Tag Archive | "gerrymandering"

The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)

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The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)

Posted on 11 April 2006 by admin

Will this Italian election really be the final stake through Berlusconi’s heart?

Italy has gone backwards in the last 2,000 years. It used to be a cynical motto of Roman Senate elections that bread and circuses were what determined the outcome. In 2006, Berlusconi managed to get 49 per cent on circuses alone – his management has made Italy Europe’s basket-case economy, but hey, the man could put on a show.

It is said that Italy values beauty over truth, and it is possible to see the election in that light. Romano Prodi – serious, intelligent, technocratic – represented truth. The left’s last time in power in 1996-2001 was dourly faithful to orthodox finance (by Italian standards) and managed to pass the economic tests to get into the euro. While not exactly beautiful, Berlusconi offered the politics of spectacle. His outbursts of vulgar abuse, his campaign rallies featuring attractive women in revealing costumes (the Mussolini flags fluttering among the crowd), all distracted from his failure in government and his grotesque conflicts of interest.

While Italian democracy has long been a strange creature, in which the surface display disguises subtle movements within the elite and a conspiratorial undertow to public life, this election may just show that Italy is just a more advanced case of the decomposition of democracy than its neighbours.

Italy’s post-democratic politics share something with the politics of the United States. In both countries the formal mechanisms of democracy remain in place, but there is a vast imbalance between one side and the other. The Republicans and Berlusconi control the apparatus of state and steadily extend their control over the media and the terms of public debate. The other side are allowed a shot at power every four or five years, but the odds are skewed not only by the power of money and the media but by shameless gerrymandering. And if the other side win, they face a subtle web of power operating against them – the courts, damaging leaks from the civil service, the assumptions about the way business is done.

Berlusconi’s career is like that of a vampire in a horror film – he rises again after damage that would kill an ordinary mortal, and this election does not look like the final stake through the heart. There are parallels in eastern and central Europe, where parties are weak and dependent on strong personalities and financial backing, and sometimes cruder forms of influence. Post-democracy in the west is a subtler business than post-dictatorship in the east, but is there really a clear divide between Berlusconi’s contempt for due process and the manipulated “democracy” in places like Belarus and pre-revolution Ukraine?

Even in Britain there have been signs of the mood that leads to the rise of a chancer like Berlusconi. His political career was born in 1994, when he emerged from the shadowy world of the P-2 Masonic lodge, and what passes for free enterprise in Italy. The existing party system had collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and public disgust for politics as usual, but this revolt did not produce honest government. Berlusconi, who had profited so handsomely from the corrupt old order, used his billions to form his own party, Forza Italia, and has dominated politics since. Without strong political parties, politics is prone to ambitious plutocrats. James Goldsmith’s venture failed in Britain in 1997 – but with weaker parties and a cynical electorate who is to say that someone is not going to emerge as Britain’s Berlusconi in the future? To misquote GK Chesterton, when people stop believing in party politics, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.

Political cynicism and disaffection cannot produce a better society. All it does is abandon the public sphere to the well-organised, self-interested and loud-mouthed. Without vigorous party politics, there are more dirty deals done in the shadows, not fewer. If lazy cynicism takes over among the electorate, why should anyone in public life bother to do the right thing? In the current fashionable disparagement of politics and the parties, Britain risks losing a vital part of what it means to be a proper democracy.

Ill-directed, universal cynicism among the electorate is what the truly self-interested and ruthless political operator like Berlusconi loves. If all politicians are all as bad as each other, why not vote for the most interesting one, the one who puts on a show with dancing girls and crude talk? Why bother to listen to the argument when you can make your mind up on the visuals, the “personality”, as if you were voting for a Big Brother eviction? And Berlusconi, and his ilk, laugh all the way to the bank.


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House of Horrors (5 Dec 2005)

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House of Horrors (5 Dec 2005)

Posted on 05 December 2005 by admin

If you think the House of Commons is bad, you should take a look at the US House of Representatives. Its procedures are more boring and charmless and the quality of debate not infrequently worse – although a new low was set recently by a Republican representative (no service record) accusing a Democrat (decorated Marine veteran) of cowardice.

The House is also a sink of corruption, gerrymandering and unrepresentative elections.

The House is , relative to the Commons, a sink of corruption. A California congressman, Republican ‘Duke’ Cunnigham, resigned in disgrace last week after the evidence that he had was neck-deep in bribery from defence contractors. One particularly creative bung was that from a contractor who bought a house from Cunningham for $700,000 more than it was worth. And people in Britain complain about the whole Mandelson-Robinson thing… Although the first, Cunningham is not likely to be the last. The most powerful Congressman until recently, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has had to step down after being indicted for money laundering in connection with a scheme to gerrymander Congressional district boundaries in Texas. DeLay is also a chum of ‘controversial’ lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose generosity to Republican Congressmen has been well known. Another member of the Republican leadership, Robert Ney, has been named in documents relating to Abramoff’s network. Through bullying tactics DeLay enforced a Republican monopoly among the most senior Washington lobbyists. Politics became a mixture of power-broking, mafia-style shakedowns and illicit cash.

As well as being tainted by corruption, the House Republican majority rests on gerrymandering. The Democrats narrowly won the popular vote for the House in 2004, with a 0.3% lead over the Republicans and a 2.5% swing since 2002, but the Republicans slightly increased their majority. The biggest contributor to this was the gerrymandering of the Texas seats, itself a result of a flow of money extorted from contributors by DeLay and his allies. The Democrats need a substantial national lead in order to recapture the House, or sweeping success in the very narrow field of truly competitive districts.

In a system where the balance between the parties is so close, and politics so brutal, this is a pretty inevitable consequence of letting politicians (state legislatures) draw the boundary lines. Those for Michigan and Pennsylvania are laughably biased to Republicans. The few states that do use impartial commissions are a minority, and two initiatives (California and Ohio) to take the power away from politicians failed last month. The majority in California (where the Democrats drew a biased map before 2002) saw no reason to disarm their gerrymandering potential, on the reasonable basis that Texas wasn’t going to be copying them any time soon. A redistricting reform would need a national approach, but it is hard to envisage such an agreement.

Gerrymandering is an increasingly sophisticated business, with specialist software and consultants in business to draw the most partisan boundaries possible. This is one aspect of the debate in Britain that worries me – are the Conservatives who propound equalisation in size deliberately or inadvertently opening the door to such abuses? In many states boundaries have produced safe, uncompetitive districts for both parties. Analysts estimate that of the 435 House seats, only about 27 are competitive. The rest are lopsided victories for one side or another, because of the basic partisan complexion of the district and the advantages of incumbency in terms of profile and, all-importantly, fundraising. In some areas American democracy is dying on its feet – in 2004 36 Republicans and 28 Democrats were unopposed by the other major party.

The electoral rules in many states make it extremely complicated for any third parties to even get registered and on the ballot – however unsatisfactory the Congressional Republicans or Democrats are, it is virtually impossible to get anyone else because of these high legal barriers to entry and of course the First Past the Post electoral system. Although most people dislike politicians as a species, and Congressmen in particular, there is a Soviet-style incumbent re-election rate of 98%.

So, to recap. You get into power and hustle money from sleazy lobbyists. This money serves to scare off potential competitors from running against you. If you do this well enough, you can even ensure that there is no contested election. The money can also be diverted to help your friends get control over the state legislature and tilt the system even further in your favour. If the voters don’t like it, tough… the system is so rigged that there is very little they can do about it, even if your opponents win the national popular vote.

I’ll tell you about the Senate tomorrow. It’s even more peculiar.


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If nobody hears a debate, has it happened? (2 Dec 2005)

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If nobody hears a debate, has it happened? (2 Dec 2005)

Posted on 02 December 2005 by admin

Sigh. Another week, another Conservative going on about the iniquities of the parliamentary boundaries. Despite repeated efforts to explain why it isn’t the solution to their problems, the Conservatives still seem to imagine that the electoral system is biased against them because the boundaries are unfair.

The latest entrant, John Maples, is an intelligent and experienced MP who takes the trouble to listen to evidence, so I have some hopes that the speech on his Ten Minute Rule Bill, the Parliamentary Constituencies (Equalisation) Bill, might be better informed than many other Conservative contributions to the discussion.

I hope Maples will note the importance of the distribution of the party’s vote, and differential turnout, in his remarks. I also hope that he will show awareness of some of the problems of equalising constituencies, in terms of frequent reviews and a lack of community identity with a seat. I hope against hope that someone in the debate will point out that the US House of Representatives features the most appalling gerrymandering, despite its seats being of equal size within each state.

But none of it matters – Ten Minute Rule Bills are futile mini-debates on legislation that goes no further. In any case, it’s discussed on Wednesday 7th December, right after David Cameron has had his first tilt at Tony Blair in Prime Minister’s Questions. The Chamber will be empty, apart from Mr Maples and someone who has annoyed the Labour whips and is being punished by having to speak in reply to Mr Maples. Everyone else will be marking Cameron out of ten for his performance in another futile parliamentary ritual. Pointless debates, media spin, misbegotten pseudo-reforms, the weekly joust… And it could be worse. We could be in America, home of equal-sized constituencies. I’ll show you into the House of Horrors next week.

Until then, Schönes Wochenende.


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