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The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

From failure, opportunity comes.

datePosted on 17:19, January 24th, 2017 by Pablo

When President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTPA), he signed the death warrant of that multinational trade deal in its present form. The US was the core member of the TPPA and held the dominant negotiating position within it, so the decade-in-the-making, laboriously undertaken and vexing complex compact that was agreed to by the other eleven signatories is now all but null and void.

There are options, however, for the TPPA that may allow it to survive and thrive in light of Trump’s unilateral abrogation.

First, the other eleven member states can put the agreement into hibernation, wait for the 2020 US presidential election and hope that a more trade-oriented president succeeds Trump.

Second, they can hope that the Republican congressional leadership will force Trump to reverse his decision sometime between now and 2020. That would only occur if Trump is weakened by some failure and the GOP sensed that it could re-assert its traditional pro-trade stance at his expense. The Democrats would welcome the move for opportunistic partisan reasons even if some of its leading figures such as Bernie Sanders also oppose the TPPA and applauded Trump’s decision to pull plug on it.

Third, the members could look to themselves and re-draw an agreement that is less US-centric. Many of the provisions insisted on by the US could be reconsidered and even dropped in exchange for increased preferences for the interests of previously junior TPPA partners.

Fourth, the remaining TPPA partners could look to fill the void left by the US with another large market economy. The one that springs immediately to mind is China. That is where things get interesting, and where opportunity may lie.

China is already party to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) that established a regional free trade area that is the largest in terms of population and third largest in term of trade volume and nominal GDP. Some of the ACFTA signatories are also parties to the TPPA (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam). This agreement is considered to be a “true” free trade agreement in the Ricardian sense because it reduces tariffs across 7,881 product categories to zero percent, with the result being that tariffs on ASEAN goods sold to China fell to 0.1 percent and those of China sold in ASEAN to 0.1 percent in the year the agreement went into force (2010)

The non-US TPPA members could opt to negotiate an agreement with ACTFA as one course of action. That may be difficult given that the TPPA is not a “genuine” FTA as much as it is an investor guarantee agreement (IGA) in which market regulations are altered to attract foreign investors and these are protected from legal liability in the event of disputes with the host state. What is not included in the TPPA are across-the-board reductions to zero tariff, and in fact many domestic industries remain protected or subsidised throughout the TPPA membership as part of the horse trading undertaken during negotiations over its central tenets. But it may be possible to reconcile the two trade deals in an effort to create a new super trade bloc on neo-Ricardian grounds.

Another option might be to invite China to the table. It has the second largest market in the world and is continues to grow at a sustained and rapid pace in spite of the vicissitudes of the world economy over the last two decades. It is making the transition from export platform to a mixed domestic mass consumption/value-added export model, and it has previously expressed interest in joining the TPPA. The US blocked consideration of China’s membership because it saw the TPPA as the economic equivalent of the military “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, that is, as a hedge against Chinese economic, diplomatic and military influence in the Western Pacific Rim in what amounts to a new Containment Policy in the Asia-Pacific.

With the US gone, China has an opening and the remaining TPPA members have an opportunity. The TPPA will have to be renegotiated, but it is likely that the non-negotiable provisions insisted by the US will not be supported by the Chinese and can be dropped in the effort to entice their interest. In turn, China might have to accept something less than blanket reductions in uniform tariffs and agree to a tariff reduction regime that is more segmented and scaled in orientation and gradual and incremental in application (i.e. more product or industry specific and phased in over a longer period of time). That is clearly within the realm of possibility, as is Chinese agreement to other TPPA provisions stripped of their US-centric orientation.

China has already signalled its intentions in this regard. President Xi used this year’s Davos Forum to preach the virtues of free trade and global commerce, arguing against protectionism as an impediment to international understanding and exchange. China has proposed the creation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along the lines mentioned above with regard to an ACTFA-TPPA merger but with the provision that the US be excluded. There are many details to be ironed out but the groundwork has been laid for that to happen.

What makes the turn to a China-included trade bloc a potentially win-win proposition for remaining TPPA signatories is that the key provisions demanded by the US–changes in market regulations and preferential market entry clauses for US business interests (including changes in patent and copyright protection) and imposition of limited liability clauses in the event US businesses are sued by local governments–were those that were most resisted by domestic audiences in several TPPA member countries. Removing them not only allows the agreement to be free of those constraints but also diffuses a source of domestic opposition in countries where such things matter.

One thing TPPA states should think carefully about, especially small states like New Zealand, is the invitation to negotiate bi-lateral trade deals with the US instead of the TPPA (something just announced by the Trump administration). The historical record shows that large asymmetries in market size favour the larger over the smaller partner in bilateral trade agreements. This is due to economies of scale, market dominance, and economic and geopolitical influence derived from market size advantages. The recent track record of bilateral deals between the US and smaller states reinforces this fact. Australia, South Korea, Chile, Colombia and the Central American nations plus Dominican Republic grouped in the CAFTA scheme all have bilateral FTAs with the US. In all instances the majority benefits accrued to US-based companies and industries and the benefits accrued in the partner states were limited to specific export markets (mostly in primary goods), with little flow-on, trickle down or developmental effects in the broader national economies.

So rather than “jump on a plane” to sign a bilateral deal with the US, as one wag put it, smaller states such as New Zealand need to think hard whether the bilateral alternative with the US is more long-term beneficial than a multilateral agreement, especially when it has shown that under a certain type of administration the US is willing to renege on its commitments even if they are multilateral rather than bilateral in nature. With the Trump administration also set to review and replace the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), it is clear that honoring commitments and maintaining continuity in trade policy is not, even if just for the short term, on the US agenda.

When one widens the lens on what the Trump administration is doing in terms of its threats to withdraw from various bi-and multinational defense agreements unless the partner states “pay more” for US protection, it becomes clear that the US is not, at least for now, a reliable international partner.

The reason is that the new US attitude to trade is part of a larger phenomenon. The neo-isolationist protectionism embedded in the “America First” approach adopted by the Trump administration has ended, however temporarily, over 50 years of bipartisan consensus in the US political elite on the merits of international engagement. Be it in trade, foreign aid or collective defense, the US policy elite, both public and private, have embraced globalisation as a means of projecting US power, influence and values world-wide. That era has come to end for the time being, and so long as Trump is successful in pursing his “America First” strategy it will continue to be so.

That may or may not make America Great Again but it could well have a negative impact on those who seek mutual benefit by engaging with it. They will be asked to do more, pay more and offer more concessions in order to be granted US favour.

In the absence of an alternative, that is an unenviable position to be in. But if alternatives are available, then the current moment in US politics provides a window of opportunity to countries that have found themselves marginalised by Trump’s policy directives. The re-orientation of TPPA is one such opportunity because, if for no other reason, a US return to the TPPA fold in the post-Trump era will see it with much less leverage than it had up until now. Add to that the possibility of increased benefits via a renegotiated deal with the remaining and possibly new partners, and the downside of the US withdrawal seems acceptable.

From a smaller nation perspective, that is a good thing.

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

Trump is Toast

datePosted on 13:21, October 11th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, all good things must come to an end.

But first, let’s play word association:

Authoritarian Populist.

Racist. Bigot. Xenophobe.

Bully. Buffoon. Bankrupt.

War-mongerer. Torture fan. Genocidal Demagogue.

Narcissistic Sociopath. Tax evader. Ignorant blowhard.

Serial Liar. Serial Cheat. Serial adulterer.

Thin skinned. Egomaniac. Coward.

Lecher.

Sexual predator.

Whose name comes to mind when these words are mentioned?

Conservative spin aside, there is no coming back from this. The destruction of brand Trump is unfolding before our eyes and soon will be complete.

Let’s unpack the video outtakes from his 2005 Access Hollywood appearance in order to explain the reasons why.

In it he speaks of pursuing a married woman. That will cost him religious conservative votes as well as those from people who take a dim view of home-wreckers.

He then boasts that he has a pre-meditated strategy to swallow breath mints before he forcibly kisses women without their consent. He goes on to say that because he is a “star” he can grope women’s genitals with impunity. These are admissions of repeated sexual assault. That is going to cost him much more than female votes, as many in the law and order crowd, to say nothing of men who have real respect for their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grand daughters will walk away from a self-admitted practitioner of such criminal behaviour (say what you want about Bill Clinton, there is no audio recording in his own voice of him admitting to sexual assault).

In his non-apologies he claims that the crude and lewd language he used during the now infamous bus ride is just “locker room banter.” Besides the fact that many have pointed out that it is not, in fact, normal athlete talk to speak the way he did, what he is basically saying is that (presumably male) locker rooms are places where discussion of sexual assault is common place. If that is true, then what he is speaking about–and dismissing–is a particular aspect of rape culture. True or not (and there is definitely a problem with rape cultures in some areas of US society), the fact that he downplays the seriousness of boasting about sexual assault (whether real or made up) is indicative of deeply seated misogyny on his part. This may have been something that he could get away with twenty years ago, but it is not now.

Better yet, Trump is a wrecking ball that is bringing the Republican Party down with him as the GOP rats scramble to get off that sinking ship known as the 2016 campaign. They have to jump because the word association game that we just played will be attached to those who do not. Already 50 Republican elected officials are trying to put distance between themselves and Trump, including the House Majority Leader and 14 Senators. The focus of the Republicans is keeping their House and Senate majorities, and that looks to be increasingly in peril in the Senate (where a shift of 4 seats restores a Democratic majority).

In parallel, the media facilitators at the alternative universe known as Fox News are also in full meltdown mode as the Trump sycophants (Sean Hannity) publicly quarrel with other colleagues (Meghan Kelly, Shepard Smith) in a crisis environment brought about by the forced resignation of another sexual predator, Roger Ailes, as CEO of the network.

These are the worst of times. These are the best of times.

The forces of evil in the US are in disarray, on the run and looking for whatever (political) cover they can find. But there is no place to hide.

This year November 8 is not just election day. It is not just judgement day for the GOP.

It is armageddon for US conservatism. The end is nigh.

The real questions now are what will the Democrats do with the gift of Republican self-destruction? Will the Clinton administration heed the lessons of the election and integrate at least some aspects of Bernie Sanders’ policy prescriptions into it? Will the Democratic Congressional leadership seize the opportunity to consolidate or pursue legislative gains in areas such as health care, education, campaign finance reform and taxation? Will the Supreme Court nominations made by the Clinton administration ensure a “progressive” majority for decades to come?

For their part, will the unsavoury forces unleashed by the Trump campaign crawl back under their rocks or will they turn into a violent disloyal opposition? Will the GOP split into “moderate” and retrograde wings and if so who will dominate conservative discourse? What lessons will the Republicans take away from this disaster? Will those lessons teach them civility or even more darker modes of behaviour?

Time will tell but for the moment we can only thank The Donald for his efforts.

Peddling False Hope.

datePosted on 11:19, October 1st, 2016 by Pablo

By way of a short thought, I venture again into the waters of US election year politics.

Today’s subject is Donald Trump, or more precisely, the promises he passes off as solutions to the US malaise (as he and his supporters see it).  The key denominator in everything he says is that he offers the promise that he and he alone can solve the nation’s problems, foreign and domestic, and that he can do so in a clear, simple and direct fashion without much cost or sacrifice to the nation. Much like PT Barnum a century or so ago, he clearly believes that there is a sucker born every minute in the US. And what he is peddling to them is no more than that snake oil known as false hope.

Let me outline what he has promised to do but which he cannot do. Trump cannot build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He cannot deport 11 million people including US citizens born of undocumented residents. He cannot place a ban on “all Muslims” immigrating to the US, he cannot institute blanket profiling of Muslims and surveillance of mosques, and he cannot stop refugees from Muslim-dominant countries from seeking asylum in it. He cannot leave NATO to its own devices. He cannot leave South Korea and Japan to defend themselves against Chinese aggression, and he cannot influence Chinese monetary policy in a way that would “level the playing field” with the US. He cannot force US based companies to return all of their operations to the US while paying US workers higher wages. He cannot reinstitute water boarding and other “worse” forms of torture. He cannot order the US military to commit war crimes such s killing the relatives of terrorists, and he cannot “take the oil” from Iraq. He cannot preemptively launch nuclear attacks based on whim. He cannot renege on trade deals without consequence. He cannot “rip up” NAFTA (the North American trade bloc involving Mexico, Canada and the US). He cannot fire generals because they disagree with his views, and he cannot form a partnership with Russia just because he admires Putin.

Trump cannot mandate that women be “punished” for having legal abortions. Trump cannot “wipe out” Daesh.

Trump cannot make “America Great Again” because his vision of greatness–white male christian nativist and insular–has been overcome by the structural, demographic, cultural, social and technological changes of the last quarter century. In fact, his vision of “greatness’ was great only for a socio-economic few, and that few will be a distinct minority within twenty years.

Trump cannot drill, drill, drill or frack, frack, frack. Trump cannot make the US safer by ensuring that more people have guns.  He cannot re-institute “stop and frisk” as the solution to African-American demonstrations against police brutality or even urban crime without re-hashing the case of its (un)constitutionality. Trump cannot run his administration like a family owned business lacking shareholders or a Board of Directors and he certainly cannot use bankruptcy as a means of avoiding liability for poor financial decisions. He cannot renegotiate the US debt using default as leverage.

The reasons he cannot do anything of what he has promised is not only that his words are meaningless and empty, in typical national populist demagogic tradition. It is due to the fact that the US political system does, in fact, rest on institutional checks and balances grounded in law. Any and everything that he proposes, were he to try to execute it via Executive Order, would be challenged in courts as unconstitutional and take years to litigate. He needs Congress to pass laws that will allow him to do some of the things that he promises to do, and other promises require congressional approval in any event. Even if it remains in Republican control, Congress has been the subject of his often personal attacks and understands its role as a check on the Executive (witness the obstructionism of the past eight years). So no matter who controls Congress, but especially if the Democrats win the Senate, the legislative branch will not just play along with Trump’s demands and initiatives and will in fact spend much time blocking most of what he has proposed on the campaign trail. He is on a hiding to nothing.

Trump cannot use his personal wealth while president, which includes paying lobbyists to advance his political projects. Although he can fund partisan and personal trips and events out of his own bank account, he cannot use his taxpayer-funded salary or the resources of his office for personal reasons. That means that he will have to place his assets in the hands of others, be it via trusts or family delegation for the duration of his incumbency. The Donald may have some problems adjusting to that situation and could try to circumvent the rules governing presidential finances. Beyond the ethics of the matter, that poses a practical challenge for him because even if he fills the entire upper echelon of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees (whose credentials will have more to do with shoe licking than competence), he still will have to deal with a career civil service with institutional knowledge and depth of expertise (if not vested interests) when it comes to policy implementation paid for by the taxes Trump thinks it is “smart” to dodge.

Nor can he reconcile his financial plan, which involves lowering corporate taxes while renegotiating trade agreements and increasing spending on the military and elected infrastructure projects. In an age of budgetary cost-cutting that has resulted in several government shut-downs, he simply will find it impossible to fund his projects with public money even if he offers sweetheart deals to private parties in order to offset public expenditures–again, because it is not for him alone to do so and he will find his purse strings not only constrained by but attached to the demands of other interests regardless of who controls Congress.

The truly sad aspect of this is that neither Trump or his supporters understand the very basic concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. They believe that he can just order people around and “get things done.” They think that he can bully foreign leaders the way he bullies out of favour beauty pagent contestants. They think that he can resort to personal insults, to include fat, slut and disability-shaming, to deter his adversaries and critics. They would be mistaken in those beliefs and it is a shame that the US educational system has produced so many people without even an elementary grasp of how government works or why civility is a value. That one such ignorant person is the nominee of a major political party is a clear sign of its demise.

It will interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks of the campaign. It looks like Trump is starting (?) to come unglued as the pressure mounts and his blustery facade begins to crumble under the light of scrutiny. Clinton pounded him into the ropes in the first debate (I scored it a TKO), and if he decides to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in future conversation he will be eviscerated on the hypocrisy rack. From my perspective, the election campaign is just getting better.

One thing is certain: ignorance is not bliss and Drumpf is about to find that out in spades.

 

Media Link: The French are back, and in a big way.

datePosted on 18:39, September 14th, 2016 by Pablo

I spent some time talking with a Radio New Zealand reporter, who I must say is very well versed in the politics of the region, reflecting on the de facto admission of France into the Pacific Island Forum. Unlike the usual media sound bites, he gave me some room to reflect.

Such a nice crowd.

datePosted on 12:20, September 13th, 2016 by Pablo

Unfortunately I know people, to include some in my own family, who are Trump supporters and who think that Fox News is “fair and balanced.” I also know some people, including one here at KP, who think that voting for Trump is all good because it will break the status quo politics represented by Hillary Clinton.

Many of the people I know that have chosen the Trump/Fox News view of the world bristle at the suggestion that they have issues with race/ethnicity/gender/Islam/sexuality/foreigners/poor people/disabled people/whatever. Some of those who think that voting for Trump is an anarchic stroke of tactical genius appear to ignore the concerns raised by these suggestions or believe them to be untrue. Allow me the right of rejoinder with one link.

It may not be a statistically significant sample of opinion among the Trump/Fox News “nation,” but I believe that this compilation is emblematic of what lies at its core. And if this is the base sentiment behind Trump that is being championed by Fox News, then the situation, if not the very character of his campaign, is indeed a giant basket of deplorable.

Say what you want about Ms. Clinton (and I shall write something about the false narrative about her at some point), she does not attract this type of folk. In fact, she repels them, which is as good enough reason to vote for her as is anything else.

Constitutional Coups.

datePosted on 16:28, September 4th, 2016 by Pablo

When people think about coups d’etat, they tend to think about armed interruptions of the constitutional order, usually perpetrated by the military against an elected government. Such was the case with the abortive coup staged by elements of the Turkish military against the government of Recep Erdogan last July. Note that I do not say “democratically” elected governments, as usurpations of the constitutional order can also happen in electoral authoritarian regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 (only to be followed by a “full” coup against the subsequently elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013).

The traditional origins of such forms of regime change, known as golpes de estado in Spanish, do in fact hark back to military interventions against civilian governments, and that remains its most common form. But another form of coup has emerged, minus the bloodshed and state of emergency so often associated with military-led coups (I say military-led because it is very seldom the case that the armed forces act alone when moving against the government of the day). Rather than an interruption and suspension of the institutional process by military means, it is a usurpation from within the institutional order by constitutional means. Rather than bullets fired by soldiers it is ballots cast by politicians that overturn the will of the people prior to scheduled elections. The insurrectionists belong to and work within the political system. This is what is now known as a constitutional coup. In order to understand this new form of “golpismo” we need to consider two background factors.

First, liberal democracy comes in two forms: presidential and parliamentary systems. Although they are a possibility in parliamentary systems (such as having the government dissolved by the Governor General, as occurred in Pakistan in 1953 and Australia in 1975), constitutional coups most often happen in presidential systems. By their very nature parliamentary systems have built-in insurance against constitutional coups because there are established means to remove a government, specifically via votes of no-confidence followed by snap elections. The rules governing both the vote and the election may vary from country to country, and there may be a ruckus surrounding such events, but they are an integral part of parliamentary democracy and, some might argue, a much finer tuned aspect of democratic governance than that allowed by its alternative.

Presidential systems provide no such mechanism for the removal of governments prior to their end of term. By definition, any such move constitutes an institutional crisis as the system is based on a separation of executive power from legislative authority. In parliamentary systems the executive (in the form of cabinet) continues to act as a parliamentary faction, to include ministers discharging responsibilities as members of parliament. In presidential systems that is not the case and executive authority can often be confronted by or exercised against legislative majorities (as is currently the case in the US). No matter what the majority in the legislature may wish, it cannot simply call for a vote of no-confidence in the government of the day. In fact, it has no legal basis to do so.

When the legislative and executive branches in presidential systems are locked in impasses or stalemates over any number of potential issues, the resolution mechanism boils down to supermajorities in the former and veto powers in the latter. Ideally, in bicameral legislatures the resolution sequence is usually this: the president introduces or supports a bill submitted for approval by the legislature. The opposition obtains a supermajority against the bill in the lower house, which is vetoed by the president, which is then upheld or overturned by a supermajority in the upper house. In unicameral legislatures the sequence is either one and done or a second legislative supermajority vote is taken after a veto in order to ratify or overturn the veto. Neither of these resolution paths provide a mechanism for the removal of the executive.

This process is cumbersome but offers the benefit of providing space for compromise between the executive and legislature as a bill winds its way through the ratification process. But what about removal of an elected government before its term is up? That is where the second key backdrop factor comes into play: disloyal opposition.

Long term KP readers will recall my earlier writing on this subject.  But for those who are not, here is a nutshell refresher on what constitutes loyal and disloyal opposition in a democracy (there is no point in using those terms in authoritarian regimes).

Loyal oppositions are those that, having been defeated in elections or confronted by an opposing party in executive office (remember, the problem is unique to presidential systems), abide by the rules of the political game and wait for the next electoral opportunity to gain executive power. During the meantime they work as much as possible to find areas of compromise so that the machinery of governance can continue to serve the public good (or at least be seen as doing so). Even if token, concessions are exchanged so that consensus on issues of policy can be achieved. Only in the most egregious case of executive misconduct, usually involving criminality or gross negligence, does a loyal opposition begin to contemplate the unthinkable, which comes in the form of impeachment (that is, forcing the resignation of the executive under pressure from the legislature backed by the authority of law enforced by state security agents).

Disloyal oppositions are those that refuse to accept the outcome of elections and/or the legitimacy of a particular government and use their political influence and power to bring down that government by any means short of force. This includes being deliberately obstructionist when it comes to passing legislation, flaunting rules governing acceptable political discourse, manipulating or colluding with media to plant false accusations against incumbents, refusing to authorise budgets and confirm executive appointments, and generally acting in every possible way to stymie government policy initiatives, make it impossible for the executive branch to function effectively within the tripartite, separation of powers framework of constitutional government, and to promote discontent with and distrust of the government and its political supporters.

The classic modern instance of a disloyal opposition was the Christian Democratic led opposition to Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Chile from 1970-73. The result of that disloyalty is well known. But not all disloyal opposition need result in full fledged military coups. Instead, they can veer down the path of the constitutional coup. Consider the case of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-99. In late 1998 the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two counts of perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice. The charges related to his accounts of the affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewisky, the salacious details of which were vividly spelt out by Independent Counsel Ken Starr (Starr has recently been forced to resign from his position as president and chancellor of Baylor University for his role in covering up sexual assaults on females by football players). Mr. Starr was appointed by the Speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, he of the three marriages and many affairs (including with subordinates).

In 1999 the Republican controlled Senate held a trial and voted on the charges. Needing a two thirds (67 seat) majority for the impeachment to succeed and with 55 Senators on the Republican side, the impeachment vote failed when 50 voted in favour on the obstruction charge and 45 voted in favour on the perjury charge. Clinton remained in office, albeit significantly hamstrung by his near-miss.

The issue here is that the impeachment was over a private sexual affair, not an act of public malfeasance . It was led by people who themselves had similar skeletons in their closets and who did so in part just to weaken the president even if their efforts to impeach him failed (given media coverage of the story). More specifically, it was not about gross incompetence, criminal behaviour, military mismanagement, or even lying to Congress about any matter of policy. Instead, it was about the president receiving fellatio from and using a cigar as a sex toy on Ms. Lewinsky during trysts in the Oval Office, then trying to cover it up. It is doubtful that the founding fathers, in Article Two (Section Four) of the Constitution, had this in mind when they wrote that impeachment was to be used only in exceptional circumstances involving “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”

That is a slippery slope. And nowhere is the bottom of that slope more evident than in the recent impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.

Brazil has history with impeachment. In 1992 then president Fernando Collor de Mello resigned after Congress voted in favour of his impeachment on charges of bribery and misappropriation of funds. Similar charges of “budgetary mismanagement” were brought against Ms. Rousseff in 2016 by a Congress dominated by the center-right PMDB, Brazil’s largest party, which has the most seats in Congress (66) and is the one to which her vice president Michel Temer belongs (the coalitional aspects of Brazilian politics are too complex to get into here but suffice it to say that Rousseff was trying to keep her friends and allies close and her enemies closer. That did not work out as planned). By the time the first reports of fiscal irregularities surfaced in 2015, the PMDB-led majority in Congress had gone full-blown disloyal in a context of economic stagnation and assorted crises (Zika, lack of Olympic preparations) and were itching to find a reason to remove Rousseff (who was not anywhere as popular as her Workers Party predecessor Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva). The investigation into financial wrongdoing gave them their window of opportunity.

The charges against Rousseff stemmed from “Operation Car Wash” (Operacao Lava Jato) into bribery and corruption involving the state oil monopoly Petrobras, assorted construction firms, politicians, bureaucrats and financial entities. Without going into the details, let’s just say three things: First, corruption is a way of life in Brazil, not just an aspect of how the economic and political elite behave (hence the phrase fazer jeito, or ” a way of doing things” on the sly). Of those legislators demanding her impeachment and who voted against her at the Senate trial, over a dozen are being investigated or have been charged with corruption themselves, including now-president Temer. Included among the luminaries who voted to oust her is a former Army officer who was involved in her torture when she was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in the early 1970s, and who said during the proceedings that it would have been best that she were killed while in custody.

Secondly, creative accounting by Brazilian governments is a time-honoured tradition that crosses party lines. Most reputable political and financial analysts agree that not only was Ms. Rousseff not personally involved or benefitted by dodgy Treasury figures, but that in the scheme of things the book fiddling done by her government was not criminal but in fact par for the course in Brazil. Unfortunately for her, Article 85 of the Brazilian constitution and the Fiscal Responsibility Law specifically prohibit mismanagement and disregard for the federal budget. This was the seldom used rope that Congress hung her with.

Thirdly, no impeachment in Brazil can occur without the tacit assent of the armed forces. Of all the sordid aspects of Rousseff’s impeachment, this is the most sobering one. 30 odd years after they returned to the barracks, Brazil’s military still sees forced removal of elected presidents as a viable option–so long as it does not involve them directly.

This is why what happened in Brazil a week or so ago was a constitutional coup. Impeachment is the weapon of choice for the constitutional coup plotters, but their intentions are disloyal and their objectives sinister at heart. Their motivations have nothing to do with honesty and transparency in government or defending democracy. Instead, they are about playing the system for tactically opportunistic partisan gain.

Brazil is not the only Latin American country to have suffered a constitutional coup. In 2012 Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was impeached and removed from office, ostensibly because of his mishandling of a land occupation that ended in violence. He was given two hours to prepare his defense, and was replaced by his Vice President, who sided with the legislative opposition against him. Subsequent publication of US embassy cables by Wikileaks revealed that as early as 2009 opposition leaders had begun to discuss using impeachment as a way of ousting Lugo from office (Lugo was elected in 2008). They eventually succeeded.

There is a problem with this strategy: more than one side can play that game, and learning curves may teach that rather than the exception, the use of impeachment in pursuit of a constitutional coup can become the new norm. That in turn can spur a contagion effect, whereby politicians in other democracies with presidential systems see merit in pursuing similar courses of action. Worse yet, repeated recourse to constitutional coups as partisan weapons can lead to outright military intervention, at which point the return to the traditional form of coup trumps any constitutional niceties.

One should take this into account when pondering the activities of political actors in presidential-system liberal democracies, be they big and small. Because in a world where military-led coups are considered particularly thuggish and therefore distasteful, the constitutional coup is the genteel authoritarian’s game.

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