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why the US has one of the worst political systems in the democratic world, and why they’re unlikely to change it

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I think this may be the longest title of any blog piece I’ve written, but that’s not the only reason why few will read it. After all, most of my readers are from the USA, and they’ll be put off by the title for other reasons. Anyway, here goes.

Of course I’m not really qualified to rank all the democratic political systems out there – I’m no expert on the German, French or Spanish systems, or those of the Scandinavian countries – but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that few if any other other democratic states would accord as much power to one person as the USA does.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the US system, but of course there’s plenty I still don’t know about. I live under a variant of the Westminster system here in Australia, and that’s the system I’m most familiar with, and as a British/Australian duel citizen, and a sometime student of British history, I know a fair amount about the origins of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The Westminster system of course, has other variants in New Zealand, Canada and other countries formerly under the British Empire, including India, Pakistan and South Africa, but my focus here will be on Australia as fairly typical of democracy at least in the English-speaking countries other than the US. And don’t forget I’m no expert generally, being an autodidact/dilettante, but I like to think I’m a keen observer, and don’t we all?

This my view: I’ve learned enough about the US political system – the Presidential system in particular – in the past 12 months to drop my jaw to the floor and keep it there for most of that period. It really is a shocker.

I’ll summarise, then expand. The US directly elects its President – a really bad idea. There’s no vetting of Presidential candidates: Americans like to boast that anyone can become Prez. Do you really want just anyone to be given that responsibility? Once elected, nominally as a representative of one of the two major parties, the President sets up office completely separately from the Congress/Parliament in which the two major parties, together with smaller parties and independents, battle it out to run the government to their liking, ideologically speaking. Or is it the President who runs the government? It’s confusing. The President, in his separate, isolated sphere, has veto powers, pardoning powers, special executive powers, emergency powers, power to shut down the government, power to appoint members of the judiciary, power to appoint a host of unelected and very powerful officials and to hire and fire at will, with limited oversight. The President is, apparently, not legally required to announce conflicts of interest, or present any account of his finances, and is at liberty, or certainly appears to be at liberty, to enrich himself and his family by virtue of holding the office of President. The President, by virtue of his office, is immune from prosecution, during his time in office, for any crime committed before, during, or in order to obtain, his Presidency – or such is the view held by a substantial proportion of the legal profession.

And yet the vast majority of American citizens don’t believe they’re living in a Banana Republic. On the contrary, they believe they’re living in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the Greatest Nation on Earth, the Leader of the Free World, the Shining Light on the Hill, etc, etc, etc – and of course it’s this jingoism, this lack of self-critical insight (with many, but not enough, honourable exceptions) that will make it so hard to effect change when Trump is dumped..

So, let’s start with direct election. It doesn’t happen under the Westminster system. In Australia we have general elections every three years. We vote for a local member in our electorate (in the US they’re called districts) as well as for the party of our choice federally. That’s to say, our general elections are the equivalent of the US mid-terms, only more important, as we don’t have a Presidential election. So, if the US had a similar system to us, their recent election would be the general election, the Democrats would have won government from the Republicans in a landslide, and the new Prime Minister, the leader of the Dems in the House, would be Nancy Pelosi, taking over from the retiring PM, Paul Ryan. Chuck Schumer, the leader in the Senate, would probably take up the position of Deputy PM, and the positions of Treasurer, Attorney-General, Foreign Minister etc, would have already been decided before the election, as they would have been the opposition spokespersons for those positions (aka shadow Attorney-General, shadow Treasurer, etc). The Prime Minister would have the power to swap those positions around and introduce new blood (called a Cabinet reshuffle), but of course all of these persons would have won their local electorates in the elections. Most would be experienced in the parliamentary system.

Under the US Presidential system, the whole nation is asked to choose between two candidates, usually a leftist or a rightist. There are of course caucuses and primaries, which basically ‘weed out’ the less popular candidates until only two are left standing. But this system is so separate from Congress that it’s possible for anyone to run, and to win, regardless of political experience, historical knowledge or any other sort of nous – though having a lot of money, or a lot of rich backers, is virtually essential to success. In the case of Trump, his relentless branding of himself as a successful businessman and super-smart outsider was enough to fool many of the least thoughtful and most disadvantaged Americans, as well as to convince many of the crooked rich that he might prove a useful tool. And so Trump, in spite of being super-incompetent, ethically moribund and a total financial fraud, won the election… or, rather, won the electoral college, probably with the assistance of foreign agents.

The major flaw of this kind of direct democracy was pointed out almost 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. They’d seen how ‘the mob’ could be swayed by windy orators who promised to fix problems and to bring great success and richesse at little cost. One of them, Creon, persuaded the Athenians to embark on a disastrous campaign against the city-state of Syracuse, which so depleted Athenian resources that they were overrun by the Spartans, which ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian ascendancy once and for all.

Trump won’t do that kind of damage to the USA, but he’s already damaged America’s reputation for decades to come, as well as selling out his base, endangering the lives of immigrants, massively neglecting the business of running his country in all its essential minutiae, and filling the swamp to overflowing.

So what’s the solution to this direct election process? It doesn’t need to be jettisoned, but it can be improved (though I’m for ditching the Presidential system entirely). You can replace the electoral college with a first past the post (or winner takes all) system. Of course, if that system were in place in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be President. More importantly, though, the electoral college system is easier for interfering agents to manipulate, by focusing attention on ‘purple’ electorates, as was done in 2016. A more centralised system would be easier to keep ‘clean’ , and would require a very sophisticated, equally centralised hacking and propaganda campaign to manipulate. Besides that, it is obviously fairer. The person who wins most votes nationwide should surely be the nation’s President.

Then there is vetting. Here’s where I display my elitism. Every candidate for President should have to submit to testing, regarding the nation’s politico-judicial system, its constitution, its history, its network of foreign and trade relations, and, a hobby-horse of mine, its science and technology sector (since achievements in this sector have changed lives far far more than any political achievements). You don’t want an ignoramus to be your President ever again.

Of course there’s also financial and legal vetting. The Emoluments Clause appears to lack claws. This should be turned into solid, unequivocal law.

The legal position of the President should also be clarified. As the Chief Law Officer of the nation he should never be considered above the law. Having said that, the Attorney-General should be the first law officer, not the President. Other powers of the President need to be reassessed in a root-and-branch fashion – pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers and so-called emergency powers. Clearly, to accord vast and manifold powers to one person, and then to consider him immune from prosecution because of the powers so accorded, is a recipe for dictatorship. I mean – duh!

But there’s another reason why this Presidential system is seriously flawed. Under the Westminster system, if the Prime Minister is found to have engaged in criminal activities, such as serious campaign finance violations, conspiracy with foreign powers to influence their own election, obstruction of justice, directing foreign policy on the basis of self-enrichment, and other egregious antics, s/he would be charged and forced to stand down. The party in power would then vote on a new leader – who may or may not be the Deputy PM. This would of course be somewhat traumatic for the body politic, but certainly not fatal. Changing Prime Ministers between elections is quite common, and has happened recently in Britain and Australia. Not so in the USA, where the Vice President, a personal choice of the now discredited Prez, is necessarily the next in line. Think of Mike Pence as President – or think of Sarah Palin taking over from John McCain. Why should the electorate have to suffer being presided over by the bad choice of a bad (or good) President? This is a question Americans will be asking themselves quite shortly, I reckon.

So why is the system unlikely to change? I’ve mentioned American jingoism. Even those media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, that spend much of their time exposing Trump’s lies and poor decisions and general worthlessness, seem never to question the system that allowed him to gain a position so entirely unsuited to him. It just astonishes me that the idea that a person in his position might be immune from prosecution can be taken seriously by anyone with an adult mind. The fourth estate should be hammering this obvious point home on a daily, if not hourly basis. Trump should now be in custody. His ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, is currently on bail for campaign finance felonies, among other things. He will serve three years in jail. Trump was the Mr Big in those campaign finance felonies, and should serve more time than Cohen, as a matter of basic logic. Why has he not been charged? There is absolutely no excuse. And he shouldn’t be allowed out on bail, due to his known habit of obstructing justice and witness tampering. How can anyone respect a justice system that hasn’t acted on this? The world is watching incredulously.

As I see it, the Presidential system is a kind of sop to American individualism. The USA is a hotbed of libertarians, who see ‘universal’ education and health-care systems as ‘socialism’, while the rest of the western world just calls it government. Many of their worst movies feature one machismo guy – male or female – sorting out the bad guys and setting the country to rights. That’s another reason why they won’t want to muzzle their Presidents – after all, if they had much of this concentrated power removed from them, why have a President at all? Why indeed. The Westminster system is more distributed in terms of power. The Prime Minister is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, the captain of the team. S/he can always be replaced if injured or out of form or is no longer representing the team adequately, for whatever reason. The team, though, is the thing. Us, rather than me. But the USA is full of screaming mes. And now they have a screaming me as their President. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilment. I watch from afar with guilty fascination, not unmixed with schadenfreude – but with a particular interest in what will happen post-Trump. My bet is that there will be some changes, but nowhere near enough – they’re too wedded to romantic and adventure-laden fantasies of individualism. So the USA with its wild-west hangover of a Presidential system will always be worth watching, but never worth emulating.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2019 at 10:28 am

Trump: the slo-mo train wreck is far from over – it’s likely to get much worse

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some semi-reluctant future reading – or maybe I’ll just watch the video

This morning I heard an American pundit saying Trump has got to change his approach and become more co-operative with investigating authorities, because his strategy isn’t working. Everybody is offering Trump free advice but he’s unlikely to take it because he’s Trump. People don’t change very much, they certainly don’t become completely different people, certainly not after the age of seventy. Trump has spent his life among crooked rich people, he was brought up by crooked rich people, he only admires crooked rich people, and he will die as crooked as he has lived. That’s his fate.

What pundits should really be working on, IMHO, is limiting his power and curbing his destructive tendencies. Now that the cognoscenti are coming to realise that better vetting processes should have applied to candidates for the overly-powerful position of POTUS, they should be doing their utmost to put obstacles in the way of that power (followed by root and branch reform of the entire political system once Trump is dumped). For example, putting real pressure on White House staffers, many of whom should know by now that the writing’s on the wall, to resign en masse. Or even just to suggest that they do so? Rats tend to desert a sinking ship, but perhaps not if they don’t sense any land in the offing, a safe haven to run to. So maybe it would be the most ethical thing to do, now, to entice Trump’s enablers to abandon him, not entirely without penalty, but with less penalty than if they stick with him to the end. A bit like offering limited immunity. And in the same way, the media should be onto those in Congress who are enabling Trump, or are not being sufficiently vocal in their opposition, or their position in general, to speak their minds more clearly. It’s time for more media hounding, for the sake of the beleaguered nation. Two of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress are now being prosecuted as swamp creatures, not surprisingly. More needs to be made of this.

I’m not talking here about ‘weaponising’ the media, or being partisan. This is clearly about corruption and the law. My own early recognition of Trump as a boorish, tasteless, noisome, proudly ignorant, self-serving buffoon had little to do with politics. I’ve learned over this year that he was a ‘lifelong Democrat’ until a few years ago. I didn’t believe it any more than I believe he’s a Republican now. He knows as much about politics, history and international affairs as he does about science. But I’ve also learned more about his inherent dishonesty and crookedness. The responsible media generally recognise this, and they should play, more openly, a heroic role in bringing him down. It wouldn’t be a partisan role, it would be about nation-building, or nation-repairing.

It’s important here not to be partisan, and that’s why it’s essential to focus on the law rather than on politics. Certainly there needs to be a political backlash against Trump, and against his Republican enablers, but I’ve already expressed my skepticism of impeachment, a political process, as a means of dismissing political leaders. All citizens should be subject to the law, regardless of position or profession. This is not to say the mid-term elections aren’t important, as the country needs more liberals and democrats in positions of authority to counter Trump’s fascistic or mafioso-style approach to government. However, the mid-term elections are over two months away, plenty of time for more damage to be done to the country’s political institutions by an increasingly desperate ‘Commander-in Chief’.

The preposterous and disgustingly juvenile, and typically American, idea that their POTUS may be above prosecution simply because he’s too important and vital to the workings of the State, needs to be punctured beyond repair. This seems to me a high-priority issue. Of course, the fact that the USA has given its POTUS too much power will make things difficult in the immediate post-Trump period, but this is a tough lesson that needs to be learned. It seems a constitutional crisis may be just what’s needed to get the nation to wake from its jingoistic slumber and start working on a better, more collegial and distributed power system than the current hero-worshipping laughing-stock it has created for itself.

So let’s go to the issue of indictment, and later we’ll go to the aftermath, which will presumably be a Pence Presidency – not a pleasant prospect, from what I’ve heard.

Unfortunately the indictment of a sitting President is regarded as a constitutional matter – unlike the indictment of any other citizen, presumably. This is a situation that should be rectified. Section 3 of Article 1 of the US Constitution puts it thus:

“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust,or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

Note the unclear wording here. It talks about impeachment first, which to my mind, is irrelevant. It’s the last part that is relevant, though it gets entangled with impeachment – ‘The party convicted shall nevertheless be liable to and subject to indictment’, etc. But impeachment is not about being convicted. The law convicts, surely. The Constitution was signed into law in 1787, and is a source of understandable pride to the American people, but it’s hardly to be expected that it would make everything clear and precise for the next two hundred-odd years. It looks as though indictment should follow impeachment, which is, it seems, misrepresented as ‘convicted’, but it cannot surely be the case that if the President commits what constitutes a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’ (and I really hope that term is clear in US law) he has to be impeached before being charged. That, to me, would be outrageous. It’s very obviously the wrong way round – though of course, you’d have to be sure that the Justice Department had a very sound case before proceeding – perhaps with a speaking indictment (I really like them things). And then, of course, if conviction occurs, impeachment wouldn’t be an issue. It would just be a matter of a change of residence.

It’s astounding, and frankly appalling, that some soi-disant constitutional lawyers really do argue for immunity (while in office) due to the heavy duties of the Presidency  (duties that Trump largely avoids), while other experts argue that Presidents really do have the power to pardon themselves. It’s yet another indication that Yanks, even high-powered legal eagle ones, are in thrall to the wankeries of their worst movies, featuring the vigilante superhero out to save the State from itself, with collateral damage just being part of the thrill.

Considering such jejune but baked-in attitudes about their ‘commander-in chief’, it’s unlikely that Americans will learn much from the current debacle. Still no proper vetting at the outset, still no reduction of pardoning and other powers, still no integration of the Presidency with Congress, still insufficient checks and balances, still the same childishly carnivalesque two-horse races every four years, still the same embarrassing, unreflective jingoism. And still, I find it all quite fascinating. I’m just glad I’m not actually there.

So what will happen by years’ end? Presumably impeachment proceedings, depending on the numbers in both houses – I haven’t yet read up on impeachment, what it requires and entails, and I’ll be doing that soon. But presumably impeachment isn’t easily enforceable, and Trump will ignore it and rely on his base to protect him. That’s when things will get really interesting.

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2018 at 1:04 pm

Posted in elections

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