I’m glad to see that during my absence literally tens of people have found their way to my blog.  Today, that included people searching for “furry rape” and “Van Hool Portugal.”  Well done, sirs.

There’s a great deal I’d have liked to have written about, but I’ve been distracted by the hateful business of maintaining my hateful existence (on a level of income which I have the sneaking suspicion is far more than I need but far less than I require). So perhaps one or two notes on the past month:

1) I am greatly pleased that the loss of Martha Coakley means I won’t have to hear from Bob Menendez for awhile.  Perhaps the Senator from MTV is unaware (or perhaps it’s his counterpart from the film Casino that’s allergic to listening) but in order to motivate people to defend a majority it’s important to do something with it. This is even more important when rather than defending an actual majority you’re attempting to hold a completely arbitrary number that’s going to be fucked up by Ben Nelson anyway. (I have just quoteD from Fox News. Occasionally they do get the sense of things right.)

They'll never take our health ca-oh

It’s rather like the film Braveheart. Remember when they’re fighting at Falkirk, and the infantry are slaughtered when the noble cavalry just trot off at the crucial moment?  That was health care. Somehow it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why in the next battle the infantry won’t fall over themselves to rescue their lords and masters.

2) That having been said, I never thought 2010 was going to be as good as everybody assumed – and now I don’t think it’s going to be as bad.  Think of it what you will but our electoral system is well-insulated from popular anger. Systems matter.  So far, precious little has changed, whatever the result of a quite-inconsequential by-election.  Ask British Labour how much by-elections change.

3) On a related note I am coming, alarmingly, to think that Glenn Beck is asking the right questions. Terrible answers, to be sure. But right questions.

4) Chip Corbett sent me this article for comment.  2000 words later I’m still working on it. Suffice it to say, however, that once I got over my gentleman-and-scholar’s indignation over the death of the liberal arts I couldn’t help but laugh at the whingeing – wonderful word, no? It’s whining with a more aggressive spelling – liberal arts people who didn’t understand why nobody wanted to study them anymore. It is in fact because nobody wanted to study liberal arts in the first place but before it was necessary as part of the process of buying your way into a higher social class. (This is the point of college unless you’re already part of the upper class, in which case the point is basically gay sex.) I even had a long-winded but sadly appropriate comparison with the 19th century British officer corps. I can expound on this in conversation.

Long story short: people don’t want to study liberal arts – especially philosophy – not because their heads are filled with some airy capitalist stereotypes but because those stereotypes have never been truer than they are now. To quote scripture: physician, heal thyself.

5) I don’t care what anyone says, and I realize this is a distinctly minority opinion. But the only academy award that Inglourious Basterds will win, or deserve to, is Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz.

Incidentally, Christoph, if you’re reading this – like, I don’t want to be weird. But I think we’d be really good friends. We could get an apartment. Or something. Call me.

6) While I’m a bit disappointed that Ke$ha turned out to be white, it does make sense given her association with Flo-Rida and of course my enthusiasm is undampened. This may make me a bamma. If so, I’m fucking Obamma.

7) All joking aside, Obama is also a bamma.

8 ) It’s really too bad that there isn’t a national conference of clotheshanger manufacturers in Washington in early February.  I think it would do a lot for their collective visibility.

9) Brett Favre is really annoying when he does this:

This is not unlike the other 23 hours of his day; however it’s doubly-irritating that the song has approximately 12 words and he still fucks it up. This is not unlike another notorious fuck-up

I think the moral of the story here is get your facts right or you’ll end up being raped by a furry on a Van Hool bus to Portugal. (A suggestion which will almost certainly result in my being a target for a Keith Olbermann special comment.)  How ironic that tonight the purveyor of that violence will be Saints.

One of the things I like best about the news are the old people. They’re rather cute, in their puttering little way. They’re constantly on about something, like the absurd price of Ovaltine or the yellow peril. It’s presh.

No topic exercises old people quite so much as us. By us I mean, to put it perhaps indelicately, not-old people. Call us young, relevant. Sane. Whatever you like. We aren’t them and so it’s very important that they teach us everything they know, so we avoid their mistakes, like appeasing Hitler. (By the way, my ancient and venerable friends: check.)

Today RealClearMarkets has an article by a man called Bill Frezza, who would probably qualify as “old” even if he didn’t begin his articles with a reference to “my 26 year-old son.” Props to your fecundity, sir. My mother would probably describe it as a mixed blessing, but different strokes, right? Anyway. Bill – Mr. Frezza – sir is very concerned about Social Security. It’s “eat[ing] the young alive.” I know this because his article’s entitled “Watching Social Security Eat the Young Alive.”

His son got this letter – why do all old people’s stories begin with something that happened to their children? Things must happen to them too. Like when Mavis played a perfect game of shuffleboard until she slipped on Sidney’s umbrella and knocked away her last puck. Man, good times. I’m off-topic. Now I know how it feels.

His son got this letter from the Social Security Administration. Sinister, as all communications from the government are. The letter talked about his social security, and informed him that payments go into a “Trust Fund” which pays the people already in it. Mr. Frezza is shocked: “Paying off early investors with funds taken from later investors is precisely how Wikipedia defines a Ponzi scheme.” My word! Do you see how hip he is? He’s on the interwebs! Sadly he’s clearly not attended college in the last thirty years, as professors are a bit wary about accepting internet sources as credible. He missed that.

But I’ll humor him – so much of dealing with the elderly is – and look it up. The first line of the Wikipedia article as it now is reads:

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to separate investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from any actual profit earned.

Since he used the term first, for comparison:

In common law legal systems, a trust is an arrangement whereby property (including real, tangible and intangible) is managed by one person (or persons, or organizations) for the benefit of another.

Wow. The definition of “trust fund” is pretty similar to that of Ponzi scheme. I think he’s on to something. That government, with its tricks and its Jell-O and the whoopdee wootchow.

Except. Ol’ Hickory here overlooks a word. That word is fradulent. A Ponzi scheme is fradulent. It is built on a fraud. A trust fund, on the other hand, requires that I – to put it in my hippest terms that Bill could understand, let’s call me Dude A – know that I am putting the money forward to the benefit of somebody else. Dude B. (What a loser Dude B is. Yeah, dude. I mean you.)

So, for instance, if I were running a Ponzi scheme I would probably not send out a letter which reads

Dear Sir

You are paying a great deal of money that is going directly to beneficiaries who are not you. You are doing so in a manner which will not allow you to recoup these monies but, if you’re lucky, will create a situation where other people pay for you to get money back. But probably not, despite the impression I earlier gave you on the phone.



This would be silly, and against the spirit of the Ponzi scheme. It would also expose the recipient to their own stupidity in a way that buying into a business strategy constructed by Underpants Gnomes had not already, which is foolhardy.

(I provided the link for you, Bill, in case you got confused.)

After taking a sideswipe at the health care bill – which he’s also concerned about as everyone knows all young people are born with perfect health so why should they pay for insurance? – he gets to the root of the question. (Not before time, as Matlock is coming on.)

“An entire generation is being systematically robbed by their parents with nary a peep. Why aren’t they marching in the streets like we did? […] There only conclusion I can come to is that we Baby Boomers have infantilized our children into idiocy.”

Or your generation’s comprehensive failure to create either lasting prosperity or a durable welfare state means we don’t have the luxury of spending our twenties engaged in nakedly-frivolous acts of rebellion against generations past. Or perhaps we’ve been robbed of all our collective wealth by the inscrutable machinations of venture capital firms – like the one you work for, Bill! – so that the deregulation you pushed for has resulted in the funds we built up being liquidated in favor of bailouts subsidized by my tax dollars to save the money I put in the bank in the first place. I don’t know though, I’m kind of shooting in the dark. Us kids! No spirit.

This is not the first such article I’ve lately come across. As if the constant hand-wringing about our children (of which I was lately one) by anyone with a stake in politics is not enough, we have to suffer the constant attacks of old people who, having fucked comprehensively the society and indeed the planet they so callously inherited, are now intent on foisting upon us their jerryrigged fixes in an effort to preserve their aged social fiefs under the guise of altruism. Hence the Bush-era hundred-billion-dollar giveaway to AARP, and the stunning duplicity involved in simultaneous whining over cuts to Medicare in the light of the possibility of the introduction of general health insurance.

Who’s behind this? The old people lobby. You laugh, but the average age of a Congressman is presently 56; of a Senator, 62. There is one congressman in his twenties and only a handful in their thirties. Hardly surprising, when the “decentralized,” “local” and “bipartisan” nature of our politics means the most important thing is a lot of money (or friends with it) and no political background, if it can be avoided. No inconvenient principles to get in the way of caring for our children. We – the not-old – could always influence the process, of course, but there’s not much room for us because none of us have any money to donate. Which is why we’re so busy working, because our parents… You get the idea.

Now, you’re going to think that, on the reverse side of the coin, I blame old people for all of our problems. Considering they have all of the power, money and well-tailored lobbyists, yes, I do. But this is beside the point. I am looking instead for that rarest of qualities which my generation apparently lacks: responsibility.

You see, I’m tired of being hid behind. I’m tired of old people justifying their policies – or tragically more often, their rejection of policies – as a necessity for our children’s future. Or not passing the buck to future generations. Or whatever. Because the very ironic thing is that in so doing that is exactly what you accomplish. You’re saying, implicitly, that we should wait until future generations have their say – that they, or we, will make the decision when we’re ready. And you can say the same during the next one. And the next. There’s always a future generation that needs to be given its say, that can be used a shield to perpetuate the status quo in the name of generational justice. There is always an excuse not to choose now, because it is unfair, because it does violence to some as-yet unheard group.

I am aware of this difficulty. There’s even a term for it. It’s called governing. And by blaming your inaction and worse, your bad, self-serving ideas on the need to protect future generations – to protect me – you’re not only failing to govern and paternalizing us in the same way your parents did you, you’re guilty of those cardinal sins you accuse us of: Irresponsibility. Bad grammar. And cowardice. Moral, and political and practical cowardice.

So I say stop worrying about me, Bill. Look to your own defenses. I do not need to be protected, thank you. All the “coddling” you and people like you whine about isn’t helped by the prospect of the failure that is your ruling class taking it upon itself to engage in decades of hand-wringing – or worse, a radical rollback of the “failed” benefits system – based on your idea about what I need and how I need it. I can’t help notice, Bill, that the one thing your article doesn’t include is the part where you ask your son what he thinks. Maybe he agrees with you. But I don’t.

Because you’re right about one thing. There is a problem with how this country is run, with the people who run it and with the worldview you represent. It’s old and stale; it’s dying. And the solution lies not with the people who brought us to this pass. It is to let a new generation fuck it up all in its own unique way. When you finally get out of the way, Bill, I look forward to the opportunity. It probably won’t be the America you know anymore, but I don’t mind. I no longer care for yours. And generational justice is not about your fear and trembling over my future – it is letting me live my present.

That might not be a bad thing. Anyway, I’m pretty sure we can’t do as badly as you did. We think too much. Just not like you.

Geeks and Gaga: A gay romp

21 November 2009

First things first: I was incredibly pleased to see that one of the five hits I had today was from a Google search for Reginald VelJohnson. Does he have a fan club? I might start one.

But this is not about that. Instead it is about a little liberal boy in Arkansas. This little liberal boy decided to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance because of the failure of the Several States to grant gay marriage. In his own words:

I looked at the end, and it said ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ and there really isn’t… gays and lesbians can’t marry, there’s still a lot of racism and sexism in the world.”


I eventually, very solemnly, with a little bit of malice in my voice, said, ‘Ma’am, with all due respect, you can go jump off a bridge.’

Now I’m not going to fisk a ten year-old boy. I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t want to, since he’s clearly very confused about the role of ideals in public life and needs to read Paul Ricoeur. But the risk that he might find this and engage in a public and humiliating internets debate with someone more than twice his age, and that I’d lose, is just too great.

However. There is something I’d like to say to him. Do you know what I’d like to say to him?

Hey, kid. You’re ten. Chill the fuck out.

I say this, you see, because I was exactly like this kid. When I was ten, and he a mere glint in his father’s eye, I read Time and was desperately concerned about the Embassy bombings and the Lewinsky scandal. I spared no effort in ruthlessly boring my conservative Catholic school peers with these views, turning every carpool home into a valiant rear-guard action for the forces of the International Left. I even wanted to be a lawyer.

In keeping with the era – gag me with a spoon.

I’m glad this kid feels passionately about the issues of the day, I guess. But for his sake I’d prefer he felt passionately about Taylor Swift. Or Taylor Lautner, if those be his druthers. Caring about politics so deeply at such a young age presages the development of a very boring character animated only by some kind of deep-seated sexual perversion featuring choke play or airport restrooms. I think I’m living proof that the cost of a little bit of ignorance at ten is the avoidance of thousands of man-hours worth of therapy, a diffident attitude towards human suffering and an unhealthy relationship with Dr. Pepper.

But of course I don’t get therapy. That’s why I have you, dear reader(s?… oops, no, never mind).

Pain me as it might to say it, there’s a reason that the kids in his class call him a gaywad. It’s because it’s true. It’s not because he’s standing up for gays. It’s because he won’t shut up about gay marriage and had to go give the backwards substitute teacher a red ass when she otherwise would’ve left them alone to play DS and talk about Hannah Montana. Now he’s on TV being annoying on a grand scale. (And as usual thanks for being so hard-hitting, CNN.) They might think he’s cooler for it, but I’m doubtful. Very few ten year-olds want to be at the center of a political scandal. But there’s always one. And that one is a gaywad.

Now my radiclib friends (who are nevertheless less radical than I, as they’ve failed to embrace the importance of tyranny) will object to this. He’s taking a stand, which is noble and part of the great struggle for equality under the law.

Perhaps. But if one does not deconstruct a ten year old’s argument, because he’s ten and it’d be ridiculous and unsporting, why would we hold him up as a paragon of democratic virtue either? Especially given what it says about people of, uh, voting age, that we require a midwestern pre-teen to fight our battles for us. Doing one better we’ve taken this poor kid and now pretentious sacks of anus pus all over the country are writing blog posts about him.


So I’m going to stop. Right…

after this really creepy new Lady Gaga video. Which could be construed as either an argument for or against gay rights. I’ll let you decide. I’ve got to return a $5 bill to the bank in protest at our failure to realize the ideals of the Gettysburg Address.

Intarnets law?

4 October 2009

I’ll be honest.  I don’t spend a great deal of time being thankful I’m not British.  Quite the contrary.

Witness, then, a novelty.

Voters will be given the power to rewrite laws under Tory plans to transform the way parliament works by importing a popular scheme championed by Barack Obama in last year’s US election.


Under the Tory plans, a parliamentary bill would be introduced in the way it is now. The first and main debate – the second reading stage, in which the broad principles of the proposed new laws are debated on the floor of the Commons – would be held in the normal way.

But once MPs have held this debate, the bill would be thrown open to voters before it is considered line by line at the committee stage. A website would allow voters to comment on and rewrite the broad principles of the bill, and individual clauses.

Contributors would rank comments so the most popular suggestions appear at the top. This is similar to mixedink, which allows voters to argue for and against various policies and suggest their own ideas.

I have a question for the hapless Mr Hague, who has the misfortune of floating this trial balloon: have you ever been on the Internet?

Seriously.  The difference between an actual policy debate and that which you’re likely to find through such a “popular legislative process” is like the difference between Glee and, well, an actual high school a capella group.  Don’t believe me?  Go onto the comments pages of The Guardian, or Politico, or indeed the one or two occasions somebody I don’t know has commented on this blog.  If you believed what you see on the internet not only would you not want the people to make law, you wouldn’t want them to vote for the ones who do.

I feel a little bit of indignation bubbling up in you already.  What an anti-democratic argument!  Well, maybe.  But then the internet isn’t really democratic.  In the UK, as I’ve written before, things have gotten a lot more virulent even than America, but the question still remains: why do these evil corrupt Congressmen or MPs get to make our laws?  Because we keep choosing them.  They may be unresponsive, lazy sexual predators with their snouts planted firmly in the trough, but they are ours.  Both in theory and in practice there’s nothing stopping anyone from choosing somebody different. To go further there is no excuse.

But people on the internet – by whom are they chosen?  Who decides that they are “the people,” that they speak for some unrepresented segment of the population?  Precisely no one.  They choose themselves, and the reason indeed that they are so often ignored is precisely because of a chronic inability amongst much of the blogosphere to follow basic rules of civility and reason, much less digest complex topics like the cod quota or the politics of disarmament.

But of course this follows from a misunderstanding of “the people” that the political class, in its rush to cater to the Internet Generation, has all-to-quickly developed.  There is no People, at least not in terms of some vast group of unrepresented and unserved proletariat bubbling over with untapped ideas and revolutionary passion.  In both Britain and America there used to be groups such as these.  Something was done about it.  (And by legislatures bereft of these excluded masses.  Funny that.)

Measures like this are really just a reaction to general apathy towards the political process, not the exclusion of some mysterious silent majority.  In their effect they are not only dangerously populist but dangerously anti-democratic as well, in that they threaten to transfer under the guise of enhanced popular sovereignty a law-making power that previously was enjoyed by the people only through the representatives all had the right to accept or reject.  On top of this now will be placed a class of “law-makers” no one asked for and nobody wanted.  Good intentions being what they are, you put yourself on the receiving end of a downmarket House of Lords – the Senate meets the Sun.  (This really isn’t fair.  In the House of Lords there’s at least someone to check and make sure you’re not mad.)

Of course, one might reply, anyone can participate.  Those who do cannot be held responsible for those who do not.  True perhaps, but that is to elevate the theory at the expense of the practice.  If there were such a system, in which people could alter legislation, online, at will, and assuming in Wikipedia-style fashion anyone could, who would actually do it?  Not everybody.  Not the people without access to computers and/or the internet (in the US at least 20%, according to the International Telecommunications Union; I couldn’t find UK statistics but it’s probably comparable or higher; broadband penetration is far lower).  Higher proportions – far higher – for the poor, blacks, etc.  Scratch most of those who work full-time or more.  Mothers with children are probably out, especially if they’re single parents (of either gender).  Tinkering with legislation won’t pay the mortgage.



So who will be left, besides these groups too “apathetic” (i.e. struggling) to care?  The wealthy, the bored, and of-course-I-know-best political obsessives who are too reserved, selfish or extreme to actually seek office for themselves.  (Read: me.)  I don’t doubt a few decent people will trickle through – but I don’t doubt they’ll trickle back out again, most of them.  The effect will be that the best-off, most-driven and frequently most-extreme people will take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on the legislative process.  They will be little dictators each and every one.

The example of Wikipedia is instructive.  From its roots as an open source encyclopedia, it has gradually resolved into an organization with permanent staff, a bureaucratic structure that includes courts to resolve disputes between editors and a model heavily-dependent on a few very devoted and profligate senior editors, trusted through their experience and seniority to protect the vast store of information from the ever-present prospect of vandalism.  At least with Wikipedia I can still, if I like, go in and make productive changes.  With the law there’s no such chance: once it’s done, it’s done.  There’s no “work in progress” about it.

This is not to defame the prospect of models like open source governance.  It is promising.  But it is also young.  And this is true of the whole Internet – it moves far faster than even the most youthful and adaptable of its users (and certainly moreso than the legislators tasked with putting it to some political use), and law as an institution depends on consistency far more than adaptability or representativeness.  It’s far more important than you can count on the law than that it be modern or include you in its construction.  Most murder laws were written under an incomplete franchise.  That doesn’t make them bad laws.

This policy, like most attempts to shoehorn the internet into law-making, is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in an attempt to figure out where your sphere went.  It is the wrong solution to the problem of disengagement and inclusion.  Want the public to get back into politics?  Empowering a few frothing obsessives is not the answer.  Try public holidays on election day – public holidays in general.  A reduction of the work week so people have more time for politics.  Or subsidized child care.  Mandatory overtime.  Compulsory voting.  All very scary and socialist ideas probably.  But at least they have the benefit of being fair and of appealing to what is, in fact, the people, rather than those of their number who are indolent, obnoxious, and bored.

The poetry of Harry Reid

1 October 2009

From Politico:

“Remember, a public option is a relative term,” Reid said. “There’s a public option, there’s a public option, and there’s a public option. And we’re going to look at each of them.”

Uh… no.  There’s a public option, there’s a public option, and there’s a public option.  And they’re all the public option.  But thanks for that.

Though I suppose he’s right in the sense that no matter what a public option looks like he’s perfectly incapable of preventing any of these children from being devoured by Cronus, especially when there’s a half-billion dollar effort afoot to defeat the public option (and keep the bill, now that includes a mandate to buy health insurance at perhaps the worst possible time since World War II).

Of course this appeared in a British, not American, paper.  I don’t think it’s a cover up.  I think we’re just deadened to the influence of this money in the legislative process.  Given the expense of electoral politics these days, why not?

Perhaps processes like these would be a mite easier, if not more civil if we asked the question “Why not?” – and forbade mention of Hitler, or Stalin, or anybody wanting anyone else dead, in the answers.

Our German friends went to the polls this evening in what was variously described as a “yawner,” “soporific” and “one of the dullest in living memory” in which turnout reached a record low. How low is as yet unclear: there seem to have been about four million fewer votes cast this year (depending upon the number of outstanding ballots).  That kind of drop should translate to a fall of 5-7 percent in terms of turnout, for a “lowest ever” result of around 70-72%.

(Yes kids. 70% is the lowest ever in Germany.  Let this be a lesson that there are other – and I dare I hazard the sacrilege of saying better – ways of doing democracy.)

However I would submit that this has been a crucial poll for both Germany and the world.  Suffice it to say that Germany remains, even now (especially now), the economic engine of Europe.  Their unemployment is now below even our own – the benefit of a strong social safety net built at great cost during years of boom – and the first shoots of global recovery have appeared there.  Along with France it essentially decides the direction of Europe, flail though Britain might (indeed, rightly or wrongly); it is a cornerstone of America’s Afghanistan policy, its European policy, its Iranian policy, its Russian policy… I run on.  (And could.)  But in short, this was an election of great significance to us – and not, indeed, just for foreign policy. What is happening in Germany is heading for us, too.


On a basic level the political system is – was – dominated by two large parties and a number of smaller ones.  The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) are centre-right – though the name falsely implies some commitment to clericalism, more prominent in their Bavarian branch than generally.  They’re generally the party of rural areas, the country, and the south of Germany, especially Bavaria.  The Social Democrats (SDP) are centre-left – the party of the unions, workers, cities, especially in the north.  They have between them provided every Chancellor in modern German history.

In addition there are the Free Democrats (FDP, known colloquially as the ‘Liberals’), re-established along with the SDP and CDU/CSU at the refounding of the Republic.  They’re just that: though what we would call relatively “progressive,” as with most modern classical liberals  – sounds weird, especially as in America we term it “libertarian” – what the FDP really cares about is economics and driving government out of business.  As such it’s slightly socially moderating to either the SDP or the CDU/CSU, but economically quite radical.  Wealthier, college-educated urban Republicans would be quite at home here, and the FDP appeals to an educated, wealthy urban/suburban demographic.

Unlike other democracies (and totally unlike the US) Germany does not allow a leader to have less than the total support of Parliament, called Bundestag; that means no minority governments as in Canada.  Throughout most of modern German history neither major party could gain a majority in parliament.  This meant not only that the FDP always chose who governed, but assured that they were almost always in government.  Though they were always the bridesmaid and never the bride, this made them relatively impervious to shifts in the electorate or their own vote totals.  Vice-Chancellor Genscher thus served in that role for twenty years and was continuously in government for twenty-five years under three chancellors.  Neither party cared much for them, but there was rarely a way around them.

But in the 1980s two other forces have appeared.  The first were the Greens (known as Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, or Alliance ’90/The Greens, after the coalition between Western and Eastern parties formed after the fall of the Berlin Wall).  Starting slowly the Greens eventually shucked off their origins as a protest party and became willing to join a government (perhaps reflecting their growth from a niche environmentalist party to the favored outlet of the wealthy, urban left).  This was a major development: for the first time a government could be formed without the free-market FDP, making a socially leftist government possible.  It also tipped the subtle balance of German politics; given the unlikelihood of the Greens’ siding with the conservative Christian Democrats, it had the effect of opening up possibilities for the Social Democrats while driving the FDP even further into the CDU’s arms, as for the first time they faced opposition without them.

Reunification brought with it a new party.  First called the Party of Democratic Socialism, then combined with a coalition of ex-SDP members, the Left is a motley crew of ex-East German communists, far-left anti-communist reformers, disaffected Greens and Social Democrats, frustrated workers and welfare recipients.  It is the first quality that has made them anathema to the rest of German politics: initially it met with a cordon sanitaire of the type deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium and France to stop extremist parties from joining government.  At first it didn’t matter: the Left was a small party focused mainly in the East, so drawing fairly equally from potential CDU/CSU and SDP voters, and for the first decade of its existence it struggled both to repudiate communism and connect with the electorate.

Change is rarely spare

That changed in 2005.  The economic reforms of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder managed to trigger a Bangkok dilemma: his actions were considered unacceptable to leftists and insufficient to rightists.  The Greens, in power for the first time since 1998, occupied only three or four non-economic ministries and provided little resistance.  In 2005 the SPD-Green alliance rallied on the back of the personal unpopularity of Angela Merkel, then CDU/CSU leader; but it was to no avail.  The government lost its majority.

Left leaders Gregor Gysi (ex East German Communist, above) and Oskar Lafontaine (ex-SPD, below)

Left leaders Oskar Lafontaine (above) and Gregor Gysi (below). Guess who was a Communist

But the CDU/CSU did not gain one.  Indeed they lost nearly as many seats as did the SPD.  The big winner was the Left party, now co-headed by a high-profile SPD defector, Oskar Lafontaine.  Lafontaine and others balked at Schröder’s reforms, which were seen to be uncompassionate, excessively pro-business and – worst of all – Anglo-American.  From a low of just two seats in 2002 the Left gained 54.  This is basically because the German system, mixed-member proportional, makes big changes between major parties require big changes in the overall vote.  This rarely happens, and a government has a majority of only 20-40, including coalition partners.

Drive a wedge of 54 into that – 54 members of Parliament that no one will have and that consequently will vote against anyone – and you have a problem.  Germany had that problem.  No coalition of two parties gained a majority.  Of the many options only one was plausible: a “grand coalition” of both CDU/CSU and SDP.

How can two opposed parties work together?  Tenderly.  Schröder had to go – and go he did – and in his place were Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, formerly his second-in-command.  Steinmeier was a politician with limited public exposure, first as head of Schröder’s private office and then as Foreign Minister, and despite an even split of ministries between the grand partners it was Merkel who gained credit for being public-spirited and a “safe pair of hands.”

Despite predictions they survived the entirety of their four year term.  But predictably Merkel and the CDU/CSU entered the election with a big lead over the SPD.  The entirety of the election campaign did nothing to dent that lead.

Yesterday and what it means

The results are contained here.  (Don’t laugh, Wikipedia is filled with elections nerds, and unlike so many national election bodies writes with an eye to general clarity.)

The traditional CDU/CSU-FDP coalition “won.”  But this was on a very small increase in seats (13) for the CDU/CSU (and a drop in votes).  These were mostly “overhang seats,” a German quirk which basically awards bonus seats because an opponent wins more individual seats than their party vote would allow.  This benefits the two major parties, as they win most of these single-member seats on the basis of strong regional and local support.  (It makes its last appearance this year – German courts ordered it quashed by 2011.) The SDP lost a record 76 seats and came an anemic second.  Here’s the kicker, though: both major parties had their worst result ever.  Only a bare majority of Germans voted for both parties of government combined.

The FDP surged to 93 seats (the CDU/CSU had 239), which means their partners will contribute some 30% of the coalition’s total, a number unprecedented in Germany and indeed most modern parliamentary democracies).  This was the greatest night in their history.  Their success has been so profound that they are actually within striking distance of being Germany’s second party – an unheard-of development.

Both the Greens and the Left also had the best nights in their history.  Though they maintained only their single constituency seat, in urban Berlin, the Greens surged over the 10% mark for the first time to take 68 seats.  The Left did better still – they surged to 13 constituency seats, including a majority of those in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, and rose to 76 total.  Only the success of the FDP prevented the Left from forcing the two main parties back into grand coalition.  For the first time, the three opposition parties’ total votes and seats outnumbered either of the two parties of government.

It can’t be surprising that the collapse of the SDP aided both the Greens and the Left – despite leadership under leader Steinmeier which, if not stentorian, was not at all disastrous.  The SDP is at serious, even terminal risk of becoming merely a pan-German leftist fraction, splitting their traditional voters with the Greens in the West and the Left in the East.  There is no love lost between the two, especially as the Left is (bizarrely) depriving the Greens of some of their anti-establishment luster.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didnt drink it all in one go

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didn't drink it all in one go

But Merkel must be said to have lost, too.  Her majority comes from the FDP’s success and they will not fail to let her know it.  Worse, whereas the grand coalition allowed her to govern “above politics” while avoiding any difficult questions – with the SPD’s tacit consent – the FDP have become unashamedly radical in their economics and their opposition to green politics, and they will push Merkel in their direction.  She cannot simply shrug, as she did with the SPD, and agree that the differences are irreconcilable for the sake of the government.  (Hence the suggestion that she actually preferred the prospect of a new grand coalition.)  The FDP will take their ball and go home if she doesn’t give them almost everything they want, and it’s likely she’ll do just that.  The consequence of not doing so is implicit in this interview, where the FDP leader tries to put down fears about a “centre-right” government: this “party of all people” is perfectly capable of making a government itself one day, especially if they continue to shine in the face of a taciturn, unhelpful Christian Democrat majority.  “We wanted reform – our own allies betrayed us,” etc.

Clearly people are fed up in general, and there is a sense that the financial crisis has revealed that the traditional manner of doing business – by whomever – has failed.  All three smaller parties were fired up; anyone in government is meanwhile seen to be tainted.  This is a trend that has been growing and escalating as the post-9/11 world has taken shape.  It will continue to do, especially if the far right-wing National Democratic Party – neo-Nazis in all but name, handicapped only by being run through with agents of the security services – manages to begin making an impact.  So far, though, Germans are far more ready to cast a ballot for ex-communists than neo-fascists.


These trends: the decline and fragmentation of major parties; surge in support for parties with more hardened, philosophically coherent (and so inflexible) beliefs on the fringes of the political spectrum; and an increased tempo of attacks by the mainstream against that fringe which has the effect merely of eroding further their own popularity; they don’t exist in Germany alone.  Britain, France, and the US face similar problems and have electorates of similar prosperity and more similarity of mind than many think.  They may not vote for the same things, but all follow the same cues.

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

In the UK all three parties have been hurt by the financial crisis and the related row over MPs’ expenses.  As in Germany, the collapse of the primary center-left party has not unlocked a surge for the center-right: people want Labour out but they don’t want the Tories in.  In the meantime disaffection with the political system and calls for reform are reaching a fever pitch.

A brief surge in the popularity of independents and other parties seems to be abating, but then there are established fringe forces to turn to: the conservative anti-European UKIP, the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, and the ultra right-wing BNP.  As yet there isn’t really a well-organized leftist force along those lines, partly because of the defeat of the unions by the Conservatives and the Trotskyists by Labour coupled with the presence of two established, mainstream left parties who can exchange votes between them.

Strangely in a solely first past the post system, like the UK or US, you seem to get more minor and fringe parties than you ever do in a country that actually lets them win.

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

In France personality politics seem to count for more than ideologies (and really, Gaullism‘s less an ideology than a state of being), but the success of the National Front – they made it to the second-round of the French presidential election in 2002, which saw Jacques Chirac re-elected with 82% by a coalition of mainline conservatives and leftists of all stripes who encouraged a vote for “the crook, not the fascist.”  Though the rare and unexpected success was not repeated two years ago, terrible splits rage through the political class as the Socialists continue to gleefully tear each other apart and the entire ruling class of the governing UMP is embroiled in the Clearstream trial (or, put so much more delicately in its native italics, L’Affair Clearstream).  Clearstream sees the President of the Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, suing the last Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, for allegedly falsifying a document listing Sarkozy as the recipient of a defense kickback.

Such behavior obviously makes off-the-grid candidates like young Communist leader Olivier Besancenot and perennial Franco-German Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit more palatable to the general public. Interestingly 2007 saw a moderate force appear and challenge the two main parties for the presidency, the Democratic Movement under Francois Bayrou; but after failing to endorse either remaining contender and disappointing results in parliamentary and European polls it looks to fizzle.  People can say what they will – nobody votes for a moderate party.

Canada faces an even more daunting prospect.  Unable to form a majority government after three elections in four years, with another looming, the Parliament split between the center-left Liberals and center-right Conservatives is further cleaved by the increasingly left-wing New Democrats and the Quebecois sovereigntist Bloc.  Add atop that a Green Party which polls 10% but doesn’t win a seat and you have a centre-right, and at times quite right-wing, government for whom only about 35% cast a ballot, against left wing votes of something like 52% (and a further 10% who would prefer not to vote in Canada at all).  The continuing inability of Ottawa to form a government is really a consequence of the annihilation of the Progressive Conservatives at the 1993 election, masked for eleven years by outsize Liberal majorities drawn from the resulting chaos.

There’s little prospect of a similar fate for either the new Conservative government or the Liberal opposition – though one might take the selection of a philosopher as their leader to be a sign of some despair – but a snap election today would probably ratify that of the last two polls.  This is no “message” from the people, besides that they don’t much care for anyone they have and don’t think it’s worth voting for anybody they don’t.  Quebec, lacking a separatist majority, is so divided between the mainstream parties that it returns almost uniformly separatist members who wouldn’t take part in any government (despite a half-baked attempt to replace the Tories with a Liberal/NDP coalition with Bloc support, which triggered an extraordinary dissolution of Parliament and a change in the Liberal leadership.

And then there’s the USA.  Our situation is a bit different because of the overwhelming difficulty of altering the basic structure of our government (which assures it’s only been done once or twice, and then relatively minor changes); the non-parliamentary system of government which makes it more difficult to logically tie a Congress together with a government; and the non-ideological political parties.  Make no mistake: Democrats are liberal and Republicans conservative out of convenience.  History is littered with liberal Republicans (and continues to be clogged with conservative Democrats).  Our parties are first and foremost regionalist.

But indeed all of these factors coalesce to make the situation worst of all the others.  Our ossified political system, reflective of an age in which travel, communication and authority were totally different, practically breeds disaffected.  A high rate of abstention is one way.  Another is the recent spate of specifically ideological “independent” (of what?) movements.  Ross Perot and Reform and Ron Paul come to mind most prominently. (But not Ralph Nader; his relationship with the Greens was uncertain at best.)

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

The American system – for reasons totally alien to its practice – tends to suppress most of these movements.  That’s the effect of the primary system: force dissident candidates to fight intraparty elections rather than stand independently or found a new party entirely.  Like most of the progressive reforms of the early 1900s, primaries have had unexpected and almost totally anti-democratic side effects.  (Thanks for that, WJB.  Where was that cross of gold again?)  Not for nothing are the British Conservatives, riven themselves with internal dissent and still broadly unpopular, adopting the primary for their own candidates.

The object then becomes not the creation of new parties but the “capture” of existing ones.  The Democrats and Republicans are subject to an unending series of political, ideological and personal coups as different factions with different priorities attempt to seize control of the party – and through them government – via favored candidates.  (Hence the otherwise inexplicable vitriol on the liberal wing of the party towards Hillary Clinton, not usually thought to be a McCarthyite herself.)  Even these movements are often as geographic or personal as ideological – Nancy Pelosi has ensured the placement of liberal, Californian allies at the head of a number of key committees, even ousting and replacing John Dingell (Michigan – Ann Arbor and Detroit Suburbs) on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But even this broad, non-ideological two-party consensus – encompassing a space which would otherwise be occupied by five or more parties were they ideologically- or geographically-based – has come under increasing strain.  Progressive Democrats are having a harder time governing with conservative Southerners now than at any time since civil rights and the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber and other populist figures have driven a deep, festering wedge into the Republican ranks.

In some respects this year really has been an extraordinary one.  All of that plus the suggestion by a sitting governor that perhaps secession was legit after all and the inexplicable running battles over health care and climate (60% of the Congress is Democratic, yes?) and it’s no surprise that there’s a bumper crop of independents getting a lot of earlier exposure.

America’s a weird case.  In almost any other country I would say that both parties here are headed for a thumping (and both generally perform poorly in a generic ballot).  But the Constitution was not designed for parties and did not lend us a system that manages the inevitable ones well; and the two major parties have had decades – indeed centuries – to craft everything to their advantage and build up structures necessary to blunt even the best-funded challengers.  (We were speaking of Ross Perot.)  It also hurts that there are little in the way of central party structures; parties are not national affairs as in Europe because America is not a metropolitan country, with a clear center and periphery.  The people – political leaders, staffers, fundraisers – necessary, able and willing to craft any sincere challenge to the political center are not concentrated if they exist at all, and the ideological confrontation required for pieces of one party or the other to collectively defect simply isn’t there.  Animus, even hatred, has not yet translated into intolerance.  Part of that is because American politics is an older man’s game than most.  They are simply not as passionate, or hot-headed, depending on your view.

The party system we have will not last forever; but I can say that only in an abstract historical sense.  It could go on for a hundred years or a thousand or ten or through the day after tomorrow.  I don’t know.  There are signs that it’s corroding, and badly, in a way incomparable to the past – but this isn’t quite unique yet.  I am certain, if nothing else, that discontent with American politics will only continue to grow while the two parties continue their singular dominance of the country.  Don’t be fooled by good turnout recently (and ours still isn’t very good); it’s the break in the fever that foreshadows a renewed attack of the virus.

The bottom line is that it appears, at least to me, that the consensus built after World War II – not ideological, for that departed long ago, but the basic structure of how Western countries allow themselves to be governed – is breaking down.  Record losses for major parties, record gains for minor ones, fringe candidates with growing bankrolls and calls, even here, for broad-based electoral reform.  This evinces an entire hemisphere of people unsatisfied with their legacy.

The common thread seems to be a belief that the major political groups, the parties of government, have sacrificed a coherent, rigorous system of beliefs for the possibility of a vague electoral mandate.  Those parties and figures who reject that path, and prefer to offer an honest explication of their ideology, have begun to surge instead.  (Though in Europe and Canada more than here.)  If the parties of government are going to continue to be that in the future, the horror of triangulation and microtargeting will have to give way.  Ideology must be on offer; not just “real beliefs” or “convictions” coupled with vague platitudes about a stronger future but systems of seeing the world, the civil society, politics and the place of government in them.

Otherwise it will be extremists, unafraid to bare to the world their vision for it, who will benefit. For in a democracy ideological battles are no different than electoral ones: in the end it’s a matter of who chooses to show up.

This is out of the English Der Spiegel in Germany, complete with video.  They’re in the final weeks of a relatively boring, sanitzed campaign there – it’s hard not to be boring coming from four years of Seinfeld government – and apparently some local wags have decided upon a relatively, shall we say, unique campaign.  Flash mobs are dispatched – a singularly inappropriate word, I know – to speeches by the Chancellor (and Chancellor-candidate for the CDU/CSU) Angela Merkel.  At the end of every sentence – every single one – the mobbers shout “Yeah!” in the manner of an American tent revival.


At one point Merkel apparently chided the crowd for simply saying “Yeah!” to

Presumably, this is not what theyd intended to cheer.

Presumably, this is not what they'd intended to cheer.

everything, so the crowd immediately started shouting whatever word Merkel’s last sentence ended with, regardless of relevance.  The article cites cheers of, “Growth!” “Five!” and – yikes – “Back door!”  I’ll bet her speechwriters will learn a valuable lesson about ending sentences.  Or perhaps they’ll work with it?  Can you end sentences in a preposition in German?  I’d delight in the spectacle of 20,000 people shouting “With!  Of!  For!”

Most of the people interviewed for it confessed that it was basically for fun.  However assholes like me can’t help but search for political subtext in it.  (And to be fair there are reasons things come across as ironically funny.)  Spiegel suggested, via a blogger, that the “protests” (?) were “all about reclaiming public space for debate.”  Another confessed a desire to find “a subtle [Huh?] way of presenting the other members of the crowd with a big question mark.”

Personally, I see it as no small reaction to the scripted, anemic character of modern political events.  Anyone who has ever watched the excruciating display of a presidential speech, with every other phrase interrupted by polite semi-spastic applause from an acceptably docile audience (and despite exceptions this is no more true of anyone than of Obama) can appreciate the desire to break loose from this stultifying spectacle.  In this sense the crowd’s repetition of whatever word Merkel concludes with is rather trenchant, wrecking the careful rhetorical balancing act that has turned every political statement into an act of Byzantine diplomacy, endlessly-dissected by a political lumpenproletariat that would make Marx blush.

In the event, I would be pleased to see this trend spread.  Perhaps I could even recommend a theme song for the Yeahppie movement.

Marked for life?

8 September 2009

One of the more curious features of the 24-hour news cycle seems to be that it contributes to this weird Lazarus phenomenon amongst disgraced public figures.  It’s inevitable that there should be a flip side to the intense, hysterical, vitriolic heat that falls upon a politician or celebrity accused of the most passing and insignificant of failings.  It appears to be that attention is so focused that just a year or two later we no longer remember who the person is.  Frankly I can’t help but acquiesce to that; if your life must be utterly destroyed it’s best that society at least grants you the opening to rebuild it.  Being all to human myself – to my occasional disbelief – I think that perhaps it’s better than the long, low-level shunning we used to dole out to reprobates in public life.

The newest member of this club since Eliot Spitzer‘s semi-resurgence is Mark Foley, formerly a Republican-Florida-Central Southeast and Everglades and inadvertent architect of the Democrats’ 2006 sweep. He’s apparently got a new radio show out called “Inside the Mind of Mark Foley” (if only it really were) to debut on “Adult Standards” AM Radio in the Palm Beach-Miami area.  He’s apparently being billed most for his health care savvy, as he was member responsible for the subject on the Ways and Means Committee.  This is one of like twelve committees dealing with public expenditure, all of which are apparently very powerful.  Let’s hope he’s been taught a little humility and doesn’t make the meal of it that everybody else in the media has.

Press release here.  Hats to the almost inevitable Politico Scorecard blog.

The 1969 Anglo-Irish War

4 September 2009

This week a recently-released documentary on RTE, the Irish national television station, made a rather stunning claim: that at the height of the Troubles an Irish plan to invade and seize the North was seriously meted by the government of then-premier Jack Lynch.  The documentary, If Lynch Had Invaded…, suggests that the incursion would have had dramatic consequences, including Irish ostracism at the UN and the likely decimation of the invaders by responding British forces.

The Irish Times saw a copy of the military report, vaguely entitled “Interim Report of Planning Board on Northern Ireland Operations.”  (I could only find the introduction, which the Times ran four years ago, here.)  It assumed an Irish attack without warning or declaration and that even a total commitment by the understrength Irish Army would be violently checked by the British.  (At the time the entirety of the Irish Army was only a bit more than double the size of the British forces in Northern Ireland at the time, themselves a small fraction of the British forces available for home service.)

Though the veracity of the claim that Irish ministers actually pushed for war has been challenged, the fact that the ministers concerned were forced out or resigned shortly thereafter for covertly selling arms to the IRA doesn’t lend me much room for doubt.   Either way it’s an interesting description of how far the benighted “Irish Question” has come, considering that a threatened British withdrawal from the North five years later was met by furious opposition from the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister.

[UPDATE: Someone has posted the documentary in full on YouTube.  First part is here.]

Remembering Ted Kennedy

28 August 2009

Keith Richards was once asked what he thought about the death of Princess Diana.  He replied, “I don’t know.  I never met the chick.”

So long, Senator.