American politics

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.

Updates from the Civil Rights battle of our times

Gay marriage is the civil rights issue of our times, the clearest and most blatant example we still have of institutionalised discrimination against a group of peope in our society. In America the battle is primarily being fought state-by-state as progressive chafe at the lack of progress at a Federal level, where the noxious 'Defence of Marriage Act' waits to be repealed.

This has been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back week for same-sex marriage, following in a year of mostly set-backs, starting with the passage on November 4 last year of Proposition 8 which rolled back gay marriage in California and then seeing the same happen in Maine last month. Against the strong hopes of many the New York State Senate on Tuesday rejected a bill already passed in the lower house which would have legalized gay marriage. This is a particular blow given the progressive tilt of New York and the $1 million spent by pro same-sex marriage organizations over the past year. Despite the confidence of many it wasn't even close, going down 38-24.

There was some good news this week though and I'm thrilled to say it was out of Washington DC. Also on Tuesday the DC Council voted 11-2 to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. This is the first of three steps towards full legalization. A second vote is needed in two weeks, likely to pass by the same margin, and then there will be 30 days of Congressional review (because DC doesn't have true democracy) but with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress it would be very unlikely to be blocked.

This vote has come after months of heated debate. Anti-gay marriage groups (led by the Catholic church) are still advertising on buses in the District but have lost their push to subject same-sex marriage to a public referendum. On November 17 the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that the issue could not go for a public vote as it does 'not present a proper subject of initiative because it would authorize discrimination prohibited under the Human Rights Act (“HRA”).'

Quite right too, fundamental human rights should not be up for a vote. Discrimination is unconstitutional (not to mention immoral), whatever the majority might feel at this moment in time. This, by the way, is why Australia needs a Human Rights Act.

The next battleground seems to be New Jersey where there is a push for the Democrat-controlled legislature to vote on same-sex marriage within the next few weeks, before the Republican Governor-elect takes office in January.

One step at a time, this issue will go the right way, the arc of history bends towards equality. The bigots are standing against this tide, but they will lose. To see the truth of this you only need to look at this graph:

Moreso even than the normal left-right or red state/blue state divides support for same-sex marriage is determined by age. Even in the most progressive state, Massachusetts, the 65+ age group is less supportive of same-sex marriage than the 18-25 year-olds in the most conservative state, Alabama. It really is only a matter of time. But that's no cause for complacency. Every day that some people are denied rights afforded to the rest of us due to their sexual orientation is a tragedy and a crime.

If you're in the US you can get a free I love love sticker (seen at the top of this post) from Credo Action here.