Thursday, 29 November 2012

From the ‘liberal elite’ to Mitt Romney: changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ in the United States of America

In 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry faced a maelstrom of negative campaigning, smears and attack ads. One of the main charges against Kerry was that he was a smug and detached member of the ‘liberal elite’. Indeed the Republican-supporting group Citizens United released an advert denouncing him as “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people.” [1] In 2012, another wealthy member of the Massachusetts elite is running for President. Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential nominee, has suffered repeated political assault over the extent of his wealth and the differences between his own life and the lives of ordinary Americans. As Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said, “not everyone has been as fortunate as Mitt Romney. You cannot base your whole approach on a life experience as rarefied as his.” [2] In both cases Kerry and Romney have been painted as members of ‘the elite’. The different ways these men’s images have been tarnished illustrates changing attitudes in America. Whereas Kerry, and Michael Dukakis before him, were demonised for their ‘liberal’ views on social issues, Romney is unpopular primarily because he is a member of an economic elite. These changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ point to evolving attitudes towards money and culture in American society.

For a long time, Republican strategists have had a textbook formula for attacking Democrats with liberal views on issues like abortion, the death penalty and taxation: in the minds of the electorate, force the candidate into the box marked ‘liberal elite’. This happened prominently during the 1988 Presidential Election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The latter’s views on foreign policy were described as “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique” and his views on crime as “standard old-style 60s liberalism” by Bush. [3] Dukakis’ policies on crime were presented as stridently, eerily distant from the views of most Americans. There is a moment in one of the Presidential debates between the two men when Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. He answered, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” [4] Many Americans Dukakis’s response and thought he was inordinately detached in his answer to such an emotive question. It reinforced the perception that he was a member of an elite that didn’t understand the feelings and values of ordinary Americans.

Dukakis’ opponents presented his policies as if they had been dreamed up in the ivory towers of elite universities. The Republicans were so successful in destroying Dukakis and the idea of the ‘liberal elite’ that Dukakis is now universally recognised as the prime example of a politician viewed as strikingly out of touch with ordinary people. [5]

John Kerry, who continued the Democratic tradition of putting forward ‘Massachusetts liberals’ as their party’s Presidential nominee, also faced similar treatment at the hands of his opponents. Kerry had the unfortunate combination of having a net worth of $240 million, being enthusiastic about wind surfing and the propensity to speak French. Kerry’s own characteristics lent themselves to him seeming out of touch and his relatively liberal policy positions – at least compared to George W Bush – contributed to this overall image of him being part of the ‘liberal elite’.

The ‘liberal elite’ concept, with its connotations of higher education and liberal views, suggests the particular group believes it knows better than the majority of Americans. The recurring and politically powerful vision is of a group that opposes the values and common sense of the American people. Damon Linker argues that George W Bush’s persona, brilliantly constructed, was the opposite of that of the liberal elite. As Linker writes of Bush:
“his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness – was intended to convey the message that he was “one of us,” an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who “really” run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.” [6]
Thus Kerry, and Dukakis, and countless other Democrats, have been placed into a frame which presents them – socially and culturally – as distant and dangerous to the American people.

Interestingly and uniquely in this 2012 Presidential election is that the term ‘elite’ has been used in reference to the Republican candidate. It is Mitt Romney who is battling the toxic description of being a member of the elite. In this election it is his sheer wealth and how he created his wealth that defines this conception of the ‘elite’. Instead of views on the death penalty or abortion or length of time spent studying in academia, it is the size of income, amount of tax paid and way the money was made which defines this elite.

Romney made millions in private equity firm Bain Capital, which was involved in various corporate takeovers and ensuing job losses. Not only are there the dubious corporate tactics, but it escapes tax through the Cayman Islands. Furthermore Romney had a privileged upbringing because his father was a millionaire and a Governor of Michigan. He cannot lay claim to being a self-made man and so cannot join the ranks of the Gates and Buffetts of the world. He has also repeatedly harmed his own image. He has talked about owning two Cadillac’s and challenged one of his Republican primary opponents to a $10 000 bet. As Gary Younge writes, “His opponents have successfully framed him as an out-of-touch magnate with a tin ear for the travails of the common person.” [7] It may be added that he hasn’t helped himself in escaping this frame.

The reason for the changing conception of ‘the elite’ is because this is an election on the economy and not on social issues. American capitalism and attitudes towards the richest have suffered confidence shocks in the wake of the financial collapse. Romney, Bain and trickle down economics are viewed suspiciously and the question on the minds of the electorate is whether Romney is a representative of the elite that helped crash the economy in the first place. Although elections will nearly always be about whether an economy is working and how many jobs it is creating, this election is special because people are asking the further question of whether the economy is fair. In December, Republican pollster Frank Luntz explained how “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street’, we’ve got a problem.” [8] Luntz captures the problem that Romney faces. At the moment people are not so interested in gay marriage or the fact that someone studied at Harvard. Instead, like never before, the bogeymen are the bankers and businessman who brought Wall Street, Main Street and the world to its knees.

The vision of a group of East Coast liberal intellectuals running and ruining the country has always been false. Now people are waking up to the threat of the true ‘masters of the universe’. It has suited the richest for a very long time that the ‘liberal elite’ took the brunt of people’s worries about a clique running the USA. Now people are realising that it is not your college education or propensity for wind surfing that makes you a danger to the United States, but it is how you have come to be rich and whether this has been achieved in an ethical way.

Article by Ben Mackay.

References and Further Reading:
[4],28804,1844704_1844706_1844712,00.html #ixzz29sitecsm
[8] Ibid.

This article was first written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here

China and Taiwan

During the Olympics you may have noticed athletes from somewhere called ‘Chinese Taipei’. Outside of sport you will never hear of such a country. Instead you will find an island approximately 180 km off Mainland China named Taiwan and its capital, Taipei. Taiwan also goes by the name of the Republic of China. The bizarre situation in which one country goes by different names is one consequence of the Chinese Civil War. The relationship between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China is one of longstanding enmity and a potential flashpoint in world affairs.

The Chinese Civil War was fought intermittently between 1927 and 1950. It matched the Communist Party of China against the Kuomintang – or the Chinese Nationalist Party. In 1949 the Kuomintang government, after suffering a series of military defeats, retreated to the island of Taiwan. [1] Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China. In mainland China, Mao Zedong and the Communists, victorious in the civil war, founded the People’s Republic of China. The Kuomintang’s move to Taiwan was ostensibly temporary and the Kuomintang continued to claim they were the legitimate rulers of the whole of China. Indeed until 1971 the Republic of China held a seat at the UN Security Council and countries such as the United States did not recognise the People’s Republic of China. [2]

Today Taiwan has a rather murky status on the world stage. Most countries do not have embassies in Taiwan and do not officially recognise it as an independent state. Only 22 member states of the UN endorse the ROC as an independent country. However, since it is de facto independent, various countries like the United States hold relationships with Taiwan – which are not formal relationships between two sovereign governments – but are similar to diplomatic relationships with other countries. For example, the American Institute in Taiwan is, for use of a better phrase, the unofficial American embassy in Taiwan. The US Government’s Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 founded the institute and the Act shows Taiwan’s complex legal status:

“any programs, transactions, or other relations conducted or carried out by the President or any Agency of the United States Government with respect to Taiwan shall, in the manner and to the extent directed by the President, be conducted and carried out by or through the American Institute in Taiwan.” [3]

The Act mentions that the US “terminated governmental relations between the United States and the governing authorities on Taiwan”. This means that any interaction between the two has to be done through a “private corporation” such as the American Institute of Taiwan. Thus the AIT issues visas and provides services for US citizens.

The People’s Republic of China still claims dominion over Taiwan. This is why most countries do not officially recognise Taiwan. In a bid to improve its relations with China during the Cold War, the USA dropped its formal bilateral relationship with Taiwan. Although to this day the US provides arms to Taiwan, the odd diplomatic balancing act continues.

Today, Taiwan is a democracy and very economically successful. Its two main parties in parliament are the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party. The latter aim for formal independence whereas the Kuomintang’s goal is a united China. Taiwan’s relations with China have improved in recent years because the Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou has pursued a more positive relationship with the mainland. In 2009 the leaders of both countries communicated directly with one another, something which hadn’t happened for more than sixty years. [4] Furthermore, cables were connected between the two countries and data was shared for the first time.

Although the Taiwan-China relationship has made progress, it still remains a potential flashpoint. The US is committed to protecting Taiwan. China, in the long run, aims for Taiwan to return to its control. Indeed the signs of better relations reveal the cross purposes of the two sides. As Jonathan Fenby explains:
“Obviously, Beijing thinks that in the end this kind of co-operation will lead to Taiwan becoming politically closer to mainland China, whereas the Taiwanese calculation is that they can build up their economic strength with co-operation with the mainland, which is a very important economic partner, while retaining their political status.” [5]

The recent improvement in relations is also down to the fact that the Kuomintang are in power. The Democratic Progressive Party, more in favour of independence, will one day win power again. Then relations will worsen.

The most reasonable policy would be for Taiwan to gain independent status and recognition from the international community. However China, with its issues in Tibet and Xinjiang, is loathe to permit independence for any piece of land that has been a part of historical China. Nor would they want to strengthen a US ally so close to their own shores.

The relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is a complex one. There is a long, deeply felt and troubled history between the two. Recently there have been positive signs in their relationship, but it is important to understand that for the foreseeable future there will be underlying tensions and the ingredients for an international crisis. Long may the bizarre diplomatic balancing act continue to yield peace.

Further Reading
[1] Fenby, Jonathan. Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost (Carol and Graff 2003)

This article was first written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here

Alternative Policy Idea: a more proportional electoral system

After the humiliating defeat of the Alternative Vote last year, you might think that  supporters of electoral reform should keep quiet. After all, only 32% of the 42% of the electorate who bothered to vote actually supported changing the electoral system. Some may argue that this indicates the disinterest of the British people in constitutional change. More accurately however, the defeat was a testament to the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, the shortcomings of AV and the hopelessness of the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘Yes to Alternative Vote’ campaign was heavily metropolitan in tone, despite the fact that most British people are not north Londoners. Furthermore, the form of electoral change on offer was such a paltry, mildly confusing minimal change that nobody could garner much enthusiasm for it. There are compelling arguments for a more proportional electoral system to ensure that fewer individuals’ votes are wasted.

For over a century, British politics has been dominated by whichever party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Governments have been able to drive through hugely unpopular and badly thought out policies. The House of Commons is so ineffective at scrutinising bills that it has been left to the House of Lords to reject governments’ – past and present – more unworkable bills. In order to make our democracy more democratic, and ensure that governments do not have untrammelled power, the system must be changed.
The status quo is as durable as it is because British politics offers an attractive settlement for the two main parties. First Past the Post is marked by wild swings of power in which a group that has been voted for by a minority of the population can radically affect life for the whole of the population. In the 1983 General Election over 56% of the population did not vote for the Conservatives but they won a majority of 144 seats. Similarly in 1997 Tony Blair won 43.2% of the vote but managed a stunning majority of 179. Would the country not have been better if there had been greater accountability? A more proportional electoral system would mean that the number of seats allocated to parties would better reflect the number of votes cast for each party.

Politicians tend to see every election as winnable through force of their charm or strength of their policies. But what they don’t seem to understand is that the wonderful power this skewed electoral system offers is going to be as likely won by their ideological nemeses. As a politician your party may win some elections, but your opponents will win other elections. A more proportional electoral system, such as the Alternative Member System or Single Transferable Vote would have meant that Blair and Thatcher would have won fewer seats and may have had to go into coalition. I think the excesses of both the Blair and Thatcher governments are good examples of why we need electoral change. In a parliament that better reflected the votes of the public, both Thatcher and Blair would have had less ability to enact their most unpopular policies.

Coalitions are not inherently bad, but they can be lopsided. The Liberal Democrat’s relative weakness in the Coalition is partly explained by the tiny number of MPs they won at the last election. Despite winning 23% of the vote the Lib Dems won only 57 MPs, which is less than 9% of the seats in parliament. If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition. It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions.
Most of the fire directed at the Coalition is not due to the fact it is a partnership between two ideologically different parties, but because the Coalition has advocated particularly unpopular policies. For example, the privatisation of the NHS and increase in tuition fees have come about not simply because we are in a coalition government, but because the Conservatives, the senior partner, are pro-free market.

Of course with a parliament in which no party has an overall majority compromise is crucial. If a coalition is made up of two parties, neither party can enact their manifesto in its entirety. But if it is a choice between policies which most people in the country opposes and a mixture of policies from two parties whose supporters make a majority, it seems the latter is fairer. The resultant government from a parliament elected by a more proportional system will be one that is more in tune with the political ideas and ambitions of the people.

This article was written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here