Monthly Archives: October 2016

Two-party systems are killing politics

The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.

Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.

In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.

As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.

When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.

The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.

The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.

For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.

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Donald Trump and his core beliefs

It’s hard not to read a lot about Donald Trump, and so as an easily distracted politics nerd, I have repeatedly succumbed. I think that – beyond the startling rhetoric – one of the striking things about the man is his amorality. Few, if any, other politicians are almost openly amoral in the way that Trump is. I’m sure there are amoral politicians, but most feel the need to conjure up a veneer of morality.

Trump does not. He almost wears it like a badge of honour – his businesslike denial of the existence of moral dilemmas serves as part of his general “I’ll do whatever it takes” aura. This feeds into another aspect of Trump – his repeated, almost pathological lying means that his “true beliefs” are somewhat difficult to ascertain. In lieu of working out what he thinks based on what he’s saying at any one time, people have tried to piece this together based on his actions over time.

This might be a bit of a mistake. In fact, I’m not sure Donald Trump has beliefs in the same way most people do. When he talks, he isn’t so much communicating fixed truths about society, or human nature, but treats every conversation as a zero-sum game that he is going to win. Perhaps even win so much he gets tired of it.

He has a long history of making degrading, misogynistic comments to women. He also employed women in senior positions in his company long before that was typical in the real estate business. These two things seem contradictory, but need not be.

The first, from most people, would reflect a belief that women should be subordinate to men. From him, it may reflect more a belief that everyone should be subordinate to Donald. In one situation, sexist rhetoric enabled him to “win” that conversation. In another, motivated, capable women excluded from employment elsewhere in the industry were probably better value than their male counterparts – they made more money for Trump, so he hired them.

Women in senior roles didn’t trouble some deeply held belief about gender relations in his head, because he just doesn’t have beliefs like that. It’s why he can lie so easily – truth is a fluid concept that changes as and when it suits him. His rhetoric is borne out of opportunism and amorality – normally someone would have to believe these things deeply to say them, as otherwise it would offend their sense of morality. Trump sees an advantage in doing so and does so.

It’s why we need to view him not as a uniquely awful individual, but the product of a system. In the businesslike logic that I imagine underpins every decision he makes, the Republican Party created the demand for this sexist, racist rhetoric and the Donald  simply stepped in to supply it. This makes him less predictable than a nasty ideologue, but potentially just as awful. It should give even his supporters pause for thought.

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