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Democratic Party

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Jez and Bernie

Jeremy “Jez” Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are very much alike, and so are their ambitions. Corbyn wants to lead Britain’s Labour Party into the next election and become prime minister; Sanders wants to win the Democratic Party nomination and become the next president of the United States. And then each man plans to turn his country sharply to the left.

To the vast surprise of practically everybody, Corbyn has just achieved the first stage of his master plan: on Saturday, he became the leader of the Labour Party. When he entered the leadership contest, the bookmakers were quoting odds of 200-to-one against him, but he ended up winning the leadership by a landslide.

Senator Sanders was also seen as a complete no-hoper when he threw his hat into the ring: 74 years old (Corbyn is 66), no money and no well-honed political machine behind him (ditto), and far too left-wing to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, let alone the presidency. But something unexpected is also happening with Sanders’s campaign.

There were no other high-profile candidates for the Democratic nomination: most people assumed that it was Hillary Clinton’s for the asking. But then Sanders began to creep up on her, especially in the two states where the first primaries will be held, New Hampshire and Iowa. The last three polls have shown Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire by an average margin of 7.5 percent, and he is now one percent ahead in Iowa too.

Sanders is not as far left as Corbyn, of course. No elected US politician is as far left as Corbyn, who promises to nationalise the railways and energy companies, scrap university tuition fees, bring back rent controls, raise taxes and introduce a national maximum wage to cap the wages of bankers and other high earners, impose an arms embargo on Israel, and get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons.

When asked if there were any circumstances under which he would deploy British armed forces abroad, Corbyn replied: “I’m sure there are some but I can’t think of them at the moment.” He’s a republican, although he says that ending the monarchy is “not the fight I’m interested in.” He’s a vegetarian who does not own a car, and he looks a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is, in other words, the Real McCoy.

Bernie Sanders, by contrast, lives in the United States, where many people regard “democratic socialism” as akin to devil worship. He favours universal healthcare funded by taxes (supported by all parties in Britain) and publicly funded elections with strict limits on corporate donations (ditto), and he too advocates free higher education and higher taxes on the rich. That’s already “socialist” in an American political context.

But he’s not planning to nationalise anything, bring in rent controls, end all American military interventions overseas, or ban arms sales to Israel. Whatever his private opinons may be, he is running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and nobody in the Democratic Party has advocated anything that radical within living memory.

Sanders is as far left within the American political spectrum (which doesn’t extend very far in that direction) as Corbyn is within the broader British spectrum. Could he really pull off a Corbyn-style upset and win the Democratic nomination?

It depends on whether Hillary Clinton’s current stumbles end in a big fall in her support. It could happen. Last week’s opinon polls revealed that she had lost her lead over her two likeliest Republican opponents in next year’s presidential election, Jeb Bush or Ben Carson – and even Donald Trump was drawing level with her.

The Democratic National Convention is still ten months away, but it’s already late for anybody other than Vice-President Joe Biden to enter the race with a good chance of winning – and Biden is deeply conflicted about running. So if Clinton fades, Sanders would have a chance: the odds against him are already a good deal shorter than 200-to-one. Whether he could actually win the presidency is a different question.

British pundits were unanimous in saying that Corbyn has no chance of winning a national election and becoming prime minister. Former Labour leader and prime ministerTony Blair went further: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”

But Labour just lost the last election, and the next one is five years away. There is still time to change horses if Corbyn isn’t working out. Whereas the US election is next year. Could Sanders win it? The professional pundits and pollsters in the United States say no, because he’s too far from the mainstream.

Sanders just points to the despair that grips so many middle-class Americans as the rich get ever richer and their own living standards stagnate. “Don’t let anybody tell you that we’re radical, that we’re outside the mainstream. We are the mainstream.” He could be right: it’s the same despair with business as usual that has pushed Donald Trump out in front of the Republican nomination race.

And that would be something, wouldn’t it? Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump for the presidency. At last Americans get a real choice.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“When…McCoy”; and “But…memory”)

The US Government Is Not Broke

6 October 2013

The US Government Is Not Broke

By Gwynne Dyer

A salient feature of American “exceptionalism” is the belief that the United States can never be ordinary. If it is not the best, then it must be the worst. If it is not destined to dominate the world forever, then it is doomed to decline and decay.

This kind of thinking explains why much of the commentary in the United States about the recent “shut-down” of the US government, and also about the impending default on the national debt (due on 17 October), has started at hysterical and quickly geared up to apocalyptic. We Americans have lost the mandate of Heaven, and it will soon be raining frogs and blood.

So everybody take your tranquiliser of choice (mine’s a double scotch), and let’s consider what is actually going on here. The United States is the world’s oldest democratic country, with an 18th-century constitution that is bound to be an awkward fit for 21st-century politics. But that hasn’t stopped the United States from becoming the world’s biggest economy and its greatest power. Has something now gone fundamentally wrong?

The problem lies in Congress, specifically in the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority is refusing to pass the budget, and threatening not to raise the official debt ceiling either, unless President Barack Obama postpones the implementation of his bill extending medical care to all Americans.

The Affordable Care Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Obama almost four years ago. Last year it passed scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and was subsequently welcomed by a majority of the voters in the presidential election, so Obama is understandably refusing to yield to blackmail. But the House Republicans seem mysteriously unworried by the fact that the public blames them for the impending train wreck. Why?

Because 80 percent of the Republicans in the House of Representatives don’t have to worry about what the general public thinks. They represent Congressional districts that have been so shamelessly gerrymandered by state legislatures that it is almost impossible for anybody who is a Republican to lose an election there. National public opinion is no threat to them, whereas the views of their extremist Tea Party colleagues are a potentially lethal danger.

You can’t gerrymander the Senate; every senator’s “district” is the entire state he or she represents. State legislatures controlled by the Democrats also gerrymander congressional districts to create safe seats for their own party, but there is no organised extremist group in the Democratic Party that will try to destroy elected members of their own party who do not toe the ideological line. Whereas in the Republican Party, there is.

Republicans seeking reelection to the House of Representatives may not have to worry about their Democratic opponents, but they certainly have to fear the Tea Party. If it decides to mount a challenge to an incumbent in the Republican primary elections, the far-right challenger will be lavishly funded by the Tea Party’s wealthy supporters, and that may mark the end of the incumbent’s political career.

So the Republicans in the House of Representatives, even those generally open to compromise, are keeping their heads down for fear of angering the Tea Party. That means it is possible (though not probable) that the October 17th deadline will be missed, and the US government will be forced to default on its debt. How bad would that be?

Very bad, according to a US Treasury spokesperson. “Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, US interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world.” And it might rain frogs and blood.

Or maybe not. There would certainly be turmoil in the markets: many people would lose money, and some would gain. But it would not be a repeat of the crash of 2009, when it was suddenly understood that huge amounts of the mortgage debt held by banks could never be repaid. The US government can still pay its debts; it just has to get Congress’s permission first. And the markets, while prone to panic, are not completely stupid.

 

Nor is the US Constitution fundamentally broken. It always requires a fair degree of compromise between the various branches of the government in order to work smoothly, and at most times in history that cooperation has been forthcoming. The current paralysis is due mainly to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts that makes members of the House of Representatives less afraid of public opinion than of the views of their own party’s hard-liners.

It wouldn’t hurt to put some controls on election spending as well, so that rich ideologues had less influence over the political process. But that is merely desirable; ending the gerrymandering is absolutely essential. It will take time, but this is a problem that can be fixed. And in the meantime, the US government is not really going broke.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“You can’t…there is”)

 

 

Berlusconi: “A Wise Country’s Choice”

14 April 2008

Berlusconi: “A Wise Country’s Choice”

By Gwynne Dyer

“This is a wise country, a country that knows when a person is tired and has turned vicious, when it is time to turn over a new leaf.” That was the upbeat assessment of Walter Veltroni, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, just before Italy’s national election last weekend. So what did the wise Italians do? They elected Veltroni’s adversary, billionaire buffoon Silvio Berlusconi, to a third term as prime minister.

To elect Berlusconi once, as Oscar Wilde might have put it, may be regarded as a misfortune. To elect him twice looks like carelessness. But to elect him THREE TIMES is beyond a joke, for he is the most transparent fraud to have held high public office in a major European country since the Second World War. He even makes the late Boris Yeltsin look serious and competent by comparison.

What can the Italians have been thinking? They were, I suspect, thinking that the situation is so bad that only a self-proclaimed miracle-worker like Berlusconi might have the magic to fix it. He managed to turn himself into the second-richest man in the country; maybe he can do it for the rest of us, too. And if the magic doesn’t work, well, at least he’s entertaining.

Berlusconi truly is entertaining, in a crude sort of way. He is a compulsive clown, once making the sign of a cuckold’s horns behind the head of a fellow dignitary in a group photo of national leaders. He rubbishes foreign cooking (“The Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is”). He makes preposterous promises, like a month without taxes (“We probably wouldn’t be able to do it because it would cost too much, but as you can see we don’t lack imagination in solving problems”). He claims his Latin is good enough to have lunch with Julius Caesar.

The jokes are deliberately outrageous, and sometimes they are funny: “I’m sorry for having said Communists eat babies. But if you want, I can organise a conference in which I will prove Communists have really eaten babies.” When all the other Italian politicians were busily eating buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese in public to prove that it hadn’t been contaminated by the garbage crisis in Naples, Berlusconi went to the city, took one nibble, and started writhing in mock agony.

At other times, however, when the topic is women or gays or immigrants, the jokes are brutally cruel: “An AIDS patient asks his doctor if the sand treatment prescribed for him will do any good. No, says the doctor, but you will get used to living under the earth.” It’s hard to imagine any other mainstream Western leader having a future in politics after saying something like that, but many Italians just think “Good old Silvio.”

One wouldn’t dwell so much on the clown-like behaviour if it was just the cover for a serious political programme, but there is none in sight. Having made a first fortune in real estate and a second in the media (he owns Italy’s three big commercial TV channels), he got into politics in the early 1990s mainly as a way of evading the bribery and corruption charges that were threatening to bring him down. So far, there have been eleven prosecutions brought against him, and both of his closest business associates have been convicted.

Much of the legislative effort during his previous two terms as prime minister was devoted to re-writing the laws to help Berlusconi escape conviction: changing the statute of limitations, for example, so that the charges against him suddenly expired. For all his promises to bring a successful business tycoon’s methods to the task of fixing Italy’s ailing economy, he made few significant changes, and the slow decay of the Italian state and economy continued.

By now it is getting very serious. The national airline, Alitalia, is about to collapse, and Italians were recently shocked by the news that Spain now has a bigger economy despite having 15 million fewer people than Italy. They were even more startled to learn that the average income in Greece is now higher than in Italy. It is a very long time since the Italian economic miracle of the 1950s and ‘60s.

So why did Italians give this 71-year-old charlatan a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament in this election, especially when the worst of the decline happened during his previous time in office? Perhaps the best answer lies in something written recently by political scientist and opinion poller Ilvo Diamanti: “Italian society has been hit by a real ‘collapse of the future’. Almost two out of three Italians believe that in the near future the young will have a worse social and economic position than their parents.”

This is despair. People in this frame of mind do not always make rational choices, and in choosing Berlusconi they are looking for magic. But he doesn’t have any magic, and after five more years with him at the helm — he has the majority to last a full term — it is quite likely that Italy will even have to bail out of the euro. The Italian state is slowly collapsing before our eyes.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The jokes…Silvio”)

Gun Country

16 April 2007

Gun Country

By Gwynne Dyer

You can imagine lots of countries where a candidate for the presidency might lie about owning a gun so as not to alienate the voters, but only in the United States would he lie and say he does own a gun when he doesn’t. That was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s sin earlier this year — and he compounded it by claiming that he was a lifelong hunter. Diligent reporters checked and found that Romney had never taken out a hunting license anywhere. (Where were they when President Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”?)

The notion that the voters might punish a candidate for not owning a gun would seem simply bizarre in most jurisdictions, but it is a serious political reality in the United States. That’s why hardly anybody in the US is using the latest mass slaughter by some enraged loser (33 dead at Virginia Tech) to argue for more gun control. There’s not even pressure to renew the federal law banning the sale of assault rifles, which was recently allowed to lapse.

Gun control is a dead issue in the United States, and it isn’t coming back. There is a sound political reason for this, and there is also a rational explanation for it (which isn’t the same thing).

The political reason was simplicity itself: the Democratic Party realised that it wasn’t going to win back a majority in either house of Congress if it didn’t stop talking about gun control. The party’s leaders looked at the political map after the 2004 election, a sea of Republican red with a narrow strip of Democratic blue on either coast, and realised that their problem was more than just George W. Bush’s fatal charm. They weren’t winning in “heartland” states because they were seen as trying to take Americans’ guns away.

There are other issues even in Montana, of course, but enough people care passionately about their guns in Montana that it’s hard to get elected there if you are seen as anti-gun. So now the Democratic Party’s national platform commits it to uphold the Second Amendment — the right to keep and bear arms — and in the 2006 election it won both the Senate seat that was being contested in Montana and the governorship of the state, for decades a Republican stronghold.

The campaign manifesto of the new Democratic senator from Montana, Jon Tester, claimed that he would “stand up to anyone — Republican or Democratic — who tries to take away Montanans’ gun rights.” The new Democratic governor of Montana, Brian Schweizer, says that he has “more guns than I need but not as many as I want….I guess I kind of believe in gun control: you control your gun, and I’ll control mine.” It’s a whole new image for Democrats, and it won them control of both houses of Congress in 2006. (Yes, the war helped, too, but by itself it wouldn’t have been enough.)

The Democrats were not going to lose the coastal states (where the effete intellectuals and most of the old urban working class live) even if they did drop gun control. They were not going to win in the heartland (where the born-agains and the Marlboro Men live) if they didn’t drop gun control. So they dropped it, and now no large party supports it. That’s the politics of it, and you can’t argue with that.

There is another, quite rational reason why gun control doesn’t get much traction in American politics any more. It’s simply too late. This is a society that owns approximately equal numbers of wrist-watches and guns: around a quarter-billion of each. There’s no going back — and if practically everybody else has guns, maybe you should have one, too.

As various commentators will be pointing out soon, if just one of those 33 murdered students had been carrying a concealed handgun maybe the killer would have been stopped sooner. It’s perfectly legal to carry concealed weapons with a permit in Virginia, but not on college campuses. This loophole must be closed. At least, that is the way the argument is usually put in America, although the reality is not one gun per citizen over the age of twelve, but some citizens with a great many guns and most citizens with none at all.

More fundamentally, the gun control argument may be missing the cultural point. Most Swiss and Israeli households with a male between the ages of 18 and 45 also contain a fully automatic weapon, because the national military mobilisation model in those countries requires reservists to keep their weapons at home. Yet the Swiss and Israelis don’t murder one another at a higher rate than people in countries like Britain or Turkey, where there is relatively strict gun control.

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is the best-known slogan of the National Rifle Association, the most effective pro-gun lobbying organisation in the United States. But it’s really a cultural thing: the British have bad teeth, the French smell of garlic, Americans tend to have more bullet-holes in them than other people. The slogan should actually go: “Guns don’t kill Americans; Americans kill Americans.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The Democrats…withthat”; and “As various…at all”)