• Sun
  • Jul 27, 2014
  • Updated: 12:46am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

4

This article is now closed to comments

321manu
It is absolutely mind-boggling that so many people, including many House Republicans, apparently, have no concept of the principles at play here. Then again, I guess I should temper my surprise, since we're talking after all about Republicans.
The debt ceiling is a completely artificial thing, but merely reflects the US government's intent to pay her bills. The debt is already incurred. THe money is already spent, or is constantly in the process of being spent. Of course, the situation is untenable and spending (or at least the deficit) needs to be reduced. But any talk about reducing spending refers to money that has NOT yet been spent. So sure, talk about it, but in the meantime, you still have to pay the bills. It is such a basic concept that any family on Main Street would understand this, yet the GOP somehow cannot.
THe other thing of course is that there are two parts to a deficit: too much spending, and too little revenue. Naturally, Republicans don't understand that either.
jd.salinger.3154
FACT: Central Park in NYC is still opened although the Statue of Liberty remains closed during the shutdown. This is a good time to sit by the Ramble and Lake to reflect on how the Statue of Liberty got to where it is today and why it is named the Statue of Liberty, and NOT the Statue of Democracy.
pkcal
Mr. Letters is factually incorrect on a number of points. The 'tea party faction" did not demand a government shutdown, only that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be amended (to delay the individual mandate by a year) or that there be a one-year delay in funding the ACA. The House of Representatives passed and forwarded to the Senate several bills to fully fund the federal government, with the sole exception of the ACA. Senator Reid rejected the spending bills because they did not provide funds for the ACA, thus causing the partial government shutdown. Under the U.S. Constitution, all spending bills originate in the House of Representative, which has the constitutional authority to fund or not fund programs as it sees fit. As for the Republican Party representing narrow interests, I can only say that there is an increasing realization among a growing number of Americans that the federal government's deficit spending cannot continue indefinitely without risking the stability of the U.S. economy. Total U.S. debt has increased by six trillion dollars since President Obama entered office in January 2009. By any standard, that's a lot of additional debt over such a short period of time. Regarding the "debt ceiling," Republicans are proposing a reduction in spending in exchange for raising the ceiling. That's not unreasonable.
caractacus
When a democracy has problems its ideological opponents, who include the worst monsters, dictators and kleptocrats, use it to justify their own horrible, corrupt regimes.
Winston Churchill said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."
 
 
 
 
 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or