Fear the rule of a political party that speaks for narrow interests

Paul Letters says whether here or in America, democracy can easily be hijacked to serve the few

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 6:37pm

The US shutdown is an embarrassment both for America and for democracy - and their leaders are admitting as much. This comes at a time when democracy is being dangled in front of, and debated within, a growing number of nations from the Arab world, and here in Hong Kong. Forced to stand in for President Barack Obama at this week's Apec meeting in Bali, Secretary of State John Kerry said that "those standing in the way [of a resolution] need to think long and hard about the message that we send to the world when we can't get our own act together."

The US political system is as unusual and idiosyncratic as any version of a more democratic Hong Kong would inevitably be, but they share similarities.

Replace "Congress" with "Beijing" and we may approximate the limits on executive power in any possible "democratic" Hong Kong. Ah, you may say, but the US Congress has a mandate to that power through fair and democratic elections. Well, sometimes. But, just as Al Gore did against George Bush in the 2000 presidential battle, the Democratic Party won the popular vote (by 1.4 million) for the current House of Representatives. However, as Ari Berman detailed in this week's The Nation, 2010's painstaking redrawing of constituency boundaries - where the Grand Old Party controlled the process in 20 states due for redistricting, compared to the Democrats in seven - enabled the Republicans to cling on to their majority. It's not hard to imagine such shenanigans in Hong Kong.

And both the US and Hong Kong like a filibuster. "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, of the League of Social Democrats, is a leading proponent in the Legislative Council, and Republican Senator Ted Cruz succeeded in raising his profile when he filibustered against Obamacare.

Checks and balances are vital to democracy, but Washington's seesaw is balanced to the point where the president and Congress rarely have their feet on the ground. The system allows the party in opposition to the executive not just to check the power of the president, but to stifle it.

In both democratic US and non-democratic Hong Kong, money talks - and it's hard to see that ever changing in either. Close to one fifth of our population live in poverty, as is the case in the US. Yet American democracy wastes millions of dollars simply on political campaigning; a cap on donations, spending and television airtime would curtail both the profligacy and the prime-time histrionics. Even more worrying is how one or two rich individuals can engineer a hiatus in governing. As The New York Times reported, billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have "invested" hundreds of millions of US dollars to finance the "tea party" movement and, since it was passed into law in 2010, orchestrate a campaign to destroy Obama's flagship domestic legislation, the Affordable Care Act. It is hard to imagine Hong Kong business leaders failing to prevent - more likely than repeal - legislation they oppose.

Whither democracy? A year ago, America was in the throes of a presidential election campaign where a recession-weary electorate got to choose between a disappointing president and a disengaged challenger; Mitt Romney's efforts to entice floating voters floundered, and the Republican Party was exposed as unconcerned with swathes of voter groupings. That should have become the turning point that shunted the Republican Party to the left, to compete in the middle ground. Yet, today, they continue to attempt to turn back demographic time to when their mainstay voters - male, heterosexual, white and not so young - were sufficiently prevalent to give them victory.

Before the cold war ended (and never since), the Republican Party often gained a majority of women's votes, while "gay" was politically ignored for any meaning other than "happy". Pre-Obamamania, the youth vote was all-too untapped and ethnic minorities - today a burgeoning force - did not decide the presidency.

Although America did get its first racial minority president in 2008, the "world's leading democracy" will project a prejudice too many countries share until their first woman is appointed president. Perhaps 2016 will be the breakthrough year? If not, perhaps Hong Kong will beat the US to it, with a less democratically selected Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee?

All groups within the American electorate deserve a genuine choice - as they do elsewhere. Can you foresee a democratic Hong Kong - let alone a democratic Syria, Egypt or Iraq - developing political parties for all? Perhaps the best we may hope for would be a version of today's US Republican Party, catering for selected tranches of society.

The GOP, corralled by the tea party faction that led the charge to shut down the federal government, will need to broaden its horizons to make itself relevant to all groups - and to prevent the dimming of American democracy as a beacon to the world.

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer