They aren’t important enough to risk the system over

Monday, February 5th, 2018

It is easy to imagine that politics would inevitably decay into legal battles, Anomaly UK notes, but, at least in established long-standing democracies, this rarely happens:

Outside of the developed West, this is quite a common occurrence. The last few years have seen disputes over whether candidates acted lawfully in Ukraine, Venezuela, Honduras, just off the top of my head.

As a general approach, those norms can’t be a solution to the problem: if there is a strong norm against prosecuting opponents, that would surely tempt politicians further into legally questionable territory in order to take advantage of it, approaching the point where there is a significant danger of prosecution.

One solution that would work is for the grey area to be shrunk down: if the real rules (which might not be the same as the formal rules) are very clear and very easily interpreted, then nobody will make a fatal mistake, either of stepping over the line so that his opponents have to take legal action against him, or of taking a situation to the legal arena which the other party has reasonably assumed to be safe.

That could be the case, but really doesn’t appear to be.

Another solution would be if politicians feared the punishments for malpractice much more than they wanted to win, so that they would never take even small risks of getting caught. Again, that does not appear to be the case.

Another solution in a democracy would be if any malpractice is looked on so severely by the electorate that it would be counterproductive. That surely is not the case. It might be that that has been the case until recently. There is a whole narrative, quite logical, that the populations of the Western democracies used to be so attached to democratic values that any breach of those principles would outrage them to the point of unelectability, and that a recent increase in partisanship has fatally damaged that equilibrium.

There are two problems I can see with that narrative: first, that there is no history of notably clean politics in the democracies: lies, bribes, and gerrymandering being commonplace throughout history. Second, that it doesn’t make sense for voters to be so moralistic about their own side cheating. The current situation, where supporters of a candidate see accusations of cheating as either signs of the viciousness of the enemy propaganda, or as indications of his own heroic strength, or both, seems far more natural than such high-minded fairness.

My own view is that the thing that has made democracy work, in those rare cases where it has worked, is that the apparently opposing parties are really part of the same ruling class. The issues that stand between the parties are low-stakes issues, which are resolved by the parties staying within the rules. The reason they stay within the rules is because they are united on the high-stakes issue, of the existing ruling class holding on to its position, and aren’t prepared to jeopardise that by fighting no-holds-barred over side questions.

For instance, take the quote from Jeremy Paxman’s book The Political Animal that I picked up in 2011: “In April 1925, for example, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain was to return to the Gold Standard, whereby the value of sterling was guaranteed by allowing pounds to be exchanged for gold. This momentous (if ultimately unsuccessful) decision had been two months in preparation, involving heartfelt arguments on both sides of the debate. Yet not a word of it appeared in the newspapers. Indeed, it was hardly heard outside the confines of the Treasury.”

Or, as I put it another way in 2008 : ” They only situation in which a government can genuinely act in the interest of a class wider than just politicians is when there is a larger class of relatively powerless people – slaves or peasants – who would be a threat to a divided ruling class. That is the characteristic of democracies before the twentieth century.”

If both sides politically are actually united on maintaining the system that favours them, that doesn’t mean that their disagreements are fake. It just means that they aren’t important enough to risk the system over. However, from the point of view of an outsider to whom the disagreement is most important, that is almost the same thing.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    From Do We Have A Brutus? by the Z Man:

    “Trump is the guy tasked by history to impose order on a chaotic American political world. Much in the same way Julius Caesar was faced with a choice between obeying the rules and permitting chaos, Trump is faced with the choice of letting things go on as usual or imposing the rule of law. If he yields to the will of the Senate, so to speak, he risks undermining the constitutional order. If he goes against the political class and business as usual, he risks war with the old guard and all that comes with it.

    Trump is both the tribune of the people and the defender of the prevailing order. He is in a strange position, in that he is pushing for the sorts of reforms popular with the Populis faction and tasked with defending the order that makes it possible for the Optimate faction to exist. He is Lucius Junius Brutus, overthrowing the current order, but he is also Marcus Junius Brutus, motivated by a desire to defend the old order. It’s like the confluence of two rivers of Western history. Time will tell if we have the Brutus to save the republic.”

    Hail Trumpus!

  2. Graham says:

    I don’t know anything about AnomalyUK but that was a well-put summation.

    I’d add two tangents.

    One, that although the blogger’s ‘ruling class’ analogy is extremely valid, in the last century it applies to the western societies as a whole. Where broadly united in identity, customs, culture, ideas of law, and values, we have epic battles over issues within a relatively narrow spectrum, whose boundaries may evolve but are determined by our particular histories. When we are no longer united in identity, customs, culture, ideas of law, or values, we have different kinds of battles with the tone different, the stakes different, and some choosing to take stronger measures and others checking out.

    And two, and on a much more specific level, my pet thesis is that both conservatism and liberalism, as those things evolved in the Anglo-Saxon world for around 300 years [with feeble tangents at best into the political lexicons of the most closely comparable societies], died in the 1990s. They can’t exist in the current demographic, ideological, and even perhaps technological and economic framework. I can’t even decide if the Cold War political spectrum was their last glorious hurrah or just froze them in amber.

    I tend to view everything from Francis Fukuyama to transhumanism with reference to that, so FWIW…

  3. Graham says:

    On Slovenian Guest’s comment,

    Do you actually live in Slovenia? I’ve occasionally wondered. How are things there, if so?

    I read Z Man with profit and agreement but haven’t been back for a while. I probably should be doing so.

    I think of Trump as a more garish, even clownish figure than that. I’d have to run through the list of emperors to come up with a comparison, but I concede the larger issue.

    Apologies if I have said something similar on this site in the past, but when Roman comparisons come up I tend to think something like “Dream of Augustus, cheer for Constantine, obey Vespasian with dispassion, follow Diocletian with grim resolve.” I’d probably back Septimius Severus at this point, but then it’s that kind of week.

    If republican era comparisons are needed, I’d have to dust off my Colleen McCullough novels. I’m not seeing a Cicero, Cato, Pompey, or indeed Caesar in today’s America. Nor a Marius nor a Sulla. I’d be torn by any of those options being placed before us. Nor is there a Brutus or even a Cassius in sight. Trump is a bit like Crassus, which wouldn’t be the worst thing, but with a lesser mind and temperament by some large margin.

    Cromwell as played by Richard Harris might fit the bill, save that I have split sympathies tending to the other side of the cousins’ wars.

    Ahh. That felt better. Appreciate the space to woolgather.

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    “How are things there, if so?”

    Check this video for some great Slovenian scenery and a nice WW2 story on top of that; it’s in English.

    Thank God my visa to the USA was declined. I’m not religious but thank God almighty…

    I should send the US embassy a fruit basket!

  5. Graham says:

    Thanks! I’ll have to watch the full video later but the mountain scenes of the first few minutes are beautiful and terrifying. I particularly appreciated the narrator’s reference to their hazards followed quickly by a shot of a cemetery, itself apparently on a clifftop.

    By comparison, here in Ontario I live in flatland.

  6. Sam J. says:

    Sigh…I wish Trump was as good as his supporters believe. It is still possible that he will drain the swamp according to the “Q” watchers. I don’t know whether this is real or just another ploy to make us believe that someone is actually doing something productive.

  7. Graham says:

    Sam J., I think he’s terrible in many ways, Save perhaps his willingness to compare Communists to Nazis openly. That probably sent his foes into a bigger rage than anything else he’s done or said, but it earned him some points from me.

    But for me his badness is almost beside the point. Given the alternative of the [using the terms loosely but they are merging] neocon-liberal-libertarian-corporate wing of the GOP, and the Progressive-identity-technocratic vision of the Democrats, anything is better — even disorder, up to this limited degree at least.

    Any candidate even willing to pretend to oppose the Seldon Plan, so to speak, is OK by me.

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