Politics

The Media Spotlight

For anyone that has been following US politics, it might have crossed your newsdesk that Eric Cantor lost his House Republican seat against David Brat. Not a small loss given that Cantor is the House Republican Majority Leader, so certainly worth some media attention. But if there’s a surer sign of the excessive media spotlight, its when a single story gets run into the ground with frankly excessive coverage. Beyond the news that Cantor lost (somewhat unclear how that single issue can get restated in so many different ways) and who might take over his job as House Majority Leader, there all manner of articles ranging from its impact on the Democratic Party, the role of the media, the role of money, the future of issues like immigration, the rise of the Tea Party, reactions from senators and house representatives.

My RSS reader exploding with Cantor related stories...

My NYT RSS feed exploding with Cantor related stories…

My point is, the fact that US politics focused almost exclusively on this singular story – devoting considerable coverage, air time, column space – is just a sign of both the intensity and excessive nature of the news media spotlight. Yes, he lost, yes it probably matters for Republican leadership, at best it’s a sign of other underlying trends. But no, it doesn’t deserve the excess of news coverage it’s garnered. Almost nothing does. Profiles on every possibly connected individual, excessive analysis of possible causes and even the most tenuous effects.

Perhaps it’s better if we all just chilled out. Analysis in the heat of the moment is almost never very useful.

The unfortunate reality of guns in America

For those who have been reading my blog for a while, they’ll recognise many posts like this. Ones where I liberally and happily refer readers to China.org.

Harvey Dzodin

For starters, I am in favor of a comprehensive ban on guns, which is what the majority of sane countries have. Though this would be ideal if it could be implemented in America, I am at my wits end to see how it might actually become a reality. My unfortuante conclusion is that it is unlikely at best, and impossible at worst. The specific context of the USA just makes it very difficult to achieve this ends.

Harvey Dzodin, “a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York” hits the nail on the head with his short but very accurate analysis titled ‘Little hope for gun control in US‘. Not the most heart warming title, but very realistic. Just goes to show, sometimes Chinese commentaries can be just as good if not better than American ones.

Even if President Barack Obama, defying history and against overwhelming political odds, succeeds in fulfilling the wishes of the advocates of gun control, which, among other things, would require getting Congress to re-institute the assault weapons ban, imposing a prohibition on magazines holding more than 10 rounds, closing the gaping loophole that allows 40 percent of all gun sales to be free from registration or background checks to eliminate criminals or the mentally ill, and optimizing the abysmal information-sharing systems among various jurisdictions. And even if in this era of budgetary restraint, he can get Congress to expend hundreds of millions of dollars on mental health, gun safety education and the rest. The reality is little would change. Simply because of the prevalence of guns in the US, the attitudes of most gun-rights proponents, and the terror of single-issue politics.

The US is being buried under firearms. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2009 there were 310 million guns registered in private hands in the US: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. While “only” 40 percent of Americans own guns, this is just about one for each man, woman and child in the US, twice the figure in 1968, the year Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Although some paranoids worry that the government will confiscate some or all guns, this is as unlikely to happen. So these guns will continue to wreak havoc for decades to come. Don’t even think about a voluntary buy-back program such as Australia tried. Assuming that each surrendered weapon was bought back for $100 on average, recovering just 10 percent would cost $3.1 billion.

Visit http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2012-12/25/content_27507560.htm for the full article.

Jumping off the cliff, or pushed off the cliff

So the world didn’t end on the 21st, but if one listens to the scary sounding ‘fiscal cliff’ new reports, then you might be forgiven for thinking that the world might end on the 31st anyways. This is hardly a perfectly accurate depiction, although there will most certainly be serious repercussions of going off the cliff. More interesting are the ‘ongoing’ negotiations in Washington to attempt to find a solution. Long framed as an Obama vs. Boehner battle, I say the ‘negotiations are ‘ongoing’ because they are hardly happening, especially with the holiday season.

Obama’s key demand, and perhaps the biggest sticking point, is his demand for a higher tax-rate on the rich. Republicans traditionally baulk at anything that looks remotely like a tax increase; a trend certainly prolonged by Grover Norquist. This made it a pleasant surprise when Boehner tentatively agreed to higher tax rates, giving up the common position of only making the rich payer more taxes through closing tax loopholes.

Source: Huffington Post

Hoping to strengthen his negotiating hand, Boehner tried to pass his now infamous ‘Plan B’, which would raise taxes only those with an income of 1 million or more. Obama’s definition of the ‘rich’ was considerably broader and approval of his Plan B might have made it easier to push for the level to be set at 1 million rather than £250,000. Sadly for Boehner, his Plan B failed horrible, imploding in his face like an egg in a microwave. Republican votes failed to materialise, doing the very opposite by highlighting his weaknesses rather than his support. Read about how it all unfolded.

Now negotiations are on ice as the respective players head off on holiday. So what’s next?
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The demise of democracy: Part 5 (Conclusion)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

CONCLUSION

This is the conclusion to a series of posts titled The Demise of Democracy. Click to read The West (USA), The West (Europe), Part 3 (Asia) and Part 4 (Middle East).

The first thing I should probably note is that this is neither an academically rigorous series nor even a very complete one. There are numerous countries whom have not been included, all of whom could have been excellent case studies: the troubles in India, the situation in Russia not to mention Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. You are equally correct to note that the countries and events selected to illustrate the argument necessarily mean that many others are omitted, including ones that would run counter to the idea that democracy is on the down. And perhaps it would have been better to include more countries and a greater number of regions. I’ll leave that for another time.

Don’t get me wrong, these posts were not intended to be a verdict on democracy. I myself do not believe that democracy as an idea is necessarily in decline. I certainly would agree that democracy is under threat in many areas of the world. But that isn’t to say that democracy is a bad idea, although there are aspects of other political systems that I respect (particularly some level of authoritarianism), it seems clear that the most viable form of governance for the foreseeable future is some form of democracy.

So if this wasn’t meant to mark the actual end of democracy, what was the purpose of these posts? By connecting the dots together on various problems that democracy around the world is facing, these posts will hopefully have helped you to actually question whether democracy is a preferable system, rather than just accepting its inevitability. More importantly, provided that you actually agree that democracy is the more preferable system of governance, this will hopefully keep us on our toes and prevent us from become complacent about the development of democracy around the world.

Paul Lau

The demise of democracy: Part 2 (Europe)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

Previously: The West (USA)

THE WEST (EUROPE)

In Europe, arguably the source of democracy (Athens), democracy isn’t faring much better. The UK has a coalition government, which is arguably a good thing, but it points to a failure of the original system dominated by Labour and the Conservatives.

In Greece, a referendum on the bailout plan was called off and an unelected, technocratic government formed to lead Greece towards calmer waters. Now, not one, but two de-facto referendum on the bailout and elections have been held, with the lack of national consensus on many of the core issues facing Greece scaring markets. Elections, the supposed bedrock of modern democracy, only seemed to further complicate political uncertainty and help send the financial markets tumbling.

Italy is now led by ‘Super Mario’ who heads an unelected, technocratic government that for all our love of democracy, lacks any sort of electoral mandate. It should probably be noted that Berlusconi was duly elected.

Even the European Union has been chastised for the failure of its consensus and democratic decision making. Pundits have long called for much stronger action and for ways to bypass democratic deadlock. Germany’s dominance of the debate surrounding the Eurozone’s debt crisis points in much the same direction.

More than anything in recent times, the debt crisis in Europe seems to be pushing Europe away from democracy and consensus decision making as was championed in the past. Rather, Europe increasingly seems to be embracing the idea that a few people and institutions hold a disproportionate share of the power for decision making.

Next time: Asia

The demise of democracy: Part 1 (USA)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

THE WEST (USA)

One of the biggest proponents of democracy, the US itself has found its political system mired in partisan deadlock in recent times. Ever since Newt Gingrich’s political blockade against Bill Clinton, both Republicans and Democrats have used their time as the opposition to do just that – opposing virtually everything that comes their way. The filibuster has been used endlessly in the Senate, and often for entirely trivial matters. Most recently, the House of Representatives has become the new place of gridlock with dozens of bills stuck in committees and a sizable collection of party-line votes.

The long list of unapproved nominations to various government positions is another case in point. Both Bush and Obama have had difficulty getting nominees approved. Many commentators have rued the over politicization of judicial appointments. It’s not that nominees are outright rejected (ignoring the question of competence or capacity), a vast number of them are simply never voted on. It is telling that mistrust in the US political system is at new heights. Disapproval of Congress, supposedly the US home of democratic representation, is at an all time high with nearly 80%# disapproving of Congress’s work.

Ideologically, more and more voters class themselves as independents; but ironically, the number of independent senators and representatives is dwindling, both in terms of ideology and party affiliation. Indeed, the emergency of the Tea Party has pushed the Republican party further to the right, unseating many moderates in the process.

While one could legitimately argue that this is all just a part of the democratic process, one can’t but help question whether democracy remains the undisputed king of all political systems.

Next time: The West (Europe)

The failure of elected representatives

Most of the world now heralds the brilliance and importance of representation by our elected representatives. But it has occurred to me that we really shouldn’t be so upset that even those we elect don’t truly represent our views on all or even most issues. There are two ways to look at this, firstly by looking at the voting process, and secondly from the representatives point of view.

THE VOTER

Votes, no matter what the ideal situation might be, are either not based on the issues, or based on just a few issues out of many. In the first instance, although seen as undesirable, reality is that many voters cast their ballots based on the appearance or their impressions of the candidates rather than actual policy. Obama is a good example of someone who won on high public approval but often based purely upon personal charisma and a favorable personality. That’s not to say people don’t agree with his policies, but rather than a large part of his electoral base (or those of his opponents) are based upon his personality and how they feel about him. Let’s not pretend that uninformed voters don’t exist.
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