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The Age of Ennui

Watching the British electorate in action (inaction?) during this campaign cycle I’m reminded of … well, the American electorate. This is nothing new. There’s been enormous parallels between the two countries for decades now, even if the timing of that link has gotten a bit skewed of late.

Watching the British electorate in action (inaction?) during this campaign cycle I’m reminded of … well, the American electorate.

This is nothing new. There’s been enormous parallels between the two countries for decades now, even if the timing of that link has gotten a bit skewed of late.

Trading back and forth between two centrist parties in the first post-war decades in both countries, the center-left party, exhausted in spirit if not ideas, had its head handed to it at the end of the 1970s by the center-right party. Only, now, that starboard party was under the leadership of the radical right – in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, and in the US, her ideological soul-mate, Ronald Reagan. They governed for a decade and bloody well wore out their welcome (notwithstanding the regressive hagiography of Reagan since he left office, their attempt to turn him into a latter day deity).

Then, in the elections which followed (1988 in the US, and 1992 in the UK), the watered-down version of the far-right candidate (John Major and Bush the Elder) somehow, surprisingly, managed to thrash out the weakest imaginable endorsement and hold the keys to government for another term. After that came the other party with an even weaker version of the same politics. Just as Thatcher and Reagan were like peas in a pod, and just as Major and HW were nothing-burger clones, so, too, the backward and oleaginous Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were twin sons of different mothers. Now, it looks like Britain may be getting its barely-endorsed “compassionate conservative” to match our George W. Bush, in the form of the polished-up-to-seem-less-abrasive Tory David Cameron.

Looking at the two polities, only three things seem terribly clear:

First, in these confused political times, people don’t really know what they want.

Second, except that they definitely want everything.

And, third, no single item on the menu of political parties looks terribly appetizing.

Oh, and one other thing: there’s that small matter of gross incompetence at voting stations (taking the most benign interpretation).

Nor are these tendencies, in their broadest sense, hugely different from other Western democracies. It’s the Age of Ennui, really. Nothing seems to be working, and no solutions seem to be on the horizon. To be honest, the moment feels considerably volatile – well beyond the scale of the hardly insubstantial problems facing these societies and the planet as a whole.

People are simultaneously looking for societal change, and, yet, desperately holding on to the status quo. People are simultaneously hungry for different party choices, and, yet, continuing to vote for the existing bums in office. People are simultaneously hungry for something very different in politics, and, ye,t clinging on to the same old, same old.

In the UK, it looked for a while like they just might get a bit of some real shake-up, both small and large. The biggest development of this election cycle was the introduction of US-style televised debates, and the biggest product of that, at least initially, was that the leader of the half-party Liberal Democrats, who was allowed to share the stage with the Big Two, knocked them both sideways with his “they’re-endlessly-petty-and-to-blame-for-everything-but-I’m-above-all-that” act. It worked for a while, though it had already lost its punch by the third debate.

Were the Liberal Democrats to come to power as junior partners in a coalition government, owing to the failure of either Labour or the Tories to win an outright majority of seats in Parliament, that alone would only represent minor change. Politically, there is little about the party that is remarkably different from the two majors. And that’s before they get into government, when the drill is to promise the world. Imagine what it would be like afterwards, when instead it’s all about figuring out ways to not deliver on your promises.

The big potential change entailed in these dynamics, however, would revolve around what the Lib-Dems, acting as king makers, might extract from either other party in exchange for forming a coalition that would allow one of them to govern. Presumably, that price would be a change in – or at least a referendum on the question of – the country’s electoral system. Like the US, Britain uses a district system to choose members of the national legislature. And like the US (though not as severely), this results in a huge obstacle for third parties to ever gain traction, and makes it almost impossible for them to ever govern. (The reason is basically mathematical. Unless we’re talking about regional ethnic parties, as in Scotland or Wales – but not in the US – third parties could theoretically win a whopping 25 or 30 percent of the vote nationally, but continue to come in second place in every district, and, thus, have minimal or even zero parliamentary representation).

The big change in the UK could entail the use of a proportional representation system to replace – or partially replace using a hybrid system – the district model. That could have very significant longer term repercussions with respect to the distribution of parties in the British Parliament, and the possibility for smaller ones to not only flourish, but perhaps even govern at some point.

None of that will happen in the US, however. First, because there is no significant third party to hold some other major party hostage in exchange for a restructuring of the national electoral system. But more importantly, because it would be far less relevant even if there were, since the executive branch of American government does not require any form of legislative majority to be elected. Such a system might work in determining the leadership of one or both houses of Congress, but the president – unlike the British prime minister – is elected entirely separately. If the US kept its Electoral College system, the only way third parties would matter is if no candidate hit the magic number and the parties then got into some serious horse trading for electoral votes. And if we moved to a system of electing presidents directly, on the basis of winning a plurality of the popular vote, or even a majority run-off system, third parties would have little or no effect.

I’d love to see a lot more choice in America for voters, as an abstract principle, but before we get ourselves all worked up about what we’re missing, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what else we might also be missing were we to move in this direction. Three not so happy other consequences come to mind.

First, it’s worth asking who these third parties would be. They could be anybody, and they might be everybody (that is, there would surely be a number of them). But the sad truth in the US is that the serious alternative political energy in this country is generally either on the nutty, scary, extreme right, or the libertarian right. In addition to the fact that a certain party led by a certain fellow named Hitler once rose to power via precisely these means in a certain country which then had similar regressive political tendencies, I think we can say with some assurance that a multiparty system in America is only going to tug the country’s politics even further to the right. Much as it pains me to say it, if we did engineer a multiparty system, many progressives could wind up – after, say, Social Security and Medicare were chucked overboard in the name of small government – pining for the good old days of the two-party monopoly.

The Nazi analogy also reminds one of a second liability of multiparty systems, which is that they tend to be less stable. In moderate doses, that’s usually not a hugely bad thing. But in more severe cases, especially during times of duress (like, well, now), it can be catastrophic. Another reason that the Nazis came to power is because voters got sick of a Weimar Republic where governments hardly lasted five minutes at a pop. That’s bad enough ordinarily, but when the economic wheels are coming off the wagon, as they were then, the situation is enormously ripe for someone to come along promising to make the trains run on time. Sound like a familiar scenario? Again, for every bit as abysmal as Bush and Cheney were, we need to think carefully about what we wish for. History is quite emphatic in reminding us that it can get a lot, lot worse than that.

The third problem with reform of the party structure is that it is – like term limits and sundry constitutional amendment proposals – at some level just another attempt to avoid a serious reckoning with the hard work of seriously governing and being governed. Like I said, I’d like to see American voters have more choice in elections, especially because what they now have is just about zero. But I suspect for most people this electoral system reform project represents a quintessentially American quick-fix panacea to make the big ugly problem of not being able to have everything all at once just go away. And, therefore, people will only be disappointed to find that the problem doesn’t go away. It might even get worse. And, worst of all, the notion of multiparty democracy could even get discredited by association, just as it in the Weimar case, or post-Soviet Russia.

The hard but profoundly simple truth is that Americans can’t have giant tax cuts, substantial entitlement programs and a ridiculously bloated military all it once. It’s called math, and it’s just about as simple as a little basic addition and subtraction. (The alternative choice, by the way, goes by the name of voodoo economics.) But recognizing that and making the (seemingly) difficult choices involved is less appealing than searching for a magic bullet that can be achieved by showing up for a vote in a referendum. Then we can all go home, pop open a beer, watch the ball game and allow the government to take care of business for us.

Sorry, but that’s a world that never was and never will be. And, indeed, never should be, either. The real problem with American society is that we’re supremely greedy, stupid and lazy when it comes to our politics and government. Most of us invest next to nothing in thinking about issues and voting intelligently, let alone other more robust forms of political participation. Heck, nearly half of us can’t be bothered to show up and vote every four years.

There’s no mystery here. People that disengaged are going to get precisely what they deserve when it comes to their government. It’s like if you were raising your kids by popping your head into their lives once or twice a decade to check in, and then you’re startled to find out that they’ve grown up to be disastrous little delinquents. What a surprise, eh?

The weirdest thing about our times is that the solution to so many of our problems are really astonishingly manifest, and would often involve little real sacrifice. America had actually found its way to many of those solutions during its mild experiment with progressive politics in the middle of the 20th century, learning from the meltdown of regressive Hooverism which preceded it, and would have found more had it taken the right lessons from the subsequent Vietnam disaster. Unfortunately, we’ve essentially unlearned the former and never did get the latter.

But its really not that hard to get out from under the Atlas-sized burden we’ve piled on our own shoulders, if we wanted to. To wit, if we simply dramatically scaled down military spending and dramatically increased investment on alternative energy research and development, we could make a huge dent in our indebtedness, environmental, unemployment and foreign policy problems in one fell swoop, and with little cost in terms of dreaded change for most Americans. Few of us would have to give up the big flat-screen TVs or the reclining chair. We could still engorge our way into obesity and diabetes if we wanted to, and occasionally invade some little country full of brown people whenever our insecurities flared up to especially high levels. And, yet, we could still radically improve our lot in the meantime, with just these easy steps.

For the meanwhile, though, voters in the UK have given us a paradigmatic sampling of our political times. They don’t know where to turn. They vaguely remember that letting the right have the keys to government is a prescription for disaster, but the so-called left has not only lost its nerve and purpose, it’s lost its leftness too. Hence, an electorate all over the map in this week’s election, and a hung Parliament. Look for more of the same in America this November and again in 2010.

The great irony is that solutions are so close by. It’s as if one crawled across the desert for ten days, only to die of thirst a hundred yards from an oasis.

Well, maybe that metaphor gives us too much credit.

Maybe it’s more like dying of thirst sitting on your couch, because you got too lazy even to traipse over to the fridge to grab a Coors.