Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why Obama couldn’t happen here

Many commentators and the public generally have been wondering in recent weeks given the disastrous absence of anything resembling leadership from the government why is that we do not have our own Obama on the horizon. I find it surprising that people like Vincent Browne forget so easily that we have a cabinet system of government that sits on top of a parliamentary system. For me the question is really an answer in search of an appropriate question. They start with Barack Obama as the answer and try to work back from there. It is a bit like wondering why you can’t have somebody with the foot skills of Pele playing in the front row of a rugby team.

The plain fact is that different sports favour different types of players. Different political systems favour different types of politicians, The US constitution provides for a strong executive presidency that has to work in tandem with equally strong legislature and justice systems. All of this exists on top a system of governors, Mayors and down to the local sheriff who are accompanied by state senates, city councils and so on. In other words their system is designed to have a strong executive which has the lead in setting the direction but which then has to work with a larger legislative body to work out the details.

In the US the primary system, this works by means of selecting the candidate with plurality of the votes, aids in the ready adoption of new ideas and different candidates. Choosing the candidate who has the most support rather the majority of support means that an idea can move up through the system more quickly. It is true it can also favour fads and even facilitates a movement towards the extremes of the ideological spectrum. Yet this too favours a wider range of choices being on offer to the electorate or at least that portion of the electorate that is inclined to get involved at the primary stage.

It is much later on when it comes to the general election that the candidate needs majority or close to majority support. In the general election, you as a voter are faced with a choice of either/or and you vote for the candidate you like most or dislike least, but is a straightforward piece of comparison shopping. The time to have picked and worked for your particular flavour of left or right wing candidate is the primary stage. When it comes to the general election, you put your differences with the winning candidate from your party aside to ensure that the party platform is in a position to be put into effect.

In our system the stage when such majority support is required in the candidate selection stage of the process but then the candidate does not require majority support in the election itself. In an election with multiple parties and multiple candidate the people when faced with a choice between candidate A from say a left wing perspective or candidate B who is proposes solutions from a right wing perspective, the voters more often than not simply chooses candidate C. Candidate C who doesn’t give any concrete proposals but does the best impression of just wanting to help.

This process which we must remember is driven by the voter leads to the denuding indeed complete absence of policy from candidates resumes, instead replaced by their captaincy of the local football or camogie team and their winning rosette for best in show. Avoiding policy distinctions during the election campaign naturally lead to a clustering around the centre ground by all the candidates. It is then doubly hard for the parties to forge strong ideological positions if their TDs have spent their political existence expressing in the strongest possible terms their support for happiness, goodness and that people should have jobs in a spirit of equality and fairness.

So you as a voter can pick candidate C safe in the knowledge that you didn’t have to commit or subscribe to any particular viewpoint of how anything is to be done. You were after all simply endorsing a general set of goals or aspirations. Yet politics in a participative democracy is meant to be about the people making fully realised choices not just in personnel who will man the ship of state but also as to the specifics of the direction; how do we get there, at what cost, what do we place a lower priority on and why do we make this choice. Instead in our system we (the electorate) tend to vote for someone who has articulated best that they share the same vague general goal as us and then we can tune out when it comes to talk about the details. So we have candidates who want to help, to achieve equality and fairness, to give a voice to local people and so on.

Furthermore this tendency, evidenced in both elected and prospective members of the Oireachtas, to sit around the middle ground suffocates and impedes the movement in the placement of that centre ground. We forget sometimes that the middle ground doesn’t stay in the same place nor is it meant to. The one time centre ground of Irish politics is no longer so popular.

In stark contrast to the US, our entire political and electoral system in Ireland appears designed for us to have candidates who are not the least bit radical or all that often concerned about the maddening detail of ‘How’ a goal is to be achieved. It is as if politics was merely about stating a goal aloud. After which all would simply be magicked into place. Even those few radical candidates who do struggle through the system have had to be the best local exponent of clientism possible. You think that Joe Higgins wasn’t getting medical cards or helping folks out through their travails with the planning process while he was working on his latest witty put down of evil capitalists and their ilk?

So in querying why we don’t have an Obama we should perhaps spare some time to be wondering about the system we have that has given us the people we do have rather than simply bemoaning the failure of the people in the system to behave like those in other systems. Fact is in Ireland (Republic 1948 edition) Obama wouldn’t have been elected to the local council not to mind the state senate or US senate because he wasn’t from the area! Not to mind how with all that education he’s just not in touch with the common man and he doesn’t come from a big enough family to go out canvassing for him, and all the internet stuff is great but he never called to the door and asked about our auntie Mae who has terrible trouble with her bunions.

(Also posted over on Slugger)


John Barry said...

I have major concerns about Obama’s policy on the deficit. He has said that the United States government should not worry about deficits over the next two years while spending money to jumpstart the ailing economy.

There is a grave danger that much of this money will be wasted on pork barrel spending. It is unlikely that he will do much to control the deficit in the final two years of his first term. After all he will be seeking re-election.
He can only hope that if sufficient growth occurs an increased tax intake may shrink the deficit

Dan Sullivan said...

It depends on the nature of the pork. Some pork is good, especially if it pump primes areas of the domestic economy that means the money spent stays local. Fact is Americans will worry less about the deficit if they have jobs come the election. And I think they know this will take more than one term to fix.

Jason O'Mahony said...

Interesting story, well, I think so! Mate of mine in the UK runs a think tank, and offered to help set up a website here where voters could enter their political positions and be directed towards the party closest to them. We looked at it, but the problem was, the system just would not work with FF and FG sucking the politics out of politics. How do you decide from a policy point of view on either of them?
We decided not to bother.

Dan Sullivan said...

There are differences but both parties are fairly broad churches. The thing with FF is that policywise they will simply do whatever they think is best, even if it flies the face of what they did five minutes before.