Posts Tagged ‘Elections’

A White Bread Double Down.

datePosted on 12:12, August 19th, 2012 by Pablo

As is well known, the US is undergoing a demographic transition that will see the majority of the country being non-white in origin by 2030 or thereabouts (for the purposes of this essay I shall use the US definition of “non-white,” which is a person who does not have two caucasian parents. This definition is a throw-back to the bad old days but has managed to remain as a racial standard in census calculations. Interestingly, in Brazil a person is considered white if they have a single drop of white blood regardless of how dark they may look. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why that may be). The US is also a country with more females than males as a percentage of the population. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the country is headed to a majority female, coffee-with–milk colored future in the next two decades.

The trend has motivated political parties to seek and court the new generation of dark skinned voters, be they Latino (of which there are many persuasions that do not exhibit uniform political or social attitudes), Arab (ditto), African (both continental and hyphenated new world such as Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Peruvians), Indians (both native and from the sub-continent) Asians (of all stripes) and other “non-white” populations. Although dark-skinned populations have traditionally occupied the working and lower middle classes, they now span the gamut of socio-economic status. This has meant that what was once the preferred recruiting ground for the Democratic Party and other small leftist-oriented political groups has now been opened up to the Republicans and their smaller conservative counterparts. One can no longer look at individuals of color and automatically assume their voting preferences. This has made the non-white electorate an extremely important swing vote in national and local elections.

I mention this because one would think that the GOP would understand the importance of recognizing these shifts in its election strategy and candidate selection. In 2008 it gave a nod to “hockey moms” by nominating Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. The Democrats saw a fierce primary campaign for the presidency eventually won by a man of half-African descent over a white middle aged woman. The mixed race Presidential candidate brought on an older white male Senator as his VP choice, and together they went on to win the 2008 election over the hockey mom and her geriatric white male former war hero-turned Senator presidential running mate.

In this year’s election the Republican primary offered some interesting twists. It included a black man and a white woman along with an assortment of white males of various Christian persuasions (I mention religion because in the US atheists and agnostics stand no chance of being elected if they state so publicly. Even non-religious people like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have to pretend to be pious church-goers, so long as the church in question is a christian denomination. It will be a while before a Jew or Muslim makes it to the White House as either POTUS or VP, Joe Lieberman’s failed 2000 vice presidential nomination notwithstanding).

However, by the end of the GOP primary campaign it was an older white male millionaire ex-governor who emerged as the presidential candidate. He had many options when it came to choosing his running mate. Condi Rice was mentioned. Bobby Jindal (of Indian extraction) was mentioned. Marco Rubio (a Cuban American) was in the mix. But who did Mitt Romney choose? A younger white male congressman who, among other things, professed to be an Ann Rand devotee until the mid-2000s, has never run a business (which the GOP claims is essential for breaking out of the Washington DC mindset) and who is considered the intellectual giant behind the GOP small government, lower taxes, less expenditure philosophy–that is, at least until it emerged that he lobbied for Obama administration stimulus funds to be directed towards his congressional district in Wisconsin.

In effect, what the GOP has opted for as a presidential ticket is a white bread double-down on an increasingly blended ethnic stew: two caucasian males, one Mormon and one Catholic, both from privileged backgrounds, preaching fiscal austerity as the panacea for US ills. Neither has foreign policy experience. Both are “chicken hawks” (pro-military without having served) and have conservative social views (although Romney appears to have a utilitarian approach to his conservatism, in that he is when it suits him to be): anti abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-welfare, anti-undocumented immigrants (I refuse to use the term “illegal alien” that is preferred by right-wing commentators in the US). That also sums up the essence of the GOP ticket: it is defined by what it is against rather than what it is for (which, as I have written in previous posts, is a bad position upon which to base any political platform).

There is more to the picture but it strikes me that this choice of candidates says more about the GOP nostalgia for a lost past rather than a vision for the US future. It does not appear to recognize the changing nature of the US demographic mosaic (which, besides the changing ethnic blend also includes a different social fabric than in the past in the form of a rising population of single parent or blended family households, a fifty percent divorce rate and a slowing overall birth rate. Both Romney and Ryan live in traditional marriages with stay at home caucasian wives and multiple children). It is for that reason that I believe that, regardless of the merits of their macroeconomic arguments (and I see very little merit in them), the GOP presidential ticket will lose in November. Because whatever Obama’s flaws and faults (and there are plenty), he clearly understands that there is no going back to a white bread past that was not so good for grains of a different color.

 

The Agony of Defeat.

datePosted on 11:43, November 29th, 2011 by Pablo

Well, it was a grim morning of the day after in my household on Sunday. The evil-doers prevailed and the forces of righteousness and progress were soundly spanked, with the exception of a formerly progressive party that now has gone managerial as it mainstreams to the political centre. Sure, there were some points of solace in the otherwise dark landscape of electoral outcomes, but overall the egalitarian side of the NZ political spectrum got hammered.

But all is not lost. In the scheme of things, this was not the worst election defeat I have experienced as a voter. For me, as an ex-pat Yank, that dubious honor rests with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The idea that someone who epitomized prejudice, elitism, ignorance, racism, war-mongering, corporate-backed chickhawk cowardice and the utter insipidness of campaign promises could defeat a decent fellow such as Jimmy Carter actually made me fear for basic freedoms and civil rights in that country. Sure, it was not as bad as living through coups or revolutions in Latin America, where losers in the regime change had very real reason to fear for their lives. But is was as close as I have felt in a democracy to being politically at risk as a result of an election. That feeling was reaffirmed a few months later when Reagan was shot, where the response on the working class African American street where I lived was to “hope that a brother did not do it.” Such was the tone of the times that we worried more about the backlash then the fact that the president was almost killed off (and boy, were we relieved when it turned out to be a white nutter who fired the shots).

I felt nearly as bad when W. Bush was fraudulently installed as president after losing the US popular vote in 2000. However, by that time I had moved to NZ and did not have to worry about directly suffering the consequences of yet another silver spoon-fed corporate chickenhawk imperialist stealing his way into power. But I feared for what he was about to wreak on the US (where my family and close friends live) and the world at large. A decade later the proof of his folly is everywhere to be seen. Helen Clark was right: things would have been different had Al Gore rightfully been awarded the 2000 election. But all that is water under the bridge and the person copping the most flak in the aftermath is Barack Obama. Talk about inheriting a mess!

Given that backdrop I am not catatonic because the currency speculator and his band of money-grubbing bullies have been re-elected under the banner of “stability.” It could be worse, and I am thankful that when compared to the US, the bulk of the NZ political spectrum is less reactionary or retrograde. Even so, with expanded anti-terrorism laws and powers of search, surveillance and seizure all passed by the National government in recent years (something that went unnoticed in the buildup to the election), I can see encroaching authoritarianism in its second term. One only has to watch the Prime Minister’s response to hard questions to see his sense of arrogance and entitlement on display. This is a guy who is used to getting his way, however he can, without much regard for the consequences except with respect to his corporate peers. So regardless of public opinion, the PM will push his asset sales agenda, will continue to suck up to both the US and the Chinese while pursuing trade for trade’s sake, and will play as loose with the rules of the democratic game as his weakened opposition will allow him.  And by playing divide and conquer with the Maori Party and the Greens, he could well get his way across the board.

I take solace in the fact that electoral defeats are the lifeblood of democratic politics. It is not so much what the victor does after an election. It is how the losers respond that makes the difference. Losing allows parties to remove the sclerosis from their ranks and rejuvenate both personnel and policy platforms. Losing allows parties to reinvigorate in opposition. Losing forces parties to explore new policy options and ideological possibilities. Should Labour understand this simple law of democratic politics, it can regroup and compete more effectively in three years. If it does not, we could be saddled with the corporate-cuddling cabal for a third term. The question is: does Labour have it within itself to make the serious changes required for it to have relevance in the years forward?

I do see the Green Party vote increase as a positive sign even if its support is coming from disaffected Labour voters more than anywhere else. Between the Greens and Labour there is still a solid 35-37 percent of the vote, figures that could grow should National’s economic policies continue the trend of growing income disparities, elite enrichment, environmental degradation and foreign control. Since voter turnout was so low this year, a mere rise in those who vote in 2014 is bound to increase support for the Left (such as it is) because people tend to vote when they are unhappy about the status quo (apathy such as that seen in this year’s election had less to do with serious discontent and more to do with complacency and belief in a foregone outcome). Thus this moment of defeat is a ripe time for Labour to undertake the necessary changes required to come back and compete successfully in 2014. That means a major leadership shuffle as well as policy change away from the “National-lite” pro-market stance it has maintained for nearly 20 years. In other words, it needs to turn back Left, both in terms of recapturing a class line as well as more sincerely embracing post-modern progressive causes.

I do not claim any particular expertise in NZ politics and this ramble was merely sparked by my reflection on which electoral defeats were the worst for me as a voter in a democratic country. But I do think that one big redeeming feature of liberal democracy, no matter how manufactured, manipulated and corrupted it has become, is that losers are allowed to compete again at regular intervals, which gives them the opportunity to engage the internal reforms that will allow them to emerge from the ashes of even a catastrophic defeat in a better condition to win down the road. This holds true not only for the biggest loser in this year’s election, Labour, but also for such parties as ACT. After all, Winston Peters has shown that even political mummies can be resurrected without being reconstituted, so there is hope yet for even the smallest losers this time around.

Threshold analysis of the preliminary results

datePosted on 12:55, November 27th, 2011 by Anita

One of the debates in the MMP review will be the thresholds, so here’s the effect on the preliminary results:

 

At a 1% or 2% threshold the Conservatives would have got three seats (two from National, one from Labour) giving their 55,070 voters a voice in Parliament. National + Conservatives would have held a bare outright majority of 121, add in United Future and ACT and they have 123 and a comfortable bloc without any reliance on the Māori Party.

With no threshold ALCP would have taken another seat off National. National + Conservatives would no longer have an outright majority, National + Conservative + UF + ACT would hold 122.

Obviously this is without the special votes, and ignore the fact that with a lower threshold more people may have been willing to vote Conservative or ALCP as their votes would not have been wasted.

Against Centrism.

datePosted on 09:51, November 16th, 2011 by Pablo

The iron law of oligarchy states that the first duty of the organization is to preserve itself. This means that agents will go against the interests of principals for tactical and strategic reasons. For class-based parties the two main sources of rank and file betrayal are vanguardism and centrism. Vanguardism refers to the centralization of decision-making authority within a party elite, which sees organizational democracy in instrumental terms rather than as a social good.  The elite agenda is, foremost, about self-preservation justified in ideological terms.

Centrism refers to the tendency of class-based parties to move to the ideological centre in pursuit of wider mass appeal. This often means turning on what were once considered foundational principles of such parties, particularly adherence to a class line. The 20th century saw the emergence of a number of these type of party, New Zealand Labour being one of them. Once that “centrist” ideological space was captured electorally by the likes of NZ Labour (the permutations of the centrist shift by Socialist and Social Democratic parties are many), other parties emerged to fill the void and stand on principle. Few of them have survived, and those that do have married indigenous and environmental planks to an amorphous anti-capitalist platform.

One such party is the Green Party of New Zealand. It emerged as a party dedicated in principle to advancing the causes described above. It championed the environment as well as indigenous rights within it, and worked hard to provide an anti-imperialist, pacifist, human rights focused and anti-corporate counter-narrative to the market-oriented discourse of Labour and the collective Right. The composition of the Green Party caucus through its first decade in parliament showed a clear class consciousness. For many Left voters the Greens provided a tactical option under MMP, since a five percent party vote coupled with electorate votes for Labour candidates helped keep Labour ideologically “honest” when in government. Or so the Greens thought.

In practice the Green experience with the 5th Labour government was less than ideal, and in fact was marked by an increasing distance between the two erstwhile Left partners. Yet, as it replenished its ranks of MPs the Green Party began to emulate Labour and other Left-based “centrist” parties: it moved away from a strong class-based orientation and towards a more moderate stance on all original three ideological pillars. It saw an increased party vote in 2008, although it is unclear if the added support came from disgruntled Labour voters or genuine voter preference for a “reasonable” Left alternative to Labour’s increasingly corporate orientation. Whatever the cause, by 2011 the Greens have stripped out the Red in their ideological watermelon. There are no longer a working class-oriented party, and in fact have shifted to one that seeks the support of middle class voters who are not so much opposed to the status quo as they are seeking NIMBY relief within it.

The Greens are predicted to get 10 percent of the party vote in the 2011 election, with some estimates rising to 12-15 percent. The surge in support clearly has roots in voter disgust with National and Labour, but also is believed to be coming from moderate Left voters who feel more comfortable with Green occupying the ideological “space” formerly held by Labour. By moderating its policies and compromising on its foundational principles, the Greens have gone mainstream. The billboard vandalism scandal may be a perverse indication of that (with grassroots activists going outside the caucus mandate to make their point).

For voters who saw the Green party as the honest Left alternative, this is unfortunate. The Green march to the centre leaves those who believe in the essence of class conflict in capitalism (and its cousin, class compromise) devoid of electoral alternatives. Specifically, there is no longer a competitive Left option that challenges the fundamental logics of the contemporary New Zealand socio-economic system. Instead, there are only accommodationists of various centrist stripes, the Greens now being one of them. They may challenge along the margins of the dominant project, but they do not question the fundamentals. Despite the presence of Leftists and anti-imperialist/corporate rhetoric in the Mana Party, it appears to be more personality-driven and ideologically incoherent than a proper class-based party. That means that there is no genuine, politically viable alternative to the Left-centrist logic.

This type of political centripidalism is a natural aspect of  first past the post party systems, especially presidential ones. But MMP is supposed to give voice to parties of principle as well as catch-all parties, and is in fact considered to be a hedge against centralism. For both methodological individualists such as those on the libertarian Right as well as the collective good advocates on on the class-based Left, the move to centralism under MMP could well be a death knell (which ACT may prove in this election, and which the demise of the Alliance previewed in the last one).

In effect, what is good for the Green Party leadership and organization is not good for those at the grassroots who want a legitimate Left parliamentary alternative that is electorally viable and committed to questioning the status quo. In order for the Greens to have remained as such they would have had to eschew the temptation of centrism and accept their role as a minor party on the ideological margins that speaks truth to power rather than be a contender for power as given. That would have meant keeping to a more “militant,” or “activist” line that did not deviate from the foundational principles of the Party.  The iron law of oligarchy suggests that never was going to be the case (and perhaps membership preferences have changed so that it would not be so), and given that Labour sold out the rank and file a long time ago (its corporatist relationship with the CTU, EPMU and other trade unions notwithstanding, since these also subscribe to the iron law), that means that in this election there is no real choice for those on the Left who want to vote for a party that can substantively influence policy rather than provide a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse.

That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!

PS: Left for another time is discussion of the fact that in the absence of institutional (party) avenues of voice and redress, ideological militants of all stripes gravitate to extra- or illegal means of doing so. In the measure that formerly principled parties go centrist or are not replaced by successful others, the ideological void they leave behind is often filled by those of less institutionalist persuasion.

Turning Negatives into Positives.

datePosted on 10:00, November 4th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the more vexing problems in politics is to turn opposition to something into a virtue. Being anti-something is reactive and defensive rather than a path with which to move forward. It is the antithesis of a proactive, innovative posture where the power of a better future is conveyed in order to secure implicit agreement to the unspoken “Yes” latent in the electorate. The latter is a positive reaffirmation, often couched in crude nationalism or other symbols of consensus and collective identity. In contrast, the implicit or explicit “No” embedded in negative campaigns carries with it connotations of obstructionism, obstinacy and lack of vision.

The negative connotations of a “No” campaign suffer from a structural disadvantage when it comes to mass political psychology. All things being equal, it is harder to successfully engage in “No” campaigns rather than “Yes” campaigns, especially when the former is confronted by the latter in electoral competition. Negative campaigns can also be a sign of defeat. Although all political challengers must attack incumbents on their record, there are ways to do so in addition to simple rejection of the opponent’s policies. In practice, opposition parties that fail to cloak their campaigns in a positive and proactive message are often conceding the outcome and using the electoral process for party rejuvenation rather than truly competitive purposes.

Yet it is possible for negative campaigns to convey a positive message. An example of a successful negative campaign is the opposition to the 1989 referendum on the nature of the Chilean regime. After 16 years of market-oriented military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, General Pinochet sought to continue as a civilian president in a “guarded” democracy installed by “controlled” elections. He and his supporters formed a political party to that effect, relaxed restrictions on the political opposition, and held a referendum that proposed that voters say”Yes” to constitutional revisions that would guide the installation of the “guarded” democratic regime. Pinochet and his followers banked on their control of the media and relative economic successes to ensure that the “Yes” outcome would prevail. The language of the referendum spoke to this fact by asking voters to vote “Yes” or “No” on continuing the unfinished process of national reconstruction under a Pinochet presidency.

Opposition to the “guarded” democracy plan came from a diverse array of groups, who preferred a full transition to democracy and the removal of Pinochet from politics. It did not necessarily have the support of the majority when the referendum campaign began, and besides the advantages accrued to the Pinochet regime, it was hampered by tight campaign regulations, lack of access to publicity, restrictions on public gatherings and the fact that many of its leaders were in exile.

Even so, the Opposition campaigners phrased their negative message so that a “No” vote was a vote for democracy as well as a vote against authoritarianism. It played on the knowledge that most Chileans understood that whatever its successes, the Pinochet regime was an aberration rather than a model, and that the price for its success was not worth the benefits supposedly gained. This organic understanding of Chilean “good sense” in the face of elite-purveyed common sense shifted popular perceptions of the referendum, and the “No” vote won a commanding majority. Confronted by defeat, Pinochet was abandoned by his supporters and the stage set for a fuller transition to democratic rule (I say “fuller” because the terms of the foundational election and the character of the political system for the first post-authoritarian decade were fixed by post-referendum constitutional reforms made by the outgoing Pinochet regime under executive fiat, which were heavily weighed in favour of the elites who benefitted from the Pinochet regime and which was backed by a military commitment to defend them. It was not until the 2000s (and Pinochet’s death in 1999) that Chilean democracy was fully consolidated, and even then the structural and institutional changes wrought by the authoritarians and their successors skewed socio-economic and political power in favour of those who prospered under Pinochet).

Regardless of what happened later, the “No” campaign on the 1989 referendum succeeded in shifting the terms of the Chilean transition to democracy away from those preferred by the authoritarians and towards those of a long-repressed opposition. It is therefore a good example of turning a negative stance  into a political positive.

The success of the 1989 Chilean “No” campaign might provide some insights for Labour as it enters the final phase of the 2011 election. Labour has staked its campaign on opposition to National’s economic policies, epitomized by the “No” on Assets Sales plank.  A little more subtly, the proposal to raise the retirement age is an admission that not all is well in Aotearoa. In other words, it is an admission of a negative, which is also the case for the repeated references to job losses via immigration to Australia. Most importantly, although Labour has “positive” planks in its electoral platform, these appear to be overshadowed (at least to me) by the negative aspects of its campaign. For its part, National can play the role of positive campaigner, using the upbeat character of the Prime Minister, the hopeful nature of its policy message (however devoid of positive content that it may be) and incidentals such as the All Blacks WRC victory to cement its pro-active and affirmative image in the eyes of voters.

Given the late stage of the campaign, it might be worth considering how Labour might cast its “negative” planks in a positive light. The key is to use the implicit “No” as an affirmation of Kiwi (as opposed to class or ethnic) identity, be it in its quest for economic and political independence or in its reification of  individualism as a national trait. Here differences can be drawn with National on issues such as security policy, where National has basically subordinated its military perspective to those of Australia and the US, or on foreign investment in an increasingly deregulated domestic economic context, where National would prefer to ease restrictions on foreign capital flows into the country regardless of their impact on strategic assets, local capital or the integrity of resident labour markets and environmental conditions. Saying “no” to such things is not being obstructionist or reactionary, it is about reaffirming who we are.

I have no expertise in political marketing, but it seems to me that if the 1989 Chilean opposition could turn a negative campaign into a positive statement given the severe restrictions and disadvantages under which it operated, then Labour might consider how to cast its campaign in a way such that its opposition to National’s policy proposals becomes a reaffirmation of Kiwi autonomy and independence. Other than that, it has little else to go on.*

* I am well aware that on economic fundamentals Labour and National are two sides of the same slice of bread, and that many National policies are mere continuations of those originally set by the 5th Labour government. My point here is to show that there is a way, however improbable, for Labour to rescue its election campaign.

Frayed at the edges.

datePosted on 15:15, July 13th, 2011 by Pablo

Coming home after witnessing the Singaporean elections in May, it has been interesting to watch the preludes to New Zealand’s elections in November. In SG it was a matter of all against one, with the “all” in opposition being heavily constrained in what they could  do or say by the ruling party. Even so, opposition to the PAP gained parliamentary seats and an increased popular vote. Voter turnout was higher than in previous years, and the youth vote was an important factor in the outcome. There was a clear dividing line between pro-regime and opposition parties, with political identities drawn over issues of authoritarian efficiency versus increased accountability, material entitlements, transparency and representation. There was a focus to the electoral debate.

It seems that in New Zealand there is no such clear-cut divide along the political centre. Instead there exists a political spectrum that is frayed along the edges and which has an ideological void in the middle.  ACT is splintering, as did the Maori Party once Hone Harawira quit. The common denominator is that on both ends of the New Zealand electoral divide, where the most ideological elements of political society reside, there is a complete lack of unity, much less understanding of the need for a common class line. This plays into the hands of the mainstream parties. At the risk of over-simplification and claiming no particular expertise, let me sketch the broad contours.

The putsch against Rodney Hide was a triumph of the market ideologues over the social conservatives in the ACT party. The Garrett scandal, the odd views of some of its MPs and Hide’s increasingly populist rhetoric are seen as deviations from the neoliberal market ideology that is supposedly the core of the ACT belief system. When Hide became vulnerable over his use of taxpayer money (the perk-buster was found to be more of a perk-consumer), the market ideologues moved against him. Concerned about demographics, ACT has managed to secure a commitment to stand from an influential female ex pat blogger with a reputation for brutal honesty and corporate savvy. It also recruited a farmer.

Once the Don was installed as the new Leader, ACT showed another face–that of racial revanchist. Crossing the market ideologue/social conservative divide, there is some serious opposition within ACT to maori redistributive claims and the erosion of Pakeha prerogatives under the banner of political correctness. Rather than delve into the reasons for its opposition, ACT has chosen to publicly focus on individual maori that it describes as extremists who are holding the country financially hostage with their ongoing demands. Among these is Hone Harawira. This is not a view shared by all market ideologues in the party, so the “white cowards” have been called out by the revanchists. What is lost in the intra-party discussion about identity and cultural claims is the common class line that ostensibly binds ACT together–that of the trade-oriented corporate elite. Whatever they think in private, this elite is bound to be horrified by the presence of racial revanchists in the Party, which could reduce the amount of material and political support that they will pledge to it. Absent a coherent structural underpinning to its other ideological claims, ACT has little to offer even them.

The Maori Party has done likewise. It was never a progressive party, but instead is a socially conservative vehicle that represents the interests of the maori economic elite and important iwi (specifically, leadership hierarchies). Its major focus is on ownership within the legal structures as given, and on specific budgetary earmarks for maori given Crown obligations under the Treaty. This is a source of division with the likes of Harawira, who sees things from a working class, indigenous sovereignty perspective.

The Mana Party is a reflection of the latter view, to which have been added those of assorted communists, socialists, anarchists and maori rights activists who can be roughly divided between (mostly Pakeha) anti-imperialists and (mostly maori)  indigenous sovereignty supporters. There is considerable overlap between the two camps, although the issue of native ownership is a thorny subject for the marxists. Here too there is a lack of a consistent class line, or structural foundation, upon which to build the cultural and socio-political bases of the party. Some in Mana put indigenous rights above all other things; others put working class interests to the fore. Neither side has a realistic economic agenda given New Zealand’s structural realities.

There is also a cult of personality aspect to Mana that belies its progressive label. Rather than represent a Kiwi version of Malcolm X as some have suggested, Hone is more akin to the Reverend Al Sharpton. He is loud, he is proud, but he is not exactly a revolutionary threat to the system. Unlike X, who did not allow whites into his party and who preached on the merits of  voluntary self-segregation and the need for a separate black state within the US based upon economic independence, Hone accepts Pakeha support while fulminating against colonial injustices and their modern legacies. He acts as an agent provocateur rather than an agent for change. Given the views of the anti-capitalists in the Mana party whose priorities are more class-based than identity-driven, this does not make for ideological coherence between the base and the leader.

The Greens have moved away from their Left origins and settled into the role of responsible middle class party with a focus on sustainable development. Having mostly removed the red from the party watermelon, the second generation of Green party leaders have become the preferred channel of expression for environmentally aware voters with an interest in universal rights, egalitarianism, sovereignty and non-intervention (to include opposition to trade agreements without environmental and human rights provisions). This makes it a comfortable partner for Labour, a bridge between the Maori and Mana parties in areas of common concern, and an inoffensive adversary of National that can be worked with on specific issues. In spite of their attractiveness to the enlightened bougeousie, the Greens have no class line.

The absence of strong class orientations, be it Right or Left, along the fringe of NZ politics is  in part a deliberate result of the blurring of class lines and focus on economic individualism promoted over the least two decades by the two major parties. Both parties subscribe to market-driven logics, tempered by populist appeals around election time. Both represent the interests of corporate, rather than class actors–National defends the logic of the Round Table while Labour defends that of the union movement and domestic market capitalists. Neither represents the interests of a given class, but instead attempt to cross over voter preferences with catch-all appeals oriented towards the economic centre: the salaried middle classes. The latter are the swing voters who are less inclined to see themselves as a distinct interest group, are less ideological in their views, and who have not collectively organised to that effect. By  targeting this segment of the electorate the mainstream parties are able to give the interests of their supporting corporate class fractions much broader political appeal.

In New Zealand the electoral fringe holds less popular sway than before, and has less of an influence on mainstream politics. It will not matter in November’s electoral math, and some parties may well disappear. This is a pity because at a minimum the ideological fringe in an MMP system is useful as a means of keeping the centrist parties more honest when it comes to issues of class, race and public policy interest. Ideally, fringe parties provide the outer ideological markers that frame policy debate at any given moment. Absent a coherent ideology embedded in a class line amongst fringe parties, the parameters for policy debate narrow considerably. Given non-ideological competition between the major parties, this leads to unrepresentative distortions in the way in which policy reform is argued and made.

Admittedly, this is a very broad, subjective and impressionistic overview. Supporters of the parties in question will no doubt take exception to my views. Others will see my emphasis misplaced or that I am just plain wrong on specifics. I will happily stand corrected where necessary. What I have tried to do is not argue the details but note the larger trend. The lack of a class line in New Zealand’s political fringe is both a product and a reinforcement of the corporatisation of mainstream politics and popular culture, with policy debates stripped of structurally-based ideological content and confined to those areas in which corporate solutions are possible. Stripping ideological content from public policy debates diminishes the quality of democracy. In a society anchored in structural inequalities (however mystified by issues of identity and post-modernism), the absence of class-based ideological debate leaves the field of politics open to corporate elite domination, no matter how much “trickle down” policy proposals are offered during political campaigns. There is, in other words, no substantive class focus to political debate even during elections.

In November we will be reminded of that fact.

 

A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

datePosted on 21:51, April 27th, 2011 by Pablo

Authors Preface: Now that my departure from Singapore is imminent I no longer have to fear retribution for commenting about local politics. I was warned when I arrived in SG that foreigners commenting about SG political issues was verboten and liable to risk summary deportation or defamation charges. I do not think that what follows is defamatory in any way shape or form, and constitutes just the first in what will be a series of reflections about Singapore after having spent 3.5 years immersed in its politics and culture.

On May 7 2011, 2.5 million Singaporeans (out of a total population of 5 million) go to the polls in order to elect the next government. As a one party-dominant authoritarian state, the outcome is already assured–the People’s Action Party that has held power since 1959 will win the majority of parliamentary seats (Singapore is formally a unicameral parliamentary system). By gerrymandering electoral districts (which has led to uncontested walkover rates of 50 percent) and placing limits on opposition party rights to public expression and assembly outside of the two week campaign season (to include prohibitions on holding rallies and distributing flyers, posters or pamphlets, which has resulted in numerous defamation suits against and arrests of opposition figures over the years–the last in 2010 for a violation of the “no public assembly of more than 5 people without a Police permit” law), the PAP might match the 66 percent of the vote garnered in 2006 (a drop from the 73 percent received in 2001).  It will retain its majority hold of the (recently expanded) 87-member parliament. But there is political change blowing in the hot and humid Singaporean breeze, which is as much the result of generational and social change as it is of opposition renewal and PAP sclerosis. Although it will retain power this time, none of the trends auger well for the PAP.

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume bureaucratic positions and joining the PAP), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge and some of the current opposition candidates have spent periods in confinement as a result of it) as well as political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usual ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes (including one whose qualifications for office apparently are that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant and has a penchant for shopping–the latter being Singapore’s national pastime). What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers and even the Minister Mentor (how’s that for a title?) Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Perhaps sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election (“retirement” being the most common reason). All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate, and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of its stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres, which in a talent-thin environment such as Singapore (owing to its population size, as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand), means that the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

Even worse for the PAP, although the government controls all of the mainstream media in Singapore, including the Straits Times and the telecommunications giant MediaCorp, it has been unable to staunch the flow of internet criticism of its personnel and policies, or the grassroots mobilization of support for the opposition. Much concern has been voiced about increasing inefficiencies in public services, the high cost of living, the loss of white collar jobs to foreigners, and the government’s astronomical pay scales (the Prime Minister–Lee Kuan Yew’s son–is paid S$4.5 million per/year, senior ministers make S$3 million and parliamentary backbenchers start at S$150,000. In fact according to the Economist, Singapore has the second highest ratio of political leader’s pay to the country’s GDP per person, with the average salary of US$2,183,516). There is irony in the latter because it is a world first: Singapore has the most expensive government that money can buy, in a society that is image-obsessed but in which income inequality is more third world than first world.

In the face of what looks to be the possibility of losing previously safe seats amid an unprecedented wave of electoral contestation, the PAP has resorted to fear-mongering, focusing on the tired old canards of economic insecurity, Malay sedition, jihadist terrorism, unskilled foreign workers from the sub-continent and mainland China bringing crime and stealing local jobs, and gay rights (homosexuality is illegal in Singapore but as part of the social liberalization process enforcement of sodomy laws has been weak and episodic over the last decade. This has been a major concern of social conservatives, including the very large number of ethnic Chinese Christians found on the island who are a core PAP constituency). PAP officials talk darkly about “hidden agendas” and wonder why the opposition would seek “to take control of the government” (apparently ignorant of the fact that political parties are formed precisely to contest for power in order to gain decision-making authority and influence policy). Yet the more it raises the specter of Singapore returning to its polyglot swampland brothel and opium den past, the more the PAP is ridiculed for being out of touch with the wants and needs of contemporary Singaporeans.

This means that this election and its aftermath will constitute a critical juncture in Singaporean history. It will set the stage for the next critical juncture, which will be the occasion and aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

The notion of critical juncture is important and needs explaining. Using economics-derived path dependency analysis (in which human behavior is “locked in” by past institutional practice the more that practice is routinised over time), critical junctures are historical moments when decisive choices are made within given institutional parameters that set the future course of events (the most common used analogies are the “fork in the road” and “tree branch” motifs).  Because of its internal divisions, Lee Kuan Yew’s death will be the moment when the knives come out within the PAP, with moderate reformists and liberalizers pitted against hard-line status quo defenders in what could wind up as a splitting of the party. Since the hard-line elements constitute the bulk of the deadwood and sclerotic elements within the PAP, it is quite possible, given the outcome of this election, that reformists will gain control of the party and move to accommodate moderate opposition views in a grand coalition strategy designed to help preserve their hold on power after 2016.

But that is precisely why this election constitutes a pre-conditioning critical juncture that will set the stage for the next one. Processes of authoritarian regime liberalization tend to be “two-steps forward, one step backwards” affairs. The regime opens a little, the opposition pushes further than what is acceptable to the regime, and the regime pushes back. Confronted with a rising tide of opposition success and grassroots mobilizations against one-party rule that cannot be contained with selective application of the ISA and the usual use of defamation and non-assembly laws, the PAP regime will therefore be forced to opt for one of two paths: repress or reform. Its previous preferred strategy of cooptation will no longer work.

This is important to consider because the reformists constitute a minority of the current PAP leadership. The PAP status quo–many of who have held their sinecures for more than a decade–control the levers of government and retain the loyalty of the armed forces (which have internal security and regime protection as well as external defense roles). Thus, even if there are internal tensions within the armed forces between “professional” and “political” officers (the former focused on the technical merits of soldiering and the latter concerned with career advancement via political linkages), and its leadership sclerosis is profound, the PAP can, if it wants to, halt the process of social and political opening any time it wishes. Because it still has a reservoir of support in the so-called (ethnic Chinese) “heartland,” the regime can push back without incurring major backlash.

This is not to say that there will not be any. Singaporeans are largely a passive and conformist society, so a move to repress or politically back-peddle will not be met with mass demonstrations akin to those of the Middle East today or Latin America in the past.  But even if they acquiesce to the retrogression, the third generation of Singaporean voters will not consent to a return to the days of arrests for jaywalking, fines for chewing gum and imprisonment or bankruptcy for reasonable (unarmed) dissent. Instead, they will engage in passive resistance and low-level protests with increased grassroots mobilization over the internet, including social media and other hard-to-filter communications vehicles. Since Singapore is an extremely “wired” society that depends on its telecommunications capabilities for much of its daily business, Chinese-style censorship will be very hard to maintain even though the government controls the telecommunications duopoly through which all internet access is filtered (I will not digress into the reaction of foreign actors to any such retrogression but suffice it to say that it will not be entirely supportive).

All of this means that the PAP is staring at the beginning of the end in this election. The opposition has organized, mobilized and taken advantage of the limited political space afforded to it by the manipulated electoral system. The PAP has reacted slowly and awkwardly to the opposition’s energetic display. It therefore sits on the horns of a dilemma: accept that power sharing is inevitable over the short term and rotation in government office is quite possible within a few years (or at least much sooner than expected), or use its election victory to reassert its political supremacy, by force if necessary, over pretenders to its throne. That will influence the context in which the power struggles following Lee Kuan Yew’s death will occur, which in turn will determine whether or not the slow process of authoritarian liberalization will continue or be halted. At that point the moment of truth will have arrived for a country struggling with its identity as a modern bridge between East and West.

>> A different version of the essay appears as this month’s “A Word from Afar” column at Scoop.

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to “real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

A PRC Fifth Column in NZ? (With Updated Links)

datePosted on 15:26, January 17th, 2011 by Pablo

In early December the New Citizen Party registered with the Electoral Commission and declared its intention to contest this year’s elections, starting with the Botany by-election caused by Pansy Wong’s resignation in disgrace from Parliament. Taking a page from the Maori Party, the NCP declared that it would be a vehicle for the representation of new, mostly Asian, migrant’s interests in the NZ political system, interests that are not fully given voice within extant political parties. With an emphasis on economic policy and law and order issues, the NCP proposes to represent not only mainland Chinese migrants, but also Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Singaporeans, Indians, non-native Whites and even Maori and Pakeha (i.e. the Botany demographic). That will be a tall order.

The announced leaders of the NCP include Jack Chen, who was involved in the Chinese takeover bid for Crafar Farms (as a representative of Natural Dairy NZ, a subsidiary of the Chinese government controlled Jin Hui Mining Corporation); disgraced Labour Party candidate Stephen Ching (who solicited bribes for political favours in 2005); the pro-PRC Chinese-language newspaper editor Jerry Wen Yang; and Paul Young, who is also of Chinese descent and a principle of Asia Marketing and Advertising Consultants (Mr. Young handled the registration process and has said that his role as NCP Secretary is a temporary formality in order to meet legal requirements, and that he will stand down once the party leadership is finalised. As it turns out, he is NCP candidate for Botany). Although unconfirmed, there are reports that Sammy Wong, Pansy Wong’s husband and the cause of her demise by involving her in a commercial transaction during a taxpayer trip to the PRC, is part of the NCP leadership or at least involved in its strategic decision-making and financing.

In early January the NCP leadership, minus Mr. Young, met in Beijing to discuss a strategy for winning the by-election and to chart a course for its campaign this year. Holding a major party meeting in a foreign capital is interesting enough, because it shows an overt connection with the PRC that is bound to raise eyebrows in some circles (which is a tame reaction by comparison–some democracies forbid the funding, meeting  and sponsorship of political parties in and by foreign powers). What is more interesting is the question of whether the connection to Beijing is more intimate than the NCP has revealed to date, and extends beyond the usual business links that all political parties cultivate in order to peddle influence and financially support their activities (although the direct connection to a foreign government and/or corporations would be a a step beyond what is the usual course of affairs in NZ business-political party relations).

Under MMP, people have a right to organise a political party as they see fit, and as far as I can tell there are no prohibitions on such parties being organised and funded by foreign agents. But there remains the question as to whether the NCP is not so much a vehicle for the representation of new migrant’s interests in the NZ political system as it is a front for PRC economic interests and a means of political influence-mongering and intelligence gathering. In other words, is the NCP a PRC fifth column?

The reason this question must be asked is that, given its disadvantages in Signals (SIGINT) and Technical Intelligence (TECHINT)-gathering capabilities,  the PRC invests heavily in the ethnic Chinese diaspora for human intelligence gathering work. Using business, student and permanent resident visa schemes in targeted countries, the PRC places intelligence-gatherers in places where they can collect tactical as well as strategic intelligence using a variety of means. It also uses monetary incentives to curry favourable attitudes amongst local elites, all in the interest of furthering PRC strategic objectives in the country in question. Such activities have been amply evident in places such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Cook Islands, as well as regional organisations such as the Pacific Island Forum.

All of this is well known to Western security agencies and measures have been implemented to monitor, if not counter PRC initiatives in that field. But what if the PRC were to secure political representation in a foreign government via open electoral contestation within the limits of the law? NZ has already seen a case where a cabinet minister (Wong) was influenced by an individual (her husband) with direct and close connections to the PRC regime. Although her portfolio was not strategically sensitive, she did attend cabinet and caucus meetings where more sensitive issues of national and party policy were bound to have been discussed, and it is not improbable to think that her pillow and dinner table talk with Sammy Wong might involve some of those issues (note that I am not saying that Mrs. Wong would necessarily have any idea that Sammy Wong was a PRC agent if he were one. What I am saying is that the appearance of a conflict of interest extends beyond the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for her travel when on private business on her husband’s behalf, and that may be the more serious reason why she was forced to resign).

If the PRC has direct involvement with the NCP, an electoral victory by the latter would raise the possibility of its entering into coalition with one of the major parties, most likely the party in power. That would give it direct access to NZ government policy deliberations, privileged information about business and security matters as well as offer a means of extending its influence directly into the NZ cabinet. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. But the question has to be asked whether Kiwis would accept similar direct US, Iranian, British, Afghan or Australian influence in government decision-making even if it did not involve adversarial intelligence-gathering. Judging from the reaction to revelations in wikileaks cables that some NZ citizens in positions of power provided “insider” information to the US embassy in Wellington, one would suspect that the answer is “no.”

The (hypothetical) situation of the NCP being used as a PRC front with intelligence-gathering duties within parliament is made all the more interesting by recent changes ordered by the National government with regards to the SIS spying on MPs. The result of the scandal caused by revelations that the SIS spied on Green MPs for decades, John Key ordered that the SIS no longer spy on MPs. That means that a NCP MP working for the PRC could conduct his or her intelligence-gathering activities with relative impunity unless there are provisions in the revamped domestic espionage and counter-espionage charter that specifically provides for exceptions to the no-spying-on MPs rule. But if the exception is invoked that could undermine broader counter-intelligence efforts with regards to the PRC. The conundrum produced by this hypothetical but potential scenario, in other words, is quite exquisite.

Less people feel that these questions are occasioned by racial or ethnic bias, let it be clear that it is not. The questions refer to the PRC, an authoritarian regime, and not to the Chinese or any other ethnic group. As mentioned in a previous paragraph, the same questions could be asked of local political parties directly controlled or overtly influenced by any other foreign power regardless of regime type. So the issue is about who controls the NCP as opposed to who ultimately will represent it.

Bringing the issue up may seem provocative and perhaps un-PC, but given the Beijing meeting, the people currently in NCP leadership positions and given the PRC’s modus operandi when it comes to deploying intelligence assets and extending its influence into foreign governments, it needs to be raised.

In light of the above, for its own sake and in the interest of democratic transparency it behooves the NCP to open its books and reveal its links (should they exist) to the PRC, directly or indirectly. It behooves the NCP to make clear where its loyalties lie and to disprove apriori the suspicion that it may be working as a foreign-backed front in the NZ political system. And given that the Botany by-election will be held in less than two months, that process of proactive accountability needs to begin now.

UPDATE: Since there is some debate as to how I came to my speculation in this post, here are a couple of links that detail PRC intelligence-gathering characteristics: http://www.stratfor.com/node/156898/analysis/20100314_intelligence_services_part_1_spying_chinese_characteristics

and : http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110119-chinese-espionage-and-french-trade-secrets

Upon reading the links, does my conjecture still seem crazy (or bigoted)?

Squandering Political Opportunity.

datePosted on 12:51, October 31st, 2010 by Pablo

The dramatic reversal in the Democrat’s fortunes since November 2008 and their impending defeat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections raises the question of how things went so wrong for them in such as short time. Needless to say, the situation they inherited did not help: a major recession with near record unemployment, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, two wars of occupation, immigration concerns and a deeply polarised electorate. Even so, President Obama had a wave of popular support, the Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a mood for change in the country and the world was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Inherited obstacles notwithstanding, the scene was set for a major shift in direction under consolidated Democratic leadership for years to come.

Instead,  the Democrats have foundered while the GOP-Conservative opposition has rebounded and mounted a formidable challenge that threatens to undermine any hope for significant alterations in US policy direction. The immediate reasons for this Republican resurgence and the pallorous state of the Democratic Party (and the President) in the run-up to the midterms has more to do with the latter’s strategic and tactical errors rather than the former’s platform for governance. The Democrat errors can be enumerated, and will be summarised here.

The first strategic error was to believe that playing a centrist game was going to work. That may have succeeded in years gone by, but with an Republican opposition operating off a script of obstructionism, fear-mongering, personal denigration, xenophobia and cultivation of populist ignorance, it was never going to prosper in today’s political climate. Appeasing a disloyal opposition simply encourages it to become more vicious in its attacks, particularly when it has a partisan media working on its side. Thus the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” and “Pelosi-Reid deficit spender” memes that have reverberated from the moment the Obama administration took office and the Democrats gained control of Congress.

What the President and his party should have done is staked out an explicitly Liberal-Left policy agenda that starkly differentiated their (relatively, given that it is in the US) progressive and pro-active  approaches to the nation’s woes. They were going to be vilified anyway, so the stark differentiation of their platform from the reactionary and failed GOP approach would have clarified the lines of debate in ways that the public could clearly understand, both in terms of where the fault lay with regards to the economic woes of the country as well as in the solution set being offered as an alternative. After all, the US has not had anything remotely close to a “progressive ” policy agenda (and I say this phrase advisedly simply because what passes for progressive in the US is centrist is most other liberal democracies) since the early days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the inherited economic and political conditions were ripe for a bold move away from the failed policies of the Bush 43 administration. That would have been a real agenda for change.

Since the Democrats did not do so, they failed on a second strategic level: they failed to impose the terms of the policy debate and ceded that space to the Fox and talkback-led conservative opposition. Since the latter had little to offer other than invective, this allowed them to turn to the usual diversionary wedge issues in order to gain political traction: ethnic conflict, cultural mores, “socialism,” and taxation. Whatever the administration’s accomplishments (and there have been a number, including nuclear arms reductions with the Russians and the gradual military exit from Iraq), these have been lost amid the din of conservative outrage about sins more imaginary than real.

Thus the Democrats found themselves on the defensive even as they tabled their policy agenda. Since those who dictate the terms of debate are those who win the debate, that meant that they were fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

They compounded these strategic errors at a tactical level. President Obama granted leadership of the legislative agenda to his Congressional counterparts. That was a mistake. The November 2008 elections were about him, not the Congressional leadership. The Democratic take-over of both Congressional majorities was more a result of coat-tailing on the President’s popularity than on the intrinsic merits of Democratic candidates themselves. Obama had a mandate, and he had the political capital surplus to spend; Congress did not, and in fact remained one of the country’s most detested institutions even after his election. Thus, by delegating leadership on the legislative agenda to the likes of Pelosi and Reid (which he likely did in deference to his former senior colleagues), President Obama ceded his bully pulpit to the circus on the Hill. That gave the impression that he was weak and insecure, which in turn gave the Republicans space to go on the attack against “entrenched interests” and all the other failures of the DC-based “liberal elite.”

The tactical error was compounded by the choice of battles to commence with. Instead of focusing on mortgage relief and rescue for desperate homeowners, serious financial market reform, education opportunity enhancement, immigration policy adjustment and re-orientation of US military commitments abroad (among any number of policy areas), the President and Congress chose to address health care first. Although it is obviously needed given the deficiencies of the US private health care system, it was simply too contentious and big a problem to tackle at the onset given the image of Presidential lack of experience and his conciliatory nature. Democratic strategists may have believed that they had to spend the President’s political capital early so as to ensure its passage, but in fact taking that policy issue as the first order of business under Congressional leadership direction hamstrung the Democrats even if they succeeded in passing a watered-down version of health care reform that provides some level of universal benefit to all citizens.

Put another way: the last thing the American public wanted to hear at a time of deep recession and after the financial bail-outs of the banking and automobile industries was that more public money would be spent of health care and that future taxes would reflect that increased level of deficit spending. Compared to the billion dollar figures being bandied about with regard to health care reform, Obama’s “middle class tax cut” (for those earning US$250,000 or less) and tax rebate (amounting to $500 per household) were seen as negligible drops in the bucket and meaningless political sop thrown for opportunistic purposes. For those who had spent a lifetime of paying for private insurance, it also seemed be a case of the indolent, irresponsible and unmotivated being gifted, at taxpayer expense, benefits that they did not deserve. Once the Republican-conservative spin machine got a hold of the issue, the spectre of “socialised” medicine replete with “death panels,” lack of individual choice, limits on care, endless delays and assorted other deficiencies soon dominated public discourse regardless of Democrat attempts to clarify the issue.

The combination of these four factors–failure to head to the Left and carve out a distinct position, ceding the terms of political debate to the opposition, allowing Congress to set the legislative agenda and choosing to reform health care as the first priority–set the stage for the political train wreck that is the Democrat’s midterm election campaign. To that can be added a failure to realise early that Republican operatives are using the Tea Party movement as a Trojan Horse with which to re-gain political momentum and a return to power. Similarly, the White House chose to ignore rather than frontally confront the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist”  allegations until they were well entrenched in the public consciousness–a full twenty percent of the US electorate now believe that the President is one, the other, or all three. It is too late to bolt the door against such attacks.

Some argue that the Democrats are playing to lose because the inevitable gridlock that will follow from Tuesday’s vote will allow the President to paint the Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists without a real agenda for solving national problems. That could be true if the Republicans do not win the Senate as well as the House, but if they win both branches then they will have the ability to impose a legislative agenda that among other things will repeal the health care reforms and other aspects of the Democrat’s agenda that have been accomplished so far. That puts the ball in the President’s court because it forces him to exercise his veto in order to salvage his original program, which in turn casts him as the obstructionist during the two years leading into the 2012 presidential election.

The bottom line is that although the Republican-conservative opposition play extremely dirty, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this impending election fiasco. If Clausewitz is correct in his assertion that war is politics by other means, than the reverse is equally true: politics is war by other means. The goal is to win, pure and simple, and that means that if the opponent is going to play dirty then the governing party must understand what it is up against and counter it decisively without equivocating about the niceties involved. Rather than understand this very simple logic, the Democrats returned to form, tried to play nicely to the center, tried to respect the separation of powers mythos that is ingrained in US political folklore, tried to be civil in the face of a disloyal opposition and tried to embark on big policy reforms before the the President and his new Congressional counterparts had fully moved into their offices. For their efforts they are going to get hammered on Tuesday.

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