Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Dumbing Down of Politics

Thomas E Mann is an academic specialising in the US Congress, whose work I have great respect for. Of particular note (but there is so much more that he has done) is the joint writing he has done with Norm Ornstein - The Permanent Campaign and its Future (2000); The Broken Branch (2006); It's Even Worse than it Looks (2012).

In a recent Brookings Post he wrote - and it is worth reading!

Donald Trump and the Amen chorus of Republican presidential aspirants may have appeared to monopolize the capacity to make fantastical claims about what’s wrong with America and how to fix it. But a rival has appeared on the scene, outlining a very different fantasy plan to run for president on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig looks meek—a dead ringer for Mr. Peepers—yet is anything but. Lessig built an impressive career in legal scholarship on the regulation of cyberspace, and the mild-mannered, soft-spoken academic became a cult hero among libertarians fearful of increasing legal restrictions on copyright, trademark and the electromagnetic spectrum. But Lessig’s transformation into a political activist was spurred by his personal revelation that money in politics is the root of all our governing problems. Eliminate the dependence of elected officials on private donors and the formidable obstacles to constructive policymaking will crumble. Simple but searing truth, or a caricature of a complex governing system shaped by institutions, ideas/ideologies, and interests?

Lessig became a whirlwind of energy and organization to promote his new values and beliefs, leading efforts to “Change Congress,” convene a second constitutional convention, raise awareness of corruption in politics through the “New Hampshire Rebellion,” and start the “Mayday PAC,” a super PAC designed to end all super PACs. He wrote the bestselling book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and A Plan to Stop It, delivered a series of popular TED talks, and tirelessly traveled the country with his PowerPoint.

With none of these enterprises yet bearing fruit, Lessig has decided to raise the stakes. He has announced that if he receives $1 million from small donors by September, he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, running as a “referendum candidate.” His single-issue platform, built around the concept of “Citizen Equality,” consists of “true” campaign finance reform supplemented by electoral reform (to weaken the influence of gerrymandering) and voting rights. His goal is to use the election to build a mandate for political reform that will cure our democratic ills. Lessig will apparently have nothing to say about anything other than political reform, insisting that his issue should be and can be the number one priority of voters in the 2016 elections. If nominated and elected, President Lessig will serve in office only long enough to enact the Citizen Equality Act and then resign, turning over the powers and responsibilities of the office to the vice president. Recently he generously informed the Vice President that he would happily enable a third Joe Biden term by selecting him as his running mate.

The hubris of the Harvard Professor is breathtaking. In virtually every respect, his strategy is absurd. Lessig’s political reform agenda is stymied by Republicans, not Democrats. Why not direct his energies where the opposition resides? All of the current Democratic presidential candidates support the thrust of these reforms. But saying that this is their highest priority is likely to harm, not boost, their candidacies. Why would even the most ardent supporter of the three pillars of Lessig’s reform agenda cast a ballot solely on this basis? Big and important issues divide the two parties today and the stakes of public action or inaction are huge. We don’t have the luxury of using the election to try to build a mandate for a set of political reforms that would have no chance of passing in the face of GOP opposition and would be of only incremental utility if they did.

Campaign finance does play a corrosive role in our democracy and I have invested much of my career grappling with it. There is no doubt that money in elections facilitates the transfer of economic inequality into political inequality, and the spectacle of several hundred plutocrats dominating the finance of our elections should be a target of serious reform efforts in the courts and the Congress. At the same time it is foolish to imagine that campaign finance is the only route for private wealth to influence public policy or that its reform will dramatically transform the policy process. Money did not prevent the major legislative enactments of 2009-2010—including the stimulus, student loans, the Affordable Care Act, and financial services reform. Nor is it likely to be the critical factor on climate change, immigration, infrastructure or jobs and wages; which party wins the White House and whether control with Congress is unified or divided is key. If anything, the Lessig campaign is likely to weaken the forces for political reform by demonstrating just how small the relative priority for this action is.

Trump offers the country his outsider status, success in building his personal wealth, an outsized personality, a brashness in asserting how easily he can solve the country’s problems, and a hearty appetite for and skill in stoking the anger and fears of a segment of the country. He feeds the notion that a strong, fearless, wily leader, inexperienced and mostly uninformed in politics and governing, can be the man on a white horse saving a great country losing its exceptional status. His claim that all politicians are bought by private interests—a claim Lessig eagerly embraces—fits well with his grandiose claims that he alone can fix what ails the country. A significant segment of Republican voters, presumably not well versed in the American constitutional system are attracted to him, at least enough for him to be a factor in this election campaign.

Lessig is a far less commanding presence but his ambition burns no less than that of Trump. The notoriety, celebrity, and adoring audiences are heady stuff, even if on a much smaller scale. Lessig told Bloomberg that Trump’s candidacy is evidence that his reform message is taking hold. Lessig said, Trump “strikes people as credible when he says all these people (politicians) are bought—I used to buy them …Trump is saying the truth.” Lessig will be a minor figure in this election and the causes for which he fights are unlikely to advance from it. Both Lessig and Trump, despite their differences in visibility and importance in the election, will have contributed to the dumbing down of American politics, a reality that will bring tears to the eyes of civics teachers and political science professors across the country.

It is well worth signing up for Brookings newsletters - which can be done here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

New to Congress

C-SPAN aired this interview with freshman, Brendan Boyle, who was elected last November as the Representative for the 13th District in Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

And so back to work....

The summer is over (if you have been in Milton Keynes this last weekend, you'd know how true that is - it has rained, and rained, and rained - and I have been wearing a jumper!). Yesterday was the "Late Summer Bank Holiday", the last Bank Holiday here until Christmas Day.

Next week Parliament returns, and on the following Saturday the result of the Labour Party leadership election will be announced. It's time to put away the summer reading and get back to day to day politics.

Washminster returns - and this is the 2200th post. This blog has been running since March 2007. Do please free to look at some of the previous posts. They can be accessed in date order - or through the search function.

Autumn 2015 looks interesting - in the UK (where the major opposition party chooses a new leader, but faces an uncertain future) - This blog will follow the results - and (as in previous years) report directly from the Labour Party Conference at the end of this month. Parliament will be more closely monitored, as I do further research into the evolution of scrutiny. In the USA the long march to the 2016 elections continues - and who knows what further surprises are in store.

As part of my work, I monitor political stories (particularly relating to the work within legislatures - the UK Parliament; US Congress; French AssemblĂ©e nationale and the European Parliament) and teach Constitutional Law. Having twice run for the UK Parliament and once for the European Parliament (and participated in numerous elections - from local councils in the UK to three US Presidential elections) - I maintain a keen interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of elections.

So - whether you are studying Constitutional or EU Law or Political Science - or enjoy viewing politics on a comparative basis - or want to pick up anecdotes about history and politics - do become a regular, and welcome visitor to the Washminster Blog.

...and do tell your friends. Posts you like (or which infuriate you - I love a vigorous debate!) can be posted on Twitter and Facebook.

So here goes for a busy few months!!!!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Labour Party Leadership

I'm not going to use this blog to declare my support for any candidate - or, if you are eligible to vote in that contest - try to persuade you to support one or other of the candidates. Of course, I have my own views - and have been telephone canvassing for one of the candidates - and my facebook friends also know who I am backing - but this is not the place for me to campaign!

It has turned out to be a very interesting election. It's the first that is truly 'one person, one vote'. In previous elections the decision has been made through an electoral college - and it was possible to vote many times - within the different electoral college. So in 1994, I had a vote as a Labour Party Member; and votes as a member of the then TGWU (now Unite) and GMB Unions; and votes as a member of various Socialist Socities including the Co-operative Party; the Fabian Society; the Society of Labour Lawyers and the Christian Socialist Movement.

But for most of its history, the Labour Party selected its leader, purely through the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour MPs got to vote - but no one else. I'm glad those days are over - and I campaigned for the change - but it had certain merits. That electorate knew the potential leaders up close - saw them regularly in action - and could rate their performance. (Of course those days preceded complete and live TV broadcasting from the chamber and committee rooms).

So - without revealing who I will be voting for - what sort of things should the electorate for the 2015 Leadership (and Deputy Leadership) consider when casting their votes? [Voting is by ordered preference - 1 for your preferred candidate; 2 for your second choice and so on].

What I did to come to my decision was to rate each candidate on a grid. Some were subjective; other's objective - such as how many MPs had supported their nomination. The square for "Who is backing had two entries - one for the total number - and another for MPs who I have a particularly high respect for (so that list, being personal - is also not going to be published.) I gave 4 for the best candidate 3 for the second best and so on. I added the figures for each candidate - by this time the decision was clear for me.

Do you have any other factors that you would propose? Please send me your suggestions and comments - to Washminster

Saturday, 1 August 2015

JDM's History Explorer

When not researching Parliament or Congress, I enjoy reading about - or visiting places associated with - history. Recently I started another blog dedicated to that passion.


The photograph today was taken in Milton Keynes Shopping Centre - it is a mosaic found in the Roman villa discovered in (what is now) Bancroft within the city. I have lots of information about the history of Britain's "New City". A friend from America told me that she was pleased that I loved the place to which I had moved - but "unlike many of ancient towns in England, Milton Keynes has no history". That was like a red rag to a bull - and I've been researching the great history of Milton Keynes ever since.

Do take a look at the new blog - which covers not just Milton Keynes - but wherever I indulge my passion for history.