A Sydney for All

Last week, it was my honour and privilege to speak at the launch of the City of Sydney's draft Social Sustainability Policy, "A City for All."

This draft is the culmination of months of consultation and now opens the policy up to feedback from all members of the community. This opportunity reflects one of the key pillars of the policy - Engaged City - with its emphasis on transparent decision-making, public participation and civic skills. It was this pillar that I focused my remarks on.

Civic participation is not just a meaningful end in itself, it strengthens many of the other principles and priorities expressed in the plan. If Sydney is to be an inclusive, equal, resilient and vibrant city, if it is to be a place where everyone has the chance to fulfil their potential, it is going to be democratic participation that creates and defends all these goals.

Millenarianism and politics

One of my all-time favourite classes at university was “Prophets and Millenarian Movements in World History.” Millenarian movements are those that believe in the literal and imminent end of the world. All religions begin with a millenarial focus before usually becoming increasingly institutionalized and non-specific when it comes to the end times as they go along.

The entire subject matter was extraordinary, full of stories of charismatic leaders and people at their most raw and desperate and their most devout and hopeful.  What fascinated me most though was the behavior of adherents when the predicted end of the world doesn’t come to pass.  To act in the literal belief of the imminent end of the world is a true test of faith. If you really, truly, belief the world is ending you behave differently. You quit your job, say goodbye to your loved ones. Or you rise up in rebellion or, in some cases, commit suicide in the belief that a new, eternal, life awaits you on the other side. Believers put themselves out there and, if not enclosed within a believer community, are likely suffer a great deal of ridicule, condemnation and repression. And then the big day arrives and…. Nothing happens. The world is still here and so are you. What do you do next?

When faced with this head-on collision of faith and reality, who do you think prevails?

The answer, often, is faith. Believers are more likely to create an elaborate justifications for why the world didn’t end, to find a small mistake in their calculations or blame the behavior of non-believers, than to accept a flaw in their original thinking.

One of the most interesting examples of this was the Millerites in the 1830’s in the US:

In 1831, a Baptist convert, William Miller… began to preach that the Second Advent of Jesus would occur somewhere between March 1843 and March 1844, based on his interpretation of Daniel 8:14. A following gathered around Miller that included many from the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Christian Connection churches. In the summer of 1844, some of Miller's followers promoted the date of October 22. They linked the cleansing of the sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 with the Jewish Day of Atonement, believed to be October 22 that year. By 1844, over 100,000 people were anticipating what Miller had called the "Blessed Hope". On October 22 many of the believers were up late into the night watching, waiting for Christ to return and found themselves bitterly disappointed when both sunset and midnight passed with their expectations unfulfilled. This event later became known as the Great Disappointment. -Wikipedia

While many of those who had gathered in anticipation of the end of the world drifted back to their former lives a significant portion found this impossible to accept and began developing competing explanations for what had or hadn’t happened and why. The Seventh-Day Adventists Church is based on one such explanation. In their telling the end of the world had arrived on the date predicted, but in another, second, world, and which Jesus had to cleanse first before he could come to our world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and the Churches of Christ also emerged from the millenarian fervor of this time.

More recently thousands of devout Christians, supported by a $100 million advertising campaign, insisted that the world would end on May 21 this year, convinced by the calculations of their prophet Harold Camping.

Some believers simply have too much at stake emotionally and psychologically to concede that they were wrong.

I was reminded about all of this today as I read the responses to Barack Obama’s resounding election victory over Mitt Romney.

Very few Republicans are prepared to see their loss, and the swing towards the Democrats in the Senate and House (where the Democrats received the majority of the votes but still have a 35-seat minority due to gerrymandering by Republic state legislators), as indicative of any flaws in their vision for America, or of the fact that most America’s don’t share their goals.

Instead the result is blamed on superstorm Sandy, or the superior Obama get-out-the-vote efforts or their use of data, or because the media is biased or suppressed information that would have helped Romney, or due to the failures of Romney’s vaunted “project ORCA”, or on the bipartisan spirit extended to Obama by Republic Governor Chris Christie in the campaign’s final days.

Rarely are the policies and beliefs the party ran on examined and when they are it’s more often than not claimed that Romney was not conservative enough, rather than to the right of the majority of the American people.

The reality of the situation is that the demographics of America are changing and the ground is shifting rapidly on social issues as gay marriage and ending marijuana prohibition. Where once these causes served to mobilise Republic constituencies they now mobilise Democrat supporters.

A failure to update your thinking when reality intrudes is a clear sign of ideological rigidity and close-mindedness. As with the case of believers in millenarian cults Republican activists have too much committed to the narrative they hold to relax it now. When your ideological commitment is so strong facts themselves become secondary to the story you already hold, immediately suspect if they contradict it in any way, useful only when they confirm existing feelings.

The best example of this comes from the far-right Heritage Action, the political action committee of the Heritage Foundation. It’s even got doomsday music and vibes.


Hard to imagine something like that playing well in Australian politics. But then, we don’t have the millenarian tradition America does.

Election Eve

Watching the news today I saw highlights of Obama’s last rally of the campaign in Iowa and my mind flashed back to the same night four years earlier, the night before the 2008 election.

We left Washington DC at dusk heading West. By the time we arrived in Manassas, 35 miles South-West into Virginia, it was dark and a light rain had started to fall. It wasn’t hard to find out destination, which was the Manassas fairground, but finding a park was a more significant challenge as the streets were choked with cars parked in every conceivable spot, legal or illegal. Finally we found a place and walked to the fairground, where Obama was holding his final rally of the 2008 campaign.

People streamed in the same direction as us and a buzz of anticipation and energy filled the air. It felt more like arriving at a festival than a political event, a feeling reinforced by the stalls and spruikers which lined the street for blocks before the entrance. The Fairground itself was a sea of people and I wondered if we were going to get close enough to even see Obama. Eventually we emerged into the back of a field with a stage set up at the far end, surrounded by red, white and blue bunting. A huge “VOTE FOR CHANGE” sign rose above the bleachers to our right. We had made it just in time for Obama.

I think he was introduced by Mark Warner, the Democratic candidate for Senate. The 100,000+ crowd roared. I’d never experienced anything like it. I’d been at huge protests before, but the energy there is more defuse and chaotic. Here it was focused with a cultish intensity on the man on the stage, the soon-to-be President of the United States, barely blinking for the 45 minutes he spoke, mesmerized by his well-practiced lines. He closed with the story of the origin of his "Fired up! Ready to go!" chant, the exact same story he finished his final rally this year with.

A lot has happened since then. Some of the hope which characterized the 2008 campaign has become the resignation of this year. Where Obama’s 2008 campaign was fueled by a belief that politics itself could be changed for the better this year’s campaign is focused on a more traditional calculated: that the other guy is worst. Whoever wins a segment of the population will reject them as illegitimate.

The widening gap in the American political discourse, where arguments center no so much on what needs to happen next but on fundamental disagreements over what just happened, with facts only as valuable as their usefulness in advancing an argument.

For all the fanfare of participation around the presidential campaign and the real and important differences between the candidates, American democracy is in real trouble as the ability to talk and compromise becomes increasingly rare.

For me personally it’s been an extraordinary and often-challenging four years. The passage of time always spins me out and anniversaries like this prompt me to try to hold all that has happened over these years in my head at once. From Washington DC to San Francisco and then back to Sydney. Building communities and starting a family. Launching a company and struggling to hold onto my visa. Adventure and uncertainty and joy and frustration and love. So many experiences as we went out there and came back again it kind of boggles my mind.

And I can hardly imagine what the next four years will bring.

Fired up. Ready to go.

Green Bay’s Superbowl Victory: A Win for "Socialism"

10 different teams have represented the NFC in the Superbowl over the last ten years. It has been 7 years since a team repeated as Superbowl champion. This competitive parity is loved by fans and the NFL has been prospering as a result, becoming America’s undisputed number 1 sport. This most recent Superbowl became the most-watched show in US television history, beating out last year’s Superbowl to set a new record of 111 million viewers.

Just like societies, the outcome you get in sports league is a result of the rules you put in place. You can design around the principal of equality, trying to give everyone an equal chance at success, or you can allow the advantages of geography and history to predominate.

Of all the professional sporting leagues in America the NFL has the most progressive structure, underpinned by a socialist split of TV revenue on an equal basis between all 32 teams regardless of the size of their local market. No one exemplifies the possibilities of this structure more than the Green Bay Packers.

The town of Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of just over 102,000, or about 3,000 fewer than watched the Superbowl live at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. It is amazing that it can sustain a professional team at all, let alone a champion. But with an equal split of the NFL’s billion-dollar TV deal and a salary cap which restricts all franchises to the same rough salary budget it is possible, and one of football’s original and most storied teams has continued to thrive into the present.

And it’s not just the Packers. The Pittsburgh Steelers may have been the losers of this past Superbowl but have won more Superbowls overall than any other team. Pittsburgh may be much bigger than Green Bay but is a very modest-sized city by sporting standards with a population of 311,000. Compare their success to their baseball brethren, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pittsburgh Pirates last won a World Series in 1979. Unlike the NFL baseball is a world most Republicans would approve of. Teams in bigger markets reap disproportionately (or proportionately, depending on your viewpoint) the TV revenue associated with the sport, and are allowed to spend whatever they choose in the pursuit of success. This allows the New York Yankee’s to outspend the Pittsburgh Pirates by 5-to-1, over $200 million to about $40 million in 2010.

This does not necessarily condemn the smaller-market teams to perpetual disappointment – the San Francisco Giants won their first pennant in 2010 for instance, but after 54 years of trying. But almost everything has to go right for a small-market team to win while the powerhouses of New York, Philadelphia and Boston re-load year-after-year, expecting to win it all every time.

Many will argue ideologically that this is all well and good. That as in other sectors sports businesses should do what they must to maximize profits, that the Yankees should raise the revenue being in New York affords them and spend as much of it as they choose, overpaying for pitching as often as they like. But the end result is a less-valuable product than that created by the socialistic structure of Football. And this isn’t my opinion, this is dollars-and-sense and TV viewership.

Just as extreme inequality in a country eventually undermines the trust necessary to make capitalism function so too does extreme inequality in a sporting league eventually undermine the competition necessary to make the sport compelling.

And if all this wasn’t enough Green Bay’s actual ownership structure is more akin to Australian Rules Football teams than the businesses that surround them in the sporting landscape. They are in fact the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States, which is what has allowed them to remain in Green Bay when so many other teams have been bought and moved.

So according to many on the right of American politics this makes not only America’s favorite sport but its current champion un-American. Awkward.

Political violence and democracy in America

I was away camping in the Big Basin Redwood State Park over the weekend and was shocked when I returned to civilization to find out about the attempted assassination of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Shocked, but not surprised. I have been afraid something like this would happen basically since I got to the US in June 2008, just as the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign was heating up.

It’s hard for me to put this into historical perspective, it feels different being here, but this seems more intense than previous boughts of violence-laced paranoia. It’s hard to describe to Australians how nutty it can be over here. There’s simply no analogues that are sufficient. I try to describe Glenn Beck to people and they say “so like Stan Zemanek ?”. Well, yeah, sort of, both right-wing radio hosts and all that, but also, no. Way, way beyond Stan Zemanek.

America can feel like a country coming apart at the seams. There have always been extremes in American politics, people who lived in their own bubble, convinced of their own truth. But it’s different now. The advent of social media and an ever more diverse and niche-focused media landscape has actually allowed this bubble to grow larger, more immersive, to become all-encompassing for many millions.

It’s said you’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts but that simply isn’t true anymore. It’s hard to imagine a belief which can’t in some way be collaborated online. Within a wide window of beliefs you can construct a media diet consisting of TV, radio, print and online which corroborates and reinforces your beliefs. America’s most-watched news channel promotes wild conspiracy theories and declares that Obama is a socialist intent on taking over America and changing all that is good about it. And millions of Americans in their living rooms nod along, becoming ever more convinced that the America they love is somehow slipping away, that despite the clear prominence of their beliefs they are a persecuted and at-risk minority, that time is running out.

The rhetoric is regularly violent, the tone almost always urgent. Words like treasonous, socialist, Nazi and conspiracy are thrown around with an intensity and regularity I could not have imagined before moving here. It may be that political ideology did not specifically inspire Jared Loughner, the Arizona shooter, but it’s hard to imagine that a climate such as this would not increase the risk of crazy people doing crazy things. Combine this with the number of guns in America (and, shockingly, this event has only led to a spike in sales of the gun used) and it’s impossible not to worry about violence like this.

America seems to be a country that can no longer talk to itself. The gap between the factions is so large as to overwhelm attempts at dialogue, and when that happens democracy itself comes under threat. Democracy requires respecting your fellow citizens and accepting their choices even while working to change their minds but operating within their own factual universe the partisans of the American far-right, who increasingly control the Republican Party, will stand for no compromise and accept no facts that interfere with their beliefs. There’s no chance for the Presidency to unite the country when millions of Republicans do not even accept Obama’s right to be President.

I hope this assassin proves to be a “lone nut”. I hope nothing like this happens again. But unless something changes in America it’s all too easy to imagine this just being the beginning.

What are these changes that are needed? How do you bring a country back from the brink? How do you rebuild trust, reduce fear, reclaim a common identity that supersedes politics?

This is, I think, the most urgent work that needs doing in America today. A challenge that calls for both visionary social entrepreneurs and the everyday activism of people doing things differently, reaching out, connecting. As we search for exciting social change ideas for StartSomeGood I really hope we will see many taking on this vital challenge, building the bridging social capital that is needed to revitalize so many democracies.

The Europe of the conservative imagination

This article by Jeffrey Kuhner in the Washington Times is a great example of conservative commentary in response to Health Care Reform. It's the Washington Times, so not completely mainstream (being owned by a Korean cult leader and all) but it's only a small jump beyond what you can read in the Washington Post. Certainly it gets a lot more crazy in the right-wing blogosphere. I particularly wanted to share it with my Australian readers (hi Mum!) as it seems unique to American political culture.

Kuhner writes:

Mr. Obama has achieved what his liberal predecessors - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton - could only dream of: nationalized health care. Obamacare signifies the government take-over of one-sixth of the U.S. economy. It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state. The inevitable permanent tax hikes, massive public bureaucracy and liberal ruling elites will stifle competition and initiative.

Socialism is the road to economic ruin and fiscal bankruptcy. It subverts democracy, threatening the very future of our constitutional republic. Socialist states degenerate into some form of autocracy or technocratic neo-feudalism....

The Obama revolution threatens to tear America apart. This has happened before. Slavery eventually triggered the Civil War between the industrial North and the agrarian South. Abortion is the slavery of our time - the denying of basic human rights to an entire category of people.

Conservatives will not be passive in this onslaught on all our core values. Mr. Obama's true legacy may be that he divides us deeper than ever before - unless he abandons his revolutionary project.

These are selective excerpts. You can read the whole thing here.

There are two things I consistently find amazing about conservative commentary here. The absurd over-reaction and the lack of context.

The "revolutionary" health care bill he's referring to is less progressive than that proposed by Republican Richard Nixon when he was President. It is very similar to the policy implemented in Massachusetts by Republican Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney and elements of it began life as a proposal by right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation. Far from nationalizing health care it contains no public option to compete with the very-much alive private sector. It's a modest reform which moves the health care system in a progressive direction, largely by guaranteeing their access to insurance.

This is what people are losing their minds and threatening "civil war" over. This intensity of reaction has become standard to anything Obama tries to do.

Even more standard is the conservative dismissal of Europe: "It has dealt a mortal blow to traditional America. We are now a European-style socialist welfare state." The "Europe" being referred to here is not, as you might expect, a continent on the other side of the Atlantic ocean from America. The "Europe" Kuhner is referring to exists in the conservative imagination. The idea of it has been established over decades to become a code word for government excess and economic malaise.

But Europe isn't just an allegory! It's a real place! And as such it collects all sorts of statistics that chart its economic progress, not to mention such curiosities as educational achievement, environmental impact and overall happiness. And while Europe has lots of problems they're not doing too bad on many of those statistics. Indeed, even the much-derided French actually create more GDP per worker hour than the US. But they trade much of their potential GDP for several times more leave than US workers get.

You actually can learn a lot from looking at other countries, but to do so you have to treat them like real places and study what they're actually doing rather than just use them as straw man stereotypes and symbolic code words.

Earth Hour: Good idea, bad framing

So this Saturday is Earth Hour. For the uninitiated Earth Hour is call to action that asks people to turn of their electricity for one hour in recognition of climate change. Earth Hour was started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and has since been taken global by WWF.

Their website says:

In 2009 hundreds of millions of people around the world showed their support by turning off their lights for one hour.

Earth Hour 2010 will continue to be a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community. A call to stand up, to show leadership and be responsible for our future.

Pledge your support here and turn off your lights for one hour, Earth Hour, 8.30pm, Saturday 27th March 2010.

Now turning off your lights is a good idea and I encourage people to take part but the framing of Earth Hour has always bothered me.

Much of the language around the initiative is about 'taking responsibility', 'taking action' and 'showing leadership' but it seems enough to demonstrate this responsibility, action and leadership for one hour, once a year. If Earth Hour were framed as an opportunity to reflect on the immense challenge facing the human race, the need to alter our relationship with the planet and pursue a more sustainable path it would make a great deal of sense to me. It could be an environmental May Day, a chance to come together and prepare for the great work ahead.

Or if it were linked to political action and clearly identifying the necessary policy steps and roadblocks to action, inspiring people to increase the pressure on their leaders for reform, that would make a lot of sense to me.

Instead Earth Hour is framed as actually doing something about climate change. This is completely false conception, and very dangerous. False action which allows us to feel we are making a difference, that we are doing our part, makes it less likely that we will make a real difference, or give up anything beyond an hour of electricity.

Earth Hour is the perfect corporate-friendly initiative: many of the businesses in the Sydney CBD and other cities turn off the lights of their office towers for the hour. On 8.30pm on a Saturday. In return they get to claim a little bit of green cred. But the real issue is why are office lights on at 8.30pm on Saturday night in order to be turned off? Why do they need to be turned on again at 9.30pm? And after this completely harmless non-threatening non-disruptive event business continues as usual.

In 2008 we spent Earth Hour at a participating restaurant. The kitchen power remained on, I assume, as meals continued to arrive in the candle-lit restaurant. It was really nice, a treat. After an hour of enjoyable and romantic dimness the lights came up again. Immediately following the completion of the Hour a fireworks display unexpectedly began, to celebrate this wonderful city-wide event. Environmental protest as dining occasion, as public celebration, as symbolic feelgood vibes, man. Well done on going an hour without electricity - let's blow up some carbon! Woo!

Hard to reflect on our unsustainable culture, the sacrifices and adaptions we will need to make and the difficult road again when fireworks are busting overhead. Ooooh. Aaahhh.

So turn off your lights at 8.30pm this Saturday, but don't kid yourself that you've made a difference when you do so. Instead sit in the dark, or in a park on a rug with friends, or in your backyard staring at the stars, and know that we have huge challenges and changes ahead, and so much work to be done to sweep away the forces that would lead us to disaster if they can make a dollar more. And think about how your actions can lead us towards a better, more sustainable tomorrow. Then act.

DC joins the future

Two weeks ago, relatively quietly, the world changed in DC. On Wednesday March 3 the government of the District of Columbia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The video below is of the first same-sex wedding in DC, a week later. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSKcq5U_MLs]

DC has joined five states in allowing same-sex couples to wed: New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.

This is the civil rights issue of our time, but the change it brings is barely noticeable. It's almost amazing how completely non-disruptive it is, even to those most opposed to it. As despicable as it was segregation was a way of life, and giving up a way of life and the set of traditions and beliefs around it is very difficult for many people.

Those opposed to gay marriage however are defending a way of life only in their minds. As the five existing states in America have shown, nothing happens when you allow same-sex marriage other than people of the same sex getting married. Heterosexual marriage continues as normal. Even for those most opposed daily life continues exactly as it did before. They are required to give up no traditions at all and it can only be a matter of time before most realize that the only belief they are giving up was a mistaken one: that gay marriage in some way threatened heterosexual marriage.

I feel fairly confident that most of those casually opposed to gay marriage will get over it pretty quickly. It will be hard to continue to make claims about the destruction of the institution of marriage when the institution continues as before, if not stronger. It's harder to be scared of something that happens routinely around you without any negative repercussions. And as the states and jurisdictions which allow gay marriage slowly increase in America, it will become harder and harder to make a credible argument against it anywhere.

6 countries currently allow gay marriage: Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. I suspect the institution of marriage is getting along just fine there as well.

The dangers of media fragmentation

Teabaggers descend on Washington I ran a social media for social change workshop on the weekend for people involved in the AshokaU Changemaker Campus program. During it I was asked a question which often concerns me but for which I have no good answer: how do we reach diverse audiences with our message when so many people's media consumption is so narrow?

The future of our democracy may rest on finding an answer to this question.

While I'm obviously a believer in the democratizing power of the internet, and I have worked for many years to help realize this power, I am also aware that the ongoing fragmentation of audiences into discrete niches poses challenges to our governance.

It is now possible to curate for yourself an entirely ideologically coherent media diet. You could listen to only right-wing talk radio, watch Fox on TV and read the conservative blogosphere. You can do the equivalent on the Left (although it will be harder to find left-wing talk radio after the recent demise of Air America).

The result of this fragmentation and curation is that Americans on the left and right scarcely seem to live in the same country. The teaparties are a prime example of this, but the numbers actively involved are relatively modest, despite all the attention they are given. Less dramatic but more shocking were the results of a recent survey, commissioned by liberal site DailyKos and conducted by non-partisan polling firm Research 2000, of registered Republicans.

The 2003 Republicans sampled hold some pretty odd opinions. 39% believe Obama should be impeached (for what the poll does not ask). 63% think Obama is a socialist. Only 36% are sure he was born in the United States. 53% think Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Obama and 31% think Obama is a racist who hates white people. 28% believe the 2008 election was stolen by ACORN. Truly Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus.

You can see this dichotomy play out on issues after issue, and not simply in terms of different opinions about what should be done but different opinions about what has actually happened.

In a recent poll only 12% of the popular felt they had got a tax cut, and fair enough, the tax cut was small, but an amazing twice that many, 24% of respondents, thought their taxes had increased under Obama. As 95% of the population has received a tax cut all most of these people would have needed to do to prove their conjecture wrong is compare their latest pay slip to one from 2008.

This confusion isn't rare. Significant chunks of the population think Obama is trying to end private health insurance (when his plan is, in fact, center-right from a policy perspective with no public option), has reduced military spending (it has gone up) is anti-nuclear (he's in favour) is about to take away the guns (he has said repeatedly that he's not proposing any new gun control legislation). And on and on including, of course, whether Climate Change is happening or not.

One of the interesting aspects of the DailyKos poll was how uniform the responses were across regions and age groups. Here's the response to the "is Obama a socialist?" question:

Remember that this is registered Republicans, so an unusually political group, more likely than most to consume political media. And, I think, for a republican the choice of political media is clear - Fox news and the rest of the right-wing media constellation. It is this shared media diet which produces such a uniformity of belief, and it is the hyper-partisan nature of this media which produces disagreements about what constitutes fundamental reality, such as whether the President of the United States was born in the country.

This is where things get dangerous for democracy. If a society cannot agree on what the issues are, cannot reconcile on a jointly-held view of what's actually happening and who the actors are, then it will be impossible to come together to face the challenges and opportunities which confront them. When a society cannot agree on what these challenges and opportunities are they have no chance of making the necessary sacrifices to change, adapt and move forward.

Instead we are trapped in a battle of wills, of who can more persuasively describe a version of events, with the media satisfied to provide a platform for "he said, she said" debates.

For those of us who care about the future of democracy it is vital that we seek to build tools that bring diverse perspectives together, rather than the easier task of hosting narrow and self-selected conversations. We must move beyond the converted if our democracy is to stay vibrant, creative and capable of making future-focused decisions based on the best intelligence.

The question of how a society talks to itself in the 21st Century remains to be answered but is crying out for new thinking and approaches. The fragmenting of the media landscape is permanent, but without a capacity to talk together outside of our ideological, demographic and class niches our politics will fragment alongside it and our capacity for effective governance may also disappear.

America the Ungovernable

My Dad always used to say to me, "Tom", he'd say, "America is ungovernable." Dad's talking nonsense again I would think to myself, of course America is governable. I mean, it's being governed isn't it?

Now that I'm living here I can say: only barely. Dad was right, America is an incredibly difficult country to govern. Their three "separate but equal" branches of government, one of them split into two houses, and dominated by a two-party system at once rigid and chaotic, makes meaningful progress on difficult issues the exception rather than the rule, a product of circumstances which occur infrequently.

The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics to an even greater extent than any two parties in Australian, England, France, Germany or Canada. But they are generally, despite impressive Republican unity in opposing everything lately, a unruly bunch, and only periodically vote along party lines.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I appreciate very much the greater diversity of opinion this allows. The health care debate has been a nightmare to watch up close but on the Democratic side at least there has been a robust debate about which model to pursue in what why. One the other  hand, they couldn't get the bloody thing done.

It's been an amazing and dispiriting experience to observe (initially from afar, then up close) a seemingly-endless election campaign fought on a variety of issues, one of which was healthcare reform, and a landslide victory for the progressive in that election, only for the country to tear itself apart for a year following that election over the same issue they had been debating for the previous two years.

Despite my intense frustrations with the political dynamic in Australia when one party wins in a landslide campaigning on a set of policy reforms most of those reforms generally happen. Mandates are real. And if we hate these changes once implemented (or resent the delay in implementing them) we vote them out next time around. The cycle of (political) life. But here winning an election is no guarantee of anything. The president has only limited control over domestic policy - legislation must be introduced and passed in houses of Congress, and now, absurdly, both parties seem to accept the notion that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything meaningful done.

Which is why America is generally ungovernable. Legislators put themselves above the parties. The process is unwieldy and prone to delay and obfuscation. The American political system seems designed to make it exceedingly hard to get difficult things done. It requires a rare combination of factors to allow changes on any scale to be affected, and it is beginning to look like the present moment, as hopeful as it seemed a year ago, might lack one or more of these factors.

Thinking back over the past 100 years of American history I can think of only two presidents who passed significant progressive domestic reforms: FDR with the establishment of the welfare state and LBJ with civil rights. (Clearly the fact BHO doesn't roll off the tongue is part of what is holding Obama back). In both cases there was a society under stress, from the Great Depression and the ructions  of the 60's and assassination of Kennedy. In both cases America had significant external challengers, being at war or on the brink of war. In both cases there was passionate opposition from the right, who warned of ruin and socialism. So far so familiar. But also in both cases there was an equally-passionate and organized mass movement pushing from the left, advocating and demanding needed reforms. It's this last factor that is missing from Barack Obama's America.

This might be, in part, a product of the success of the Obama campaign itself. To an unprecedented degree it dominated the debate, monopolizing donations, volunteers and attention. This helped create a historic campaign but it also left the left wing groups outside government weaker than they would otherwise have been. Without an effective-enough or large-enough left flank to push him and perhaps more importantly the Congressional Democrats the perceived "center" of the health care debate has moved relentless rightwards, to the point where what eventually became a center-right reform is still being discussed as being "too far left."

Ironically success at campaigning has created a weakness for Obama in governing. Not that it was easy to begin with. It's not designed to be.