The Age of Ennui

Watching the British
electorate in action (inaction?) during this campaign cycle I'm reminded
of... well, the American electorate.

This is nothing new.
There's been enormous parallels between the two countries for decades
now, even if the timing of that link has gotten a bit skewed of late.

Watching the British
electorate in action (inaction?) during this campaign cycle I'm reminded
of... well, the American electorate.

This is nothing new.
There's been enormous parallels between the two countries for decades
now, even if the timing of that link has gotten a bit skewed of late.

Trading back and forth
between two centrist parties in the first post-war decades, in both
countries the center-left party, exhausted in spirit if not ideas, had
its head handed to it at the end of the 1970s by the center-right party.
Only now that starboard party was under the leadership of the radical
right - in Britain Margaret Thatcher, and in the US her ideological
soul-mate, Ronald Reagan. They governed for a decade and bloody
well wore out their welcome (notwithstanding the regressive hagiography
of Reagan since he left office, their attempt to turn him into latter
day deity).

Then, in the election
which followed (1988 in the US and 1992 in the UK), the watered-down
version of the far-right candidate (John Major and Bush the Elder) somehow,
surprisingly, managed to thrash out the weakest imaginable endorsement
and hold the keys to government for another term. After that came
the other party with an even weaker version of the same politics.
Just as Thatcher and Reagan were like peas in a pod, and just as Major
and HW were nothingburger clones, so too the backward and oleaginous
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were twin sons of different mothers.
Now it looks like Britain may be getting its barely-endorsed 'compassionate
conservative' to match our George W. Bush, in the form of the polished-up-to-seem-less-abrasive
Tory David Cameron.

Looking at the two polities,
only three things seem terribly clear:

First, in these confused
political times, people don't really know what they want.

Second, except that they
definitely want everything.

And, third, no single
item on the menu of political parties looks terribly appetizing.

Oh, and one other thing:
there's that small matter of gross incompetence at voting stations
(taking the most benign interpretation).

Nor are these tendencies,
in their broadest sense, hugely different from other Western democracies.
It's the Age of Ennui, really. Nothing seems to be working,
and no solutions seem to be on the horizon. To be honest, the
moment feels considerably volatile - well beyond the scale of the
hardly insubstantial problems facing these societies and the planet
as a whole.

People are simultaneously
looking for societal change, and yet desperately holding on to the status
quo. People are simultaneously hungry for different party choices,
and yet continuing to vote for the existing bums in office. People
are simultaneously hungry for something very different in politics,
and yet clinging on to the same old same-old.

In the UK, it looked
for a while like they just might get a bit of some real shake-up, both
small and large. The biggest development of this election cycle
was the introduction of US-style televised debates, and the biggest
product of that, at least initially, was that the leader of the half-party
Liberal Democrats, who was allowed to share the stage with the Big Two,
knocked them both sideways with his "they're-endlessly-petty-and-to-blame-for-everything-but-I'm-above-all-that"
act. It worked for a while, though it had already lost its punch
by the third debate.

Were the Liberal Democrats
to come to power as junior partners in a coalition government, owing
to the failure of either Labour or the Tories to win an outright majority
of seats in Parliament, that alone would only represent minor change.
Politically, there is little about the party that is remarkably different
from the two majors. And that's before they get into government,
when the drill is to promise the world. Imagine what it would
be like afterwards, when instead it's all about figuring out ways
to not deliver on your promises.

The big potential change
entailed in these dynamics, however, would revolve around what the Lib-Dems,
acting as king-makers, might extract from either other party in exchange
for forming a coalition that would allow one of them to govern.
Presumably, that price would be a change in - or at least a referendum
on the question of - the country's electoral system. Like
the US, Britain uses a district system to choose members of the national
legislature. And like the US (though not as severely), this results
in a huge obstacle for third parties to ever gain traction, and makes
it almost impossible for them to ever govern. (The reason is basically
mathematical. Unless we're talking about regional ethnic parties,
as in Scotland or Wales (but not in the US), third parties could theoretically
win a whopping 25 or 30 percent of the vote nationally, but continue
to come in second place in every district, and thus have minimal or
even zero parliamentary representation).

The big change in the
UK could entail the use of a proportional representation system to replace
- or partially replace using a hybrid system - the district model.
That could have very significant longer term repercussions with respect
to the distribution of parties in the British Parliament, and the possibility
for smaller ones to not only flourish, but perhaps even govern at some

None of that will happen
in the US, however. First, because there is no significant third
party to hold some other major party hostage in exchange for a restructuring
of the national electoral system. But more importantly, because
it would be far less relevant even if there were, since the executive
branch of American government does not require any form of legislative
majority to be elected. Such a system might work in determining
the leadership of one or both houses of Congress, but the president
- unlike the British prime minister - is elected entirely separately.
If the US kept its Electoral College system, the only way third parties
would matter is if no candidate hit the magic number and the parties
then got into some serious horse-trading for electoral votes.
And if we moved to a system of electing presidents directly, on the
basis of winning a plurality of the popular vote, or even a majority
run-off system, third parties would have little or no effect.

I'd love to see a lot
more choice in America for voters, as an abstract principle, but before
we get ourselves all worked up about what we're missing, it's worth
reminding ourselves of what else we might also be missing, were we to
move in this direction. Three not so happy other consequences
come to mind.

First, it's worth asking
who these third parties would be. They could be anybody, and they
might be everybody (that is, there would surely be a number of them).
But the sad truth in the US is that the serious alternative political
energy in this country is generally either on the nutty-scary extreme
right, or the libertarian right. In addition to the fact that
a certain party led by a certain fellow named Hitler once rose to power
via precisely these means in a certain country which then had similar
regressive political tendencies, I think we can say with some assurance
that a multiparty system in America is only going to tug the country's
politics even further to the right. Much as it pains me to say
it, if we did engineer a multiparty system, many progressives could
wind up - after, say, Social Security and Medicare were chucked overboard
in the name of small government - pining for the good old days of
the two-party monopoly.

The Nazi analogy also
reminds of a second liability of multiparty systems, which is that they
tend to be less stable. In moderate doses, that's usually not
a hugely bad thing. But in more severe cases, especially during
times of duress (like, well, now), it can be catastrophic. Another
reason that the Nazis came to power is because voters got sick of a
Weimar Republic where governments hardly lasted five minutes at a pop.
That's bad enough ordinarily, but when the economic wheels are coming
off the wagon, as they were then, the situation is enormously ripe for
someone to come along promising to make the trains run on time.
Sound like a familiar scenario? Again, for every bit as
abysmal as Bush and Cheney were, we need to think carefully about what
we wish for. History is quite emphatic in reminding us that it
can get a lot, lot worse than that.

The third problem with
reform of the party structure is that it is - like term limits and
sundry constitutional amendment proposals - at some level just another
attempt to avoid a serious reckoning with the hard work of seriously
governing and being governed. Like I said, I'd like to see American
voters have more choice in elections, especially because what they now
have is just about zero. But I suspect for most people this electoral
system reform project represents a quintessentially American quick-fix
panacea to make the big ugly problem of not being able to have everything
all at once just go away. And, therefore, people will only be
disappointed to find that the problem doesn't go away. It might
even get worse. And, worst of all, the notion of multiparty democracy
could even get discredited by association, just as it in the Weimar
case, or post-Soviet Russia.

The hard but profoundly
simple truth is that Americans can't have giant tax cuts, substantial
entitlement programs and a ridiculously bloated military all it once.
It's called math, and it's just about as simple as a little basic
addition and subtraction. (The alternative choice, by the way,
goes by the name of voodoo economics.) But recognizing that and
making the (seemingly) difficult choices involved is less appealing
than searching for a magic bullet that can be achieved by showing up
for a vote in a referendum. Then we can all go home, pop open
a beer, watch the ball game and allow the government to take care of
business for us.

Sorry, but that's a
world that never was and never will be. And, indeed, never should
be either. The real problem with American society is that we're
supremely greedy, stupid and lazy when it comes to our politics and
government. Most of us invest next to nothing in thinking about
issues and voting intelligently, let alone other more robust forms of
political participation. Heck, nearly half of us can't be bothered
to show up and vote every four years.

There's no mystery
here. People that disengaged are going to get precisely what they
deserve when it comes to their government. It's like if you
were raising your kids by popping your head into their lives once or
twice a decade to check in, and then you're startled to find out that
they've grown up to be disastrous little delinquents. What a
surprise, eh?

The weirdest thing about
our times is that the solution to so many of our problems are really
astonishingly manifest, and would often involve little real sacrifice.
America had actually found its way to many of those solutions during
its mild experiment with progressive politics in the middle of the twentieth
century, learning from the meltdown of regressive Hooverism which preceded
it, and would have found more had it taken the right lessons from the
subsequent Vietnam disaster. Unfortunately, we've essentially
unlearned the former and never did get the latter.

But its really not that
hard to get out from under the Atlas-sized burden we've piled on our
own shoulders, if we wanted to. To wit, if we simply dramatically
scaled down military spending and dramatically increased investment
on alternative energy research and development, we could make a huge
dent in our indebtedness, environmental, unemployment and foreign policy
problems in one fell swoop, and with little cost in terms of dreaded
change for most Americans. Few of us would have to give up the
big flat-screen TVs or the reclining chair. We could still engorge
our way into obesity and diabetes if we wanted to, and occasionally
invade some little country full of brown people whenever our insecurities
flared up to especially high levels. And yet we could still radically
improve our lot in the meantime, with just these easy steps.

For the meanwhile, though,
voters in the UK have given us a paradigmatic sampling of our political
times. They don't know where to turn. They vaguely remember
that letting the right have the keys to government is a prescription
for disaster, but the so-called left has not only lost its nerve and
purpose, it's lost its leftiness too. Hence an electorate all
over the map in this week's election, and a hung parliament.
Look for more of the same in America this November and again in 2010.

The great irony is that
solutions are so close by. It's as if one crawled across the
desert for ten days, only to die of thirst a hundred yards from an oasis.

Well, maybe that metaphor
gives us too much credit.

Maybe it's more like
dying of thirst sitting on your couch, because you got too lazy even
to traipse over to the fridge to grab a Coors.

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