Go with a smile!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Second Civil War

A few years ago, I was browsing through MPH, as I was wont to do during those years when I was a total bookworm. I chanced upon a book called “The Second Civil War”. It looked interesting, and I put it onto my “to read” list. Things have intervened in the meantime, and I found myself mired in trying to earn a second degree, but lately I picked it up at my school library and basically read it all in one week.

The story is something that was already pertinent in the years when Brownstein wrote that book, and it has grown into something even more important. The point of the book is a simple but powerful one: the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties has grown in the last 20-30 years, and looks set to grow even more.

In the post war period, it wasn’t always true that the Republicans were right wing and the Democrats were left wing. Yes, the Republicans were the party of the “Big Business” and the Democrats stood up for the “little guy”. But in the south, a lot of people were Democrats as well. That changed almost completely after the civil rights movement. In fact, the South were staunchly Democrat. Once the Democrats delivered civil rights to the black people, a lot of people in the South switched allegiance to the Republicans.

Now, in a democratic parliament, it’s usually the case that two parties have differing views over policy. Both parties will argue with each other about policy. But you know, in politics, both parties argue about more than just the direction of the country, because it is more than just that. They also argue about power: who gets it, who has more seats in the house, who has more support for their point of view. And sometimes they even argue about truth.

Usually, the fact that there are two parties in power who can bring differing views to the table is seen as a source of America’s political strength. It seems to mean that both parties can reach a conclusion that is often superior to what would happen if only one party felt that it had all the answers. The problem is that in recent years, it has become more fashionable to disagree for the sake of disagreeing. There was a great problem if you ended up agreeing with the other party a lot of the time. If you did that too much, people would start to wonder, “why are we bending over to the other side?” Conversely, if you took a more extremist position, you could be seen as a strong guy, a consistent and unwavering guy, who looked more like a leader that other people could look up to. Never mind that sometimes, when you feel so strongly about your position, you would make a few statements that are blatantly false (like the US politician who recently talked about “legitimate rape” because he just had to defend his views on abortion to the death.) Therefore people started to espouse extremist views in the hope that this would galvanise their own supporters, and alienate the views of those on the opposite side.

As time went on, the parties’ positions on issues became further and further apart. Ronald Reagan might have been a conservative who was fairly strong in his views, but he was able to compromise and come to an agreement with the Democrats. He said that the Soviet Union was the “evil empire”, and that raised a lot of eyebrows and ruffled a lot of feathers, but he was still able to talk things through with Gorbechev. After Reagan, the Republicans in Congress decided to become more hardline. There would be a greater emphasis on party discipline, and crafting policy that was designed to appeal to the widest number of people identifying themselves as conservatives. The idea was not to capture the center, but to appeal to as many conservatives as possible, while formulating policy that was as different as possible from the Democrats.

That was the way that the Republicans operated. There was a period, during the second Bush presidency, when the Republicans controlled both houses. They came up with a system which rewarded loyalty to the cause, rather than rewarding crafting policy that was beneficial to Americans. People who questioned the White House too much were threatened with being removed from important committees.

At the same time, there was a lot of polling being done to work out who you wanted to appeal to. Traditionally, the minorities supported the Democrats. But the Republicans, through market research, were able to find out which section of the Blacks and the Hispanics were most likely to support the Republicans.

The Democrats realized what the Republicans were doing, and in the end, they started to take a more war-like stance towards the Republicans. During the Clinton era, the Democrats made some concessions to the Republicans, but the Republicans just took them and started moving more and more towards the right, until they over reached themselves, and paid the price: from 2006 to 2010, the Democrats controlled both houses. Now, what’s going on in the US hangs in the balance.

This book was written before the Obama presidency. So it doesn’t cover events that are taking place today. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to draw a line from there to recent events, where the Republican party really really went crazy. It helped me understand the evolution a little better. They started moving to the right bit by bit, convinced that the only people they had to pander to were their own hardcore supporters. They have blocked Obama on many issues. Obama found it very difficult to get things done because there was a concerted effort to make sure that he didn’t do anything – in essence, the direction of the party was to sabotage the Obama presidency, knowing full well that if the American economy didn’t perform, there would be a Republican president in the White House in 2012.

Coming closer to home, it makes me think about what kind of a parliament we want Singapore to have. When the Worker’s Party talked about a World Class Parliament, they were sending a few messages out to the PAP supporters. One of them was that a parliament full of PAP people wasn’t necessarily going to be the best one for Singapore. Yes, the PAP people were probably more capable. But it was just better to have an alternate viewpoint in the house.

Another message was a more conciliatory one. It was a promise to work peacefully with the PAP, and not shoot people down for the sake of shooting. I hope that they remember this, and I hope that Singapore’s parliament never goes the way of the current state of the US Congress.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. Thanks.

7:10 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

WP may not be the ones opposing for the sake of opposing. Remember the "Nigerian scam" comment in Parliament.

11:33 AM


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