.

Also the 1970’s in particular were an amazingly important decade for women’s rights, especially in the western world, but in the world in general. There’s no denying it. Frankly, I think Glen Tomkins had just forgotten that it happened, because it didn’t happen to men.

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pjm 02.11.13 at 6:44 pm

Katherine, the great irony of American politics is that it is much better at achieving outcomes that increase formal equality than ones that redistribute wealth. And this happens in a political process which has multiple levels of anti-majoritarian obstacles (veto power, required consensus) built into to the system. I think this begs the question how is this possible. I wonder if the role formal equality plays among transactions of the oligarchs rather that makes the difference or maybe it is just that there is a cultural consensus about “equal rights”. Alternatively, perhaps “equal rights” is not seen as such a threat to the system. Of course, one of the bulwarks against change is the “high bar” for Constitutional amendment process where the ERA floundered, which also perhaps reminds/suggests that formal equality has made as many advances as it has via an end run around legislation and through the courts (which mostly opened up after the FDR court packing confrontation).

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FRauncher 02.11.13 at 6:47 pm

Glen@44
“For the US in particular, I would say that we had democracy from the Revolution until the election of 1800, then from 1860 to 1866, then from 1932 to 1940, then 1962-1968.

Rather than periods of democracy, I would have called them periods of one-party rule. Not that I was or would have been against the political action of the time, but I wonder if you’re not talking about periods when action was taken, precipitated by crises and subsequent to long (democratic?) debates. It still takes a crisis to break the hold of the oligarchy and move the Overton window.

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Glen Tomkins 02.11.13 at 7:07 pm

@56,

I wouldn’t claim that there is a categorical difference between periods I would identify as politically active and those I would label as “inter-democracy”. We’re never completely stuck and rigid on all fronts, any more than we’re ever completely free, in a state where the electorate could realistically turn us 180 deg around in every dimension of public policy. So, sure, there will be some change in even the politically most stagnant periodst. Just look at gay rights in the past decade.

But what your example of Women’s Lib and the recent progress in gay rights have in common, is precisely that both pretty much happened as social change despite the dithering, pusillanimity and general inertia of the formal political structure. The major parties let the ERA fail, and they let the Right make an issue out of abortion rights, and they passed DOMA and DADT, and they discouraged gay activists from pushing marriage initiatives. I don’t see progress on either issue as effective counter-examples to the idea that our formal political structure has become unresponsive lately.

I just differ with the idea presented by Henry that this unrepsonsiveness is in any sense some new and potentially final developement, as opposed to the phase we’ve been through many times before, and are likely to outgrow once again in the end.

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Barry 02.11.13 at 8:17 pm

SamChevre 02.11.13 at 4:24 pm

” I thought women got legal right to equal pay (in the US context) in the 1963 “Equal Pay Act”, which rolled into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Gawd.

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novakant 02.11.13 at 10:39 pm

Hello? The US president currently has the right (and the power) to incarcerate (or kill) his citizens (or anybody else in the world) indefinitely, without trial, without evidence, without oversight, in secrecy.

Maybe we should sort out this little wrinkle in the world’s most powerful “democracy” first, before we start haggling about the other stuff.

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Main Street Muse 02.12.13 at 1:51 am

I am with Katherine @33, wondering when the golden age of democracy occurred. Was it when bosses ruled the big cities? When Daley allegedly stole the election for Kennedy? When Nixon used (abused) the power of the presidency to beat McGovern? When Eisenhower ruled over a nation that believed in the right of white southern citizens to engage in lynchings with impunity?

Is democracy really the issue? Since Reagan and his “rising tide” propaganda, we have developed a system that privatizes profit and socializes loss. Sam Walton’s WalMart is rewarded for building an empire on the backs of its employees – minimum wage workers, with too few hours to qualify for health insurance. Guess who pays when they’re sick? Government. http://huff.to/YSKnbG And their reluctance to cover employees is not new to Obamacare…. http://nyti.ms/Vcf6kv

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shah8 02.12.13 at 2:58 am

Alright, this is just messed up–mostly because we start this discussion where Michel’s theory is doing an awful lot of work outside of it’s core usefulness.

No.

We apply Dani Rodrik’s trilemma theory to the problem of unresponsive politics, and that works a lot better.

Let’s start by saying that the trilemma is not some sort of gnarly Gordian knot of a problem. It’s just a natural intersection of interests that provides resiliency in the global human community. To examine what is going wrong, one much think about how the trilemma is manifested in malign ways.

So, the trilemma: democracy, sovereignty, and globalization. Good things and bad things about all of them. People are doing good when they conflict with each other in positive ways, and doing bad when they conflict with each other in negative ways. A person in one area might experience the trilemma in a different way than a person in a different continent.

So, let’s look at the UK of Stross to be accurate for someone. What has been the experience of the UK in the last forty years or so? I would suggest that the North Sea oil and gas resources, mercantilism from the Asian Tigers, and the creation of a Euro-wide financial regulatory framework that benefits The City.

I think three key things that happened to create ossified political regimes:
1) The most important. The Petrodollar, especially in decline. The structure and flow of energy resources has gotten much less healthy as the supply of cheaply extracted has gone down. Profits are going up in resource-extractive industries everywhere at once, creating effectively a global resource curse that’s showing up most insidiously in the price of national bonds. Much cheaper an easier to frack for oil than to develop anything value added in merchandise. Much, much, much easier to get *money* at *cheap* rates for extractive industries or use reserves in ground as a collateral. A good perspective about this can be seen with the political and economic problems of the Philippines in trying to move on from coal generated power. A worldwide carbon tax or some other bureaucratic squashing of carbon profits is one mandatory element of pushing ourselves forward, even forgetting global warming. On a broad scale, that should make it harder to extract money simply because you have oil or finished secondary resources like refined metals, sitting in some deposit or warehouse. That should further delink energy from tagging along in wage push inflation, which we just absolutely have to have, now. It should make loans to the energy industry more expensive and loans to industries that target to more narrow sales channels cheaper.

2) International wage arbitrage, from Japan on…Cheap labor requires a repressive governmental apparatus that’s unresponsive to citizen demands for *services*, which tend to require capable government personnel, lots of money, and lots of time/focus. What we’re seeing now is the reimportation of illiberality, that’s now in a factory in Jackson Mississippi, when it used to be in a maquiladora somewhere in Nuevo Leon. We’re in the middle of a dynamic where the ever lower purchasing power of the populace is met with an ever more determined elite attitude about pressing costs down further. As you might guess, this is not sustainable, and whatever the people telling you that there’s no trade war, well, I think that’s impossible. If a trade war can be fought in currency, it will be fought in currency. If it cannot, it might be fought in any number of varying bureaucratic ways, including sanitation or inhospitable physical architecture.

3) International regulatory arbitrage, most especially tax laws. Hidden bank account drives corruption everywheres, and they are a source of consent generation by elite factions, as one might see with the Populare Party corruption fracas and Rajoy. Or the list of Greek politicians who weren’t supposed to be taxed. Most bad business conduct depends, one way or another, on regulatory arbitrage. This is more true than it sounds, because bad business practices have a habit of generating factional infighting if the profits can’t be surreptitiously shared at the expense of some third party. The selling of subprime CDOs are a classic case. Without that ability, one of the various other elite factions would have exerted serious pressures to stop the creation of fraudulent loans (and drummed up political opposition from the populace). Another good example are the reverse IPO scams by fraudulent Chinese companies that are fleeing a moribund Shanghai stock market that nobody trusts–rather than Chinese regulators cleaning up the local marketplace, they try to fleece international investor, resulting in a big conflict with the US regulators about proper auditing that might really change things.

When looking at it in this light, what’s really happened is that the byproduct of people acting in political and economic spheres (like, say, their method of taking a shit on the john) actually matters more than what people think, speak, or want. The power of the flush tend to be mightier than the pen (or keyboard). As such, politics won’t matter until key inputs and outputs of activities are in better balance. Carbon taxation, reasonable protection of consumer demand, better control over dark money. (And the usual key neoliberal argument, which isn’t neoliberal–temporally unlimited subsidies are the work of the devil!)

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Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 4:43 am

reason @ 28: You read my remarks @12 and @15 as cynical?!?

That’s singularly odd. I would say I was being righteous or idealistic, in response to cynicism.

ponce, with, “Aging pseudo philosophers doing a bunch of handwaving about political decline was stale two thousand years ago.” was cynical. Mao Cheng Ji may have been cynical, with, “I’d say it’s as democratic as it ever was; smoke~filled rooms and all that. What it is is post~ideological, post~political. Market capitalism, baby!”

I didn’t think I was being cynical at all. I want my fellow Americans to want change, and to recognize when they haven’t gotten it. Cynical is giving up on any possibility of change in an idealistic direction, and grounding that apathy in assertions of debased human nature. I believe in the possibility of improving human institutions. At the moment, in American politics, cynicism may be less important than an unfounded belief that profound change has happened. After national elections, in which the balance of partisan power changed not a whit, there’s a strange euphoria on the left, matched by despair on the partisan right, and there’s no concrete basis for either feeling, beyond observing the feelings: the left is euphoric because the right seems dis-spirited, and vice-versa. Meanwhile, a profoundly anti-liberal, anti-democratic and destructive policy course continues its march, without much criticism or opposition. And, what I find oddest of all, much of the left-of-center in my personal acquaintance, seems to combine profound satisfaction that “the country has changed” with a conviction that not much can be done about any serious problem, and that shades, at times, into the conviction that, since “Obama can be trusted”, well . . . whatever . . . .

As for institutional voting structures, I don’t think any particular scheme is an obviously dominant strategy, or ideal. Ultimately, political systems have to resolve disputes to choices, and reconcile the populace to the legitimacy of those choices. There’s a reflexive loop between the system, say, of voting, and the kind of coalitional and electoral strategies, which are adopted, and it is the strategies in play, which ultimately determine whether the political system is adaptive to circumstances and responsive to broad, popular interests. Sometimes, changing the institutional system can help to break up a dysfunctional strategic pattern, but that doesn’t imply any static ideal. (The smorgasbord policies of multi-party, multi-polar polities can foster party-forming strategies that erode legitimacy and devolve the state and whole society into paralyzed division, even in a small country like the Netherlands or Belgium. I hesitate to even imagine the result in a vast country like the United States, lousy with disparate subcultures. The two-party system broke down in one region in 1860 and 600,000 died.)

FPTP two-party systems in the U.S. and the U.K. have often been remarkably good at producing both adaptive, incremental change, and reconciling people to the legitimacy of reforms. Two-party systems do have the feature that both parties do tend to gravitate to a moderate center, and to compete around a legitimated policy consensus. It is rare for the parties to remain at loggerheads, or for alternation in office to result in anything, but subtle policy revision and, of course, dampening corruption to a dull roar. Each Party’s coalition is necessarily broad, and strategic competition keeps the Parties circling each other in an endless series of flanking maneuvers. Big issues will divide both Parties, and attract both Parties. And, that’s often been a good thing. It was a good thing, when both Parties tried to prove their Progressive bona fides, and both Parties sought to enact Civil Rights reforms. It is useful when partisan competition to rotate offices, fuels useful criticism and pursuit of corruption.

At the moment, the Party system is not being usefully adaptive, in U.S. politics, imho, and corruption, and cynicism, is being fed. I don’t think that’s attributable to a feature of the voting system, or something that the voters, however motivated, will find it possible to change, for the time being. (Not cynicism on my part, I think; sober assessment.) The so-called “upper-middle-class” of moderately rich folks, who supply professionals, technocrats, managers and leaders, including politicians and “activists”, have been co-opted and are occupying a space of anxious, detached, resentful complacency. Their socially liberal and neoliberal ideologies don’t let them think very deeply about why the system doesn’t work well, and so far, the system hasn’t failed them, even if it does seem to be fraying from distant edges, where the poor, working and merely middle-class are experiencing a declining standard of living and increasing economic jeopardy.

There’s really not much chance of any politician or political movement gaining much traction with a serious populist appeal in the U.S., at the moment. Not because such appeals don’t find a receptive audience — in fact, even the most tepid populist rhetoric gets a roaring response from the beleaguered majority of the population, as Obama demonstrated several times during his campaign against Romney, when he wanted to adjust the poll numbers ever so slightly, and warn Romney away from effective appeals or critiques. (The extreme vulnerability of Romney to populist attacks made it possible for Obama to minimize his resort to populist appeals, making a precisely calculated, low-margin victory also low-risk. People, who think Romney ever had a chance were simply not paying attention.) No, the problem is that almost no one in the 10-20% wants to make genuine populist appeals; the few, who are willing, are easy to marginalize in the corporate media. The liberal-left regards such appeals as inherently “racist” and would prefer the unwashed, with their guns and bibles, go away, and the right fears “class warfare” (with economic substance) more than it enjoys stoking anti-liberal tribalism via Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. This is a problem that goes much deeper into the American socio-economic strata than the two-party system, per se. It’s a fatal infection for almost any political organizing, and would condemn a six-party system, just as it seriously handicaps trade unions and grass-roots organizing and non-profit membership organizations. Class consciousness of this kind isn’t a randomly spontaneous emergent phenomenon; it is an attitude actively cultivated by giant business interests and the plutocracy, and fed by the pervasive greed, which I think was unleashed by lowering marginal income tax rates at the same time that neoliberal reforms undermined the quality of organizational governance. The 10-20% are sorely lacking in empathy, but well-stocked up in the righteousness & resentments department.

The simple, now historical, fact is that the People did throw the bums out, resoundingly, in 2006 and 2008 — two tsunami elections. But, they got few, if any policy reversals. So, on the evidence, no, even IF THEY REALLY WANTED TO, voters could NOT change things substantially. No political movement or party is willing to give them the choice to change most of the things that matter, economically and politically.

Knowing that what we do has consequences is the opposite of futile cynicism. Knowing that what we do has consequences is the basis of human power. But, it follows that failure, if the word means anything, has consequences, and the consequences of the failure of 2008-9 weighs heavily on the U.S. and the world — even more because so many labor to deny that failure, and those, inevitable, consequences.

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Hidari 02.12.13 at 6:46 am

“The simple, now historical, fact is that the People did throw the bums out, resoundingly, in 2006 and 2008 — two tsunami elections. But, they got few, if any policy reversals. So, on the evidence, no, even IF THEY REALLY WANTED TO, voters could NOT change things substantially”

Precisely. People who argue that “people have the power” rarely go into specifics of answering the questıon; “Really. In that case who, precisely, should the people vote for?”.

As for cynicism I hardly think anyone could be more cynical about “our” political process than Tony Blair who more or less openly viewed his whole tenure as PM as a prolonged interview process for the job he really wanted, which was to be an extremely well-paid after-dinner speaker, and “senior advisor” for a number of banks. Blair’s post-PM financial arrangements are usually described in the tabloid media, carefully, as being “opaque”, although that is probably frightfully “cynical”.

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.12.13 at 10:45 am

69, why is it cynical? Liberal democracy, especially a two-party system, is a mechanism for signaling popular dissatisfaction. Things don’t go well – throw the bums out, try a new management. That part still works. But that is not a mechanism for social change. Grassroots politics is. Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, brandishing baseball bats. The marchers, the rioters, the Panthers. The brownshirts, for that matter. Isn’t that pretty much what you’re saying too?

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reason 02.12.13 at 11:07 am

Bruce
“Two-party systems do have the feature that both parties do tend to gravitate to a moderate center, and to compete around a legitimated policy consensus. “

Not when combined with gerrimander they don’t. You surely cannot pretend that the modern GOP is moderate. But the problem with a two party system can be seen with what happened in 2000, dissenting voices are marginalised and are essentially disenfranchised. David Brin has some good ideas on a way forward here (especially promoting open primaries). But I’m very negative on the US without electoral reform.

I come from Australia, and I really think the system works better there – although the upper house can be problematic at times with crazies holding the balance of power. But the Greens have steadily grown over decades to where they now have a lower house seat in Canberra and 20% of the vote in Tasmania. But you don’t get there what you get in the US with government of either stripe, repeatly doing the opposite of what the electorate says overwhealmingly it wants. If policies are stupid, it is because the electorate is stupid enough to like those policies.

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soru 02.12.13 at 11:26 am

People who argue that “people have the power” rarely go into specifics of answering the questıon; “Really. In that case who, precisely, should the people vote for?”.

Surely the answer is _whoever would come into prominence on the grounds that they were likely to win because they were the person that many people were going to vote for_?

I suspect the key issue with democracy at the moment is simply that polling and other advertising techniques gives the political process the same kind of spooky ‘decision made before you were aware of it’ that you see when you hook someone up to a brain scanner and ask them to raise their arm ‘any time they feel like’. Which somehow always happens to be a fraction of a second after the machine sees the relevant neurons start firing…

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Phil 02.12.13 at 12:35 pm

reason, the Australian Senate is elected through PR (specifically STV) – that‘s how the Greens have got such a substantial foothold. AV is what’s been keeping them out of the House of Representatives all this time.

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Marc 02.12.13 at 1:11 pm

Well, let’s see. Bush really wanted to invade Iraq and did. Gore vocally, and famously, opposed doing so. Obama strongly opposed the war in Iraq and ended it. McCain passionately supported it and bitterly opposed ending it. We’re seeing the same fault lines in Afghanistan now. We had a faction strongly advocating war with Iran, which again Obama opposed and which didn’t happen. Ditto Syria, if news reports are to be believed.

Obama also raised taxed on the rich and instituted universal health care, both major progressive goals. His Supreme Court nominees are very different from the ones that Bush appointed. There are matters of actual civil rights, as in banning discrimination against gays in the military, gay marriage legalization, and real executive branch policing of discrimination in matters such as voting rights.

Now the radicals will engage in counterfactual fantasies: Gore would have invaded Iraq; McCain, despite his intense devotion to endless war in Iraq, would have withdrawn; health care reform doesn’t count because (whatever); tax raises are unimportant. They’re able to claim that there is no difference because they dismiss any evidence that they find inconvenient, and “difference” is defined as success for radical policy goals. The actual stated public opinions of leaders are irrelevant as evidence; I’ve seen this here numerous times.

The rest of us see one hell of a lot of differences between starting war and ending them, and between the reactionary Bush agenda and that of Obama. Obama doesn’t have a leftist agenda, to use the local lingo, but he does have a liberal one. And it’s very different from the ultra-reactionary republican agenda.

Now it is true that the current mode of government is badly dysfunctional in a lot of ways, and it’s also true that this paralysis prevents a lot of popular programs from being enacted. But that’s a different issue from the bizarre claim that the current administration is the same as the prior one.

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Chris Bertram 02.12.13 at 1:49 pm

@Marc

“Bush really wanted to invade Iraq and did. Gore vocally, and famously, opposed doing so.”

Back in 2004 the UK’s Prospect magazine did a “what if” on Gore having won in 2000. It is here

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/anotheramerica/

As they point out:

“Gore was probably the most hawkish senior Democrat, supporting aid to the Contras in the 1980s, military intervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s and even national missile defence in the late 1990s. Gore supported the 1991 Gulf war, even though 70 per cent of Democratic senators and representatives opposed it. He also pushed Clinton to take a tougher line against Saddam. And Gore’s prospective vice-president, Joe Lieberman, joined with many leading Republicans in the late 1990s to pressure the Clinton administration to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saddam.”

So maybe Gore’s opposition to Bush’s invasion isn’t a sound guide to what he would have done in office.

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faustusnotes 02.12.13 at 1:50 pm

Certainly in Australia the idea that there is no difference between the two political parties is madness. Leftists can only argue that the Tories and Labour in the UK don’t differ much if they ignore the plight of the working poor, immigrants, and everyone on housing benefit. This idea of post-democracy doesn’t appear to be founded on anything resembling facts…

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faustusnotes 02.12.13 at 1:51 pm

That really is building a theory on paper-thin evidence, Chris.

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Chris Bertram 02.12.13 at 1:57 pm

@faustusnotes

“This idea of post-democracy doesn’t appear to be founded on anything resembling facts…”

Your critique of the idea doesn’t seem to be founded on anything resembling an accurate grasp of it.

The point, as I understand it, is not that there aren’t differences between the parties but that much of what actually goes on at state level is pretty much immune to those difference since so much actual policy is made outside overt politics and between policy wonks, civil servants and corporate lobbyists. A state that has outsourced so many of its functions to Group4 on long-term contracts may not be one where a change of governing party will make as much difference as one would hope.

80

Chris Bertram 02.12.13 at 2:00 pm

Sorry faustusnotes: so your view is

What politician says in opposition = rock solid evidence.
What politician did in office = paper thin evidence.

?

81

LFC 02.12.13 at 2:23 pm

Marc @75 could have mentioned environmental policy (e.g. regs. on particulate emissions from power plants, auto fuel efficiency standards etc), where the Obama admin’s policies have differed from what McCain would have done (though perhaps the differences are somewhat less clear on oil drilling, and there still hasn’t been a final decision on the Keystone pipeline, unless I missed it).

82

LFC 02.12.13 at 2:25 pm

…or have forgotten (which is quite possible).

83

Marc 02.12.13 at 2:51 pm

@76: Seriously? We know precisely what Gore said about the war in Iraq, and he was viciously attacked for doing so. Many other Democrats were too cowardly to say anything public about it. Bush did a full-court press to get his precious war, and it would have been easy to avoid if there was a president who just wasn’t as determined to get one – let alone one opposed to the idea. And on the other side? What-if speculation.

I raise this point because I see Fox-News level denial operating here. If people can’t even concede that Bush and Gore would have had different foreign policies, what is the point of even having a discussion?

84

Chris Bertram 02.12.13 at 3:02 pm

Marc: certainly Bush and Gore would have had different foreign policies in various respects, but I don’t see that the fact that Gore in opposition attacked Bush as being strong evidence. The continuities in US foreign policy seem far more striking than any big differences attributable to which party is in the White House. And don’t forget that many of the big war-enthusiasts in the run-up to 2003 were people like Ken Pollack.

85

Mao Cheng Ji 02.12.13 at 3:08 pm

Isn’t it naive to quarrel about who said what? Bush campaigned on “humble foreign policy” in 2000, so perhaps he didn’t actually invade Iraq in 2003? Bush also signed, in 2008, a SOFA, stipulating a full withdrawal by the end of 2011, which is exactly what was implemented by the Obama administration.

86

pjm 02.12.13 at 3:37 pm

FPTP is bad because is slow down the pace of reform, the comparative evidence is pretty clear the further systems diverge from a multi-party mode (PR) the lower the rates of left tenancy in government and social spending, inverse relationship to rates of military spending. (The left empowers the majority and vice versa). FTPF also gives more power to non-majority forces in a democracy, e.g. Moneyed political actors, swing voters, etc.

“Throw the bums” out is equivalent to driving controls in a car consisting of only a “Left” and a “Right” button (and the car has mind of its own). Parliamentary democracy’s (i.e. multi-party politics) solution to client agent problem means that voters hire a driver and have a pretty good idea of where she/he is trying to go (though may not necessarily know or care about the particular route).

On top of that, “throwing the bums out” is not(!) an equivalent right in all democracies. When the political system artificially narrows the terms of debate, when political insiders and elites become unaccountable and when large numbers of voters become disenfranchised, democracy creeps uncomfortably close to some sort of quasi-oligarchy. Votes are apathetic and opt out because no parties can be trusted – e.g. they can’t even be trusted to support their own platforms – but even if you did their range of ideological alternatives is similarly stunted.

Yes, all this goes back to Downs and yes is largely a description of quasi-democracy in the US. So yes, in the US case, I think you first have to have democracy before you can have post-democracy. Perhaps the means of social control, the mechanisms by which majoritarian aspirations are thwarted, are transforming but as other commentators have pointed out there never really has been a golden age of democracy in the US. So again, “post” is muddying the conceptual waters.

87

soru 02.12.13 at 4:53 pm

inverse relationship to rates of military spending

No doubt that is statistically true in some sense, but isn’t that going to be essentially down to the single data point of the US?

Of the other democracies in the top 10 of miltary spending as a proportion of GDP, all except Angola use some form of 5+ party system.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_voting_systems_by_country

88

politicalfootball 02.12.13 at 5:35 pm

Sorry faustusnotes: so your view is

What politician says in opposition = rock solid evidence.
What politician did in office = paper thin evidence.

Chris, I think you misunderstand U.S. history here. Clinton did not, in fact, invade Iraq, nor did Gore ever advocate such an invasion. His opposition to Bush’s invasion was entirely consistent with his prior record. When Gore spoke out against W. Bush’s invasion, I’m not aware of anybody accusing him of inconsistency. And if they did, they could only do so by suggesting, as you do here, that favoring some kind of military action in some circumstance is tantamount to supporting all military actions in all circumstances.

Obama, in his opposition to Iraq, said he wasn’t opposed to war, just stupid wars. I get the feeling that had McCain won and invaded Iran, you’d be arguing that Obama would have done the same – and that this is proved by his record of support for war.

89

Mao Cheng Ji 02.12.13 at 5:35 pm

87, your link has $711 bn for the US ‘military budget’. This link
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_military_spending
has the ‘military spending’ between 1 and 1.4 trillion. Big difference.

90

Hidari 02.12.13 at 5:41 pm

I’ m sorry to rain on everybody’s parade but are you aware of how parochial this conversation is? In the UK it was Blair (of the, albeit ironically named, Labour Party) who was the big warmonger. Even Cameron has been a good deal less keen on shooting Johnny Foreigner than Blair was.

91

Chris Bertram 02.12.13 at 5:42 pm

politicalfootball: as I said, I’m not sure what Gore would have done, I just don’t think the stories that Democrats comfort themselves with have much of a solid basis. As for Obama, well the continuities (and worse!) with Bush’s foreign and security policies look at least as striking as the discontinuities.

92

Hidari 02.12.13 at 6:24 pm

“The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is almost upon us and the commemorations are well underway. So it’s probably not surprising that someone would commission a poll asking Americans how different they think world would now be if their country’s response had been guided not by George W. Bush but by Al Gore.

What is surprising is what the poll, conducted by “60 Minutes” and Vanity Fair, found: A clear majority of Americans — 56 percent — don’t really think anything would be different. This includes 62 percent of independents, 57 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Democrats. Even among Democrats, only 44 percent say they thought the world would be a better place now if Gore had been in the White House back then.

If the numbers seem startling, it’s because the “global war on terror” that Bush chose to launch in the wake of 9/11 has long seemed like an especially vivid affirmation of the truism that elections have consequences. You could argue that virtually any president would have signed off on the invasion of Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, but Iraq was a war of choice, and as Bush was making his case for it in the fall of 2002, Gore’s was perhaps the loudest voice in American politics saying, “No!” The question of whether the world would be much different today has President Gore been in power seems like an open and shut matter. How could it not be?

And yet, there actually is a strong case for the public’s skepticism.

It starts with remembering just how conditioned Americans in 2001 were to view Saddam Hussein as the source of much of the world’s evil and instability — and just how easy and painless they had come to believe war was.

This was a product of the first Gulf War, which had been sold as a noble and necessary effort to check the aggression of a brutal tyrant with dreams of regional hegemony. “We’re dealing with Hitler revisited!” George H.W. Bush famously declared in the fall of 1990. Americans bought in and rejoiced when Operation Desert Storm ended with Hussein’s army evicted from Kuwait, and with surprisingly minimal Americans casualties….”

http://www.salon.com/2011/08/30/gore_president_iraq/

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MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 6:39 pm

“And if they did, they could only do so by suggesting, as you do here, that favoring some kind of military action in some circumstance is tantamount to supporting all military actions in all circumstances.”

Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner. I am seriously sick of having this argument with people like Chris who insist that Al freaking Gore had some sore of master plan to invade Iraq. The man was vice president for 8 years Chris. Was he just biding his time?

Are the Democrats as far from the Republicans as I would like? Not by a long shot but that doesn’t mean they are equivalent.

94

Mao Cheng Ji 02.12.13 at 6:51 pm

No, not equivalent. Democrats prefer bombings.

95

MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 6:52 pm

“No, not equivalent. Democrats prefer bombings.”
They are all the same so vote Republican!

96

rf 02.12.13 at 7:01 pm

“Well, let’s see. Bush really wanted to invade Iraq and did. Gore vocally, and famously, opposed doing so. Obama strongly opposed the war in Iraq and ended it.”

1 Bush’s foreign policy evolved in the context of 9/11, I don’t think the idea that he ‘really wanted to invade Iraq’ removed from that context makes sense 2 Gore opposed the invasion as a ‘unilateral’ effort. I think he would have invaded, maybe not. He probably would have done a better job with more international legitimacy, for whatever that’s worth 3 Bush ended it, Obama continued that policy (while trying to keep a residual force in Iraq) McCain would have had very little ability to do anything but the same. (Those who think McCain would have ‘just continued’ the Iraq War need to back this nonsense up)
The idea that McCain would have invaded Iran looks unlikely, although arming the FSA probable. That seems much of a muchness though as the Gulf States and Turkey are just doing it instead.

97

rf 02.12.13 at 7:03 pm

I don’t see why this idea that Gore would have invaded Iraq is so controversial. What else was going to happen to Iraq post 9/11?

98

rf 02.12.13 at 7:15 pm

“Now the radicals will engage in counterfactual fantasies: Gore would have invaded Iraq; McCain, despite his intense devotion to endless war in Iraq, would have withdrawn; health care reform doesn’t count because (whatever); tax raises are unimportant. They’re able to claim that there is no difference because they dismiss any evidence that they find inconvenient, and “difference” is defined as success for radical policy goals. The actual stated public opinions of leaders are irrelevant as evidence; I’ve seen this here numerous times.”

Oh Christ. You don’t need to be a ‘radical’ to claim this. Sure Obama is better than a McCain presidency in a number of areas, but let’s not get carried away. What’s even more tiresome is this endless painting the Republicans as the root of all evil, while writing of anyone who (consistently) criticises a Democratic admin as a radical, or suffering from white privilege etc

99

Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 8:09 pm

reason: “Not when combined with gerrymander they don’t.”

The U.S. two-party system, which has been much less ideological historically, usually manages to defeat gerrymanders pretty fast. The current House Republican majority, is historically highly unusual, for depending on gerrymanders. Normally, the partisan division of seats closely reflects the nationwide two-party partisan vote split. This is because the Parties, for Congressional campaign purposes, are loose amalgamations of State and local parties, and the State parties morph to mirror local circumstances. The Democratic Party is pretty competitive, even in much of the Republican solid south — able to compete for control of the legislature, for example, in Mississippi, the most conservative state in the country; for a while 3 of the 4 Mississippi Congress critters were Democrats — very conservative Democrats mostly, but still voting for and with Pelosi. The Republicans have only managed to exploit gerrymanders, by re-districting more often than the usual decade interval.

We might also note that Obama’s piss-poor leadership performance and failure to deliver what voters wanted in 2009 played a major part in the Republican triumph in 2010, in the House and in many State legislatures. (Mandatory voting, as in Australia, might help a lot, in dampening the pathological strategic potential of low-turnout elections.) Conspicuously, Obama, in his convention acceptance, did not rally Democrats for the Congressional elections, and his campaign organization neglected local candidacies. Ryan was re-elected to the House in a district Obama won, in 2008 and 2012 — the failure to even try to unseat him is telling.

So, the fact that the Parties have become ideologically “pure” and two-dimensional, and the fact that Obama operates at one extreme of the Democratic ideological range, while symbolically appearing to many Republicans to operate at the other, non-existent extreme of the Democratic ideological range, plays a part in the effectiveness of gerrymanders.

The story of the Senate is different, because the gerrymander there, in favor of rural interests, is frozen into the Constitution, unfortunately. But, again, Obama and his conservative allies keep the filibuster in place, greatly exaggerating the pathology. The politics of the filibuster gives them a convenient excuse for the deliberate “failure” to do what Democratic votes want and expect them to do.

The U.K. scheme — FPTP single-member parliamentary system with persistent and sometimes locally viable 3rd parties, and low voter turnout — seems extremely problematic to me. Gerrymanders, there, even undeliberate ones, with the most idealistic non-partisan intentions among those drawing the lines, can have profoundly undemocratic effects. Both Thatcher and Blair governed with minority electoral support. Not having to marshal a coalition that can command 50.1% (Labour seems to need less than 40% of actual voters; and considerably less than 30% of the potential electorate.) can enable a Party to be more coherent ideologically, but other forces have pushed Labour away from ideological differentiation.

100

MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 8:10 pm

“I don’t see why this idea that Gore would have invaded Iraq is so controversial. What else was going to happen to Iraq post 9/11?”

rf you need to learn more about the lead up to the Iraq invasion. Start here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century

Bush was always going to invade Iraq.

101

rf 02.12.13 at 8:41 pm

We had eight years under a Democratic administration when Iraq was sanctioned and bombed. Very little positive was actually done to resolve the problem Iraq posed post the Gulf War. I’d imagine, with a few differences, the same would have been true under 8 years of a Republican administration. That problem would have existed for any President. Without major policy change any US president was going to intervene strongly in the Middle East post 9/11. Iraq was going to be central to any US policy in the region. (And I’m not sure what the PNAC proves, parts of which were signed into law under Clinton)
What Gore had to say when out of office, (selling himself to the world his political career all but over), is no more important than what he said when actually running for election/in office. Such as in 1992:

“Bush deserves heavy blame for intentionally concealing from the American people the clear nature of Saddam Hussein and his regime, for convincing himself that friendly relations with such a monster were possible, and for persisting in this effort far, far beyond the point of folly,”

I’m not saying he *would* have done it, just that there’s a strong possibility he would have. And ‘moderate’ Democrats would be better of acknowledging this fact and to stop writing of all opponents as lunatics, evil Republicans and radicals

102

rf 02.12.13 at 8:46 pm

You can’t have your cake and eat it here, either the institutional and political realities that constrain Obama also constrain Republicans, and so the benefits are on the margins. The big issues are largely predetermined.

103

Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 8:58 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 71 Yes, yes, yes. Historically, American politics has been driven more through the mechanisms of mass-membership-movements independent of the two Parties, as by the two Parties, themselves. Masonic and masonic-like organizations, Temperance, women’s suffrage, abolitionists, populists, local business organizations, labor unions, professional associations, the National Rifle Association, the environmental movement, the Civil Rights movements, feminist organizations, gay rights, farmers’ lobbies, ethnic and religious organizations, and on and on. The radical decline of social affiliation in American society since the advent of television and the breakdown of subcultures, which accelerated across the 20th century, has left the whole political process, without enough non-elite input and influence. This is a deeper malady than the Parties.

pjm @ 86 I think parliamentary systems can have some adaptive advantages over the American Congress and strong President scheme, which is clumsy and getting pretty long in the tooth — we haven’t redrawn many state boundaries in the last century, and that entails some serious governance problems, too. But, I’m skeptical of multi-party, especially for a continent-sized country — for the U.S., multi-party is likely to be regionalized — with one-party and two-party State systems driving regional competition, without national parties, and that could be very destructive. As long as legislation requires 51%, you end up with something like two competing coalitions, regardless, and it’s not clear than the excluded-middle groupings do anything good for the process or legitimacy.

On pjm’s other point, however, I’m in complete agreement. Elites will emerge in every political system — can’t live with them and can’t live without them. The elites have horizontal relationships among themselves, which compete with their vertical dependence on the masses. To the extent, that elites can use horizontal cooperation to undermine their own vertical dependencies, democracy suffers.

So, yeah, what I said above to Mao Cheng Ji. And, yes, a significant factor, as Mao was hinting, in whether elites remain responsive to the needs and interests of the masses, is whether they feel there is a threat from below, including a potentially violent threat. The 19th century British parliament, though entirely the creature of an hereditary landed aristocracy, was, at important margins, responsive to the popular will and adaptive to rapid social and economic change, because the elite genuinely feared violent revolution (which, given that much of the population was concentrated in cities, and in pretty desperate straits and near starvation much of the time, was not unreasonable, and, of course, a great mass of people would not have been kept in such Dickensian misery in an enormously rich country, which wasn’t being ruled by a narrow oligarchy, like an hereditary aristocracy).

I take anacyclosis pretty seriously, and the prospects for a sharp rise in political violence and social unrest in the U.S. seem quite strong, for a variety of reasons.
http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/savvy-scientist/cliodynamics-a-science-for-predicting-the-future/545

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politicalfootball 02.12.13 at 9:05 pm

We had eight years under a Democratic administration when Iraq was sanctioned and bombed.

I think this, again, captures the disagreement we’re talking about. Some military action on some occasions is not the same thing as all military action on all occasions. I think invasion is a hugely different thing from sanctions and bombing.

The ability to elide these sorts of differences is crucial to supposing that Gore was a likely invader of Iraq.

I don’t see why this idea that Gore would have invaded Iraq is so controversial. What else was going to happen to Iraq post 9/11?

Bush worked extraordinarily hard to fabricate a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but I think pretty much anyone with any knowledge on the subject agrees that no such connection existed. A perfectly possible thing to have happened – as you subsequently acknowledge – is NOT invading Iraq following 9/11.

105

Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 9:08 pm

rf @ 102 : “The big issues are largely predetermined.”

Now that’s cynical! It is also how much of the American public rationalizes its political ineffectualness. The largest part of the pundit class is pre-occupied with synthesizing exactly this kind of willful blindness. Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias have learned to do it, with remarkable earnestness. It is at least as important a strand of pundit stupidity as unexamined privilege.

106

MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 9:09 pm

” I’m not sure what the PNAC proves”

Then you know nothing of why the US invaded Iraq and really are not qualified to speak on this subject.

107

rf 02.12.13 at 9:11 pm

“1 Bush’s foreign policy evolved in the context of 9/11, I don’t think the idea that he ‘really wanted to invade Iraq’ removed from that context makes sense..”

To clarify this, and then I’ll give it a rest. I’m not denying the fact that certain members of Bush’s administration and those close to it wanted a war pre 9/11, and that they played a large role in pushing the war, making the possibility of war more likely in a Bush admin .. just arguing that the idea that Gore would have carried out a similar policy (with support from the Democrats liberal interventionist hawks) isn’t absurd

108

rf 02.12.13 at 9:13 pm

“I think this, again, captures the disagreement we’re talking about. Some military action on some occasions is not the same thing as all military action on all occasions. I think invasion is a hugely different thing from sanctions and bombing.”

I don’t think Clinton’s policy in relation to Iraq was sustainable post 9/11 and cant for the life of me see where a real change of direction was coming from (even if it were possible)

109

Mao Cheng Ji 02.12.13 at 9:24 pm

What, the US invaded Iraq because a dozen of third-rate intellectuals published a letter? What are you, Michael Rivero?

110

Stephen 02.12.13 at 9:39 pm

Hidari@90: and to reinforce your point, it’s Hollande of the Socialist Party who has just sent French troops and aircraft rushing into Mali.

Which may or may not turn out well, but is hardly the action of a right-wing politician.

111

MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 9:42 pm

“What, the US invaded Iraq because a dozen of third-rate intellectuals were hired to direct US foreign policy.”

I fixed that for you.

112

MPAVictoria 02.12.13 at 9:43 pm

I am going to bow out of this conversation now. It has already been held many times here and I am not going to change any minds.

113

Marc 02.12.13 at 10:25 pm

There are strong and weak forms of the claim that modern democracies don’t present real choices. There are certainly aspects of public policy where the political spectrum is substantially narrower than public opinion. In the US, gun control; the war on drugs; free trade; and deregulation would all be examples. And they are significant ones.

However, a lot of the discussion here appears to be centered around a much stronger claim: that there is no meaningful difference between major parties at all. It’s in this context that things like the Iraq war are relevant.

At one level, a classification that ignores real and important differences is not useful, and the inability to recognize them does not lend credibility to a cause. At the other level, you can simply miss important transformations in politics.

For example, I see huge changes afoot in US politics. There are major changes in social attitudes – about the roles of women, racial and sexual minorities. Young people have very different political attitudes than older ones. Things like gerrymandering and filibusters are signs of extreme weakness, not strength, for reactionary politics here. But you wouldn’t be able to sense these deep shifts if you couldn’t tell the difference between the Republicans and Democrats in the US…

114

Stephen 02.12.13 at 10:28 pm

Bruce Wilder @99: much as I admire your wise analysis of the US, there are details of your analysis of the UK that seem questionable. “The 19th century British parliament [was] entirely the creature of an hereditary landed aristocracy”: I think that would have surprised Pitt even in the 18th century, and certainly Peel, Disraeli or Gladstone in the 19th.

“a great mass of people would not have been kept in such Dickensian misery in an enormously rich country, which wasn’t being ruled by a narrow oligarchy, like an hereditary aristocracy”. Well, that depends when you think the period of Dickensian misery was, and what enormous riches were. Borrowing figures from Gapminder World: When Dickens was young, say 1825, life expectancy in the UK at birth was 41, and per capita GDP in inflation-adjusted PPP $[fn1] was 2,828: a little better than contemporary Pakistan at 2,648 (but thanks to the miracles of Western capitalist medicine, life expectancy in Pakistan is 65). In 1849, the worst year of the Hungry Forties (the year of “David Copperfield”) UK life expectancy was down to 37, but GDP up to 3,542. In 1870 when Dickens died, life expectancy was back at 41 and GDP up to 4,480. By 1914, which might be when you would put a lower boundary for the rule of a narrow oligarchy, life expectancy had risen to 52 and GDP to 6,938. So not, I think, an enormously rich country, and not uniform Dickensian misery either.

“The U.K. scheme [with] low voter turnout”: UK general elections postwar max 83.9 (1950), 70s up to 1997, most recent 65.1%. USA presidential postwar max 62.8% (1960), 2008 57.1%. Not quite sure what your point is.

[1] Yes, I know, all inflation-adjusted estimates and PPP estimates have more than a little guesswork. All the same, when speaking of Dickensian misery, they may be the least misleading.

115

Salient 02.12.13 at 10:51 pm

“No, not equivalent. Democrats prefer bombings.”
They are all the same so vote Republican!

Why are you mocking the claim that Gore would have launched a bombing campaign against Iraq? Clinton planned three, and launched two, during his second term (Desert Strike, Desert Thunder, Desert Fox).

Maybe there’s something really perverse about how we (me included) use the word ‘invade’ instead of ‘wage war on’ or ‘attack.’ For all we clash over this, I do trust MPAVictoria to have the world’s best interests at heart, but mocking someone for pointing out that Democrats have a longstanding policy of bombing Iraq is stone cold awful, and I think it illustrates the problem with setting ‘invade’ as the standard candle.

The US did bomb Iraq in December 1998 and early 1999, while Clinton was President. Obviously that doesn’t count as invading, for technical reasons (gods am I ever sick of hearing the phrase “boots on the ground” ten times a day). But this kind of thing absolutely should count as waging war, and it’s awful to brush it off dismissively or turn it into a wisecrack. The completely plausible continuation of this bombing regime under a Gore Presidency certainly counts as Gore [hypothetically] waging war on Iraq.

My fucking gods, it’s not all about the election. Clinton waged war on Iraq. True. Gore would have waged war on Iraq. True. Bush invaded Iraq, which was orders of magnitude more destructive and more costly. True. Would a Gore presidency have invaded Iraq? I dunno, nowadays I think he would have done roughly one-tenth that amount of violence by committing to the war in Afghanistan most of the forces, bombs, etc. that Bush used in Iraq. Basically I imagine a role reversal: the Afghanistan War would be the Big Debacle overshadowing everything, and Iraq would be the not-getting-talked-about place getting bombed all to hell. Is that disputable? Sure. Is it nuts? Nah.

Do I know nothing of why the US invaded Iraq and really am not qualified to speak on this subject? Oh FFS. Should I bring up that PNAC helped draft the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed? Should I bring up PNAC’s role in Operation Desert Fox, which Clinton spearheaded? Should I start spewing connections illustrating just how cozy Gore and PNAC really were? Or can we maybe, maaaaybe, recognize that this is a terrible irrelevant road to walk, since it’s not All About The US Presidential Election? (AAUSPE?)

Projecting so vote Republican at somebody is always a dangerous, needless, and constraining reflex, but all the more so when discussing the scope or constitution of democracy itself.

116

Salient 02.12.13 at 10:54 pm

…oh. I really need to refresh the page before posting. Not really fair of me to engage after MPA volunteered to bow out of the topic. Sorry.

117

rf 02.12.13 at 11:50 pm

” There are certainly aspects of public policy where the political spectrum is substantially narrower than public opinion. In the US, gun control; the war on drugs; free trade..”

I thought these are three policy areas which (ordinarily) have quite strong public support in favour of the status quo?

118

pjm 02.13.13 at 12:35 am

soru @87. It’s a fair point that there are not that many data points and some clarification is needed
1) The trans-national trend are of OECD and the trend was in the literature in the 80’s, the association being between Strength of Left ~ Social Spending per capita ~ MilitarySpending per capita~ Proportionality of Party Systems. (And yes I do think using the OECD is the proper universe in which to make these comparisons).
2) The US was not the sole data point, among the OECD the least PR (which does not mean exactly the same thing a multi-party, a distinction which is not splitting hairs, imho) were:
US, GB, France, Japan (notice the trend). While France and Japan (GB what has been referred to as a 2.5 party system) are nominally multi-party systems they are not proportional systems and have a variety of anti-majoritarian structural features. [Japan’s constitution is largely due to the American influence and in terms of political corruption is a disaster – Dan Lazare book Frozen Republic recounts some fascinating history here]
Sweden, ironically was an exception to this trend, but it was also a “front line” state, i.e., there was a political consensus to guard Swedish sovereignty against its super-power neighbor. Germany is high on the list you present from wikipedia and to some extent it is also a rule proving exception.
Besides being a front line state (with a reasonably proportional party system), the FDR’s origin with the post-war division resulted in many of the centers of German working class (both demographically and in terms of mobilization) ending up behind the GDR frontier. Given this fact, the degree to which the FDR developed a fairly comprehensive welfare state despite this is somewhat notable (again see Lazare on how the SPD fought the Americans on the post-war constitution as to the origins of the FDR’s system).
I hope that clarifies the transnational comparison but as far as I know the conclusions within the poli-sci literature about electoral strength of the left and its relation to p.r. are non-controversial (often ignored nonetheless).

119

pjm 02.13.13 at 1:00 am

Bruce @ 103 It is a fair point as to whether a continental size country would politically cohere under a proportional parliamentary system. But I think this begs the question of whether voters would care more about national unity or the provision of a robust safety net (though the voters who would care most for the latter have been systematically disenfranchised). But given that you admit in some ways ppd is more flexible I am not sure how it could be any worse than the existing (exceedingly baroque) system.

I cite Lazare again in suggesting the American system’s mostly likely end-game scenario would revolve around regional secession, do New York and California really want to be held political hostage by the South and the “Empty Quarter” (though of course, because state governments are mostly reflections of the national institutions with all their flaws, one could reasonably expect a state like New York needs to clean up its own act first, redressing the imbalance the legislative power of upstate v NYC).

120

Marc 02.13.13 at 1:15 am

@117: If you look at raw public opinion there has always been a surprisingly large reservoir of opposition to free trade in the US. The drug war has had majority support, but not overwhelmingly so; for example, medical marijuana laws were passed despite being ignored by the two party system. And gun control has had the problem of majority support, but a larger fraction of passionate opponents than passionate supporters.

121

rf 02.13.13 at 1:22 am

On Democratic views on Iraqi WMD from late 90s to 2002 this is worth a look, and will (probably) be last I’ll say on the topic (via Phil Arena)

http://www.snopes.com/politics/war/wmdquotes.asp

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faustusnotes 02.13.13 at 1:23 am

Chris @79: you can make any theories you want, but if they aren’t addressing an actual existing problem then they aren’t valid theories. Before you start describing the reasons for the problem of post-democracy, you need to prove that we are living in this state, i.e. that there is a problem.

Your evidence is paper-thin because a) it’s a counter-factual, not evidence and b) it’s wrong. The US invaded Iraq because an insane foreign-policy establishment pushed a weak and stupid man to complete his father’s legacy: none of these conditions existed for Gore. Bush spent a year drumming up that war, lying and corrupting major US defense and security institutions to do it. The war didn’t just happen to America the way Afghanistan in 2001 did, and you need to deal with this before you argue Gore would have done the same thing. Similarly for Blair and Howard: the idea that Blair would have unilaterally invaded Iraq is just silly, for example. They were reacting to Bush’s impetus based on a pre-existing security framework.

I think you and the theory described in the OP are also confusing the forms in which modern politicians express themselves with the substance of their actions. For example in Australia now it is quite traditional to present “small target” policies when in opposition, since Howard won in 1996 using that tactic. But that doesn’t mean the parties are the same, just that their media strategies are. In fact, in 2007 the Howard government’s policies were so unpopular that hte PM himself was voted out of his own seat, first time in 90 years that this happened. Is this post-politics? Now we have parties that differ vociferously over mining tax, carbon pricing, education, regional development, disability insurance, workplace rights … and of course we have Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. You can’t seriously say that these parties are similar except in media strategy.

The same is true in the UK. It’s been traditional for political parties to target benefit scroungers and immigrants in their media strategy, but that doesn’t mean they have the same policies. The devastation Cameron is wreaking on the poorest sector of society is a once-in-a-generation event, and his mealy-mouthed techniques to starve the NHS of funding compare radically with NuLab increasing NHS funding in real terms by something like 5% a year over 10 years. They may both talk austerity, but the way they implement it and the extent of it are completely different. The same is true of the security state: what happened under Blair may have been unpleasant, but we can see from things like the Hillsborough inquiry and the way the truth is leaking out about police spies – as well as the speed with which the killer of htat newspaper guy was identified and dealt with – that things have changed a lot under labour, though they may not have changed as much as we might like.

You’re engaging in a combination of mistakes here. First, you’re looking at things from such a far-left distance that you can’t tell quite widely-spaced objects apart (it’s like you’re looking at things from space and saying “they look very close together!”). Second, you’re confusing media strategy with policy. And third, you’re ignoring the very real damage that Republicans and Tories do to the poorest people in the community (and, especially in the Republicans’ case, to women).

I know we’ve been over all this before, but it really would benefit the whingers here to revisit the idea that the parties are indistinguishable. There’s a difference between “indistinguishable” and “mutually unsatisfactory” and confusing the two doesn’t do anyone on the left any good.

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rf 02.13.13 at 1:33 am

“If you look at raw public opinion there has always been a surprisingly large reservoir of opposition to free trade in the US. “

Latest polls still have support for trade in the majority among all political classifications, with ‘not sure’ second highest. I agree that perhaps on the specifics of the WOD, trade and guns people have more nuanced (or just as likely no) views..but they tend to support the policies in general terms afaict

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rf 02.13.13 at 2:07 am

“I know we’ve been over all this before, but it really would benefit the whingers here to revisit the idea that the parties are indistinguishable.”

CB @79 ‘The point, as I understand it, is not that there aren’t differences between the parties..’

CB @ 84 ‘Marc: certainly Bush and Gore would have had different foreign policies in various respects..’

And that ‘the parties are indistinguishable’ is never actually the argument.

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faustusnotes 02.13.13 at 2:08 am

Both those quoted statements are just qualifiers, rf.

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rf 02.13.13 at 2:11 am

Maybe the first one is, the response to Marc I wouldnt think so

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faustusnotes 02.13.13 at 2:15 am

The very first word in the second sentence, after your copy and paste, is “but”!

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rf 02.13.13 at 2:19 am

And what if the next three words after the but were ‘you’re completely right’?

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faustusnotes 02.13.13 at 2:24 am

they aren’t!

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rf 02.13.13 at 2:31 am

Okay. I’m going to leave it there. I’ve talked enough nonsense, but..if you keep reading past the ‘but’ I dont think it could possibly lead you to think the position is ‘the parties are indistinguishable.’ You could argue CB downplays the extent to which they are different, and that that difference matters more than CB implies, and I’d probably agree. But ‘indistinguishable’? Nein

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Bruce Wilder 02.13.13 at 3:43 am

Stephen @ 114

Britain, workshop of the world and leader of the industrial revolution, was the superior or close rival of the United States, for honor of being the richest country in the world, throughout the 19th century. Not rich, by the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries, perhaps, but it was a country, where the concentration of wealth was extreme, and the feverish accumulation of capital into the hands of the few combined with the conquest of empire, to leave very little benefit to servants or factory workers, and even less to Irish peasants. Averages do not tell this story adequately, and estimates of inflation over a period of decades are necessarily spurious. (Regardless of any other aspect of living standard, daily calorie requirements were, if anything, significantly higher for people in the 19th century than in the developed world today).

Things changed dramatically in the course of the 2oth century, particularly after the Liberal landslide victory of 1906, and even more so after the world wars, but at the beginning of the 19th century, Parliament was constituted as it had been since the reign of Henry VI, with scarcely any change at all, since the restoration of Charles II in the 17th century. The House of Commons was elected on property qualifications, with no boroughs added to represent the great cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield, and Commons was dominated by the landed gentry and the corruptly chosen representatives of great magnates. (The Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Arundel, recusant before the 1829 emancipation of Catholics and therefore absent from his own seat in Lords, had eleven seats in the House of Commons in his gift.) The House of Lords, of course, was entirely composed of titled hereditary aristocrats, most possessing large estates.

The Great Reform, enacted in 1832, with one-third of the 19th century already gone, began a process of incremental reforms, which gave the franchise to, maybe, 15% to 20% of adult males. The Second Reform, sponsored by Disraeli, further extended the franchise in 1867, two-thirds of the 19th century complete, but still fell short of enfranchising a majority of all adult males; other features of the new electoral system may have actually increased upper class domination of actual membership in the House of Commons.

I am going to attach a classic excerpt from Barbara Tuchman’s Proud Tower in a subsequent comment. It is a wonderful essay, that begins with a description of the last Conservative government, that of 1895.

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Bruce Wilder 02.13.13 at 3:47 am

Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower:
A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914
, Macmillan 1966

The last government in the Western world to possess all the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895. Great Britain was at the zenith of empire when the Conservatives won the General Election of that year, and the Cabinet they formed was her superb and resplendent image. Its members represented the greater landowners of the country, who had been accustomed to govern for generations. As its superior citizens, they felt they owed a duty to the State to guard its interests and manage its affairs. They governed from duty, heritage and habit — and, as they saw it, from right.

The Prime Minister was a Marquess and lineal discendant of the father and son, who had been chief ministers to Queen Elizabeth and James I. The Secretary for War was another Marquess, who traced his inferior title of Baron back to the year, 1181, whose great-grandfather had been Prime Minister under George III and whose grandfather had served in six cabinets under three reigns. The Lord President of the Council was a Duke, who owned 186,000 acres in eleven counties, whose ancestors had served in government since the Fourteenth Century, who had himself served thirty-four years in the House of Commons and three times refused to be Prime Minister. The Secretary for India was the son of another Duke, whose family seat was received in 1315 by grant from Robert the Bruce, and who had four sons serving in Parliament at the same time. The President of the Local Government Board was a pre-eminent country squire, who had a Dukefor brother-in-law, a Marquess for son-in-law, an ancestor who had been Lord Mayor of London in the reign of Charles II, and who had himself been a Member of Parliament for twenty-seven years. The Lord Chancellor bore a family name brought to England by a Norman follower of William the Conqueror and maintained thereafter over eight centuries without a title. The Lord Lieutenant for Ireland was an Earl, a grandnephew of the Duke of Wellington and an hereditary trustee of the British Museum. The Cabinet also included a Viscount, three Barons and two Baronets. Of its six commoners, one was director of the Bank of England, one was a squire, whose family had represented the same county in Parliament since the Sixteenth Century, one — who acted as Leader of the House of Commons — was the Prime Minister’s nephew and inheritor of a Scottish fortune of 4,000,000, and one, a notable and disturbing cuckoo in the nest, was a Birmingham manufacturer widely regarded as the most successful man in England.

Besides riches, rank, broad acres and ancient lineage, the new Government also possessed, to the regret of the Liberal Opposition and in the words of one of them, “an almost embarassing wealth of talent and capacity.” Secure in authority, resting comfortably on their electoral majority in the House of Commons and on a permanent majority in the House of Lords, of whom four-fifths were Conservatives, they were in a position, admitted the same opponent, “of unassailable strength.”

Enriching their ranks were the Whig aristocrats, who had seceded from the Liberal party in 1886, rather than accept Mr. Gladstone’s insistence on Home Rule for Ireland. They were for the most part great landowners, who, like their natural brothers the Tories, regarded union with Ireland as sacrosanct. Led by the Duke of Devonshire, the Marquess of Lansdowne and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, they had remained independent until 1895, when they joined with the Conservative party and the two groups emerged as the Unionist party, in recognition of the policy that had brought them together. With the exception of Mr. Chamberlain, this coalition represented that class in whose blood, training and practice over the centuries, landowning and governing had been inseparable. Ever since Saxon chieftains met to advise the King in the first national assembly, the landowners of England had been sending members to Parliament and performing the duties of High Sheriff, Justice of the Peace and Lord Lieutenant of the Militia in their own counties. They had learned the practice of government from the possession of great estates, and they undertook to manage the affairs of the nation as inevitably and unquestionably as beavers build a dam. It was their ordained role and natural task.

But, it was threatened. By a rising rumble of protest from below, . . . . The rumble was distant, but it spoke with one voice that said, Change, and those whose business was government could not help but hear.

Planted firmly across the path of change, operating warily, shrewdly yet with passionate conviction in defense of the existing order, was a peer, who was Chancellor of Oxford University for life, had twice held the India Office, twice the Foreign Office and was now Prime Minister for the third time. He was Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, ninth Earl and third Marquess of his line.

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Chris Bertram 02.13.13 at 8:02 am

@MPAVictoria “I am seriously sick of having this argument with people like Chris who insist that Al freaking Gore had some sore of master plan to invade Iraq. The man was vice president for 8 years Chris. Was he just biding his time?”

And where do I insist on that? I actually say that I have no idea what Gore would have done. I’m not saying that he would have, I’m saying that your confidence that he wouldn’t have doesn’t have a sound basis.

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.13.13 at 8:32 am

MPAVictoria, but what about Messrs O’Hanlon, Pollack, all the rest of the “liberal hawks”, and, of course, let us not forget his esteemed vice-president Joseph Lieberman?

I can see people in a parallel universe arguing right now whether Gore/Lieberman were planing to invade Iraq from the get go, or their disastrous adventure was opportunistic. And the former side has just as good evidence as your PNAC, or better.

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Marc 02.13.13 at 1:55 pm

@134: Lieberman, Kerry, Clinton….all actually supported the Iraq war. This is an existence proof that Democrats could, and did, come out in favor of the war even when in opposition. Gore, by contrast, opposed the war under the same circumstances. This is conclusive evidence to me that this opposition was genuine.

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rf 02.13.13 at 2:08 pm

Gore’s political career was also all but over, he was selling himself internationally, had no political responsibilities. Here’s Gore in 1992 when this stuff mattered to his career calling Bush sr an appeaser, from the NYT:

THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: The Democrats; Gore Says Bush’s Efforts to Befriend Iraqi Leader Led to Gulf War

“Attacking President Bush’s conduct of foreign policy, Senator Al Gore asserted today that the Administration’s efforts to befriend Saddam Hussein in the years before he invaded Kuwait led directly to an unnecessary war….

….Citing recently declassified Administration memorandums and cables, Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush and his immediate predecessor, President Ronald Reagan, forged ahead with a policy of conciliation toward the Iraqi leader, approving the sale of sophisticated technology useful in Iraq’s arms buildup and extending billions of dollars in loan guarantees despite evidence of Mr. Hussein’s support for Palestinian terrorists, his military programs and his regional ambitions…

But by sharpening the Democrats’ personal attack on the President’s character, the Tennessee Senator sought to portray Mr. Bush as a weak leader who followed an error-filled, duplicitous, amoral policy before Iraq’s invasion and takeover of Kuwait in August 1990. This policy, Mr. Gore said, also put American lives at risk and made too many concessions when the gulf war was over.

The Tennessean maintained that Mr. Bush’s “poor judgment, moral blindness and bungling policies led directly to a war that should never have taken place.”….

“Bush deserves heavy blame for intentionally concealing from the American people the clear nature of Saddam Hussein and his regime, for convincing himself that friendly relations with such a monster were possible, and for persisting in this effort far, far beyond the point of folly,” Mr. Gore saidin his speech, which was so dense with details that a heavily footnoted text was distributed to reporters….

Mr. Gore, who voted in favor of the Senate resolution to go to war, did have praise for Mr. Bush’s display of “fortitude and skill” in mounting an international coalition against the Iraqi leader after his invasion of Kuwait and confronting him with war.” “

Gore the politician and Gore the darling of the global chattering classes were two very different beasts

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Chris Bertram 02.13.13 at 3:31 pm

Incidentally, there are suggestions in Pollack’s The Threatening Storm that Gore was furious with Clinton for not taking more aggressive action against Saddam (because this would leave Iraq as a continuing problem for President Gore).

“Not surprisingly, it was Vice President Gore and his staff who remained most interested in the regime change plan, or at least an aggressive containment policy, to head off the possibility of future Iraq crises if they inherited the White House in the 2000 elections.” (p. 99)

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Harold 02.13.13 at 3:40 pm

It was Gore who spearheaded “reinventing” Government — demoralizing and destroying the civil service.

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reason 02.14.13 at 8:54 am

Bruce Wilder @99
I think you are misunderstanding the point about gerrimanders. As David Brin has pointed out – gerrimanders are an incubent protection scheme. They actually – as you correctly point out and he has also – don’t necessarily affect the two party result reliably. But they do change the inta-party dynamics considerably. Faced with more competitive electorates, representatives will look more like their typical voter – faced with uncompetitive electorates they will look more like their party faithful. (AV also does much the same thing by way). Brin’s solution is open primaries (or else joining whichever party has control of your local electorate). But that seems to me means that you have to have a say in INTERNAL party matters. It seems to me better to find a way to give voters an alternative to the two parties. A static two-party system is also vulnerable to corruption (as any static power system will be). The value of competition is not just limited to markets.

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Jameson Quinn 02.14.13 at 4:50 pm

Post-democracy can just as well be pre-democracy. That is, if we changed voting systems to break the two-party state, we (anglophones) would have democracy as good as continental Europe. Better, because the democratic state and the currency zone would coincide, removing the need for (most) undemocratic supranational bureaucrats. That’s no utopia, but it’s a fair sight better than what we have now.

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pjm 02.14.13 at 5:01 pm

@reason #139 “Hear, hear” on the importance of competition in political systems (and what I take to be a closely related remark your made earlier about “duopolies”). Competition in proportionally represented multi-party systems usually means that parties actually adhere to and enact their platforms and conform to their constituents expectations (the sad things is how few Americans realize the outrageous-ness that does this not happen here – as a result popular political participation is restricted to “judging character” because the parties are too diffuse and variable to bother judging and on top of that have to compromise to hurdle super-majority obstacles in the legislative process).

The one thing I don’t often hear in process-oriented critiques of American politics is how much legislative structural obstacles contribute to political de-mobilization and disenfranchisement. People participate in social movements for material and moral reasons, the American system frustrates in both those dimensions (materially because of the aforementioned obstacles – in addition, prior to 1940 the courts played a central – though perhaps redundant- role in beating back social reform). In America, for many decades before similar trends in Europe became apparent (for much different reasons I would argue), limited participation, often legally enforced but also encouraged through the artifact of truncated, conservatively-biased debate paired with a grossly inefficient/slow legislative process. Low participation and a logic of disenfranchisement have always been an institutional part of the American system, not some exogenous “culture” variable.

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hix 02.14.13 at 6:22 pm

I dont think PR would fix the US system. The bigger problem is how the system is designed to lower and bias voter turnout: Voter registration, elections takeing place on workdays, disenfranchisement of convicts. Australian politics seem reasonable non insane despite otherwise similar conditions expect compulsory voting.

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James 02.15.13 at 3:35 pm

The US system could be ‘fixed’ by the elimination of Gerrymandering. This would allow the House to be a popular representation of regional voters. Currently the house is a popular representation of regional party members. The Senate serves the useful purpose of providing a voice for regional areas. This division provides both power for popular vote support and power for regional constituencies.

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pjm 02.16.13 at 5:48 pm

hix @ 142, the long list of things that are different about the US compared to other adv. ind. democracies, and perhaps foremost among these is the lack of participation (inversely correlated with income) at very high rates, are due to a number of structural features in the American system.

My argument (and I think it is nothing fancy or so original, just a fairly straightforward interpretation of the transnational data and fairly commonplace arguments in the
poli sci lit) is that the following are interrelated (and mutually reinforcing) :

low participation of working class/poor voters
~ dis-proportionality (i.e. the opposite of PR)
~ lack of (competitive multiparty) party system
(the most salient aspect of which is no ideologically coherent, disciplined parties)
~ undeveloped welfare state and general slow pace of legislated reform (i.e. we are decades behind all the other a.i.d)

Supporting all of this (and especially the slow pace of reform) are structural features of an anti-majoritarian legislative system “architect-ed” mostly in the Constitution which make the legislative process a machine uniquely well designed for stalling popular reforms. (I.e., low participation rate has an symbolic component – no parties with an ideological connection to working class voters – and material one – the slow rate at which the legislative process allows social reform to be enacted – people lose interest in politics because it doesn’t “deliver the goods”).

Why do I say the American parties are not ideological? They have ideologies but they are diffuse at the best of times and usually fractured and self-contradictory. More importantly, whatever the ideological “face” a party represents, they are not electorally disciplined enough to enact their programs. US parties undergo ups and downs in terms of the ideological “spread” but the need for super-majorities to pass laws through the committee systems, the incredibly disproportional Senate with its filibuster rules and the Presidential veto mean there is a second layer of institutional pressure (beyond the pre-existing tendency in the s.m.d elections themselves) to move center despite a party’s own ideological center-of-gravity in order to just get legislation passed. (Note that if you are an anti-reform party – you have a distinct advantage). Also because the legislative process is so slow it means that voters have to turn out for multiple elections (sometimes in off years) if there is a hope to push through a particular reform.

As also as a party grows to transition from the minority to majority position, the “compromise over ideology” tendency becomes stronger because there is no legal or organizational mechanism that compels US legislators to vote in accordance the platform of their own party (or put another way, US parties are more likely to grow by “broadening” their tent which necessarily means diffusing of it existing ideological mix).

So one answer to a venerated conundrum of political science as to why is there no political manifestation of Socialism in US politics is that the “party” system doesn’t support ideology. Really it is a two part process. First part, the Debsian Socialist Party got over 10% of the vote for Debs in 1912 but disproportionalality meant it only ever won 3 Congressional seats (and its candidates were never seated in two of those) instead of 10 or 20.

Even if it had (second part – the role of ideology and super-majority requirements), a SP in the US Congress would have had to produce higher levels of political mobilization (compared to other Western democracies) just to get its legislation passed. This would have reproduced the aforementioned tension between ideological coherence and “delivering the goods” to the party’s constituents. And once a minor (i.e., “third”) party’s constituents started to believe that one of the major (ideologically promiscuous) parties might have a better chance of passing social reforms of interest, a minor party’s days as going electoral concern are numbered (especially given how expensive elections are). This is just a restatement of the poli sci rule of thumb that 3rd parties quickly have to become one of the Big Two or die in the US Congress.

The Democratic Party was able to deliver the goods (sort of) in the 30’s when the Depression resulted in election wins on the order of 70% (I don’t know how much of this came from a bump in turnout but presumably most of it did) but the labor movement and the welfare state have been fighting a rearguard action ever since as the “normal” turnout rates having given the conservatives (outside the DP and not) enough traction in Congress to endlessly forestall labor law reform, national health care (well at least for 70 years, keep your fingers crossed) etc.

Jame @143, I agree Gerrymandering is a problem but it is an outgrowth of a complicated structures mentioned above (i.e, the Lunatics are running the Asylum) and though a good thing for democracy (for the reasons you cite) but probably is nowhere near enough (e.g., the super-majority requirements remain in Congress until such time as the Constitution is amended or abandoned). Also, single member districts, even when not Gerrymandered result in fewer parties (a la the UK), give swing voters disproportional influence, etc. The problem with any specific change in the process is that politicians (who were elected under the “old rules” have very little interest in change) and process-oriented reform rarely has a wide constituency.

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rf 02.16.13 at 6:52 pm

“Ditto Syria, if news reports are to be believed.”

Going back to this for a minute. If you read the report in the New York Times it doesn’t really lead you to think Obama’s Syria policy would be significantly different than McCain’s:

“But senior American officials have said that the White House was worried about the risks of becoming more deeply involved in the Syria crisis, including the possibility that weapons could fall into the wrong hands. And with Mr. Obama in the middle of a re-election campaign….

.. Some administration officials expected the issue to be revisited after the election. But when Mr. Petraeus resigned because of an extramarital affair and Mrs. Clinton suffered a concussion, missing weeks of work, the issue was shelved.”

I don’t doubt that McCain would have been more involved in Syria, and have had a somewhat different approach to the Arab uprisings, but I don’t see how those differences would have led to a significantly different outcome than we have today. He probably wouldn’t have been able to implement a no fly zone early on in the conflict, wouldn’t have used ground troops and although he might have directly armed the rebels earlier, this is probably going to happen anyway, and more than likely wouldn’t have made a difference to the conflict.

On keeping a presence in Iraq, and going to war with Iran, neither of these seem overly realistic outcomes from a McCain presidency. There has been a good bit written about Obama’s approach to Iran, and the difficulty he has had in substantially changing US policy. Even if really he wanted to (for example)

http://www.aucegypt.edu/gapp/cairoreview/Pages/articleDetails.aspx?aid=258

So sure in some respects, primarily domestically, the Presidency might matter, but you’re overstating the case if you extend that to FP, especially in the Middle East. (And particularly in this case)

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.16.13 at 6:53 pm

Pjm, I agree that PR systems are generally better, much better. However, what’s your response to those (upthread) who predict that in the USA it would quickly deteriorate into regionalism?

And that’s not ever the worst case scenario; the US political system and the media are routinely employing much more pernicious ‘identity politics’ shit, like “appeal to hispanic voters”, for example. I’m afraid in a multi-party PR system this kind of shit is likely to explode… And in that case, you’re not getting your “political manifestation of Socialism”, you’re getting something completely different. Lebanon?

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Stephen 02.16.13 at 8:53 pm

Bruce Wilder @131 and 132

You are, as always, lucid, eloquent and often well-informed. But when you write that Britain “throughout the 19th century [was] not rich, by the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries, perhaps, but it was a country, where the concentration of wealth was extreme, and the feverish accumulation of capital into the hands of the few combined with the conquest of empire, to leave very little benefit to servants or factory workers, and even less to Irish peasants” I cannot see much congruence between your views and reality; at least, _throughout_ the nineteenth century. Are you really arguing that servants and factory workers were not very much better off at the end of the nineteenth century than at the beginning – or indeed, Irish peasants? Or that the concentration of wealth was extreme in Britain by nineteenth century standards? Was it really that much better than in the US in the Gilded Age, allowing for the enormous acreage of free land available in the US?

As for the long and delicious quotation from Barbara Tuchmann: I admire her rhetoric and have a few doubts about her command of facts. One would not realise, judging from her description of Salisbury’s first cabinet – which I freely admit was the highwatermark of late aristocratic Conservatism- that it included WH Smith, the newsagent and bookseller, or that later reorganisations brought in Joseph Chamberlain the Birmingham businessman, Charles Ritchie from a family of jutespinners in Dundee,George Goschen from an Anglo-German merchant family (and champion of the University Extension movement), Henry Matthews, a Catholic lawyer, born in Ceylon and educated in Paris, Akers-Douglas, son of a Kentish parson, or Robert Hanbury, a Staffordshire coalowner.

Competent, many of them were. Well off, mostly (but compare US politicians of the same vintage). Aristocratic, come off it.

And Tuchmann was tilting the balance somewhat. Look at the cabinet before Salisbury’s: HH Asquith, son of a Yorkshire wool merchant, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a Glasgow wholesale and retail draper, AJ Mundella, a Nottingham hosier, son of an Italian refugee, Arnold Morley, an Nottingham manufacturer and publisher, Henry Fowler, a Wolverhampton solicitor, James Bryce, son of a Belfast lawyer, George Shaw-Lefebvre, son of a London barrister, John Morley, a Lancashire journalist.

Not, I think, aristocratic rulers keeping the lower classes penned in Dickensian squalor. Was there, indeed, any Dickensian squalor in Britain by the end of the nineteenth century?

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Hidari 02.17.13 at 12:54 pm

149

rf 02.17.13 at 3:12 pm

“Was there, indeed, any Dickensian squalor in Britain by the end of the nineteenth century?”

http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/exhibition/dublin/poverty_health.html

Yes, I am trolling you. Kind of..

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pjm 02.17.13 at 8:31 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @146 I would be talking out my depth if I said had much certainty about the “size” issue, bigger not necessarily being better. But there are some observations that can be made.

0) In a sub-optimally democratic systems, the balance between democratic resources (e.g. voters) and non-democratic resources (e.g. money) shifts to corrupting side and in general money is much more fluid than voters (which is one reason federalism in problematic in democracy, that said devolution is always a fall back to for dealing with regional concerns).
0.5) Regionalism is a complicated and I am not sure there is one “regional” problem. Do New York suburbanites really see the world differently than LA suburbanites? To the extent that they do now, is not that reality an artifact of a political system where legislators parcel out political goods on a state-by-state basis?

On top of that, disproportionality creates a regional problem larger than it has to be,
i.e., rural population get disproport. representation in Congress (especially the Senate) and to a lesser extent when they are allocated House districts where they can become the “swing”. And if history is any guide, the rural Congressional delegation has been colonized by a variety of monied interests. To the extent that regional issues reflect a rural v. urban division, it is hard to imagine worse alternatives than this.

Legislators beholden to the platform of a national party prescribing a national policy have a completely different set of incentives. And when national policy is determining economic rights or goods as a matter of law then equalizing the outcome (e.g., between constituents in different states) becomes a matter of administration and conflicts between regions become legal perhaps but not political (in the legislative sense).

1) In general I think proportional multi-party systems are much better at making compromises or effecting complicated deals than the alternative (such as the US). This is done through coalition government. Unlike the sort of backroom dealings among political insiders here, in negotiations between parties (to form a government) the ideological connection establishes the parties as “relaible clients” so the deals have qualitatively more democratic legitimacy that in non-competitive systems.

In general, the ability to innovate or strike creative deals should increase with the number of parties, i.e., the number of possible coalitions should increase with more parties. But there is the rub, there is some evidence too many parties (which is equivalent to saying too many small parties) seem to result in dysfunctional patterns possibly related to the disproportionate power small parties can wield and possbily to the degree that too much “noise” can fill the political-cultural space). So comments about whether p.m.p.d can come up with workable solutions to challenges posed by regionalism or identity politics has to take in a account a possible ceiling in terms of too many parties. And indeed, perhaps there is a limit on how large/diverse a country can be and still managed with a PR system, but giving up on large countries seems preferable to giving up on democracy.

[I would argue Barrington Moore’s conundrum about how political elites allowed the Civil War to happen is to argue that the American system is not really all that good, as it believes itself to be, in creating compromise because ultimately one cannot maintain a strategy of compromise with intransigent political minorities – which the system does produce, well certainly in the case of slavery it is practically enshrined in the Constitution].

3) Without competitive and ideological politics, you can’t really slice and dice political constituencies and reassemble into legitimating majorities without some form of coercion (or false promises). This applies to regional and “identity” interests. One can at least entertain the New Yorkers and Californians, or Hispanics and Blacks might respond to appeal built on their common interests (e.g. class or economic interests). But there is no likeliehood of this happening is constrained when all ideological appeals are suspect as are most political actors (i.e., when there is no solution to client-agent problem). And it is hard to imagine unifying appeals to class in a political system where ideological accountability is marginal at best and where the system is a product of an electorate largely not working class and highly compromised by money (from you-know-who).

I don’t have much of a clue what the political dynamics of a PR America regarding “divisive” issues would be like, but it is hard to imagine they would be much worse than now. Politics elites employ extreme ideological appeals in the current system for a variety of reasons and in general the truncated (2 party) political system is too narrow to accomodate all the ideological positions a complex society generates.

One of the reasons is that simply to obtain a better bargaining position against other elites (or to in some other way disrupt them – racialist appeals may not be so much aimed at mobilizing the Klan as it is to destabilize coalitions between urban blue collar whites and people of color). And there is an asymmetry here, the system gives conservatives and in-built advantage, they do not have to build majorities to create obstructionist coalitions in Congress.

4) One of the reason, perhaps, for the rise of identity politics is what I mention in a previous post is that, for whatever reason, reforms around formal equality in the US are much more successful than those wanting the redistribution of wealth.

Last point, any wealthy country (without the presence paramilitary entities, with rule of law, etc) is unlikely to become Lebanon, political elites (and most everybody else) are not likely to see the up-side in it. (Or at least that’s my hope.)

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.17.13 at 9:14 pm

“Without competitive and ideological politics, you can’t really slice and dice political constituencies and reassemble into legitimating majorities without some form of coercion (or false promises).”

Well, I must admit, this sounds vaguely convincing. In the sense: it’s so bad now, how could it get any worse?

When I mentioned Lebanon, I didn’t mean their paramilitary entities; I meant their political system, where all kinds of political and bureaucratic government posts (including, as far as I know, low level public servants) are allocated proportionally to every ethnic and sectarian group. I suspect this might be something many American liberals would like too, in one form or another.

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Igor Belanov 02.17.13 at 9:39 pm

Stephen@147

You use the example of merchants, coalowners, manufacturers and barristers to rubbish the idea of aristocratic dominance in 1890s Britain. Well, up to a point. Those professions are not titled landowners, but still represent the top 5% of the population! The whole point of the British system post-1640 is that it was not wholly dominated by aristocrats, but that they were forced to share power with the other wealthy and powerful sections of the population, including financiers, merchants and manufacturers. Thus still highly oligarchical. The presence of lawyers in government also proves little. For obvious reasons they have been ubiquitous in high office under practically all regimes and forms of government.

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