Politics on the Rocks


Weekly Standard and Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell writes about the big issues in a November edition of the London paper—namely, the leadership crisis that the West is experiencing across two continents and the decline of political parties.

Caldwell argues: “Politics is drifting towards deadlock in every western country. Americans are coming to distrust the wartime leadership of George W. Bush. The British press is predicting (or, to put it more accurately, promoting) Tony Blair’s exit. Jacques Chirac’s reputation has been dimmed by the French riots. And Angela Merkel, having failed to catch fire in September’s elections, is taking power hemmed in by a cumbersome grand coalition agreement. Moments of generalized exhaustion in party politics are not unusual. The last time there was such worldwide distrust of leadership— in the late 1970s—international politics was turned upside down. Are we in the democratic equivalent of what leftists used to call a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation?”

Caldwell compares the similarities of today’s politics to the 1970s with one glaring exception: “In one respect, the situation is decidedly worse than it was a generation ago: there is a lack of dynamism among opposition parties. New problems are generating no great well of solutions such as Thatcherism or Reaganism.”

In fact, rather than see the parties that are out of office rising while the incumbent political parties struggle, what Caldwell sees in the western nations is both the parties of left and right sinking, regardless of which one holds office. He cites the U.S. as one example of simultaneous shrinking political parties: “One would expect the fall of Mr. Bush’s popularity to be mirrored by a rise in that of Hillary Clinton, still the most likely presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2008. This is not happening. On the contrary, the Hotline poll found a six point drop in her popularity since October.”

Caldwell has plenty of other examples of the collapse of our present day western politics, including the first round of French presidential elections in 2002, when Chirac finished first with the support of just one-fifth of the public. In 2003, Conservatives and Labour took only half the vote in Britain. “In Germany, September marked the first time since the Second World War that both parties got under 40 percent and the winning Christian Democrats were barely able to scrape their way to 35,” writes Caldwell.

So what is going on? Is this the beginning of the end of our democracies? Have the citizens of western democracies, the U.S. included, become spoiled and ungovernable? Many citizens, pundits, journalists, and even politicians, when they know they are not speaking on the record, believe this—that our democracies have been first divided and then swallowed by interest groups to the point where they are broken.

Longtime BrainstormNW advisory board member Ted Abram described this phenomenon in an April 2000 perspective, “Stakeholder Government.” Abram wrote of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and citizen interest groups conspiring to vote themselves a larger and larger share of the public coffers, thus increasing both the size of government and the public’s cynicism about “so-called” self-government.

Caldwell sees the problem differently, and is more optimistic about the future of democracy, although not about our present politics. He believes we are too close to this generational “malaise” of the West to see it accurately. He writes: “Citizens tend myopically to seek national explanations for sea changes in their politics. In the 1960’s, for instance, Americans viewed their battles through the lens of Vietnam and racial segregation… these explanations had some merit, but surely there were larger common factors—such as the explosion of university-age populations, the arrival of women in the political sphere or the codification of the moral lessons of the second world war—that caused something roughly similar to happen in every western country.”

Caldwell suggests looking beyond such short-term explanations as Iraq and campaign financing. In his view the explanation has more to do with changes caused by the fall of the Berlin Wall and globalization.

There is that word again—globalization.

Oregon is an especially good microcosm of Caldwell’s argument. The Democrats have been in power for 20 years, their hold on political power keeps shrinking, as the state now ranks 36th in the nation in per-capita income, and the median income has fallen for five straight years. Liberals and their allies in Oregon’s judiciary continue to throw out one popular ballot measure after another, yet the popularity of the Republican Party in the state does not grow. How can you explain so many Oregon citizens agonizing over the state’s leadership vacuum, and yet despite Gov. Kulongoski’s weak performance, he remains a solid favorite for reelection?

Easy—you can’t have a sea change in your politics if no proposal is on the table.

From post-war America until now, the U.S. government has subsidized American housing, education, health care and retirement. Going forward, because of global competition, government and business will not be able to subsidize these basics to the extent they have in the past. Many Americans find this troubling, and a lot has and will be written about the shrinking middle class. Many believe that those subsidies are what created America’s successful middle class. Also, the growing share of the nation’s wealth in the hands of the top one percent makes many see “red” with class envy. With the structural reforms that are needed ahead and the growing concentration of wealth, many wonder, “What’s in it for me with this globalization stuff?”

The answer: Plenty. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the last decade in China and in India will only make America and the world wealthier in the long run, creating opportunities for both Americans and Asians. But getting there from where we are today will not be easy. It will require, as Caldwell writes, a sea change in our politics.

In 1978, the Reagan and Thatcher eras began with a ballot initiative in California that cut property taxes. It was also on the West Coast, in roughly the same period, that the computer began to revolutionize economic growth. When looking for sea changes in politics and economics, California is the trendsetter. That’s why it was encouraging to see Gov. Schwarzenegger begin the “sea change” by putting four initiatives on the ballot last month. Less encouraging—all four were defeated. Still, the conversation has begun.

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