Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Bipartisan Ship

In England, politics is really dull.

Everyone seems to agree on most of the major issues. Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party would ever dare challenge the existence of universal health-care, for example, and so the only debate is around how reforms to the National Health Service should proceed. The last instance of capital punishment occurred in 1964, and David Cameron is about as likely to reinstate the practice, as he is to immediately promote Rupert Murdoch to the position of Chief Communications Officer. Everyone in the country believes in the dangers of climate change, I can not remember the issue of abortion ever entering the political arena, and there are 6 guns per 100 English people (compared to 89 per 100 American people), so this debate is extinct too. American Democrats and Republicans hold genuinely and significantly differing opinions on all of these issues, whereas In England, the opinions differ more by degree than direction. English politics feels more about the personalities than the issues.

I think the American version is a lot more interesting.

I get much more excited and passionate about politics in America than I do about politics in England, despite (or perhaps because of) my minimal understanding of the political landscape, history and factbase here in my adopted home. I could (and often do!) talk about American political issues for hours. I would be about as interested in talking about English political issues for hours, as I would be in inviting George Galloway to be the godfather of my first child – even if I could find any English political issues to talk about.

But I also think the English version is “healthier for the nation”.

Firstly, for reasons of national unity. Because Elephants and Donkeys are so deeply divided on so many fundamental political debates, over the years their ideological positions have become more and more entrenched, giving rise to more and more distrust, resentment and anger directed at “The Other Side”. (And while this is just a hunch, I fear that this ill-feeling and resentment has escalated in the last decade – although perhaps the Civil War of the 1860s suggests otherwise). Republicans despise Obama. Democrats hated Bush, and don’t even get them started on Sarah Palin. Such mutual resentment is clearly a “bad thing” for the unity of the country. After Obama’s election, it feels like 47% of Americans were “furious” about their new head of state, and intent on seizing every opportunity to undermine his position. In England, after Cameron’s election, anyone who voted for Labour was simply “slightly peeved”. And crucially (I suspect), keen for the new Prime Minister to succeed. People were willing to give him the chance that it doesn’t seem to me that most American Republicans were willing to give Obama.

And secondly, for reasons of effective governance. The partisan battles that now scar the American political scene mean that every policy proposed by a Democratic President is invariably vociferously vetoed by the Republican opposition (and vice versa). If everything that the Obama Whitehouse enacts is swiftly unwound by the next Republican president, and then reenacted by the subsequent Democrat, no progress will ever be achieved. If corporation taxes are lowered and then raised and then lowered and then raised, businesses’ uncertainty will hinder their investment and economic growth. Staunchly entrenched divisions prevent compromise, which in turn prevents real progress.

I don’t think that either side is any more to blame than the other for the hostilities that now characterize American politics and society – but I do think they are ugly, and unhelpful.

Maybe this simmering antagonism (which now, with the current debates over the debt ceiling, is veritably boiling over) is unavoidable, given the stark differences in opinion between the two camps. But I would hope that it can at least be mitigated.

As always, the key is to strive for a balanced approach. For Democrats to admit their mistakes, and for Republicans to admit theirs. For Republicans to compromise on raising taxes, and for Democrats to compromise on reducing spending. I think the media plays an important role here. While newspapers in England are clearly left-leaning (The Guardian) or right-leaning (The Telegraph), the coverage is nowhere near as biased as the polemic of Fox News, which I suspect plays an important role in exacerbating inter-party conflicts. I am not advocating that we impose mandates on what TV channels can broadcast, but I might venture to suggest that we reward more impartial media coverage with our viewing figures.

And as always, the power to effect change lies with individual people. By taking the other side’s perspective, by seeing the planks in our own eyes before the specks in our brothers’, by striving for and rewarding compromise. And by making it clear to our political leaders that stonewalling and steadfast refusal to find any middle ground is ineffective and unwanted.

The road to unwinding the distrust that has been building up in American politics for decades will be a long and bumpy one, but I believe that it is one the country should embark on. Soon.


  1. Jonny whilst I agree with you for the most part, I have too say that I disagree on the need for the Dems to compromise on spending cuts- the Democrats are agreeing to massive spending cuts whereas the Republicans (at least the more conservative ones) are refusing to even countenance cuts. Whilst both sides have been difficult, I'd argue that the sides have not been as reasonable as each other. I recommend 538's blog for a more in-depth articulation!

  2. It's really interesting to hear a Brit's perspective on US politics; thanks, Jonny.

    The English seem to be beautiful at the art of compromise, which is no doubt necessary for the governance of a nation, but as far as the debt ceiling debate in this country goes, we've compromised again and again to the tune of now $14 trillion in debt and - even on top of that! - continue to add an unprecedented $1.5 trillion to that debt each year under Mr. Obama.

    I fail to see how this is a time to 'compromise' and, say, leak only $1 trillion a year (not that Republicans or Dems are proposing even that much in spending cuts)? Surely not. Surely for the very survival of the country we stop (immediately!) operating at such a huge loss and begin spending within our means. This seems the only logical solution, no matter what flavor elephant or donkey one is. I don't see how we lack a needed compromise in this situation; we lack leaders with the backbone to make us operate within our means.

    (Our 'means' for this year, by the way, already includes enough income to service our debt, cover all Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security payments, and pay all Federal workers including military. I am told the Department of the Treasury's website has the figures to show this, but I haven't explored the website yet).

    More discussion welcome!