Why Western governments fall apart (Spengler, 11/15/05, Asia Times)
Is it simple coincidence that the West cannot field a single functioning government? The punditry dismisses Bush as dumb, Blair as smarmy, Chirac as arrogant, Berlusconi as bent, and Merkel – well, when they discover some identifying characteristics of the new German chancellor, the punditry doubtless will find grounds to dismiss her as well. Perhaps it is just the luck of the draw, but the odds do not favor the interpretation that all the big nations of the West had the misfortune to find themselves led by ninnies at precisely the same time.
What is it about the personalities of Western leaders, though, that might explain their common predicament? Perhaps it is the fact that the leaders of the West mirror the qualities of the people who voted for them. Americans are obstreperously anti-intellectual, and chose a president with whom they can identify. The British always have been hypocrites, and elected the most hypocritical of prime ministers. The average Frenchman is no less arrogant than the president of the republic, while the Germans, at least since 1945, have devoted their storied thoroughness to becoming as nondescript as possible. Almost every Italian is on the fiddle, and it is fitting for their prime minister to be fiddler-in-chief.
That leads to a simple interpretation of the general crisis of Western politics, namely, that the people of the West, as it were, are the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not the leaders of the West per se, but rather the voters who put them in office, who comprise the problem.
Philip Bobbit’s absolute must-read, The Shield of Achilles, explains what’s going on rather well, and quite differently–the crisis of confidence in our governors is a function of our wrenching transition from nation-states, which guaranteed our welfare, to market-states, which guarantee us only opportunity and of the media taking on the role of official political opposition to these reforms upon the death of the Left:
[T]he competitive, critical function of the media in the market-state is similar to that of the political parties of the Left in the nation-state: the Left is always a critical organ in government, reproving, harassing, questioning the status quo; it sought a governing role even though whenever Left parties held office, they quickly moved to the center, co-opting (or being co-opted by) the Right. Now with the discrediting of the Left in the market-state, this competitive critical function has been taken up by the media. […]
Relations between the media and the other organs of government are further exacerbated by the fact that in the market-state the public’s attitude toward what can be accomplished by governm,ent changes (and thus also changes with respect to the scope of personal responsibility). […] The market is inherently unpredictable, so persons become more fatalistic; the nation-state, based on the operation of law rather than the market, gave a sense, perhaps illusory, that expectations would be fulfilled through policy.
In the transition, the nation-state will appear to be doing even worse than it is. Popular appreciation will plummet because the public has been persuaded that the government cannot accomplish anything positive of note. […]
Absent the threat of war, it is very difficult to believe that publics will be eagher to follow the urgings of political leaderships to make the sacrifices that states often require. This development will strain the political structures of the great powers to their utmost, making them vulnerable to delegitimation in a crisis. Political leaders may find they are able to inspire a sense of mission only through the shrewd manipulation of the media, a short-lived tactic that ultimately must invite contempt.
As you watch the media try to discredit Bush and Blair over the Iraq War and oppose the Third Way reforms that both have proposed to transition reluctant publics from nation-state to market-state, you see Mr. Bobbit’s scenario played out in living color. Paradoxically, it is the very failure of the nation-state (Welfare State) and the accompanying recognition that government has a limited capacity to solve our problems that must make it so hard for the following generation of leaders to convince people that their lives can be made better by a program of radical government reform. Ideally you’d have the kind of Nixon goes to China situation that prevailed after the ’94 election, where a President of the putative Left worked with the party of the Right on reform. But even then, Bill Clinton lacked the courage of his convictions and left the heavy-lifting–Social Security, health care and edication personalization– to those who followed. Meanwhile, the Tories have mostly squandered their opportunity to work with Tony Blair and dismantle the British Welfare State. Only in Australia does the Left, under Kim Beazely, seem to be working well with a reformist leader of the other party and, not coincidentally, John Howard faces none of the legitimacy questions that plague his partners in Anglospheric leadership.
A Not-So-Grand Coalition?: Germany’s new government hasn’t even been installed and yet already there is scathing criticism over the plans of the so-called “grand coalition” of Christian and Social Democrats. The verdict? Too many tax hikes and too little reform. (Marc Young, 11/14/05, Der Spiegel)
Matthias Platzeck is right. The designated chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) said that the alliance between his party and Germany’s conservatives — the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the CSU — isn’t a true political romance. “This is a sober marriage of convenience,” he told an assembled horde of reporters at a press conference on Saturday, as he sat next to future chancellor and CDU leader Angela Merkel.
However, that voters foisted this passionless union on Berlin’s politicians isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, many Germans hoped such a broad bipartisan effort could help get the world’s third largest economy back on track. So it was with much interest that the country watched as Merkel and Platzeck gathered over the weekend to present the grand coalition’s policy priorities.
With Germany struggling under the strain of chronically meager growth and high unemployment, no one was expecting lots of sweetness and light. Merkel even admitted they would be “asking at lot of people” in terms of sacrifice. But in the days following, the rather hefty 191-page coalition agreement has been criticized from several corners for too eagerly dipping into taxpayers’ pockets while not having the courage to take bold steps to overhaul the troubled economy. […]
Controversial areas such as reform of the health system were simply left off the negotiating table for the time being. For many observers, that makes the coalition agreement nothing more than a bitter emergency program to consolidate Berlin’s finances, having none of the sweeping changes so desperately needed to revamp Germany’s creaky welfare state and reignite the economy.