Posts Tagged ‘Bill Clinton’

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.

Dreams and realities

datePosted on 22:18, October 29th, 2009 by Lew

This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.

What is party political about it? Nobody has come with anything specific to support the contention – merely, “it looks political” “I know political when I see it” etc etc. Specifics folks, specifics.

Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:

This is a form which has been finely tuned and crafted over half a century to serve a very specific set of purposes — it’s a complex and very challenging medium where every frame, every word, every note is loaded up with as much subtle meaning as possible. With apologies to Tolkien, one does not just walk into political advertising.

A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.

Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.

The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).

The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.

The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.

Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?

The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***

This ad was not about policy. Its sole purpose was to begin creating a set of positive associations to him and narrative about the Man from Hope — framed, from start to finish, in terms of hope and the American Dream. […] The ad created in viewers a vivid, multisensory network of associations — associations not only to the word hope but to the image of Hope in small-town America in an era gone by.

This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?

Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.

There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.

So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.

L

* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
** What else this implies about vto I leave as an exercise to the reader :)
*** It helped that Bill Clinton was from the town of Hope, Arkansas.