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December 22, 2008

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Well, I'm particularly saddened by the fact that as the normal people increasingly flee the GOP, it gives the lunatics more and more power. What needs to happen is for normal people to get involved in the Republican party. But no one wants to get involved with a party where the inmates have taken over the asylum.

I think I've mentioned this before here, but Democrats occupying an analogous role to Canada's Liberals is not the worst thing I can imagine. My big worry (and this is purely me) has to do with two things, namely the death penalty and Second Amendment. With uncontested Democratic power, they could vanish and Justice Kennedy would finally have his wish of us not looking like rubes to those sophisticated Europeans.

Canada's Liberal Party is a good analogy, although the Democrats wouldn't quite look like it, for the simple reason that Westminster-style parties need to be highly disciplined operations for the system to function, whereas the Democrats can do fine as a loose and woolly coalition. Not as loose or as woolly as the one that controlled Congress in 1954-94, but loose.

I can't imagine the Democrats ever trying to abolish the death penalty, although the institution is dying as state governments increasingly grapple with the fact that a substantial number of innocent people have been executed ... and the fiscal cost of insuring that does not happen more is extremely high.

As for federal gun control, well, the real question is whether a future Democratic government would attempt to strengthen it in the face of public opinion.

Thoughts?

You know, I suspect that gun control may remain a non-issue and likewise there will be lots of pressure on capital punishment for the same reason. We're rapidly getting to the point when the Ramadification of many American cities of the late 80's will have faded from public consciousness (especially now that The Wire is done with. So barring a repeat of the meteoric rise in crime from the late 60's through the late 80's, these things just aren't going to have the emotional resonance necessary to get people riled up to Do Something. As a result, both executing criminals and stopping gun violence will seem less urgent to the public in general. That gives the advantage to the folks who want to abolish the death penalty but also to those who want to keep the right to own firearms intact.

Possibly useful data point: I spent a couple of years in Britain in the mid-1980s, right around the time Labour was hitting absolute rock bottom.

You mentioned Parliamentary democracy, yah? Recall that Labour lost a breathtaking four general elections in a row -- 1979, 1983, 1997, and 1992. That's actually worse than losing four US presidential elections in a row, since UK GEs determine control of Parliament as well, and governments can last up to five years.

Labour was locked out of power for 18 years -- and for about 14 of those 18, they were pretty much completely useless as an opposition.

My very strong impression is that this was not a good thing for Britain at any level.

I note in passing that from May 1997 to sometime in 2006, exactly the opposite situation prevailed: the Tories were trashed so thoroughly that they were almost meaningless as opposition. (They've become a bit more of a menace lately.) Note also that this situation is in large part a product of Labour's earlier uselessness; governing with no real opposition helped the Tories become completely flabby and stupid, so that when they finally went down it was in the manner of the one hoss shay. The recent Labour ascendancy has been much less bad than the previous Tory dominance, in part because it hasn't lasted as long, in part because Labour is just a lot less evil. But it's still bad.

More perhaps in a bit.


Doug M.

I'm eagerly awaiting what more you have to say, and I mean that quite seriously.

I wrote above: "In short, in the unlikely event that the Republican Party refuses to modernize despite a few more electoral wallopings, American democracy could function just fine under a decentralized Democratic hegemony. And in the equally unlikely event that a hegemonic Democratic Party should become centralized and therefore resistant to primary challenges, a new opposition party would emerge rather quickly."

I think you're responding to the second contingency.

Most of my analysis presupposes that the Democrats do not become a centralized parliamentary party. "A national opposition party might not be necessary, given the Democrats' long-standing ability to oppose themselves."

The corrolary is that the British example holds few lessons for America ... unless the Democratic Party becomes as centralized as the Republicans' most-recent incarnation.

There are structural reasons to believe that won't happen, but past performance does not always predict future results. There is nothing intrisically irreplacable about the GOP's control over its congresspeople or its (somewhat weaker) ability to insure that the "right" candidate wins the primary season.

(McCain, oddly enough, was the establishment candidate in '08; that was the price he extracted for coming back to the party fold in '04. The cost, of course, was that he had to adopt the establishment's positions. Hmm. When was the last really competitive Republican primary? 1980? 1976?)

In other words, the British experience only holds a warning for the U.S. should the Democratic Party transform itself into something other than what it currently is. But how likely is that?

What say you? What say others?

Doug, I have a question for you about Labour. Surely you're a bit too sanguine about certain "softly authoritarian" measures enacted by New Labour. England is now the most surveilled country on the planet Earth, and that the government can say things like, "We need more convictions for certain crimes, double jeopardy be damned" seems to indicate that a center-left government left unchecked can combine some of the worst aspects of left and right with respect to a government that Really Cares but also embodies a general desire seen to be tough on crime.

You know, Noel, this is one of those moments where I have no choice but to run the risk of irritating you. Because there are actually some people who might be slightly shocked when they hear normal, intelligent people phrasing eloquent arguments with words such as "A national opposition party might not be necessary, given the long-standing ability of the ruling party to oppose itself."

Well, yeah. The Mexican PRI and the Kemalist CHP had internal factions as well, and their period of governance as the single, ruling party was arguably more or less beneficial for both countries, with some exceptions. Same goes for the present-day Yedinaya Rossiya, obviously - and the supremacy of that party could also be justified by those same reasons.

So, your above-quoted phrase may look to some people as the Beginning of the End. Would you really like the political system of the United States to be compared in that same category? Call me old-fashioned, but I think that some kind of an actual national opposition party should be always considered necessary. And preferably, it should be an opposition party which has not emerged simply as a split from the ruling single party.

As for your suggestion that "a new opposition party would emerge rather quickly"... would it? Would the American political activism be able to spawn a new, viable movement to challenge the ruling regime in this century? Assuming that this opposition party would not be founded merely by exiled Democrats, that is?

And when it comes to the suggestion of a temporary hegemony, during which the pre-existing opposition party might presumably be able to reform itself... well, I'm not sure how accurate it would be to make a prediction that the coming decades might end up resembling the period of Republican hegemony during the 1870s and the 1880s. And the said era was not exactly famous for its good, clean politics.

I'm not sure if Doug had that example also in mind, aside the British parallel that he mentioned.


Cheers,

J. J.

Irritate me? No way. I'm playing with a provocative idea, and I hope to get more responses. As you know, I'm perfectly open to changing my opinion.

I am sort of pleased that I managed to shock you.

Knowing something about the CHP, and a bit more about the PRI, I'm inclined to dismiss both analogies. Both parties existed as part of an authoritarian polity. Down to secret police, sudden disappearances, and nothing resembling a free press. Nor was authoritarianism an outcome of single-party rule; single-party rule was the result of authoritarianism.

Factionalism inside both organizations is nothing like democratic primary elections. That doesn't mean that you're wrong that a prolonged period of Democratic hegemony in the United States would be bad for the Republic; it just means that comparisons to Mexico or Turkey don't tell you anything.

There are several American states that are run under Democratic hegemony, with the GOP serving mainly as an occasional vehicle to elect a non-ideological governor ... and unless the counterfactual is utopia, many of those states (such as the one that I live in) are not too badly run.

I need two things to be convinced that the reduction of the Republican Party to a regional force (which I don't think is likely) would be a bad thing for the Republic.

First, a compelling argument explaining why Democratic primary elections would eventually fail to serve as a way to discipline governments or mobilize popular opinion.

Second, a compelling argument explaining why a coherent opposition would fail to emerge fairly rapidly in the event of Democratic failure.

Takers?

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