Archive for category Political Science
There is a sense of surprise at the re-election of David Cameron’s conservative party, which won 331 of the 650 mandates in the 2015 United Kingdom General Election. That is the smallest number of mandates a majority party has won in a British election since after the second 1974 election.
The result wasn’t as big a surprise as one might think.
To be sure, polls had shown a tight race. Most showed the Conservatives and Labour tied, or with a slight conservative lead at something like 36-35. Consider the following graphic:
Blue represents the Tories, red Labour, purple UKIP, yellow the LibDems, and green the Greens. Although the two major parties are nearly tied at the end at around 35%, Labour had been steadily losing support while the conservatives had been slightly climbing. If there was momentum, it was for the Tories.
Here are the actual results: Conservatives – 36.9%, Labour 30.4%, UKIP 12.6%, the Lib Dems 7.9% Scotish National Party 4.6%, Greens 3.6%
From this result here are the mandates: Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, Unionists 8, UKIP 1, Greens 1 Other 15.
One thing a single member district plurality (SMD-P) electoral system provides is that there can be a large swing in mandates won from a relatively small swing in total percentage of the vote. SMD-P is a system where people vote in districts for one candidate. Whichever candidate gets the most votes (known as a plurality) wins the seat. That’s how we run most of our Congressional elections in the US.
This hurts smaller parties. The anti-EU party could turn 12.6% of the vote into only one seat. Yet geographically based parties like the SNP could turn 4.6% of the vote into 56 seats as they swept Scotland. It also means that a 6.5% differential between the two top parties can turn into a difference of almost 100 seats, or 15% of the seats available.
Think of it this way. If the vote was perfectly even in every district, a party could win 51% to 49% in every district; a close election would yield all seats going to the party with 51%! Obviously some districts are safe for a particular party and others are contested at various levels. But the result almost always is that the party that “wins” has a much larger majority in parliament than the vote total would indicate.
(Aside: If you follow American politics you might counter that even though in 2012 the Democrats earned more votes than the Republicans, the GOP got a majority. That happens in part due to gerrymandering — designing districts to get the optimum outcome for a party– but also because Democrats rack up huge vote totals in urban districts, while Republicans win closer suburban and rural districts. In Great Britain the divisions aren’t so stark, so elections behave more like one would expect).
In 2010 Great Britain had its first hung parliament (no party gaining a majority) since 1974. That’s because the Liberal Democrats got 23% and 57 seats. The Conservatives only got 36.1% and 306 seats, while Labour got 29% and 258 seats.
The change from 2010 to 2015 for the top two parties was Conservative +0.8%, Labour +1.4%. Both parties gained, but Labour gained a bit more than the Conservatives. So why did the Tories gain 25 seats and Labour lose 26? The answer is due to the smaller parties. The LibDems went from 57 seats to only 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56. In Scotland alone Labour lost nearly 40 seats to the SNP – that means they gained seats in the rest of the country.
The LibDem loss should have been expected. Small parties are always at risk when they form a coalition with larger parties, unless they can provide something unique that the voters want. Nick Clegg couldn’t do that. That loss of support translated to more mandates for the Conservatives.
That brings us to the polls. The pollsters were pretty accurate for the small parties, and pretty close for the conservatives too. The only real problem, then, was that Labour totals were inflated by about 3% consistently. That’s not a huge amount, but still a significant gap given how much agreement existed in the polls. The most likely reason is that conservative-leaning voters upset with the Cameron government told pollsters they were leaning Labour, but came home to the Conservatives on election day. Not that they were lying to the pollsters, but there’s something about actually voting that can cause people to stick with a party they thought they might abandon.
Before the elections some conservatives voiced optimism that by moving Labour more to the left, Miliband might inspire higher Tory turnout than expected. That sounded like the usual wishful thinking but may have actually happened.
Polls can be off, and as noted, just a few ticks in one direction can make a major difference in the result. I am not surprised that the conservatives gained a majority. The 2010 election was the first since 1974 with no majority, and it was obvious that the Lib Dems were not going to gain many seats this go around. So it appeared that either the Tories would gain a small majority (which they did), or that Labour would have to work with the SNP.
A change in power to Labour was unlikely for another reason. Labour leader Ed Miliband had not generated a sense that his leadership would provide a positive change. Labour had been declining in the polls and people weren’t warming to Miliband. Late deciders may have been swayed by Cameron’s positive economic results (compared to the rest of Europe).
Cameron has five years now to govern as a majority party, unless he calls an early election. He has promised a referendum on EU membership by 2017. The Cameron era continues.
In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face. Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.
Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant. So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?
First he notes the nature of the changes taking place. The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure. He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions. The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system. This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions. Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.
And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily. In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny. Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.
Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states. For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system. He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.
I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete. Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead. After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world. It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world. The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.
Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order. Kissinger’s words:
To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?
For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. – Kissinger
This conclusion seems vague. It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization. Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics. One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work. The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail. The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression. This order could suffer a similar fate.
My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media. We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will. But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock. The world is in motion.
The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization. The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization. Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational. Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance. Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.
What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems. The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change. Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression. These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power. Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people. Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world. Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.
French economist Thomas Piketty has put growing income and wealth inequality center stage, publishing a well researched book full of data that pretty conclusively shows what many of us have been arguing for sometime: there is a growing gap between the rich and poor and this could be dangerous to democracy and modern society.
I plan to read the book and will blog more on the details/arguments. For now, I offer only a general reflection about the subject matter and the importance of taking inequality seriously.
His book isn’t a radical appeal to the masses. It is a lengthy academic tome with a target audience that includes economists, political scientists, and other scholars. Among this audience his argument is neither new nor earth shattering – economists and political scientists have been pointing out how the centralization of wealth has been increasing, creating a real threat to democracy and capitalism itself. However, perhaps because the public is waking up to this fact, his work has suddenly became a best seller and is perhaps one of the most important books of our era.
Pointing out the dangers of out of control capitalism is not an argument for socialism; quite the contrary, thoughtful supporters of market capitalism should take it seriously and ask themselves: is the growing power and influence of the very rich a result of hard work and initiative, or are they able to rig the game in their favor? If the very wealthy are rigging the game, then they are undermining capitalism and democracy.
Libertarian thinkers sometimes have an understanding of economics that is skin deep. They have learned the basics of how the market works, and thus have an understanding that, all things being equal, the market does better than anything else at communicating demand and using price to allocate goods and services. Government policy simply distorts that mechanism and thus creates inefficiencies. So, they conclude, government is the problem, less government is better.
But that’s only if reality operates as pure market theory says it should, and if you take economics beyond the first year you know that is not the case. Markets are distorted by a myriad of factors: imperfect information, misinformation, inside deals, connections, the capacity to use wealth to influence others, and the utter lack of knowledge many have about the way the system operates.
A good example is in Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys. The rigging of the game there is rather minor – big banks can use lags in time to make trades to figure out what trade is coming and make an offer that will earn them a few extra pennies on every trade. No big deal; no 401K investor notices the slight variations. Yet a few pennies off of hundreds of millions of trades and it adds up! That’s just an example of what you can do if you are on the inside. Of course, the way the big banks took investors to the cleaners over derivative bonds during the housing bubble (and in fact caused the housing bubble) is a more dramatic example – described in Lewis’ earlier book The Big Short.
Now one might say that this is nothing new. Throughout history the wealthy, elite class has always assumed they deserved privilege while the poor were looked down upon as being lower in character or worth. In the 19th century the British tried to make any form of social welfare painful and difficult so as to avoid anyone wanting to stay on it. Yet workers have defied that notion of the poor as lazy for centuries. After all, when in Britain millions of factory workers endured horrific conditions during the industrial revolution, they still worked. They put up with sustenance wages, filth, squalor, child labor 80 hour work weeks, and numerous work related deaths and injuries to keep earning.
Compared to then, workers have it pretty good now. So does that mean inequality doesn’t matter?
It does matter. Consider the two charts here. Above, the share of wealth that the top 0.1% have is shown, and it has doubled in the last thirty years to the point that they control a over a fifth of the country’s capital. Below, the graph shows the income of the top 10%. Again, the share going to the very wealthy has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, to levels from the early 20th Century.
This matters for a number of reasons. First, such a distribution of wealth and income makes bubbles more likely. In theory, the very wealthy should be investing their money to create jobs for the poor, allowing that wealth to “trickle down.” In practice, when too much capital is centralized to the very few, bubbles become more likely as they are looking for “easy money” rather than investing in jobs. And when they do invest, overseas investment is common. That money does not go into improving our economy. It would be more efficient to tax it and use it to build infrastructure and support the economy.
The key to long term growth is demand from the middle class. Money earned by the middle class does not usually flow into bubbles; rather, it creates demand for goods and services that require domestic jobs. When a higher proportion of the wealth flows to average folk, the economy grows. Moreover, social mobility in the US as become very low – where you were born has become the best predictor of where you will end up.
That is contrary to the American dream – and the value that individual initiative and effort matter. The best way to assure that people can achieve all they are capable of is to assure access to education, health care, and the things needed to overcome obstacles caused by poverty or lack of status. That means government programs to promote equal opportunity are good for capitalism and freedom; by expanding the capacity of people to achieve all they can we avoid becoming an oligarchy.
If this trend is not reversed, the economy will stagnate and America’s best days will be behind us. The good news is that it appears the anti-tax anti-government sentiment that has been the norm for the last 35 years is starting to fade. Despite the fights over Obamacare, it was passed and implemented; public opinion is shifting. For now it’s important that the conversation about inequality continue – the future of market capitalism depends upon avoiding or reversing today’s inertia to oligarchy.
Germany’s election of September 22, 2013 appeared for awhile to suggest that Angela Merkel would be able to form a majority government, not needing a coalition partner. That has happened only once in German post-war history: the CDU/CSU under Konrad Adenauer had a majority from 1957-61.
The result, however, turned out slightly – and only slightly – different.
With over 71% voting, here is the result of the second ballot, the ballot where Germans choose their party preference:
Clearly the CDU/CSU total of 41.5% is far above that of any other party. But there are a few quirks in the German system. First, a party has to get 5% to have any seats in the Bundestag. This means that in the Bundestag the parties on the left earned 42.7% of the vote. After that and a host of extra seats were figured out the end result in the Bundestag is this:
(*Aside for political science folk: In Germany half the seats are apportioned through single member districts, and half through a second ballot with party preference. However, the allocation of the second ballot seats is done to get the Bundestag to reflect the second ballot results, meaning the second ballot is the most important. This is done at the state level, not the national level. Sometimes in a state a party may win more seats in the first ballot than they deserve based on the second ballot result. They don’t get any new second ballot seats, but can keep the extra seat – the Bundestag is expanded for that purpose. All parties who get under 5% on the second ballot are denied representation in the Bundestag, but can keep any seats won on the first ballot. If they win three first ballot seats they get their second ballot representation. So if the FDP had won 3 first ballot seats, they’d get their 4.8% of Bundestag seats. They didn’t do that).
So with 630 seats, the Union has a conservative block of 311 seats, while the parties of the left have 319. Conservatives would protest that the 4.8% for the FDP and 4.7% for the AfD reflect conservative values (though the AfD’s anti-Euro stance is completely opposite of Merkel’s position), meaning that most voters had a preference for a party on the “right.” Yet those parties didn’t make the Bundestag.
So it’s possible that the SPD, Greens and Linke (left) will form a red-red-green coalition. That seems unlikely. The SPD hates the fact the Linke even exists. Die Linken are getting most of the votes on the left in former East Germany. In the West the SPD got 27.3% and the Linke only 5.3%. Here are results from the East:
In the East the Linke get 21.2 vs. 18.8% for the SPD. The SPD has vowed to defeat the Linke, which was built atop the old Communist party of East Germany, and it’s successor party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). However, the Linke are not going away – they even got 5% in the West! Perhaps the SPD needs to recognize that the left is divided in Germany and deal with the Linke. Twenty years ago that was impossible because the old PDS was still too communist in orientation. Now that’s faded.
The Greens, also more popular in the West than East, have a strong civil rights background that cause them to see former communists as anathema. All this has meant that the division on the left has been insurmountable – the Linke were poison. Yet that hasn’t been true at the state level, and maybe now that the Cold War is nearly a generation in the past the SPD and Greens need to have serious talks with the Linke.
Merkel, on the other hand, is left in a situation where no one wants to govern with her. From 2005 to 2009 she joined with the SPD for a left-right “Grand Coalition.” The SPD was hurt by that, and there is virtually no desire within the party to join Merkel again – they have nothing to gain and a lot to lose. Better to be an opposition party. The Greens could reach an agreement with the CDU, but on policy grounds they come from a very different perspective. The negotiations would be tough. Beyond that, they see what happened to the FDP, who ruled with Merkel from 2009 to now. In 2009 the FDP had 14.5. They dropped down nearly 10% to the point that their future as a party has been questioned. Governing with Merkel could be poison for the Greens.
So Merkel might end up having a minority government, tolerated by the SPD and Greens (meaning they’d vote alongside the government on most issues while not joining it). That could work, but minority governments are inherently unstable. If a new Euro crisis emerged, she might not be able to get her priorities through the Bundestag.
So her victory is tainted. She’ll have a tough time getting a stable coalition partner and may have to rule a minority government. Or perhaps the SPD will decide that their party is floundering and it’s worth the risk to forge an agreement with the Linke and Greens to create a government of the left. That would shock the world, but certainly is possible. Back in 1969 President Nixon called CDU Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger to congratulate him on the election, only to find that the SPD would reach an unexpected agreement to form a coalition with the FDP, making Willy Brandt Chancellor. It’s possible, though unlikely, that Merkel won’t remain Chancellor.
So today the world reports on Merkel’s victory, and the CDU/CSU as the strongest party in Germany, gaining significantly from their 2009 result. But thanks to Germany’s electoral quirks, this victory may prove hollow – and it may not be a victory at all. Stay tuned!
As I reflect on the last four years of economic crisis and the current stalemate in Washington over the payroll tax, a couple points stand out about democracy and markets.
First, markets are important, but ideological free market capitalism is deeply flawed. The core reason is simple: assumptions.
There’s an old joke – a physicist, chemist, and economist are trapped on an island with a crate of canned goods but no can opener. “I think I can get these cans open,” says the physicist, arguing that coconuts dropped from the top of a tree would be powerful enough to rip the can open. “That’s too risky, the food could splatter all over,” says the chemist, noting that a few choice chemicals available might help weaken the metal and make it easier to open. “You guys are making this far too difficult,” laughed the economist.
“OK,” the other two said, “what’s your solution.”
“Easy,” said the economist, “first, assume a can opener….”
The most powerful assumptions in crude ‘ideological’ economic theory involve the distribution of information and the inability of people with resources to game the system, rigging it in their favor. In any capitalist system those assumptions fall apart. Some people know more, have access to better information and analysis, and can use their resources to reinforce their position. This means that class divisions are inevitable and aren’t based primarily on who works harder or shows more initiative. Ironically the more truly “free” the market is, the more such abuses can become standard, yielding a starkly bifurcated society lacking a true middle class.
Second, democracy has real flaws.
What keeps democracy viable is the activity of the elites. Elites have to be able to work behind the scenes to forge compromises based on their understanding of very complex issues, often issues far beyond the understanding of the average voter. If elites become trapped in ideological combat and lose the capacity to see that their main task is to work together to deal with real problems, democracy can fail. If the elite focus focus so much on politics over pragmatic problem solving, democracy can fail.
One reason Americans tend to overstate the value of democracy is that they are in denial of its need for elite guidance. Without elite cooperation and problem solving, poor decision making can harm a polity. Conversely, a non-democratic state can be run very well if the elite are focused on the good of society.
Perhaps the most dangerous problem a democracy can face is if its elites not only cannot compromise but if the economic elites trump the political elites. Remember, capitalism produces an elite economic class which can use its clout to reinforce its own position. When those elites are countered by a political elite who have a sense of what’s best for the state as a whole, the capacity of this economic elite to truly control things is limited. That’s good, because they operate out of self-interest and distrust even the notion of collective interest.
But when the economic elites eclipse the political elites, democracy becomes a handmaiden for what some have called “crony capitalism” or “government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.” In the US where elections have become exceedingly costly, the ability of the economic elite to manipulate and even control the political elite has become profound. Add to this ideological gridlock, and a downward spiral of dysfunctional government could threaten both prosperity and democratic stability.
That’s at the root of our current dilemmas, and while we may emotionally invest in Presidential and Congressional contests, when the system is sick, no one person can fix things. The President is doomed to become a part of the machine. Add to that the power-mania of Washington — what Lloyd Etheredge called “hard ball politics” — and the US is facing a political crisis of our own making.
Etheredge’s solution to ‘hard ball politics’ was a stronger press to report the truth of what’s happening, and a better informed and educated public. Back in the 1980s when his book Can Governments Learn (focusing on US foreign policy towards Latin America) appeared, that seemed a pipe dream. You can reform institutions, but you can’t make people smarter or the press more motivated.
It seems to me, though, he was on the right track. The information revolution gives us the internet and the capacity to get information from a variety of sources, thereby making a stronger “press” feasible. The public is using it to organize and learn more — it may not be obvious yet, but in talking to students I realize that on so many levels even “average” students are generally more informed about a variety of issues than was common even among very good students when I was in college.
Ultimately, unless our laws our changed limiting corporate influence on politics, or our political parties forego politics as marketing and start finding ways to both solve problems and focus on the general welfare and not corporate welfare, the only solution to our crisis comes from the people. We have relied on the elites to make democracy work for two centuries; now we have to actually start relying on the people — we have to save our democracy.
In Thirteen Keys to the Presidency historian Allan Lichtman teamed up with Russian Vladimir Kailis Borok (a mathematic modeler) to lay out 13 keys to victory — if the incumbent or his party has at least 8 of 13, he is predicted to win the Presidency. The model was first proposed in the 80s, predicting the re-election of President Reagan. It predicted President Bush the Elder’s election even while many people favored Dukakis, and Lichtman fielded a phone call from Governor Clinton’s office in 1991 wanting to know if a Democrat really had a chance against Bush. Bush was still flying high from Desert Storm, but Lichtman’s “keys” said he was vulnerable.
Even in 2000, as Gore won the popular vote and had 8 keys, the third party challenge of Ralph Nader, while not reaching the 5% level to flip the sixth key against Gore, was enough to flip Florida. So the model can be said to have correctly predicted a close election with Gore winning the popular vote, but the one key close to flipping was enough to turn Florida against Gore. As early as 2003 the keys showed Bush winning re-election, and in 2008 predicted McCain’s defeat. When used retrospectively the “keys” are accurate all the way back to 1860.
While on its face this appears very robust — the model has never been wrong in 150 years, and has been right counter-intuitively early on (like in 1991), the “N” is not large. There have been 38 elections since (and including) 1860. Even a robust social science model resists 100% accuracy, and the idea that it’s infallible is laughable. Still, it does appear smart money should be on Obama (especially if you can get a partisan Republican to give you odds):
Here are the keys (Yes means the key favors Obama, No means it does not):
1. Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
No – Obama loses this key.
2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
Yes – Obama has no challenger at this time, and this late in the game it’s unlikely a serious contest could be mounted.
3. Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
Yes – Obama has the power of incumbency on his side.
4. Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
Yes – It’s hard to imagine a serious third party challenge getting started this late.
5. Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
No – It’s possible that by next July the economy will be growing again, but for now it appears the recession will persist.
6. Long term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
No – The economy has been in recession since Obama took office, though the fact he took office at the height of the recession may limit some of the impact (people still understand he didn’t cause it.)
7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
Yes – The health care reform act, repeal of DADT, and the activity of the first two years created some major policy changes.
8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
Yes – There is no social unrest. The tea party fizzled after the 2010 election and while people are upset about the economy we’re not seeing riots and anger.
9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
Yes – Baring an unexpected development the Obama administration has been remarkably scandal free. There haven’t even been minor scandals; that is unlikely to change in the next year.
10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
Yes – While some wanted to paint Libya as a failure when the rebels didn’t get a quick victory but that’s turned around. Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down without disaster. Some experts criticize aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, but there has been no major failure.
11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
Yes – Killing Osama Bin Laden, continuing the draw down in Iraq, having the rebels win in Libya…only the Bin Laden death is “major,” but overall Obama’s foreign policy has been generally successful.
12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
Yes – He still is the first black President, he has far higher personal ratings than job approval, and his speeches are very well received.
13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
Tenative Yes – No Republican really seems especially charismatic. Romney is likable, but struggles with his personal reputation. Perry might end up showing real charisma, but at this point he seems to have benefited mostly from being the “new guy” in a weak field. Most likely, the GOP candidate will be “average” as far as candidates go. But this is a key that could be turned around.
Add it up, recognizing that Obama needs 8 yes and no more than 5 no marks, and things look good for the President. He has 10 yes and 3 no’s. If the GOP does find a charismatic challenger that still leaves him with 9 yes and 4 no, predicting victory.
The Republicans also seem to be so focused on continuing the more partisan 2010 rhetoric that they might end up misjudging the electorate in 2012 and allow Obama to paint himself as the tested and safe alternative in difficult times.
However, as the 2000 race showed, the one hole in this theory is that it’s a macro theory concerning 50 micro contests. Al Gore won the macro contest in 2000 — he bested George W. Bush in popular votes by a considerable amount; even the Kennedy-Nixon fight was closer. Gore lost the election because the result of state votes determine the winner. If one looks at the electoral map, there are many states one could imagine a Republican winning, especially if he or she ran a competent campaign, perhaps with charisma.
But even if Obama lost Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, he’d still have enough to win if he kept the others (he could even lose a couple small states like Nevada). Losing Florida would force him to keep at least one of those, so one can imagine a shifting map. Still to risk losing all those states one would have to see macro trends in play — trends the “keys” suggest won’t emerge.
One can imagine scenarios that alter the current landscape tremendously. If job growth continues and quickens, and it turns out that the recession fears of the last few weeks were fits of panic, Obama could look very good by mid-2012. If we do dip into recession again, then the keys may not be enough — no President since Roosevelt has governed in four years of economic recession.
Still, the Republicans are ready to rip each other in the primaries, Obama has no competition from rival democrats for fund raising, and the tested and successful Obama campaign machine is ready to rumble. Things look far better for the President than one might think reading the headlines and the pundits.
Of course, a model that’s basically 38 for 38 is overdue to be wrong, and if any factor weighs high enough that it would make the “keys” irrelevant, that’s the economy. Is Obama a sure thing? No way. Is he a ‘failed President’ destined to join Carter and Bush the Elder as “one termers” — perhaps, but it’s way to early to make that call!
My second on line course is “War and Peace,” looking at theories of why people go to war, and how peace can be built. I am by principle opposed to military action and war in most cases. The costs of war in human lives, social stability, and the psychological state of both soldiers and the populations involved is immense. Most of the time wars could be avoided through better communication, diplomacy and clear signals of intent. I’m not foolish enough to think humanity is at a point where war can simply be abolished — but I also don’t think war is natural.
My eight year old son is right now fascinated by war. He draws detailed pictures of various weapons and scenes, including a soldier with some kind of missile launcher destroying the Eiffel tower saying “USA Rocks!” While drawing it he asked me what the German word for their army was, so I told him “Bundeswehr.” He wrote that in front of guys defending the Eiffel tower. (The Eurocorps, perhaps?) He later had the same kind of seen with Big Ben, with the clock falling on the defending forces below.
I have friends who would be shocked if their children drew those kinds of pictures, but he’s eight — and he does know the difference between imagination and reality. One time when Ryan showed me a picture of some dead soldiers I said, “gee, I bet their dads and moms aren’t happy.” He stopped a second and said, “Dad, it’s just a picture, it’s imaginary, not real.” Anyway, I’m not going to stifle his creativity because of adult ideas of political correctness. And it was nice that both the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were in Cars 2 that we saw this weekend.
So, besides the fact that I’m not an overly protective or controlling father, what does it mean that my son gets enamored with the idea of war and weapons? I think culturally it shows how we learn to see war, weaponry and conflict. It is cool, exciting, and one can have victory! The bad guys are defeated. Death is sanitary. “It’s imaginary, not real.” The ideals of honor, heroism and strength become part of who we are. It infiltrates video games, television shows and movies.
First, an aside to those who think I should try to protect my son from that culture: I understand the concern, but disagree with trying to shield children too much. Parents who think they can control the cultural inputs and produce a child that has their own exact values are naive. The more a child is protected and forced to follow paths that parents think are politically/socially/religiously correct, the more likely it is that a child will rebel or be unable to cope with the cultural forces that he or she will inevitably face. Better to let the child learn the culture, but reinforce lessons along the way. For me that means talking a bit about the drawings — acknowledging how cool it looks, how “awesome” the missile launcher is, and how gross the pool of red blood looks. But then at other times talking about the difference between real and imaginary. I actually have surprisingly “grown up” conversations with Ryan about war, religion, and life. In order not to be hypnotized by the culture, one has to be able to navigate it.
Yet the danger is that the glorification of war will desensitize children as they grow, and war will be seen as a big video game, covered by CNN, abstracted to the point that the spectators have no clue of what the participants in war endure — either the civilians caught in the cross fire “over there,” or the soldiers who have to deal with the reality of death and destruction around them. In such a case, the cultural messages of war as honorable, cool, a way of showing strength, and an abstract struggle of good vs. evil will overwhelm that part of war we don’t see — the grotesque, sickening, revolting and tragically sad destruction of families, lives and even cultures.
Is war natural? I think not. Conflict is natural. Self-defense is natural. Anger is natural. Aggression is natural. Sometimes these things turn into actual fights, but rarely does a participant die.
War is different. War is a social process, and in fact a social construct. A collective group (tribe, state, nation) chooses war against another group as an abstraction. Consider: the most poignant and successful anti-war book ever was All Quiet on the Western Front. It had no overt anti-war message, it simply described WWI as it was for German soldiers on the front. War was not glorious or heroic, but mundane, ugly and sickening. The British hated the book because it portrayed Germans as being as just as human and likable as the British. War requires you imagine the other as having evil traits, they are different from you — they don’t value life, they hate freedom. In order to justify killing them, we latch all sorts of absurdities onto the collective “other.” The Nazis and German militarists hated the book because it portrayed the soldiers as being normal, flawed and confused often afraid humans — not the noble heroes the military was supposed to be. War requires myth to be embraced; the reality of war revolts the senses.
War as we might define it (two collective groups fighting) probably began about the time people started farming, and created the notion of private property. The idea of private property is non-existent in many hunter-gather cultures — but once you farm you have to protect the land in order to get the benefit of your efforts. That means you protect the property.
Still, the formation of collective units is natural. Humans are social creatures, and throughout most of our history we have defined ourselves more as part of a group than as distinct individuals. Individualism is a western construct — one that is more myth than reality. So in that sense protection of and competition for resources by groups can be seen as a natural result of human progress in a world of scarcity.
So in regions where people truly lack, and there is a stiff competition for scarce resources, war may indeed be a natural manifestation of the human struggle to survive. Yet in places where people have enough to survive, that doesn’t cut it. In cases where war is about religion, ethnicity, ideology, conquest for the sake of glory, expansion, social darwinism or even to ‘spread democracy,’ war is human construct made possible by how we abstract it into something most people define and understand as something far different than its reality entails. Calling it ‘natural’ and ‘omnipresent in human history’ rationalizes that kind of approach. How can one condemn the inevitable?
But war is rare. Most states settle all their disputes peacefully; only 2% of the population actually fights in a war. Wars make the news because they are an anomaly from most of what’s happening in the world. Moreover, calling it a social construct does not mean we can easily choose to make it go away. All traditions, cultures, and rituals are social constructs. Yet once constructed people tend to reproduce them, and social reality becomes resilient. It’s difficult to, say, end slavery, racism or gain equal rights for women. Those changes required changing culturally shared beliefs, and people usually hold on to their beliefs, change thus can take generations.
So most war may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to overcome or something we don’t have to try to understand, learn about, deal with and at times experience. My hope in this class is that by learning about war and peace, students are able to see international conflict in a realistic light. That means both seeing through the myths of glory, honor and heroism, and also understanding that naive chants of “no more war” are unrealistic. War may be necessary at times, but if one supports any given war, one should do so understanding what war really is, with a cold sober appreciation of the immense costs and uncertainties it creates.
Florence had risen rapidly from the 1300s to near 1500, thanks in large part to the strength of the Medici family whose revolution in accounting made them bankers to Europe, brought wealth to Florence and financed the great renaissance art and architecture we see in the city today. Today’s two seminars involved two men – Niccolo Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola – and two churches – Santa Croce and San Marco.
Savonarola took power in 1494 when the French invaded Italy and overthrew the Medicis. He played to the emotion of the peoples’ resentment of Medici opulence and wealth which he derided as unchristian at a time when so many in Italy were in poverty. So powerful was his religious fervor that even the great Botticelli is said to have thrown many of his paintings in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” that Savonarola held — great fires where people burnt material objects that were not godly. This foreshadowed later book burnings.
Gaining a following, Savonarola vowed to cleanse Florence. Homosexuality had been tolerated, Savonarola made it a capital offense under new “sodomy laws.” People were forced to take a more puritan life style. He attacked the Medicis, especially Pope Alexander VI (who, to be sure, was a nasty immoral jerk to put it nicely). Yet while he rode resentment of the wealth of the ruling class to power, the public didn’t like his puritanism. By 1497 bars started to serve wine and liquor again, and in 1498 he was excommunicated and hung in Piazza della Signora.
We visited San Marco where the monks including Savonarola had their cells, and Sarah explained the importance of the art work there, reflecting those times. After Savonarola’s death, Florence had a brief period of Republican rule. One of its leaders was a man named Niccolo Machiavelli.
I had the students read a talk I gave a few years ago about Machiavelli, linked here. I’m not going deep into Machiavelli’s thought for this blog entry (no time!), but that link has quotes and examples of his pragmatic realism. The short version is that after the Florentine Republic fell Machiavelli was exiled and published The Prince, a practical how to book on politics.
Some consider him the first political scientist because Machiavelli makes clear that he is not worried about what ought to be, but what actually is. And the world around him — Italy fragmented, divided and insecure, the public being seduced for awhile by a religious extremist like Savonarola, and the demise of the Florentine Republic — did not reflect anyone’s conception of an ideal society. Rather than follow the philosophers in trying to determine what the “good” should be, Machiavelli said its more important to figure out how the world works — how to play the game and win.
As I noted in a blog entry from the last Italy trip, Machiavelli is no Hitler (that blog goes into the details of his thinking more). He wanted a Republic where people could have peace and prosperity. To get that, however, Italy had to first gain security and develop a strong state. He saw that if Italy didn’t unify and develop a stable state, the fragmented divided statelets of the peninsula would fall into stagnate squabbling while the rest of Europe would rise ahead. But to get security you needed a strong leader who wouldn’t let morality get in the way of achieving the end of having a secure state. In that Machiavelli makes a clear consequentialist “the ends justify the means” argument.
Again, read the links above for more on Machiavelli’s specific thought. In this post I just want to reflect on how Savonarola and Machiavelli foreshadow the darkside of the growing humanism that Giotto’s work represented the start of. Savonarola was a reaction to the increasing distance between the new humanist ethos of the renaissance and old strict ways of the Church. Tradition was being challenged, change and diversity were accepted. The good side was that this meant more freedom, as reflected in the issue of homosexuality. The bad side was that this meant more class division and a pre-occupation on the material, as reflected by church corruption and the power of the Medicis.
Humanism embraced realism. Just as the art and sculpture became more realistic, Machiavelli’s guide to politics reflected a desire to do what would work, even if were not right by moral standards. In Machiavelli we see an overt move to relativism, as a Prince has to navigate the waters he finds rather than try to create an ideal polity.
Savonarola and Machiavelli are extremes that show divisions with us to this day. I couldn’t help but think of Osama Bin Laden as a Muslim Savonarola, with authoritarian governments like the Saudis using Machiavelli’s methods. One is a desire not to give up the old and in fact react to change by embracing an extremist and reactionary world view. The other is to try to protect the new order by using any means necessary, fearing chaos and disarray. The relativism in Machiavelli also reflects a dark side of this change — there is no new moral standard replacing tradition.
The students seem drawn to Machiavelli’s thought, it has the kind of pragmatic approach that has defined US politics and foreign policy for generations. This shows me that despite 500 years of development since those early days of the pre-enlightenment, we still haven’t found a new moral code. Reason alone can’t provide one, nor is there any proof of there existing an ethical code that can be derived from nature. Those who claim there is one are rarely able to put up an argument to defend their position – they dance and weave a lot. That leaves the door open for new Savonarola’s, like perhaps a younger Pat Robertson type.
This brings the conversation to the present. We’re not just looking at historical figures dealing with 500 year old problems. These are dilemmas we’re still working to solve, as relevant today as they were then.
I’m learning more, for instance, about a show I never saw before, Jersey Shore. Apparently they are right around the corner from us, and one of our students actually talked to them and was on camera — she didn’t sign a waiver though, so they won’t use that footage. I also got this picture — students say it’s a guy called ‘the Situation’ who “picked up two Italian bimbos.” One wonders what Savonarola would say about these guys:
Though after a long hot day of art, politics, and 13 miles of walking, we ended with the best Gelato in the world, from Gelateria dei Neri. Buona Notte!
A colleague posted something recently on Facebook about how Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Prime Minister candidate in Great Britain, studied a year at the University of Minnesota from 1989-90. Nobody I’ve talked to can remember him, however. I have a passage in my private journal of how at a get together to talk about a paper he was present, but I have no recollection of him. To be sure, that year I had become “ABD” (All But Dissertation), having passed my three preliminary exams (each one eight hours long — International Relations, Foreign Policy, and West European Politics). I was no longer taking seminars so I didn’t the same contact others would have had with him. Still, I wish I could at least conjure up a memory.
The election taking place in Great Britain could be historic. Britain has a parliamentary system, meaning that there is no President. The head of Parliament also heads the executive branch of government. To Americans this seems strange, as we associate “checks and balances” with governance. In Britain there are quite literally no checks and balances. The legislative and executive branches are one, with the Prime Minister atop each, while there is no judicial review or constitution. Whatever Parliament passes becomes law.
Moreover, while nominally a bicameral system, the power rests in the House of Commons, as the House of Lords can only delay laws. Thus Parliament can ban any kind of speech it wants, overnight nationalize health care (which it did in 1945) or overnight privatize large industries (which Thatcher did in 1979 – 80). The power in the hands of the Prime Minister is immense due to party loyalty and the two party system. A Prime Minister can be removed if the party rebels against him or her, but that is rare.
What keeps Britain within the confines of a functioning democracy without massive abuses of power is tradition and a political culture with clear rules — albeit normative rather than legal constraints. When Margaret Thatcher won a vote to remain head of her party in 1990, a vote she fought hard to win, she nonetheless stepped down from office because the size of her victory was too small in light of British tradition. Such a centralized system probably could not function in most places, but Britain proves that tradition and culture is a more powerful constraint than laws and constitutions. (Theoretically the Monarchy could step in if Parliament broke treaties with the Monarchy, but that’s never been tested).
Yet Britain has never truly been a full two party system. Third parties have been common, with the Liberal Democrats in various guises a continual rival to the big parties, Labour and the Conservatives. Previously Labour had been the third party, but they replaced the Liberal Democrats as one of the top two after World War II when Clement Attlee led Labour to a victory over Winston Churchill and the conservatives.
The British have a “first past the post” system, with only one vote for each citizen: who should represent their district. They do not vote directly on the Prime Minister’s position, that’s done in the House of Commons. So if someone wants Nick Clegg to be Prime Minister, they must vote for the Liberal Democrat running in their district. Districts are won when a candidate gets a plurality — simply more votes than anyone else. Thus, even though the Liberal Democrats have often got decent percentages of the overall vote, they have not won many seats. They might get 15% of the vote in a district, but almost always Labour or the Conservatives would get more. That means in every election one single party has had a majority in the House of Commons, and has been able to govern.
Yet this time, the three parties are neck and neck, with the Liberal Democrats apparently in the lead. What does this mean? There are a few options:
1. Could the Liberal Democrats supplant Labour or the Conservatives as one of the top two parties? Perhaps they could do to Labour what Labour did to them over six decades ago? Probably not — Labour has a lot of safe districts and core support. The Conservatives at one point looked so weak one could have imagined them losing out, but they’ve had a resurgence under David Cameron.
2. Will the Liberal Democrats gain enough seats to force a coalition government? This is an intriguing possibility. If the seats are split three ways, then the parties will have to negotiate to form a coalition government. Since the Prime Minister would rely on support outside his party, that would limit the power of a Prime Minister in an unprecedented way. Britain, always so stable, could have coalition crises or other events, a real challenge to its political culture.
If there is a coalition, the Liberal Democrats would be a likely part of it, since the Conservatives and Labour are more distant from each other ideologically. Yet coalitions often defy such ideological logic. Labour and the Tories (the Conservatives) might decide that Clegg is a short term phenomenon, and they can hold their position atop the system by forming a coalition together. The danger in that is that this makes the Liberal Democrats the only opposition party, something likely to strengthen them. Negotiations would be interesting.
3. Will the Liberal Democrats force a change to a proportional representation system? One thing they’ve always “threatened” is to change Britain’s age old electoral system to one of proportional representation, thereby giving third parties more of a chance to be part of a government. This would likely make coalitions the norm rather than the exception, and end the stable dominance of whichever party wins a British election. On the positive side, this seems to have a surer check on any abuse of power. On the negative side, this is a breaking of British tradition, and many fear that if that tradition cracks, then the glue that holds Britain’s political culture together might be in danger. Since they rely on tradition and culture for their stability, this could have fierce unintended consequences.
All of this is hard to predict. Since individual races matter, depending on how the vote comes out a party might get a large chunk of the vote but very few seats. Slight variations in vote totals can have an exaggerated impact on the final outcome. It is possible that either Labour or the Conservatives will win outright and avoid a coalition (much more likely for the Conservatives to do so). Despite the Liberal Democrat surge, they face problems in winning seats. Still, at least from a political science perspective, this is a really fascinating election!
Greetings from the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago. Wednesday we had a very smooth trip to Chicago and the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. This conference is huge, with literally thousands of participants. And while I love life in rural Maine, it’s nice to be a big city again, especially one like Chicago which has both friendly people and a beautiful downtown.
My task Wednesday evening was to read four papers which I am to discuss at a panel tomorrow. This papers are outside my comfort zone, in that they are focused on media and communication studies. One of them does take an approach very close to mine, with an emphasis on Gramsci and Stuart Hall, as well as psychology, but the others cite a literature I am only starting to become familiar with. Though I have blogged about my change in research focus from German/European politics to an analysis of the US media, this is my first professional foray into that sub-field. As such, it feels fresh, and I am thoroughly enjoying the papers I will discuss tomorrow.
One looks at the rise of Twitter, and its impact on politics, another on how teaching about media and politics has to change, another explores theoretical challenges to looking at new media, and the last analyzes the press to find a right wing bias in the “objective” reporting of welfare reform and other issues. It’s closest to my approach, looking at framing and the nature of the reporting (e.g., reports focus on issues as political conflicts between elites, rather than getting in the merits of the issues). When I first was asked to be a chair/discussant for this group, I thought about saying no — am I ready to critique colleagues who have been in this sub-field for years? But two reasons pushed me to yes. First, having been a section chair, I know how hard it is to get discussants. I wanted to make my section chair’s life easier rather than more difficult. Second, I thought that I could both learn a lot and come at the papers with a different perspective.
I’m excited about this new research path in part because things are in such a state of flux there isn’t a lot of good research that explores how media change is effecting politics. Looking at blogs, the tea party movement and the like (I told my research assistant, who is co-presenting the paper here, that her task this summer would be to research facebook and politics), it’s a new world out there. Gone is the elite/establishment “objective” perspective put forth by the big three networks and major news dailies. Gone as well is the emphasis on professional reporting and thorough fact checking. Now its about speed, gossip, rumor and emotion. Blogs tend to speak to a particular audience, riddled with personal attacks of both politicians on the ‘other side’ and those who venture to their blog with a different perspective. What does this all mean?
As much as it is obvious to anyone who has experienced how the world looks from a different perspective (in my case a European/German perspective vs. an American one), we all have biased interpretations of reality. We don’t objectively see the world as it is, we interpret reality, politics, and even core values through prisms of beliefs and understandings about the world, acquired from life experience. More than ever before these prisms are shaped by the media, thereby helping define how people see/understand the world. So if the mass media are undergoing dramatic change, then politics cannot help but be fundamentally transformed as well.
So tea partiers twitter, Obama raises record money with a cyber campaign, the political pendulum shows a capacity to shift more wildly than ever before, and young people especially get used to all knowledge at their fingertips right away. When I don’t know the answer to a question the first thing that comes out of my seven year old’s mouth is “google it!” I had to explain to him that as vast as google is, it cannot tell me how cars will look in fifty years!
Unfortunately, I’m somewhat pessimistic about these changes, though a long term goal of the research will be to propose ways that this powerful media tool can be used to expand critical discussion rather than simply promote emotion-laden narratives. This reflects the “libertarian education” goal of Paulo Friere, though applied more broadly.
But for now, I’m looking forward to this conference, the panels, and moving forward in this new research direction.