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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

on the US political & social system in crisis: 1 – the illusory national superiority effect and limits on democracy

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an interesting partial insight from the days before modern democracies – and emanating from my philosophical homeland

Canto: So we’ve sort of promised not to talk so much about Trump, but let’s admit it, we’re still watching with a fair degree of obsession this slow-motion train wreck which might only get uglier and more damaging as the months roll on…

Jacinta: Well, let’s try to take a wider view, and consider how the USA got to this pass, which means examining its whole political/social system, since so many of its own pundits, IMHO, are infected by the strange disease known as American jingoism, and are expressing dismay about how the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, ‘the leader of the free world’, and the ‘model that the world looks to’, etc, should have come to this.

Canto: So they’re not fit to judge their own system?

Jacinta: Well, we have solid psychological evidence that individuals, for good reason, take a slightly rosier-than-true view about how attractive they are, how competent they are in various fields of endeavour, how generous they are, and so forth – it’s called the illusory superiority effect – and it doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that a lot of people, probably a majority, take a similar view of their nation. So it’s generally a better idea, for nations as well as for people, to listen to what others say about them, or simply to observe or monitor their actual behaviour, and make comparative and quantitative analyses.

Canto: There’s also another effect we’ve talked about, which should have a name, but doesn’t. ‘Might is right’ comes close, but doesn’t quite capture it methinks. It’s that sense felt throughout history by every powerful state – that their military-industrial power confers moral authority and a sort of natural leadership, as in ‘the world’s police officer’.

Jacinta: Absolutely, there should be a name for that fallacy, and there probably is, but in this discussion I want us to focus entirely on the USA’s domestic policies and its political system as it effects its own people.

Canto: So that’s where the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ (BLI) comes in.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve talked about quantitative analysis, and I want to find as much quantitative analysis as we can to compare the best countries on the globe in terms of a variety of parameters. I’m hoping to find more than just the BLI figures, because as with the best science we need different teams to conduct studies that might confirm or disconfirm, using different methodologies, so that we can get a deeper and more complex picture.

Canto: But of course the BLI is itself quite complex. It analyses nations in terms of 11 different ‘dimensions’ – housing, jobs, income, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The intention is to tweak these dimensions and add new ones if necessary over time. For instance there used to be a dimension called ‘governance’, which would’ve been useful for examining the USA as it currently stands, but that has been changed to ‘civic engagement’, which is more individual-focused.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may go into a little more detail about those dimensions, and into the OECD’s methodology, a bit later, but for now let’s look at results. The first BLI was produced in 2011, and it sought to measure quality of life in 35 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 6 ‘partner countries’ – though only 38 countries are presented in the latest BLI ratings for some reason. It’s been regularly seeking to expand its membership. The latest BLI is from 2017 and In those ratings, Australia, where we are, is ranked third, behind Norway and Denmark. Last year, Australia was ranked second, and the year before that, first, so something’s going wrong.

Canto: I believe it’s in the dimensions of education and environment that we’re slipping up.

Jacinta: Meanwhile, the USA ranks eighth, moving up from ninth the previous year. Other western countries ahead of it, besides Norway, Denmark and Australia, are Sweden,Canada, Switzerland and Iceland.

Canto: So the USA isn’t doing badly at all, it just can’t call itself the best in the world, according to these criteria. So let’s look at individual dimensions, such as civic engagement, since we want to look at America’s political system.

Jacinta: Well that dimension is supposed to look at citizens’ involvement in democracy, so they’re sort of assuming that all these countries are democratic. The USA comes off well here, in third place, though I’m rather surprised to find that Australia is solidly in top spot in this field. Where the USA fares worst is in community (23rd), in work-life balance (30th, but Australia comes in at 31st) and safety (22nd, but Australia comes 26th!).

Canto: Interesting – the safety dimension looks at assault and murder rates, so for all the school shooting tragedies and gun violence and the attendant publicity, the USA is safer, overall than Australia. That seems incredible. Maybe we should look more carefully at this methodology. Where do they get their stats from?

Jacinta: That would take time to look into. But just taking this on face value, it provides a corrective to many assumptions, positive or negative, we make about the USA. Essentially though, I just just wanted to use the BLI to point out that the rhetoric about the USA as the greatest democracy – or simply the greatest nation –  should be taken with a heap of salt. And of course there are other surveys of ‘best countries’, such as the US News Best Countries survey, which currently ranks the USA in eighth position (the same as the BLI), behind Switzerland, Canada, Germany,  the UK, Japan, Sweden and Australia (a completely different grouping from the BLI – Norway doesn’t even get a mention). This is supposedly based on a ‘variety of metrics’ which it would be impossible to assess here.

Canto: And also, as you’ve mentioned, it’s not just about democracy. One thing I’ve noticed about the liberal pundits on CNN and MSNBC. They’re always talking about the free press and an independent judiciary as pillars of democracy, under threat from the current bullshitter in their china shop. An independent fourth estate and judiciary are pillars all right but not of democracy. In fact they’re bulwarks against the ever-present threat of democracy and the demagogues that take advantage of that flawed but best-of-a-bad-lot political system. That’s to say, they’re part of what Popper termed an ‘open society’ – and a thoroughly elitist part. This is the point that needs constantly to be made – democracy is dodgy as, but no better political system has ever been invented. However, we don’t practice anything like pure democracy, even setting aside the meritocratic institutions like the judiciary and the fourth estate, which hedge it around. Under the westminster system – used by every English-speaking democracy apart from the US – we have a parliament with more power than the US Congress, a judiciary which is generally more independent than that in the US, and a purely titular head of state instead of the all-too-powerful one sanctioned by the US system. There are no veto powers or pardoning powers to speak of, and nobody within that system ever imagines that they’re above the law in any sense whatever. We don’t have impeachment, which seems to me a disastrous political tool, and we tend to eschew the high-falutin term ‘indictment’, we prefer to just charge people with criminal activity – a far more levelling circumstance.

Jacinta: And it also isn’t a pure democracy in that we don’t just vote for anyone in the Westminster system. We vote for parties, with the occasional independent, who of course will never be able to form a government but might be able to curb some government policy. And the parties select candidates based on merit, more or less. Candidates are vetted, to some degree, even if it’s sometimes a bit ad hoc. Again, something of a meritocracy, an element of elitism.

Canto: And I should also mention, since we’re science advocates, that another thoroughly elitist component of an open, civilised society is an independent and flourishing science and technology sector. Climate science, for example, should be as free from politics as it’s possible to make it, and there certainly should be nothing democratic about it. If we based our science on popular vote, civilisation would never have taken off.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’ve laid some of the foundation for our critique of the US political and social system, next we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why the US is currently in the confrontational mess that it’s in and what might be done, if anything to fix the problem. We’ll bring to the issues all the ambition and arrogance we can muster. It should be fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2018 at 11:13 am