Friday, 30 September 2011

Why Primaries System Makes US Parties Weak (R.Adams blog)

The Guardian's USA site is a great source, and Richard Adams' blog is a very handy summary of the week's developments, peppered with useful insights into how US gov/pols works (or, often enough, doesn't!). I've copied in a little bit of this week's; the section on the weakness of US parties, and the part the primary system plays in this, is nice + concise info/analysis that you should note.

US politics live blog: Election calendar chaos for Republican candidates

The 2012 election schedule gets ripped up as Republicans tussle while polls show no clear GOP frontrunner
[Source: Richard Adams' blog, 29.9.11, at]
10.30am: Today's theme is uncertainty: uncertainty over whether New Jersey governor Chris Christie is a presidential candidate, uncertainty over when and where the Republican presidential primaries will take place, and uncertainty over whether the GOP's grassroots even like any of the candidates on offer:
• Christie: Since making his quasi-presidential speech on Tuesday night there has been no word from the man himself about whether or not he's a candidate. Even his father says he doesn't know. But "sources" say he is "considering" a run – although other "sources" say he isn't.
• Primary calendar: Florida's Republicans are said to be moving up their state's primary to the end of January – up-ending the carefully constructed schedule of elections that the national Republicans had constructed. The net result will be another shambles as in 2008, with Christmas and New Year in Iowa for the GOP candidates.
• Frontrunner?: But who will Republicans be voting for? After Rick Perry's debate disaster last week, the latest opinion polls show no clear picture of who the Republican favourite is, with Mitt Romney and Perry closely matched and businessman Herman Cain gaining ground.

snow storm in iowa city
Iowa City in winter
In other news, Herman Cain told CNN that African Americans are "brain-washed" into supporting the Democratic party, comments that are unlikely to prove popular with African Americans.

10.53am: One of the mysteries of US politics that outsiders don't understand is how weak the two political parties are, compared to their European counterparts. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are loose coalitions of state organisations reinforced by the primary system, in which elections are organised (and paid for, largely) at individual state level.
As a result, state parties can choose their own method and timing of primaries. Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire have gone first – a hallowed tradition that dates all the way back to 1976 – but other states realise that the earlier a state's primary is held, the more influential it is.
The 2008 primary calendar saw near chaos as several states, including Florida and Michigan, edged their dates forward, with Iowa and New Hamshire retaliating. The outcome was the Iowa caucuses kicked off on 3 January.
Party leaders vowed to stop a similar result in 2012, and the Republican National Committee set up a strict structure with four states voting in February to push the calendar back.
The RNC's deadline for state primary dates is this Saturday – and now Florida says it will decide tomorrow on moving its primary to January 28 2012, which would inevitably set off a shuffling forward by the others, and end with ... Iowa holding its caucus just after New Year's Day. In conclusion: d'oh!
11.21am: Here's a full and excellent explanation of the primary calendar chaos, by National Journal's Reid Wilson:
Despite the best efforts of both the RNC and DNC, the 2012 calendar remains in largely the same situation as the 2008 calendar, with a host of states rushing toward the front of the line, disrupting holidays and threatening to bleed over into the previous year. The harsh threats of stiff sanctions against wayward states have deterred no one.
In fact, the only harm to come from the whole squabble has been to the parties themselves. Their grasp over the presidential nominating system has been shown to be weak, and their threats cast aside as inconsequential. The constituent states the parties represent, in effect, have cast off party leadership. Governing requires the consent of the governed, and the governed no longer follow the governors.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fox News

Guardian micro-site with stories on this (see also the excellent documentary film Outfoxed):

The Right Word - keystone anti-left US TV

Ongoing Guardian series monitoring this notorious right-wing show; here's the latest:

The Right Word: battling far-left political correctness
The topics varied this week – God, Dick Cheney and courage – but the theme is the same: save America from the pinko PC mob
  • Bill O'Reilly

    Bill O'Reilly byline Bill O'Reilly is troubled that once again that the Christian faith is under attack by the secular media (view clip here). He was particularly upset with a New York Times article written by executive editor Bill Keller urging Americans to pay careful attention to the religious beliefs of the candidates running for president. Keller's article highlighted some of the unusual ideas held by the current frontrunners for the GOP nomination, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.
    Perry, who stirred up controversy recently by leading a prayer convention for evangelical Christians in Texas, believes that evolution "is just a theory that's out there". Bachmann shares Perry's feelings about evolution and thinks that intelligent design should be taught in schools, that homosexuality is "personal enslavement", that the recent hurricane that tore up the East Coast was a wake-up call from God and that the bible obliges her to be submissive to her husband. O'Reilly was more incensed by Keller's remarks that "every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders", that many Americans believe in aliens and that he himself grew up "believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ".
    Now, you can imagine if Mr Keller had denigrated the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith in stark terms like that, all hell – pardon the pun – would have broken loose. But in America today, you can kick Christianity around all day long.
    He discussed the matter with regular guests Mary Katherine Hamm and Juan Williams, suggesting to them that "this wafer business was a little over the top, was it not?" O'Reilly did concede that Keller had a point about politicians needing to be questioned about their theology. Williams, who is a Christian, said that he didn't like the wafer business either, nor did he understand the need to "equate aliens with the body of Christ". He did think it was very worrying that a potential president would be opposed to teaching evolution in schools, but O'Reilly was more concerned about the alien reference.
    And this is really the heart of far left and Mr Keller is a far left individual. It's the heart of the far left attack mode. When you throw a basic Christian tenet that a priest a minister has the power through ordination to change bread into the body of Christ, à la the last supper when Christ Jesus gave the dictum to his apostles to do that … when you say you know that's like believing in aliens and that's like doing this, that and the other thing. You know, it doesn't offend me and I'll tell you why. There are a lot smarter people than Bill Keller who do believe that happens and it's a belief system – you just believe it or you don't.
    Despite these objections, however, all three agreed that there were questions to be asked about the extent to which a possible future president would plan on allowing his or her religious beliefs to influence their decision-making. If Bachmann is elected president, for instance, Americans might do well to ask if, in fact, it will be her husband – to whom she submits – who will be calling the shots. They may also want to make sure that were a Katrina-style hurricane to occur on her watch, she would take the necessary steps to safely evacuate people rather than simply sending them to the levees to pray.

    Rush Limbaugh

    Rush Limbaugh byline Rush Limbaugh was delighted to welcome his hero Dick Cheney on his programme to discuss his new memoir (listen to clip). Although the book has met with mixed reviews, the New York Times dismissed it as "mostly a predictable mix of spin, stonewalling, score-settling and highly selective reminiscences", Limbaugh found it to be "riveting" and "fascinating" and written "from the heart and honest". He did acknowledge, however, that Cheney, who left office with an approval rating of 13%, and still enjoys about the same level of popularity, has b

Family Research Council/Chris Christie: the most dangerous Republican

Quick quote from an article packed with useful analysis:
the left need not fear the Family Research Council at the ballot box. Their supporters are still licking their wounds from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which they boycotted to little effect after a gay group was allowed to co-sponsor. 
Full article:

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Kohr blimey! Is size the US's major problem

Interesting and potentially very useful argument, and reference to a political theorist here. Leopold Kohr argued that polities that grew beyond the point where citizenry had any meaningful contact with or link with political leaders/representative were doomed to fail. The article pins this 1957 analysis to the growth of neoliberalism and globalisation over recent decades and suggests it remains very insightful - what do you think?

This economic collapse is a 'crisis of bigness'

Leopold Kohr warned 50 years ago that the gigantist global system would grow until it imploded. We should have listened
Paul Kingsnorth 25.09.11
    Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
    Living through a collapse is a curious experience. Perhaps the most curious part is that nobody wants to admit it's a collapse. The results of half a century of debt-fuelled "growth" are becoming impossible to convincingly deny, but even as economies and certainties crumble, our appointed leaders bravely hold the line. No one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair.
    To listen to a political leader at this moment in history is like sitting through a sermon by a priest who has lost his faith but is desperately trying not to admit it, even to himself. Watch Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband mouthing tough-guy platitudes to the party faithful. Listen to Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy or George Papandreou pretending that all will be well in the eurozone. Study the expressions on the faces of Barack Obama or Ben Bernanke talking about "growth" as if it were a heathen god to be appeased by tipping another cauldron's worth of fictional money into the mouth of a volcano.
    In times like these, people look elsewhere for answers. A time of crisis is also a time of opening-up, when thinking that was consigned to the fringes moves to centre stage. When things fall apart, the appetite for new ways of seeing is palpable, and there are always plenty of people willing to feed it by coming forward with their pet big ideas.
    But here's a thought: what if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?
    The crisis currently playing out on the world stage is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it. Banks grew so big that their collapse would have brought down the entire global economy. To prevent this, they were bailed out with huge tranches of public money, which in turn is precipitating social crises on the streets of western nations. The European Union has grown so big, and so unaccountable, that it threatens to collapse in on itself. Corporations have grown so big that they are overwhelming democracies and building a global plutocracy to serve their own interests. The human economy as a whole has grown so big that it has been able to change the atmospheric composition of the planet and precipitate a mass extinction event.
    One man who would not have been surprised by this crisis of bigness, had he lived to see it, was Leopold Kohr. Kohr has a good claim to be the most important political thinker that you have never heard of. Unlike Marx, he did not found a global movement or inspire revolutions. Unlike Hayek, he did not rewrite the economic rules of the modern world. Kohr was a modest, self-deprecating man, but this was not the reason his ideas have been ignored by movers and shakers in the half century since they were produced. They have been ignored because they do not flatter the egos of the power-hungry, be they revolutionaries or plutocrats. In fact, Kohr's message is a direct challenge to them. "Wherever something is wrong," he insisted, "something is too big."
    Kohr was born in 1909 in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf. This smalltown childhood, together with his critical study of economics and political theory at the LSE, his experience of anarchist city states during the Spanish civil war, which he covered as a war reporter, and the fact that he was forced to flee Austria after the Nazi invasion (Kohr was Jewish), contributed to his growing suspicion of power and its abuses.
    Settling in the US, Kohr began to write the book that would define his thinking. Published in 1957, The Breakdown of Nations laid out what at the time was a radical case: that small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates. It was a claim that was as unfashionable as it was possible to make. This was the dawn of the space age – a time of high confidence in the progressive, gigantist, technology-fuelled destiny of humankind. Feted political thinkers were talking in all seriousness of creating a world government as the next step towards uniting humanity. Kohr was seriously at odds with the prevailing mood. He later commented, dryly, that his critics "dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet".
    Kohr's claim was that society's problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Socialism, anarchism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called "the human scale": a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because "the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself".
    Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world's problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative. On a whistlestop tour of medieval and early modern Europe, The Breakdown of Nations does a brilliant job of persuading the reader that many of the glories of western culture, from cathedrals to great art to scientific innovations, were the product of small states.
    To understand the sparky, prophetic power of Kohr's vision, you need to read The Breakdown of Nations. Some if it will create shivers of recognition. Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for "whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions". Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.
    We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where "instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence". Kohr's "crisis of bigness" is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.
    This shouldn't surprise us. It didn't surprise Kohr, who, unlike some of his utopian critics, never confused a desire for radical change with the likelihood of it actually happening. Instead, his downbeat but refreshingly honest conclusion was that, like a dying star, the gigantist global system would in the end fall in on itself, and the whole cycle of growth would begin all over again. But before it did so, "between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination", the world would become "little and free once more".

Monday, 26 September 2011

Pressure Group paired case study

You're looking into a contrasting pair of pressure groups active in the US today, a binary opposite representing two conflicting views.
Pro-choice and pro-life groups were your choice; look to supplement learning on these with others to get a full picture of the role of pressure groups in US politics (and comparative UK/EU) today and over recent history. The partisan make-up of government at any given time (a more complex picture than in the UK given that we can have, as present, Republican Congressional majorities and a Democratic president) will partly shape whether such groups are considered insider or outsider, a status which is always open to change.

To research your case study, identify useful secondary sources (try book indexes, Amazon searches, googling, specific sites such as, and searches within newspapers, periodicals and blogs/other online resources). The blog format is useful for this - either as a links list or just within a post you can save hyperlinks (ensuring your own description enables you to identify what its actually about) to (re-)visit later. You can also add a brief summary under each as you work through each.

Some steps to take/aspects to consider then:
  1. Identify a range of similar pressure groups on 'your' side of the argument.
  2. Assess what status your particular group has - is it considered the largest/most influential for example? Within the pro-life groups there exists a wide range, with some extremist groups advocating murder of abortion clinic workers. Is your group mainstream or more of a radical fringe group?
  3. Locate a range of resources, and note these for working through later (see above).
  4. Whats the history of your group? Remember, when considering every aspect of US gov/pols you're considering at minimum key events of the last 10 years, so don't exclusively look at the very latest actions of these groups.
  5. Can you find any information about the size of its membership; funding/budget; prominent political or celebrity supporters?
  6. Any direct evidence of supporting particular candidates with endorsements/campaign contributions?
  7. Look for sources which oppose what they do, in particular to see if there's any information to be found about non-grassroots funding; many pressure groups may have mass memberships but could be argued to really represent elite interests, and there is often an extremely wealthy donor in the background. The Tea Party (not really a Party despite the name) is one example of this.
  8. How do they use the media to try and shape public opinion and/or policy-makers? Describe key features of their online presence, and any other media (newsletter, podcast, YouTube channels etc) they operate.
  9. Can you find any evidence of their being used within news media as authoritative commentators, for example a pro-life group regularly asked to appear on Fox News?
  10. Whether on their website or elsewhere, do they appear to operate a media operation designed to identify and rebut/oppose anything they see as against their stance in the news or entertainment media?
  11. What campaigns do they boast of as showcasing their past successes? Can you link any of these with contemporaneous events in US pols (eg Dem or Rep presidency)? Do they detail how they organised/conducted these campaigns?
  12. What current campaigns do they have ongoing?
  13. Do they operate outwith the US?
  14. Do you think they play a useful role in US gov/pols?
  15. Are there any comparable groups operating in the UK/EU, and if so how dis/similar are they?