As US shows, no political system is safe from those intent to wreck it

Alice Wu says America's political paralysis is a reminder for us that even a generally sound system of party politics is not idiot-proof

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 1:13am

American politics is taking an unprecedented worldwide beating for the government shutdown. Of all the derision it has attracted, the headline of an editorial in France's Le Monde newspaper, "Jefferson, wake up, they've gone crazy!" is by far the best. But calling out to the founder of American democracy isn't going to get the government back up and running again. What shut down the US government today is essentially the same as that behind the shutdowns of the Bill Clinton era: dysfunction brought on by party politics.

The brilliance of the Le Monde headline lies in the fact that Jefferson had a hand in the "first party system" that created the role of organised political parties in America, and which subsequently cemented the domination of politics by a two-party system. The two parties that have come to dominate American politics today are direct political descendants of the Jefferson-founded Democratic-Republican Party.

Let us keep in mind that while an ill-designed political system spells doom, political inflexibility, even in two-party politics, can have a paralysing impact

Since their separation, the political divide between the two has only grown. Partisan bickering has gone from bad to worse.

The final hours leading up to the latest paralysis sounded like a seance - some sort of paranormal politicking - with the people's elected representatives quoting founding fathers left and right. Both sides of the Obamacare divide found solace in the founding fathers: George Washington and James Madison, and of course, Jefferson, were all woken up from their long sleep to speak for both sides.

Republicans saw Jefferson as obviously against big government and Democrats saw him as obviously against shutting down government. The fact that these politicians have completely lost the political art of compromise and have, instead, mastered the art of spreading the blame - even to beyond the grave - is perhaps the epitome of how dysfunctional party politics has become in America.

Readers of this column may know that I've long advocated party politics for Hong Kong, without which the chief executive, even if elected by universal suffrage, would be in a political straitjacket and legislators would have little incentive to be either productive or constructive.

As we look at the mess across the Pacific, let us keep in mind that while an ill-designed political system spells doom, political inflexibility, even in two-party politics, can have a paralysing impact. All political systems have their flaws and limitations. It is really up to those with the political currency of power and influence not to exploit them, so as to make things work.

As we contemplate our way forward, the US government shutdown should be a powerful reminder of how democracy can be sucked dry by those who are set on disengaging and disrupting political discourse, process and progress.

Jefferson was a principled and practical politician who was wise enough to be flexible. But what the world has seen of late is political rigidity that alienates the people, casts doubts on the political process, forces rigor mortis to set in on public discourse and puts political progress under lockdown.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA