Am I actually still writing this?  Bah. Part 1 here. 2 here.

The night before the day after the night of

Speaking of elections-to-come.

British polling organizations rely on national polls of voting intentions taken via various means, much like national polls in the US. A few sources (Electoral Calculus and the UK Polling Report, principally) are available to translate that result into what really matters, namely seats in parliament. In that sense, individual parliamentary races function much like state-by-state campaigns in a presidential election. In Britain results are individually more or less important for the personalities they return, but the end result is the same: hit the magic number and win. The polls, therefore, are less an effort to see who will “win” – or what the British people are thinking – than to determine the difference between this time and last time. That’s the swing.

When there are two parties really competing for government and a third with some areas of strong localized support and steady but diffuse strength everywhere else, this is generally a useful exercise.  But when all three unexpectedly start to poll the same nationally, the system goes haywire. This is especially true when you add regional differentiations, unevenly distributed turnout and the targeting of specific seats, at which LibDems and minor parties have grown adept. In the last election, which began to lay bare these predictive deficiencies, Electoral Calculus mis-predicted 74 seats, 52 of which resulted in an erroneous prediction. It suggested a Labour majority of 130 rather than the 66 which was actualized. The swing between Labour and the LibDems in key marginals was 6.7%: but Labour lost Cambridge on a 15% swing and Manchester Withington on 18.4%. (And these were not the only ones.) Strange, unexplained results in what was otherwise a relatively-average election. What happens when the same factors are at play but with all three parties even nationally? What happens when a relatively small number of three-cornered contests become four-sided or five-sided with independents and nationalists? What happens when talk of a majority is totally anachronistic? (And what happens when it isn’t?)

If you ask me, the models are crap, the polls no longer tell us anything – in marginal seats or nationally – and nobody will have much of a pot to piss in on election night. I think that fact in itself is meaningful. We’ll get there yet.  (I’m not doing a fucking Part IV – if I do I’ll have to write about Toynbee tiles or something weird.)

Watch out, Radioactive Man!

Yes, that was a reference to a show nobody watches anymore. But more on Gordon Brown later. (Snap.)

On BBC America and similarly British themed broadcasts and bootlegged internet streams (which, if you know of one, I’d be obliged if you’d share) the election broadcast will start shortly before 5pm Eastern. British polls close nationally at 10, and shortly thereafter the BBC’s Election Night broadcast will report its exit poll, which will predict not merely share of the vote but seat totals, swings and a potential majority. Or not, as the case may be. For the next few hours after that, not much will happen – as counting proceeds only a few seats will declare their result before 12:00. This declaration consists of a returning officer, having concluded the final count, reading out the results for each candidate and then announcing who has been elected, after which each reads a speech. It’s wonderfully dramatic and avoids the disgusting back-and-forth we have in this country, but it’s trustworthy because the seats are too small to rig convincingly. (Though they do try.)

Here’s an example from 1997: (The creepy man whose picture opens the video is actually Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the new seat of York Outer. Ouch. Fortunately he won’t win.)

For the past several elections, the first place to declare was Sunderland South, a urban riding in the North that was held from the darkest days of the 80s by Labour’s Chris Mullin. Mullin is not running again and the Sunderland has been broken up from two seats to three: Sunderland Central, Houghton and Sunderland West and Washington and Sunderland West. One of these three will be the first to declare, and chances are none of the three will take longer than three hours. If any of them fall it would open the curtain on a catastrophe for Labour – the most marginal, Central, needs a 13% swing to the Conservatives. It’s not likely, but they will be useful barometers for the rest of the night – pay especially attention to the Liberal Democrat vote, as they’re targeting heavily Labour areas for upsets.

Some of the other early seats, in a change of pace, may be from Northern Ireland. In the past these were only of regional interest – Northern Irish seats are dominated by local parties on either side of the sectarian divide. However the Ulster Unionists, the old ruling class of the northern provinces, saved just one seat in 2005 against the onslaught of the hardline Democratic Unionists and in an effort to stave off electoral oblivion announced a merger with the Conservatives. The result is the first credible candidacy of a national party there since the Sunningdale Agreement. It’s not clear whether the new Ulster Conservatives and Unionists, as they now are, will save the single seat they presently hold much less gain. Only two seats fall within a 5% swing, but David Cameron has been working Northern Ireland hard and the sympathies of the Democratic Unionists are also with him. (Though Brown won’t be counted out, in the entirely unreliable words of the Daily Mail. How this is a “bribe” but Cameron’s dangling of government jobs something more principled is beyond me.)

At that point some more results will start to pour in. Tis’ much to go over 650. But here’s a few things – both seats and trends – to watch:

Celtic Kittens: Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales have been largely closed to the Tories since 1997, when they were eviscerated in both, and since Labour have come to power they have prospered from vast new investment. The conservatives regained one seat in Scotland – with difficulty – in 2001, which they held – with difficulty – in 2005. The Scottish Nationalists saw their UK MPs increase to six and in 2007 won one seat more than Labour and formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. The LibDems did well, taking nearly 20% of Scottish seats, twice their UK average. In Wales Labour suffered slightly to the Conservatives and LibDems and lost a seat on a huge swing to an independent candidate, Peter Law. Shortly after he died of cancer – his election agent, Dai Davies, now holds the seat and is standing again.

Scotland has been one of Labour’s bright spots during the campaign – successive surges by the other three parties have been seen off, the luster is off the Nationalists and there’s surely real sympathy for Gordon Brown. It’s now a reasonable question whether Labour might actually gain seats. (At least one seat, lost in a by-election in 2008, is likely to return to the Labour fold, though this won’t count as a “gain” since Labour was the winner at the last regular election.) If Labour suffers but only slightly, as some polls have indicated, only the lowest of the low-hanging fruit is likely to fall. The Tories will continue to have a single Scottish MP.

Wales is tougher: it has a stronger native Conservative tradition, especially in rural areas, and fewer Nationalists and Liberals to act as a buffer. (Unlike elsewhere, the Liberal vote moved almost wholesale to Labour in the 20s and 30s and has infrequently looked back.) A referendum, held the same day, on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly are likely to focus the attention of locals on devolution of powers, an early and influential Labour reform. The Conservatives look likely to gain, but only because their vote before was so low. The Nationalists may as well. If the Conservatives gain fewer than six seats Labour’s had a good night. The reverse if they take more than eight. I think Labour will take back the independent seat.

Minor parties: Only a few seats are held by independents. (Excluding several MPs who’ve been thrown out of their parties; most of these are standing down.) We’ve already mentioned Blaenau Gwent. Bethnal Green and Bow in central London was taken by George Galloway in 2005 in protest at his expulsion from Labour (prompting this interview, which single-handedly proved to my 17 year-old mind why British elections are better – by the way, yes, their MP is Scottish). Wyre Forest fell in 2001 when Labour cuts threatened to close a local hospital.

I think all three are likely to fall. In the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent, shortly after Peter Law’s death, the official Labor candidate came close to regaining the seat. By-elections are traditionally opportunities for an easy protest vote on a low turnout. So it was, but that Labour came so close says that the drama surrounding the 2005 result has faded greatly. With no real opposition from the other three Welsh parties, this looks a Labour gain. Same with Bethnal Green, where George Galloway has abandoned the seat to a lesser light. It should be an even easier take. Wyre Forest is a Conservative seat, but Dr Richard Taylor benefitted from both the old Liberals and the LibDems standing aside in his favor. This year both will feature, and even in 2005 the Conservatives gained 10% in a strong area. The presence of UK Independence Party (anti-Europe) and right-wing British National candidates may help or hurt him; but either way, he’s unlikely to survive.

Independents are unlikely to disappear from the Commons, however. In Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, the spokewoman for the Green Party, has an excellent opportunity to gain their first seat at the expense of Labour. They’ll need a swing of only 7% in their favor, assuming the Conservative vote holds steady; but since 2005 this seat is a 4-way marginal between the three main parties and the Greens, and promises a cliffhanger of a result.

In Luton South, Esther Rantzen, who you would charitably describe as a television personality, is standing as a general anti-everything candidate and may win herself or let in the Tory or LibDem at Labour’s expense, while Labour may gain at Castle Point where expelled Conservative MP Bob Spink chose to fight on as an independent. If he takes a third of the old Tory vote, Labour takes it.

Each of these results may seem small-scale: but if no party wins a majority, especially if they’re only one or two a way, they take on new and specific importance.

How do the LibDems actually do?: One or two polls this week have shown the third party dropping back to their pre-debate numbers; others have them ahead of Labour. All polls agree the Tories will take first, but the relative success or failure of the Liberal Democrats in England will make the difference. Indeed the sole reason the Tories are not gaining a majority is because expected gains from the LibDems aren’t realizing.

They’ll gain seats in the Southwest, an area of strength for hundreds of years. But their strength here limits opportunities; there just aren’t many seats to take. Watch West Dorset, the seat of the Tory former Shadow Chancellor and a frequent LibDem target: if it falls, the Tories will be having a very bad night. The Southeast is ultrasafe for the Tories, but the areas in between – South of London and East of Portsmouth – are the key LibDem-Conservative battleground. Until recently the LibDems were danger of heavy losses. They may still be. Guildford is an ultramarginal that changed hands in the last two elections. Watch who wins and by how much for clues to the surrounding areas.

North of London, especially along the East of England, both Tories and LibDems will be fighting to exploit a drop in the Labour vote. The LibDems are at a disadvantage in that they didn’t expect to be targeting so many potential gains, but their candidates are generally solid, decent local people who can speak well in an electorate furious with the political class. A few specific areas stand out. The LibDems heavily targeted the city of Newcastle’s seats last time and narrowly failed to seize them, as they did with several key seats in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. They will need to make gains from Labour in such Northern urban and suburban seats to realize a total above 100.

And now, my final thought

It’s like writing a goddamn novel. I have to be in Congress Heights in the morning.

At the wire polls have swung the Conservatives’ way. If borne out, they may be in range of a majority.

I don’t think they will be. In fact, I think – against all reason – that Labour may yet have a good night. After the swings and the BBC gimmicks and the snotty interviews and the bad computer animation, and after all of the crap Gordon Brown has received, I think he’ll be right in his prediction that the people who haven’t quite decided – and they may be 40% – will come back.

The British press hate Gordon Brown. They hate him when he’s decisive and they hate him more when he waffles. They hate him for what he does and for what he doesn’t do – they hate not what he does with power but that he has it at all. They hate him because he’s ugly and half-blind and worst of all Scottish, the bad aftertaste of Tony Blair and the offensive reminder of the favoritism granted the regions for their loyal support of Labour. They hate him for good reasons and more often for bad ones. A lot of people agree with them.

But not all. Just like not all agreed that John Major was shit just because he came after Thatcher. In 1992 a “Shy Tory” factor kept him in power – disastrously, it turned out. Voting Conservative may not have been cool, but a lot of people did, to borrow Goldwater’s phrase, know in their hearts that he was right. I think the contrast Brown draws with Cameron and Clegg is precisely the sort that would encourage this sentiment – and this week in the campaign seemed to be the first time Brown himself believed it.

For a man who may not have a job tomorrow, he’s bounding around the country with something like a spring in his step. Maybe that’s the key difference: he can risk being effusive rather than dour precisely because nobody expects anything from him anymore. At the least they’ll be able to say he went out with something like grace. At the most…

Well.  At the most I’ll need a Part IV.

The equally-gratuitous Part I.

Trench foot-in-mouth

Last week Gordon Brown called a voter who strode up and gave him what-for about immigration from Eastern Europe “bigoted.” After forgetting to take out his microphone. Whether it counts for anything or not is totally unclear – in 2001 the famously surly deputy prime minister hit a guy and Labour got a huge majority. But it’s not for nothing that this is the first real coverage Brown has individually got in weeks. This fracas sadly encapsulates Labour’s war so far – they haven’t been able to catch a break, nobody’s listening and nobody thinks you matter.

(As a personal note, I agree with Gordon Brown. Really I like him better the more everybody else hates him. But more on that in Part III.)

It is a strange sort of revenge for Labour’s resistance to proportional representation that Gordon Brown is learning how it feels to be the leader of “the other party.” Though Labour’s numbers have held relatively steady and the resurgent Liberal Democrats are beginning to drop back, the race between two fresh, dynamic, not-grizzled leaders looks better when you don’t stick Mr Shrek MP up next to them. Labour, having developed a taste for the blood of its own leaders, is watching large chunks of its support drift away (to apathy and to LibDems – less to Tories) and indications are that the campaign is totally falling apart. Senior party leaders are apparently trying to convince Gordon Brown to stay on as a caretaker in the event of a loss in an attempt to prevent deputy leader Harriet Harman – whose abrasive style and overexact behavior as Women’s Minister earned her the nickname “Harriet Harperson” – from gaining an indomitable foothold.

As the tetchy campaign enters its final week, both Labour and Tories rounded on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on a promise of amnesty for illegal immigrants and extremely ill-advised declarations about his intentions should the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in Parliament. These have allowed Brown and Labour, with some success, to declare that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is by proxy one for Cameron – and certainly even Brown-hating Labourites will find irritating his attempts to dictate their choice of leader. David Cameron’s Conservatives have too late realized the danger of the LibDem surge and are only now turning their guns on Nick Clegg after generic attacks on a hung parliament fell flat. A strong performance in the final Leader’s Debate has helped Cameron – no poll since 20 April has showed a vote-winner other than the Conservatives – but the chances it will save him from electoral ambiguity are fading. The election’s had its big bang moment: the focus now shifts from the general campaign to contests in 650 individual seats.

The election-to-come

The quote at the top is from a commentator on election night 1997 when Labour won 418 seats and exterminated half of John Major’s Cabinet.

Derrida (in a random and slightly gratuitous philosophy reference that I’m probably going to fuck up) liked to talk about the “democracy-to-come”: how democracy doesn’t constitute anything intrinsically but is a perpetual work-in-progress, moving and shaping with the passage of time and the change of mores as people and elites assert control in new ways. It’s not going anywhere, as such: there’s no pre-arranged destination, no inevitable moment of completion and triumph. Democracy is a political system that meanders down the road, leaning forward, nervously eyeing its surroundings. If so, in Britain this week democracy is hurtling down an expressway. But where to?

The Liberal Democrat surge has guaranteed that this will be the key question in any new Parliament: not who will govern but how British government will be. If the Conservatives don’t win a majority the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power. It is a decades-long party policy that they cannot participate in a regime that does not pursue electoral reform, and for the first time they will be large and decisive enough to enforce that policy. Hungry for power though they may be after a hundred years out of government, they are not likely to break this commitment.

Labour will lose. Nothing can stop that now. But their ability to survive – not as a party of government but as a party at all – now hangs in the balance of this vote. If Labour does indeed drop into third and 100 seats or more fall, a massacre of Labour’s leading lights could follow. It is, ironically, like an asteroid is coming towards the Labour party. What they need in the event of a loss is enough diversity so that the gene pool of potential leaders and their supporting personalities remains robust enough for them to quickly rebound. Two factors are working against this.

The first is that low turnout, high profile Labour safe seats, like David Miliband’s South Shields, are precisely the ones likely to give up a larger-than-average swing should the election go horribly wrong. Labour’s strongholds in the North are the most likely to suffer in such a situation, and given independent interventions and a large swing towards one challenging party could overtop the superficially large majorities held by several Labour ministers like brothers Miliband or the family BallsCooper. (Teehee – Balls.)

Labour may also suffer because of Brown’s reliance on peers in government, who are unelected but can still occupy most government positions. Three peers sit in Cabinet positions which can be held by MPs – two as Secretaries of State and one, Lord Mandelson, as Gordon Brown’s right-hand. A larger number are junior ministers at the highest profile departments – 3 of 9 at Business, excluding the Lord Mandelson; 2 of 5 at Defence; 3 of  5 at the Foreign Office. The competence of these officers aside, these are all positions which are not being used to blood MPs who will be the beating breast of a Labour opposition (and the core of future Labour leadership teams). With the attrition likely if a severe loss comes on Thursday and the potential loss of many junior ministers who sit as MPs, including the most politically sensitive in marginal seats, a rump Labour party would likely fall into the hands of its safest and most hardline members, possibly under an unexpected and inexperienced leader. The Conservatives know how this feels. But they will not share Labour’s pain.

Any hung parliament is unlikely to last long, especially if it results in any kind of broad electoral reform – a new poll will have to follow any alteration in the governing system. If so – and if Labour is unlikely to be a party to the decisions that shape such a reform – their concern should not now be this Thursday. It should be election night November 2010, or May 2011, or whenever this Parliament teeters to its conclusion. By then Tories and LibDems alike will truly have dipped their hands in the blood and they will suffer the burden of having no time for any proposed remedies to take effect (which is why Cameron is so desperate for a majority government – he’ll need his full five years, at least). Labour could profit from this, especially if any Conservative-LibDem regime tears itself apart over reform.

So this was supposed to be 2 parts. w/e. I have a lot of opinions.

Many of you have come up to me – in the street, in bars, during my wheatgrass colonic – and asked, “Peter, I have to know – what do you think of the British election?”  Normally I don’t like to comment on politics, as my friends know. Religion and sex acts with clowns are spicier conversation. But – oh, what the Hell.

Beforehand: since the six of you who read this are almost entirely American, you might ask, “Why should I care?” If “because I tell you to” is an insufficient answer, consider: the United Kingom is one of America’s ten largest trading partners and London stands shoulder-to-shoulder with New York as a global financial center; next to the United States, Britain is one of the four or five countries whose fiscal decisions reverberate through the world; and this will be the first time a democratic government under a market capitalist regime will be judged on the economic crash and its response to it. (Remember Obama was elected before ARRA and TARP really hit home.) With a skeptical free-market Conservative government challenging an interventionist Labour, this election is arguably a dry run for November here. You might not be surprised to see some of the same themes bleed in: it wouldn’t be the first time.

Baby got back… ground

Yeah, not inspired.

Gordon Brown has been the Prime Minister since summer 2007. He was originally Chancellor – keeper of the purse strings and holder (slash-frequent squeezer) of the Prime Ministerial testicles. That he became Chancellor and Tony Blair party leader and shoo-in for premier despite the latter being nominally the junior partner is said to be down to a mickey slipped him at a Italian restaurant called Granita, which is a singularly inappropriate place to decide the fate of a country. (At least one without a romance language). Despite getting unprecedented control over government policy for someone not actually responsible for making it, Brown was not a happy camper. He got no happier when – if the deal is to be believed – Tony Blair stayed on past and then well past the agreed time. Gordon Brown learned the hard way that though the banker’s offer may be the smart move, you could still be giving up the $1,000,000 briefcase. (649,875 GBP.)

Brown eventually hounded Blair out a decade after he took office after Blair was forced to deputize him to save the last election campaign in 2005. Brown thought the popularity he’d built up as a surly, hard-charging, hard-spending Chancellor would continue when he ascended the throne himself – and for a time it did. Then came the election that wasn’t. To be fair I don’t think it was really Brown’s fault – but speculation about a snap poll in late 2007 got out of control and he did nothing to stop it. In Britain the date of the election is not fixed, so to dangle the prospect of going to the people and then pull back at the last moment is a most dangerous electoral cocktease.

He’s been sleeping on the couch ever since. But the swarthy Scot is lucky that there has been no grand adversary to match the depth of his own party’s despair. No Margaret Thatcher, no Tony Blair, indeed no Ronald Reagan waits in the wings, ready to cruise onstage as the growling saturnine Scot departs. David Cameron’s Conservatives have failed to convince a skeptical public that he’s not Margaret Thatcher, whom the entire country appears to have retroactively decided was an LOL they turned into a great big OMG. Until recently, the third-party Liberal Democrats – alternatively left-liberal, free-market libertarian and a little bit country – were set to draw 20% of the electorate no matter what happened, ensuring that any winner would form a government on a very low vote total. (I am going to link relatedly to myself again. I have absolutely no idea where I found the time to write all this garbage. Unemployment? I kind of miss unemployment.) Short version is that because Parliament’s elected like the US Congress, if the Speaker of the House ran the fucker, a party which gets 20% of a 3-sided vote everywhere will not win anywhere, even if a proportional result would give them a far bigger seat at the table. In 2005 the Liberals won 62 seats on 22.1% of the vote while a numerically proportional result would have seen them take 142. Most of these were in Southwest England, Scotland, and a few scattered urban seats (most often with heavy college populations or young, affluent outer cities).

Another 35-40 seats, occupied by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, single-issue independents, vanity MPs and the inevitable Irish constitute a wedge which in years past counted for no one. Practically, then, to form a government one party has to win 326 seats out of only 550-575, while the remaining 70-100 aren’t going to be in play at all. This in a country in which government by more than one party is basically unthinkable. (At least, as unthinkable as German rearmament.)

The only thing missing was Jim Lehrer… and “that one

For the first time in British political history, the cancer of American-style politics spread to the concept of a televised leader’s debate. They do it in Australia, they do it in Canada – it was only a matter of time. It was refreshing to me that starting it with the benefit of all our experience didn’t mean it was any better; while the Brits themselves seemed to be frothing at the mouth over this particular to-do, the parts I watched were just as much a pointless robotic clusterfuck as any presidential clash. It was rather like watching three middle-aged men play Trivial Pursuit, except all the questions were People & Places and nobody ever got a wedge. (“I talked to Wanda, in Bournemouth…”)

But the result was nonetheless remarkable: the Liberal Democrats surged from distant third to close second. They’ve always consistently struggled less with their message than getting anyone to hear it, despite a series of seasoned, well-spoken parliamentarian-leaders and broadly popular liberal policies. The election of Nick Clegg as their leader in 2007 looked for a long while like a major error – a 40 year-old former European MP only elected to Parliament two years before, Clegg never seemed very comfortable in the House Commons and was regularly put aside by a flagging Gordon Brown and his own seasoned deputy, shadow Chancellor Vince Cable. For two years Clegg polled behind the other two leaders and his own predecessors (who had the added disadvantage of also being Scots). He was always shit.

And yet neither Labour,  digging in against a televised leader’s debate, nor the Conservatives clamoring for it, realized that they were in fact drinking a nice big draught of hemlock. From here it looks like Clegg’s secret weapon has turned out to be that he’s the most American of the three – he’s good-looking and easy with the camera, exudes congeniality and above all else he’s seen to be calm, clear and level-headed. If the little worm bastard is any indication (sadly, they have that too), people don’t particularly like conflict in these debates – because, unlike Prime Minister’s Questions, viewers have the impression of being spoken to directly rather than watching others debate. Nobody likes to be yelled at, which is why Brown and Cameron have stumbled when they’ve tried to mix it up – they’re schooled and skilled in parliamentary swordplay. You wonder if even Tony Blair, the talk show Mr. Cool, would have been as well-suited to this format as Clegg.

He’s also a novelty. After three years people seem kind of tired of Brown and Cameron – the drawbacks of 24-hour saturation media is that a lot of people are seeing a lot more of you than they really ever wanted. Having had very little opportunity to speak to a mass audience, Clegg and the LibDems not only appears fresh and their ideas more interesting and innovative but, most importantly, they haven’t yet had time to annoy the entire world. He gets the sort of freshness of the Obama effect without the sixteen months of campaigning that slowly wore it away.

The proof is in the pudding. After the first debate Nick Clegg was unanimously thought to have won, in most cases by margins in double digits. Brown and Cameron alike polled about equally-poor second places. The LibDems’ numbers floated around 20% and hadn’t poked above their 2005 result in many months – after the debate they have not dropped below 26% and regularly top 30. For the first time in – awhile? Ever? – the third party came top in the polls. New numbers haven’t come out since the second debate, but while instant reaction registered a closer result, it still gave a Clegg win. At a stroke, the question became not whether the Conservatives could gain a majority but who would even be the largest party.

I’ll probably publish a part two when I feel like it. Or not.

Now, I know all about social media.  I’m on the Facebook, I read the Twitter, I blog, and under my bed is the President’s nuclear football which I came by via – well, never you mind. The point is I’m a pretty tech saavy guy. I am also as poor as America is gullible, so today I’m devoting my considerable(y) mental powers to the discovery of new and exciting ways you can make the surge in social media work for you. Why, you ask? To be honest, entrepreneurship sounds like a lot of work.  I’d rather print out this time-stamped blog post and after a good five years come after you in the courts and give your clock a hardcore cleaning.

Twittergrams!

Because I’m very relevant and hip I saw Valentine’s Day the second weekend in March. And let me tell you, I loved it. It was like The Devil Wears Prada crossed with The Shining. But the entire film was very old-fashioned. Everybody was getting each other flowers and going out to dinner and having phone sex. I mean, phone sex? 1995 called. It wants its $19.95 back.

So I figured I’d create the new phone sex. However several exhaustive(ing) searches of the internet lead me to believe that somebody else already has. Again and again and again, in fact. Perhaps everything that can be invented already has – but then I thought, “Hey, there are things that make money that don’t involve sex.” Like pizza. Mostly.

So I turned my attention to amore instead, and asked the question twitterpated young men and women have for millennia: how do I monetize love? But of course, the answer was in the question. It’s easy peasy titty squeazy.

People are always sending their beloveds little notes. Cards, candygrams, valentines. But why express yourself when you can e-xpress yourself???? That’s where my twittergrams come in. Nothing says “I love you” like an unrelated third party saying “I love you,” and the strict requirement for 140 characters or less means that you get all of the romance with none of the hand-wringing over saying the perfect thing. There simply isn’t room!

You can identify yourself (unless you’re Greek – the names simply use up too much of the available space) or you can be an anonymous suitor routing your love through an intermediary like a drug lord engaged in a complex international money laundering scheme. And believe you me, nothing says eligible bachelor quite like money laundering. Add to that a variety of messages, from a classic “I love you!” to a spastic “LOVE YOU!” to the internet-age “luv u” to custom messages with a little more personal flair. What woman could resist a man who whispers, “I wanna be with you so much we cycle together”? What man can stand the temptress who coos, “I love you like Jerry Jones loves himself”?

Baby’s first Facebook picture!

I have a very fat friend called Rich Myslinski. He’s like the Bill Belichick of up-and-coming free-market conservatism. (You may notice I’m using a good deal of football metaphors today. It’s because the kids are all into the footy. Do they call it that in this country?)

Now my fat friend Rich has a family, as many people do, and as recently as fifteen years ago this came to include a sister. The other day his mother wondered aloud to him whether she should be allowed to sign up for a Facebook account. Rich, whose heart is as big and distended as the rest of him, told them that yes, a Facebook account would do her no harm. But he was taken aback by her next question: should she take his sister to have her picture taken for it?

Why, yes. Yes she should.

You know working parents this day in age have so much to worry about. Kids grow up so fast, and they’re making choices every day that go far beyond what children faced in the simpler times of their youth. Decisions they make at age 16 can effect the rest of their lives and nowhere is that more true than on social media. So often, though, our little angels just don’t realize this. Do you want this to be what your child shows society?

Maybe

But the culturally sensitive people of the modern day will realize that child or not, a Facebook photo is a really specific creature, requiring just the right mix of verve, playfulness and reserve to paint a delicate picture of the complex milieux of your life. Your profile pictures need to show just enough individuality to communicate your key life-message without Facebook deleting your account for suspected pedophilia. Do you think this photo strikes that delicate balance?

Not unless you're Ellen DeGeneres

That’s where my professional Facebook photography firm can help. Our trained professionals know exactly what to do if you want a picture that says “A student,” “bored housewife,” “slightly-creepy high school teacher” or “GILF.” Only people from the internet generation can truly understand what you need to give your social networking profile that extra bit of oomph, which is why we employ no one but under-25s with absolutely no training in portrait photography. I can make your Facebook shout “Friend me!”, your YouTube cry “Subscribe!” or your Twitter squeal “I’ve got twats!” Because real class doesn’t come from the inside. It can only be bought. Just ask our celebrity endorsement:

QUILF Rania of Jordan

A dating site for armchair political extremists

Is that an IED in your pocket?

Two uses of the internet predate all others: clandestine communications between the undesirable and clandestine communications between the unmarriageable.  Why is it that we’ve still not combined the two? Thanks to the Tea Party and Pennsylvania’s own Jihad Jane, the venting your shrill frustration with the political process in a consequence-free environment has never been easier – or hotter!

Sure, you could meet that special someone at a rally of the urban proletariat or a secret meeting of the local Klan, but with the economy knee-deep in recession many of us just don’t have the time for the kind of rabble-rousing that makes both the Earth and your knees shake.  NutNet can not only ensure that your love life doesn’t suffer the same isolation that comes with the righteous conviction that the government is controlled by a Papist plot. It can also enhance the strength and durability of your revolutionary vanguard by creating cadres of like-minded cells distributed all over the country and the world! And with the increased potential for future little black blockers, this is one specter of Marx that everyone can get in on.

Good luck, go-getting Yankee capitalists! My lawyers and I wait with bated breath and bared fangs.

When I write on this blog for the benefit of my readers – I’m thinking of christening you Wahlberg’s Wankers – I’m always pleased when I produce something I think to be frantically, gallantly unpopular. The ability to anonymously slag off the Greats and Not-So-Greats of society may be the great scourge of the Internet, but it must be a little counterbalanced by the chance to stick unsuspecting masses in the eye with total impunity. Hitting the “Publish” button feels a bit like embarking on the Charge of the Light Brigade – mad, but bold, and potentially poetry-inspiring.

Though on reflection I usually wish I’d left the Russians alone.

I came upon a brilliant example of that low art today. I don’t read Slate often, as it’s usually both bougeois and wetly revolutionary and I find it annoying. But Jacob Weisberg’s attack on, well, Americans was a bit too much to pass up. And I must say that it was an immensely satisfying read. It feels good sometimes to, as my grandmother would say, “have a bit of a carry-on.”

As long as you leave it there. I’m not sure Weisberg does.

He takes aim at “the childishness, ignorance and growing incoherence of the public at large,” and marshals to this end… polling numbers. But for a certain masochism about me I probably would’ve stopped here, as he bangs on about the expressed desire of the public at large to have lower taxes, lower deficits, and smaller government combined with maintained (and indeed enhanced) public services across the board. An American Idol-obsessed America, he suggests, basically lives in Candyland, expecting everything but willing to pay for nothing.

Incidentally, I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “I think South Park did an episode about that“. So much of what I say could be avoided by keeping up with it.

To be fair to Weisberg, here’s his argument as best I can summarize it. What he says is:

1) When polled, broad majorities of the American people endorse measures X Y Z;

2) When polled, broad majorities of the American people reject measures A B C;

3) Without measures A B C the realization of measures X Y Z is impossible;

4) There must be something wrong with those polled as they fail to connect the necessity of A B C in view of the desirability of X Y Z.

Now this chain of argument fails Occam’s Razor. Simpler if more obscure than the explanation that “People are stupid” is one that lays the blame at the feet of polling. Any pollster will – should – tell you that a given poll is at best an imperfect snapshot in time and that one man’s poll is not necessarily comparable to anybody else’s. Pollsters are themselves people, remarkably fallible ones than that, and worse are concerned with distilling broad and heterodox currents of opinion into a result – a vote for X or Y. This sort of compromise is electorally necessary and a fact of all politics and hence all life; but it does not justify painting 300,000,000 people with such a very broad brush.

Let’s tap into that logical chain again. The immediate problem I see is that the form of measurement – the poll – is badly unequal to the task Weisberg’s given it – the construction of a system of ideas. I think a video from Yes Minister illustrates this best:

The problem is this: a person can’t respond to the questions you don’t ask. Most pollsters are not asking, in sequence, “Would you support measure X?” “What if measure A was necessarily to realize it?” “What about measure B?” They’re asking things like Gallup’s question: Do you think President Obama is spending too much money in his attempt to address major problems?

It’s a compound question. Left unanswered are “What are the major problems?” “How much money is being spent?” “How much is being proposed?” “How much is Obama himself spending?” “Where is the money coming from?” Failing to ask these questions, or separate them, mean that even a citizen cognizent of these problems are forced to pack them up to distill a specific answer. And indeed, in this struggle to reduce the specific to the general, I think a person usually will do their best to pick the specific – and since “too much money” is a more specific idea than “major problems,” I’d be likely to answer yes.

When you ask a different question – “Do you favor or oppose Congress passing a new $775 billion economic stimulus program as soon as possible after Barack Obama takes office?” – you get a different answer. Packed in here are questions like, “What has the effect been of the first stimulus?” “On what is the money to be spent?” “Where does the money come from?” “Why is it necessary to wait until the inauguration of Barack Obama?” “Why must it be immediately upon his accession?” But you need an answer, so the specificity of the proposal lends itself to a yes on this diametrically opposed inquiry.

Follow the logic of each in turn. The latter:

1) The country is faced with a great recession (I think it’s safe to assume people knew this regardless of the question);

2) The problem is urgent and escalating;

3) A $775 billion stimulus is proposed as a countermeasure;

4) I should answer yes.

The former:

1) The country is faced with “major problems”;

2) A great deal of money is being spent in an effort to combat them;

3) I don’t know where this money comes from;

4) This threatens to itself become a major problem;

5) Fewer major problems are better than more major problems;

6) I should answer yes.

One finds it difficult to argue with either line of logic – without more information. But a pollster certainly isn’t there to inform you. They’re there to count heads. So you do the best you can and lodge your answer.

This is the criteria that Weisberg uses to condemn America as an inconstant, fickle mob. It is a strangely technical, technological and deterministic one. Even passing conversations – with people I agree with and don’t – convince me that the diversity of opinion is far greater and that people do realize that we face broad, compound choices with uncertain outcomes. People broadly divide based on their opinions of these choices. In the so-called “mushball middle” are a few who through indifference, ignorance or lack of time don’t have enough information to process these complexities. Pollsters call these people, though the system has a way of segregating them itself: They don’t participate. They don’t vote, they certainly aren’t at Glenn Beck rallies and their access to news is passing at best. They’re susceptible to giving conflicting answers based on who’s asking, but we’re all like that sometimes, and most make up for it by not really pursuing one issue or another. When not being polled, they’re generally let alone. Call them what you will, but it’s not inconsistency.

What Weisberg is offering is an overdetermined conception of the “people” – semi-detached, roboticized “voters” – which looks more like a natural disaster to be weathered than an active force shaping the political landscape. It’s an egregious remnant of the technical underpinnings of the Rational Man of liberalism that can only admit or decline singular, atomized participants in a society rather than dealing with variations in people. But this is ridiculous. Like any active, human force, voters are subject to their power being harnessed or diffused; like any group of people, it’s subject to varying degrees of passion or diffidence, conviction or uncertainty, depending on the character of its members and their own state.

Like any such force it’s public, not private. My Mom, and several family friends of varying closeness, direct their questions about how to vote towards me. This is up to and including big offices – Congress, President – and despite my being 1,000 miles away. Are they stupid? No. They’re busy and nobody gives them time to vote, much less be constantly politically involved, so they figure that I’m bright and honest and politically aware and they trust me to advise them true. Here’s the key – trust. This is what politics are all about. But too often neither do people trust politicians nor politicians their people.

I sense that Jacob Weisberg was an Obama voter. More than that I think he was probably an Obama crusader, preaching to his friends and donating money and knocking on doors and quietly sniggering about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. I think this not from bias, though I’ve got a lot of it, but because Obama voters were true believers who by and large abandoned their conceptions of the possible. They had been waiting their whole lives for a Kennedy and Obama gave them that, dare I say, hope.  Now the dream has come crashing down and blame must be assigned. You cannot blame yourself – I didn’t do it – nor can you blame Obama, which is tantamount to admitting you were at fault. Can’t really blame Republicans, either. Only the darkest shroud of cognitive dissonance could camouflage their irrelevance throughout most of the last sixteen months. There’s no one left to blame but America itself.

Need I say this is as dangerous as it is wrong?

Weisberg doesn’t have it all wrong. I think he’s right that people – in general – have an ability to blame their leaders without looking inwards. Anyone who says “Well what do you expect; they’re all crooks” is saying only that they live in and contribute to a society so reprobate that it’s impossible to deliver from its number a sufficient number of good people to lead, and ought to ask themselves why they don’t step forward. Weisberg is right to suggest that we stop blaming officeholders but rather look to ourselves when the question is “What’s happened to America?” But to say instead that America itself is the answer is not just meaningless, it’s reactionary. It fails the same test a pollster’s answer does: There can be no response to the constructive reply, “What do I do about it?”

It’s one thing to offer a modest proposal. It’s another entirely to toss into an article a barrage of the most silly drivel that is as poor at apportioning responsibility – not blame – as the phenomenon you are yourself railing against. It’s still worse to be snooty about it. Weisberg manages to be as irrational as the people who – well, as the people. And he’s only got one to bring in line.

Why we are a failure

2 February 2010

“If you mind your business, nobody will give you problems,” said a woman to me last week. “All they do is say ‘What the fuck that white boy doing here?’  By then, you’ll be gone.”

Indeed.

I’m not sure if actually working for government has yet fully deadened my interest in government. The two are actually pretty easy to keep separate, not least because, as a friend and fellow veteran pointed out recently, “Nobody who works in the government ever thinks about it.”

With the usual caveats.

My excursion into the industry of professional helping has been interminably brief and, on the whole, intolerably busy.  I suppose I didn’t take government to be the sort of place which left little time to catch one’s breath – or at least government at the sort of level attended by a 22 year-old of no particular credentials or repute. From my observations and understanding it’s not. Yet there are two sides to government.  The glam side – frenetic but easy and carefully circumscribed – are the people in Congress, the executive offices. You know: “the top.” The ones who made it and are “changing the world.”  Then there is the underbelly, where that fact is really, tragically, true.

The top half – although it is not a half but a tiny minority – live in a properly philosophical world. Most of them would hate this idea, but it is just that. The “big ideas” are invariably functions of values and the reconciliations of them, determinations based occasionally on conviction but more frequently on calculation of the basic questions of who is part of the club – “one of us” – and what that fact means. Decisions about taxation, schools, and the environment are not merely marginal adjustments to a basic framework but fundamental decisions about the shape of the world to come. These decisions are invariably thin – all decisions are – but unquestionably if ambiguously weighty.

The world which is my daily joy is far from that big blue sky.  Like a general who decides how the enemy is to be defeated but leaves the deed to others, so does a Mayor or a President and the people who trail behind them decide how the people are to be made wealthy or happy or good and send down the order. There are grunts far below responsible for realizing it in the shape of a idle march or a frantic siege.

This of course is the limit at which war illuminates the subject. Its task is quite simple – defeat an enemy.  You reduce a people to a level at which their own resistance becomes incomprehensible. The reason government is so difficult – and the reason every “war on” a social problem necessarily fails – is because it is in its likeness with war precisely its opposite. Government is the creation of a world in which giving up in the face of adversity is incomprehensible. Like war, it is a response to human terror. War attempts to turn it to use. Government attempts to banish it. Both end up being defined by it. The result for the latter is unsatisfying to an amazing extreme, because such upbuilding – even when ideally realized – is necessarily repetitive, incomplete and ceaseless. Creation is never permanent in the eay way destruction is.

I imagine that in a good number of places the business of government is not much of a struggle. In a close-knit community – what one might snootily call “rural” but which could be anyplace with the character of a village – the people are resistant to adversity by nature; in the sanitized suburb the mere whiff of adversity, while socially disgusting, is slightly romantic, the idea of poverty unpleasant but unthreatening and always surmountable. Problems here are more often a matter of the neighbors daring to intercede in my life rather than any violent disruption from the outside. It is not difficult to see why the number one concern to suburban life is crime, and why it’s so much less frequent when suburbs themselves are not a feature of that life.

And then there is the city. In the modern world the city has always been the problem. The reason is simple: people live in proximity like villagers with the interpersonal skills of suburbanites. It’s the perfect storm of “social decay,” “urban blight,” whatever you want to call it. It only really takes one addition – an admittedly hefty dollop of “want” – to bring to full heights human cruelty in its many forms. It is something we have become reasonably expert at in this country,  perhaps nowhere more than in the capital city.

But this is what makes the city so ripe and fascinating. (When you’re from the suburbs other people’s want is almost as sexy as the idea of your own.) The city is both the birthplace and graveyard of ideology. The city gave us both liberalism and Marxism, the two defining ideologies of our time, before promptly devouring its children like Cronus. It is a novelty to have an environment – at once so perfectly alien and so peculiarly human – both give and take away the last best hopes for organizing a world without one God. Never before has mankind been faced with a thing so bipolar and fraught. For in the city there is no escape. It will always make a lie of the well-meaning and zealous. Here philosophies mighty and petty are waylaid everywhere; hidden in the bushes and the alleyways they’re mugged and raped and killed by the dark forces of real life. All of the systems we have are built in reaction to the city, and they all are made worthless here. We are simply too many; we have too many ideas. Where is the space for the gudwara in Walden Pond?

This is where government comes in. We have it because philosophy fails. It is the awful compromise we make with ourselves, the deal with the devil that assumes problems will be taken care of so long as they are pushed as far away as possible, so that we might be spared the awful sight of the death of our ideas. But government is simply the tragedy of the failure of all our grand designs built into an awful whitewashed edifice. The people in this country who cry out with revulsion at the erosion of their freedoms are so laughable precisely because the government they hate is so puny and sad. Its programs are wasteful not out of malice or caprice but because, by their nature, they have to be.

This is my job: spaghetti tactics. You throw it at the wall and you see what sticks, but what you’re throwing at the wall are not programs but people. Living and breathing, with names and hopes and stupid clothes and bad breath and four kids at the age of 22. You make a program and you do not give it to them but give them to it, and see how many it “saves” – whatever that means. And then you make a new one and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually, you hope that everybody gets stuck to – with – something. That you save everybody.

Of course you don’t. The city is laughing at you and your feeble attempts to save the world, always. Every program fails people, including mine; some people are failed by all programs. They stick to nothing, and the tragedy is that in the end you’re not surprised. They’re not the kind of people you want to help. It’s easy to get my liberal hackles up against the abandonment of the decent, the hard-working, the “unfortunate”; but what about the people who are lazy and obnoxious, the ones who don’t want to be helped or if they do will never let you close enough to do it? What about the ones the civil servants, well-meaning as we always are, look straight in the eyes yet cannot see?

This is the problem with government. It’s so personal.

At the end of last year I took a class on Marxism. Philosophy, of course, so there’s always an air of inevitable pointlessness about it; but at the very end of the class I got the professor’s hackles up because I asserted boldly that if there was a difference between Marxism and liberalism I didn’t see it. Marxism is at best the other side of the liberal coin, the equal and opposite reaction its unique failures had to engender; at worst its a simple correction of it inappropriately couched in apocalyptic terms.

Take the program I work in. It could just as easily be compared with the best sort of New Deal initiative as with the workshops of the Paris Commune. The objectives are much the same either way: to take someone who has nothing, not in terms of resources but in terms of skills, or qualities, or consciousness, and engaging in that so characteristic upbuilding. In the process it’s hoped that a measure of personal power and the ability to similarly draw up others is imparted to them. It is to draw them into society. The objective is, through wholesome and empowering work, to be de-alienating. This is something at once perfectly liberal and perfectly Marxist – a reconciliation of devout opposites.

But there are some people. I’ve met them, talked to them, listened to them rant. They’re loud. They’re angry. They’re bitter but yet entitled. They have no skills or pretension to skills; they want for everything but want nothing. They are always unpleasant to deal and no effort is sufficient to make them fit. Their antics are tolerated for months on end, they’re brought in, talked to – and, when it’s finally too much, unceremoniously dropped.

But they’re someone’s – aren’t they?

What does Marxism have to say about them that liberalism doesn’t? A liberal would have called them the “residuum” or “undeserving poor,” would say they’re lazy and have no work ethic and would have to shrug his shoulders and say: some people can’t be helped. A Marxist would call them the “lumpenproletariat,” uninterested – as they surely wouldn’t be – in the virtues of collective action because of their contentment living off the fat of the state. He’d say they’re blind and mired in false consciousness and – at length – some people can’t be helped.

But what happens then? You can’t just ignore them. They’ll still be there. Part of the reason they are there is because you ignore them. They don’t fit into your system, or any system; so now what? When do you make that great leap to say – they are human no more? And how do you know when that leap happens not because of the people but because of your system? This is the leap that both liberalism and Marxism, in the end, find themselves forced to make. Neither are ever shy.

I think this is why civil servants don’t think. It’s hard, day after day, to stare into the faces of the person you don’t like and can’t help and don’t think anybody can – and to follow the fact to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to see from the inside the way your grand ideas are brutally parodied by your work. For in a city people are paid to decide if you matter. This is the bargain. I am paid to sort lives into useful and unuseful piles, and dispense with them as quickly as possible. There are many others like me. And we do this – I do this – for the same reason they keep coming to us: a paycheck. I too need; I too want. And so not because I am powerful but because this role lays bare my own powerlessness do I sort lives as I see fit. Maybe I do it with more or less charity; but it’s a thin kind of charity.

And someday I’ll leave, as quickly as it would take to wonder what the fuck that white boy was doing there anyway. I won’t have had a good answer. Today I didn’t when with an affected air of smug satisfaction I listened to fifteen people describe eloquently and rightly how I’m failing them, led on by two people who themselves did far less and knew no better. They didn’t mean it personally – but the problem with government is that it is personal, to each and every one of us, because it is the living manifestation of the terror that comes from our own social bankruptcy. It is a bundle of all the failure we cannot admit and survive, a great church which – for a tithe – hides away the crimes we commit against each other. For all the spaghetti that stuck there will be some that got away. Maybe some other me, secreted away in a similarly dingy building somewhere else, will catch them. But not all. Some will get away, and sit there, and by their existence laugh at our philosophies which are no more different than two sides of a sheet of paper.

Until the next throw.

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.

Yours

Peter

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.

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.

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

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.

Microsoft blows hard

1 October 2009

My friend Amy sent me an article by the indefatigable Charlie Brooker today.  To be honest, I’m not sure what it is he does, other than that I’d rather like it, thanks.

The topic of his opprobrium this week were Apple users and their pathological, borderline sexual relationship with their computers, contrasted with the hateful battered-wife feeling anyone with Windows Vista (or XP or that giant chocolatey fudge dragon ME) knows all too well.  While bemoaning the constant evangelism of Apple users he does point out that, for better or worse, they do honestly believe.  Microsoft has been forced to resort to a series of propaganda videos in an attempt to promote their new OS, the cryptofascistically-named Windows 7.

(As an aside, maybe the problem is that Windows keeps trying all these crappy names.  I don’t know who would want anything called XP, much less 7.  I think they’re trying to subliminally appeal to Star Trek fans.)

Microsoft: resistance is futile

Microsoft: resistance is futile

Nerditry aside, upon reading Brooker I actually tried to watch the Windows 7 video he talked about. It depicts a group of people – a group Microsoft unsubtly suggests you should emulate – throwing a party.  But it’s not just any house party.  It’s a Windows 7 launch party.  In it, explained the bespectacled hipster, you and your friends who have the opportunity to get together and try out all the new features of the Windows 7 OS in a safe, fun and it’s implied consequence-free environment.  And they were here to help.

I got about a minute in.  It was insufferable.  It was awful.  If the Apple people are the kids who always got the Tamogatchi or Airwalks or Nintendo DS before you did, then this Microsoft ad featured your parents, six months later, ostentatiously showing off whatever bauble it was that vaguely tingles your memory as having been cool back before it was so downmarket even old people could have them.  But it was something else, too, somehow more sinister.  Like your bachelor uncle has the Tamogatchi, but he has no idea what it is, he’s just using it to get close to you even though your parents privately warn you to stay away from him for reasons that were never clear until now.

I shut off the video.  I think maybe I was sweating.  But then my long-suppressed Nixonian tendencies creeped in.  I’m no quitter, no matter how sadistic and reprobate the subject matter.  I have a college education.  I took a class in propaganda with a guy who kills people for the Shin Bet. I know who Derrida is.  I can handle this.

Gettin’ this party started (I’m comin’ out)

Pink?  Anybody?  No?  Okay.

I go first to Microsoft’s designated YouTube page, cleverly titled LaunchParties.  True to form, it has nearly 120 videos, all of them titled in that spastic mashed-together way thatadmitsabsolutelynospacesorpunctuationwhichhasbeenMicrosoft’sspecialtyforsomanyyears. I’m surprised they let us have capital letters to differentiate the titles.  This must be the kinder, gentler Microsoft.

HostingYourParty

The screen starts all blurry with the caption “Hosting Your Party” in big white letters, because all social interactions generally begin with both title card and a load time.  (Mine do, anyway.)  After a few seconds, it fades away, and we have a scene of four people in a kitchen.

H-ey!  Welcome to the party,” says a young blonde-haired woman holding a cutting board with what looks like cheese.  Right off the bat, I’m not sure about this.  Cheese Lady welcomes me kind of like you do when you’re expecting someone and you realize someone arrives but you’re turned around and you start to greet them as you’re turning to face them and only realize about halfway through that not only isn’t it who you expected but it’s also no one you’re happy to see.  I, the viewer, am a door-to-door insurance salesman who happened to stumble into this party.

But that won’t stop the kinder, gentler Microsoft from shoe-horning me in anyway.  Gee thanks.

After what looks like a moment’s hesitation Cheese Lady decides what-the-Hell-he’s-here-anyway and the camera pans out to show Cheese Lady’s friends: Old Lady, Hipster and Colorful-Polo-Wearing-Therefore-Both-Hip-and-Respectable-Black-Guy.  For short I’ll call him Kanye.

My new friends

My new friends

Now instantly I’m put at ease by Kanye.  These people have black friends, and as someone who has black friends himself this is crucial to me.  I don’t want to be involved with some racist operating system.  I really don’t want to be involved in an operating system that isn’t cool.  So Kanye serves two crucial purposes.  His is a comforting presence.

Cheese Lady tells me all about how they’re launching Windows 7 with house parties and how you can actually use Windows 7 to organize it.  Metaphysically I have a problem with this, as I thought the purpose of a launch party was that you didn’t have something before and now you do.  I think Ocean’s Thirteen dealt with this issue.  Anyway I can organize it with some special software, upload pictures – “That’s his favorite,” she says, placing a suggestive hand on the Hipster’s arm.  He kind of mumbles “That’s my favorite” and they all laugh at him, even the Old Lady, whose relationship to this group of “friends” is not yet clear.

“In a lot of ways, you’re just throwing a party with Windows 7 as an honored guest,” Kanye says.  “Sounds easy – and it is!”  But I thought this was supposed to tell me how to throw the party, Kanye.  If it were so easy, I’d know how to throw a party without Windows 7.  And I don’t.  That’s why you’re here.  Kanye’s getting on my nerves.

He redeems himself a moment later, though: maybe I want to know “how some hosts want their party to flow.”  Oooh!  Flow.  That’s a cool word that’s generationally-appropriate.  I’ve seen it on TV!

The camera is panning back and forth and zooming wildly at this point and I start to feel an epileptic seizure coming on.  It’s not helped when Hipster says, “Now the first thing you want to do is install Windows 7,” prompting a series of ‘D’uhs’ from the other guests.  Man, they really don’t like him.  He’s so put down by this that he had to go back and redub his next couple lines afterwords to edit out the sobbing.  Other guests appear unaffected.

Old Lady says we should choose the activities that are the most fun.  You’d know, Grandma.  She starts going on about some “host notes” that have bonus activities on them.  “Right?” says Cheese Lady enthusiastically-sarcastically.  You know?  I didn’t know.  I feel a little stupid.  In fact I feel bad for Hipster now.  I totally know how he feels.

Hipster’s party started out “like any good party,” with drinks and mingling.  And Sir Harold Pinter showed up.  I love his plays.  I’ve never seen any of them, but I like the idea of his plays.  I can’t believe Hipster got him to show up.  “And you know what was great?” Cheese Lady says, plowing nervously through my digression about Sir Harold.  “It was totally informal, like, everyone just kind of crowded around the computer in the kitchen.”  Wow!  Just like us now!  I’m a part of something.

But Cheese Lady still seems to have had an excessively authoritarian style to her party.  When she says she led everyone in an activity immediately after producing the computer (which she stole?  How she got it isn’t clear), Old Lady is taken aback.  “Oh well I let everyone fool around with a Snap for a little while.”  “Me too!” Kanye shouts.  What’s Snap?  Is that a thing?  This is getting tense and I feel stupid again.  I’m getting the sneaking feeling these people aren’t going to buy any insurance.

Now there’s a cockfight over how many activities we did.  “I did three!” Hipster shouts pompously.  No wonder they don’t like you.  “When you’re close to the end -” Cheese Lady begins, only for Grandma to but-in with “Wanting everybody to leave,” provoking general laughter and shushing now that she’s got drunk on her Long Island Iced Tea and telling our secrets.  When you’re close to the end,” Cheese Lady grits her teeth, we should go to Help. It’s a great way to tie everything together.  So is a call to the emergency services, which I am placing now.

“Make something you’re doing personal to someone at the Party,” Kanye enjoins me.  “Like the way I made Chip’s files get transferred by Windows Easy Transfer.”  Ooo there, Kanye.  Too personal.  Way over the line. “I also found it really helped to name the first person to be first with the hands-on activity, and have them pick the next person.”  Oh, like you did with poor Chip?  So we can all join in on the torture, and dip our hands in the blood?  You’re sick.  You’re a sick fuck.

Everybody thinks this is all sunshine and raindrops, though.  “On a more serious note,” Grandma says with a mock frown – this Edward Albee horror show apparently not being serious enough – “Decide what activities you want to do a day or two in advance.  Some activities require -”

She stumbles for a word here.  Is she lying to me?  What does she want?  “Modest set-up.”  Phew.  Thought it was serious.  “Like you need two computers to do the webchat,” says Kanye.  Hahahaha say all.  Obvi.  “None of the set-up is too hard.”

“It helped me to remember that I’m not a salesman,” Kanye chips in.  But I am a salesman.  Northwestern Mutual Li – “And part of the fun of a launch party is seeing what you already know.”  I know how to use Vista.  I knew how to use XP.  Why are you replacing them, again?  For that matter why is no one answering my questions?

“Can you believe that they put the launch of Microsoft 7 in our hands?” Kanye asks.  “They must be crazy!”

“Crazy to let you be involved, maybe,” Hipster shoots back.  He gives an all-in-good-fun smile.  But they’re totally gonna have it out in the parking lot afterwards.

“Well it does make sense,” Cheese Lady intervenes, trying to save her shitty party from the indignity of violence.  “Windows 7 is all about the computer user!”  I think they used to call us people.

“It ought to be a party!  Have fun out there!”  They’re letting me leave?  Oh my God.  I rush to grab my bag and brochures and bolt out the house as Hipster makes some trendy devil-symbol at me with his hands.  Or maybe it’s “call me”.  Does he want insurance after all?  Was he hitting on me?

Win7AcceleratorAndSlices

All right, fine.  Let’s see how your parties actually went.  Here Hipster is hosting in a party in his dingy little apartment with his hipster friends.  All the men are in open-necked collared shirts; all the women are minorities.  So far, so good.

He wants to show me something new about Internet Explorer 8.  He turns to “Frank” – “Hi-iii,” he crows.  He’s probably related to Cheese Lady.  Or maybe he just wants the Cheetos coming around the room, which have been seized by the interracial girlfriend perched on his lap.  This is called web slices.  Now I can keep in touch of websites on my favorites all day long.

“Oh yeah,” Frank says like LL Cool J.  I think the guy sitting in the chair backwards has a mustache.  How passé.

Frank shops for t-shirts on “auction sites” a lot.  Do they mean Ebay?  It’s the only one I know.  And then we cut to the screen – I’m sorry, I move over to see the screen better at the house party – and it has Ebay on it.  Frank wants a Van Halen 1984 t-shirt.  Wow.  Van Halen.  Maybe time to move on, man.

Frank decides not to buy it and delete the page from his “slice,” which looks exactly like a favorites page.  (An AC/DC poster won out – a dubious choice, but whatever.)  Now Hipster takes me to show me the “Accelerator,” which clicks directly from an address that doesn’t include a map to a mapping system, shaving literally seconds off of my web time and conveniently avoiding the use of certain heretical websites which I could have just put in my “slices” anyway.  Phew.

“I want the rest of you to pick a word or phrase and accelerate it, leaving a new page for the next guest.”  You can do the stupid map thing here, too, apparently.  I’m nervously fingering the life insurance brochures in my pocket.  This doesn’t feel right.  The guy sitting behind Hipster just gasped with amazement at his electronic version of telephone.  “Is that a hamster?” he asks.  I’m outta here.

MyMicrosoftWindows7HouseParty

I try to watch a couple more but – oh, what the hay, I’m so excited to have my own house party I can’t stand it.  Let’s go!

(doorbell rings)

Me: Oh h-ey, welcome to my Microsoft Windows 7 launch party!

Doritos Girl: Thanks!  I brought Doritos!

Me: Awesome!  Everybody’s just inside!

We enter a room with Old Man from Bus Stop, My Mom, and Environmentally-Conscious Co-Workers and Drinking Buddies.

Me: Everybody, this is *voice trails off*

All: Oh hi!

Me: I’m super-excited to introduce Windows 7 to you.  This is, like, totally a killer app.

All: Yeah!  All right!

Drinking buddies high five.

Me: And what’s best about it is it’s designed for us computer users!

Co-Workers: It’s almost like we’re people again!

Me: That’s right.

(looks around)

Me: There’s something wrong.

My Mom: What, honey?

Me: There’s, uh… there’s no black people here.

My Mom: Well I didn’t know you knew any –

Me: That’s not the point, Mom!  God, nobody wants to use some racist operating system.

Co-Workers: That’s right!  Yeah!

Me: Look, I’ll just go online and e-mail some.

Old Man: Don’t use that!

Me: Why not?

Old Man: That’s the search engine whose name must not be spoken!

Me: Oh, right.  I’ll use accelerator – what the fuck is that?

My Mom: Honey, language.

Me: My computer’s shaking.

Co-workers: Why, that’s Aero Shake, the feature that let’s you clear away all your clutter!

Drinking buddies: YEAH!

Me: You mean like minimizing?

(they frown)

Co-workers: No.

Me: Well why won’t it stop?

Old man: Charlies!  In the trees!

Me: That’s irrelevant.  Stop it old man, or you won’t get your $20.

My Mom: Honey, respect your elders!

Me: The computer’s on fire!

My Mom: Why that’s Windows 7’s new Burn feature.  It’s designed to detect awkward social situations and start a distraction!

Me: Somebody call the fire department!

Doritos Girl: My hair’s on fire!

Drinking buddies: YEAHHHHHH!!!!

(they urinate on the rapidly-advancing flames)

My Mom: Oh, I’ll get some paper towels.

Co-workers: You know, this is really irresponsible.  Fires like this contribute to the greenhouse effect, which is killing our Earth.

Doritos Girl: AAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE AAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

(she runs away, chased by Drinking Buddies and my Mom with a paper towel)

Me: But – my launch party!

Drinking buddies (outside): The roof!  The roof!  The roof is on fire!

Me: You guys better stay here.  I’ll get help.

Two hours later.

Me: Whelp… Windows 7 burned my house down.

My Mom: Oh honey, I’m sorry.

Me: Too bad about my co-workers.

My Mom: Oh you’ll make new ones.

Me: Yeah. But so will Microsoft.

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.

Background

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.

Elsewhere

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.