Monday, May 3, 2010

Slouching Toward Bosnia

In many respects this sort of tit for tat conflict, I described earlier, where each side is going to push the boundaries as to what is acceptable and justify it as simply doing to the other what is already being done to them is behind the deepening divisions in this country. Republicans maligned President Clinton, Democrats maligned George W. Bush in revenge and now Republicans seek to do the same to Obama. Democrats filibustered judicial nominations and now the Republicans are doing the same. Conservatives decided that the mainstream was not playing fair with the news so they created Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Liberals responded in kind by creating Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. We are not shooting at each other yet. But we could all too easily, I fear, go from only accepting the media of our side as legitimate to following Michael Makovi and saying that we will only accept the legal authority of the people we support. This would mean that there would be Republican and Democrat police officers, judges and each side could have its own congress and president. At this point the best possible scenario would be secession as the country officially is broken up to accommodate all parties. If, as is likely the case, this is not practical in terms of territory and allotment of natural resources, we are left with war as each side attempts to subjugate the other to its will. (The Israelis and Palestinians are a good example of this. Neither side trusts the other to form a single country. There are no workable boundaries for two different States. Thus we are left with a state of war with both sides attempting to force a solution on the other.)

In British parliamentary culture there is what is known as a "shadow cabinet." The party out of power lists its leading members according to the positions they would have if they were in power. This speaks to one of my major objections to the parliamentary system and its lack of set elections; it creates a system where a large minority of the government is actively seeking to bring down the government and force new elections. As opposed to the American system where, in theory at least, Republicans, for example, are supposed to accept the fact that they were defeated by Barack Obama, that Obama is now the President and they are obliged to work with him for the next four years.

One of the virtues of the American two party system (and this maybe is what saves the British model as well) is that, regardless of what one might think of the many ideologically unsatisfying outcomes, it forces a certain level of moderation. Regardless of their party affiliation, I can count on the fact that elected officials on the one hand are not out to completely socialize the economy, but on the other support some sort of welfare state with at least some government health care. No one is going to support a religious theocracy, but on the other hand we retain a political rhetoric that acknowledges some sort of general divine providence. The military's dominating presence in the budget is not going to change anytime soon and neither is this country about to return to isolationism and stop interfering with other countries. I am not saying this is good or bad. Just that it provides a government that no one is going to feel pushed to such an extreme as launching an actual civil war.

In Orson Scott Card's two recent mediocre novels, Empire and Hidden Empire, he postulates a near future American civil war between the right and the left. (In truth it is more like secular leftist radicals, trying to destroy this country, going up against moderate patriotic Christians.) I can think of far more creative civil war scenarios. We can start with Evangelical Christians from rural Pennsylvania launching a tea-party with automatic weapons against Manhattan liberals. Manhattan liberals beg an Al Sharpton-like character to use his connections with black street gangs to save them. In a magnanimous gesture of tolerance, a Pat Robertson-like character visits a synagogue in the front lines of Brooklyn to meet with Israeli arms dealers and announces that Jews are not nearly as hated by God as Catholics. This causes a stir when it hits the internet, and the entrance of suburban New Jersey Catholics, armed with a papal indulgence for the sin of birth control for each slain Protestant. (I leave it to readers to continue the scenario.)

The point here is that government hangs on a very narrow thread as people decide whether to trust each other and whether their differences are not so large as to prevent their joining together in bounds of state-building. In many respects, functional governments are not the norm. Normal is Bosnia, Rwanda and Northern Ireland where neighbors kill each other over race, religion, culture or any other good excuse they can find on hand. The question we have to ask ourselves is why we are not in a Bosnia type situation now. There, if not by the grace of sensible moderates, go us.


Garnel Ironheart said...

were a large minority

"where a large minority"

Izgad said...


Garnel Ironheart said...

One of the reasons for the shadow cabinet in British style politics is the possibility the government might fall. The leading opposition party therefore has to have itself organized so that if it gets a chance to form a new government, it has people in the right place at the time.
Another reason is because it helps to have a "go to" person in your caucus whose job is to focus on one specific part of the government's performance and efficiently criticize it.
Finally, in the case of a majority government which means the opposition will not have a chance of taking over until new elections are held, shadow cabinet means a chance to stand out for the leader of your party so that if you do win the next election he'll remember you for a ministerial position.
In the US, a two party system means never having a minority government. Fixed election dates means once you've lost one election you have 4 long years to prepare for the next one. In addition, your cabinet secretaries are appointed by the president and aren't also members of your congress, unlike our ministers who are also sitting members in parliament.
What forces moderation in any Western system is the vast majority of people who are not proponents of any radical ideologies. Most North Americans are fiscal conservatives and social liberals but not passionately so. As a result, to win an election a party has to successfully play to the centre. That's what Obama did before he was elected and now that he's gone hard left it'll hurt him and the Democrats in November. That need to remain in the centre keeps the fringes out there and away from any real power.

Izgad said...

“What forces moderation in any Western system is the vast majority of people who are not proponents of any radical ideologies.”

The question is which causes the other, moderate politicians or a moderate society? Part of the failure of truly radical movements to gain a hold within mainstream America is that these groups cannot get into the political system in the first place. If we had a parliamentary system it would be quite possible for a Noam Chomsky party to gain a seat. That would give Chomsky a platform to make his case to the nation and be part of the conversation. In our system Chomsky is simply an ivory tower intellectual, irrelevant to government policy and our national discourse.

In any other country, Ross Perot would have been hailed as a political genius and kingmaker for winning 19% percent of the vote in 1992. This being the United States, he received 0 electoral votes and was a laughing stock.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I would suggest the answer to the question is a moderate society. In the absence of any crisis, a progressive society is more interested in maintaining general well-being than going off to fight crusades. Remember that the British and French had no interest in confronting Hitler as long as he didn't threanten them directly. Why? Because the popular opinion was prepared to hand over half of Europe to him rather than risk their peace and prosperity.
As for your examples, you're right but in most British parliamentary systems, the same phenomenon happens. Up here in Canada we have a Green Party that consistently gets 10% of the vote but because they get 10% of the vote in most ridings, they never actually win any and remain without a seat in parliament. Back in the 1990's we had two conservative parties fighting with each other and sapping each other's votes. Had they combined their results in two general elections, they might have had enough seats for a minority government. Instead one party barely made official opposition status and the other barely got a dozen seats. So the system does work to remove the loons.