Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The polarisation of American Politics

It’s easy to forgot that the United States is exactly what its name suggests; fifty independent, sovereign states, united together.  It’s ambitious to imagine there exists a single narrative or illustration that comprehensively describes the USA, though many attempt exactly this.  To brand nearly 300 million people as ‘brash’ is inaccurate and hypocritical.  It’s a big place and its complicated.  You can’t look down your nose at any nation if you’re going to pigeon-hole its entire society that quickly. 

That said, anyone describing the American political discourse of recent years may well find their observations taking on the form of sweeping generalisations; and it’s easy to see why.  American politics has become incredibly polarised.  The rightwing Tea Party has not emerged within a robust and pluralistic discourse; one may have expected its rise to be a reaction to the occupation of the centre ground by the traditional parties, filling the gap for those disenfranchised members on the American Right. 

Instead the Tea Party and the New Right has emerged within an already heavily polarised landscape in which the two traditional parties have been putting ever greater distance between themselves.  I don’t wish to conflate the New Right and the Tea Party, but both represent strong right-wing views of one sort or another.  The Tea Party subscribe to the right-wing economic liberalism of minimal tax and regulation; the New Right have adopted an anti-immigration, anti-state, anti-Obama rhetoric coupled with Confederacy fetishism.

The Republican response to those stockpiling arms, quoting the second amendment and invoking the spirit of the American Civil War has been to vacillate between a shift to the centre-ground and a shift even further right to embrace the momentum of the Tea Party and other assorted groups.  Though the Democrats are invariably centrist, many on the right consider them socialist.  The result has been the entrenching of diametrically opposed positions, the adoption of  an adversarial stance between the left and right in American politics, forcing everyone into a with-us-or-against-us position.

No society is perfect and harmonious, the pluralist nature of democracy will always grant political breathing space to those with extreme or bigoted viewpoints.  That such groups are allowed political breathing space, such as the British National Party in the UK, is a testament not only to the strength of the political system but also the common sense of its constituent members; in Britain greater exposure has brought ever diminishing returns for the BNP.

That particular case aside there is always the danger that extreme viewpoints will give rise to extreme actions.  In particular the chances of this are increased when extreme ideas and beliefs become an accepted part of the mainstream, espoused openly by those infallible mediums that never mislead such as television, radio and the print media.  

Beyond the sarcasm the ethnic bigotry that has reared its ugly head in Europe on numerous occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries has always been accompanied by extremist messages from the mainstream; Jewish pogroms, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the obvious example of Nazi Germany all illustrate how reprehensible racial hatred can become a legitimate part of the common discourse.  This is not to suggest a strict causality; does the media lead the people, the people the media or does the political class lead both?  The relationship is symbiotic, all three influence each other.

It is therefore misleading to separate the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords from the extreme messages emanating from the American political mainstream.  There can be little doubt that the context in which political debate now takes place had no role to play in this recent tragedy.  To argue that the shooting was not politically motivated is also somewhat difficult; a politician has been attacked who happened to adopt policy positions (on abortion, healthcare and immigration) that are anathema to right-wing Americans; the very same people who choose to adopt Civil War rhetoric when discussing these subjects.  The branding of a democratically elected politician as an anti-American traitor and using the language of armed conflict to label them a legitimate target was never likely to encourage a sensible or measured response.

That no single politician or commentator can be blamed should be emphasised; those that wish to place responsibility at the door of Sarah Palin alone are missing the bigger picture.  Responsibility for the bellicose approach to politics in the United States appears largely Republican, it is their supporters and members placing their messages within the context of armed aggression.  However we should not forget the attitude adopted by many on the left to the presidency of George W Bush; his depiction as a simpleton and a buffoon, his supporters as intolerant Christian Fundamentalists and the personal attacks attached to these caricatures hardly engendered an atmosphere ripe for serious debate. 

The attacks on Obama’s place of birth and accusations that he is not a Christian (and therefore, un-American) may hint at a discreet racism in the mindset of some of his opponents. But these personal attacks, aimed at discrediting his character, fit within the long established narrative of using personal attacks to undermine politicians; from Obama, to Bush, to Clinton, to Biden.  Worryingly we have now entered a new phase that blends personal attacks with the language of armed conflict, placed within the context of a polarised political discourse that encourages disagreement and animosity.

The caustic rhetoric of recent months has tragically reached its dénouement in the shooting of Senator Gifford.  Although it is sadly no new phenomenon it has entered a more radicalised phase.  The question that should be asked is not who is to blame, but why and how the mainstream political discourse arrived at this juncture.  But the most pertinent question is how it can extricate itself as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The hidden consequences of the Browne Review

Thus far reactions to the Browne Review of the funding of higher education have tended to focus on the headline figure of student fees potentially rising to £9000 per year.  The more nuanced analysis has widened its focus to consider the obvious benefits of the review; a higher earnings repayment threshold (from 16k to 21k per annum) and more generous student loan arrangements for students with less privileged backgrounds, both of which should be welcomed.  Some elements of the review have slipped under the radar, both ostensibly concerned with raising standards.

The Browne Review suggests that along with an increase in the number of places in higher education a minimum qualification cap should be imposed on institutions by the proposed Higher Education Council (this will replace a number of existing bodies such as HEFCE).  Put simply a national minimum entry grade would be imposed that all institutions would have to adhere to.  At first glance the benefits of this seem obvious; those applicants with lower grades will not be allowed into university thus ensuring a higher calibre of student and as a result a higher standard of education.  What this approach does not allow for is the Widening Participation element of regional universities, such as those in the Million+ group.  Much of the intake of these institutions is local, part-time and or mature students who have been in work (and out of education) for a number of years.  As such many of these individuals may not have the traditionally required grades to enter higher education but instead possess years of relevant work experience.  Until further details are published on this minimum tariff it is impossible to estimate the full extent this policy could have on regional universities and retraining for those outside of the traditional 18 to 21 age range.

It should also be noted that the minimum tariff could also have a detrimental impact on Widening Participation as a whole as those unfortunate enough to attend less successful and failing schools may find their A level achievements - fantastic though they may be placed into the context in which they were achieved - not up to the new minimum standard.  The Browne Report suggests an increased emphasis on Widening Participation, though this could leave some universities working at cross purposes – raising entry grades which will slash the number of applicants from non-traditional backgrounds.

The second potential development concerns the funding of arts courses and the willingness of universities to 'expel' students.  Under the current system once a student leaves or is kicked off of their course the university loses funding for that student for every year of study.  Therefore if a student, three years in, chooses to leave their course the university loses the funding for that student for all three years.  Therefore the onus is on universities to keep hold of students, with this imperative increasing with the length of their study.  The changes suggested in the Browne Review would remove government funding for most arts courses (classics, history, sociology, etc) with the costs being met fully by the student.  This removes the risk to the university with regards to potential loss of funding; there will be no government funding to be taken away.

It’s unlikely that universities will suddenly become trigger happy and start removing students from their courses with increased profligacy.  However these changes represent another subtle change in the relation between university and student, with a more business orientated model firmly taking hold.  The proposals also risk a ‘one size fits all’ approach to universities with an out-of-touch, typically ‘traditional’ view that only the brightest, best and more privileged deserve a university education.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Tendency to Autocracy

The conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky should come as little surprise to those familiar with the autocratic tendency of the Russian people

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in the Russian Federation shows every sign of continuing unabated following the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of theft and money laundering; though most observers cite the real motivation as purely political.  Currently the power behind the throne as Prime Minister Putin looks set to return as President in 2012 (the constitution of Russia forbids three consecutive terms).  As such this represents the latest in a long line of autocratic moves designed to cement Putin’s control of Russia that shocks outsiders unfamiliar with the political and social history of the Russian state.  Others however see these latest moves as further evidence of the Russian state’s tendency to autocracy.

In the Russian national epic War and Peace Leo Tolstoy sums up succinctly the two diametrically opposed camps into which most lay historians fall.  There are those that view history through the spectrum of actors – the great men theory – seeing in their individual actions and decisions the levers that have shaped the course of history.  Tolstoy himself sees history and its unfolding events not as the result of one great individual but the sum of all of the millions of individuals acting autonomously (yet under the influence of each other), creating an unstoppable flow in which great actors are  the victims and or results of things unfolding around them.  In War and Peace Tolstoy is challenging the perceived wisdom of nineteenth century historians that the conquest of Russia and its ultimate failure were primarily down to the decisions of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Tolstoy posits in that Napoleon had little choice but to take the decisions he did, restrained as he was by the wills and actions of the millions of others living in Europe at the time.

If we are to adopt Tolstoy’s structuralist view we can place developments in modern Russia within the context of its political history and explain why it is no coincidence that like the Tsars and Bolsheviks before them the democratically elected leaders of Russia have become increasingly autocratic.

The modern Russian state emerged during the rule of Ivan IV.  It was during this time that the kingdom developed from an Asiatic backwater into a recognisable modern state, its economy, population and borders expanding significantly.  Other leaders would follow in his footsteps, (most prominently Tsar Peter the Great, founder of the Russian Empire) believing that only an all powerful individual could unite and control the disparate and scattered elements of the Steppe.  There was little opposition to this approach from the Russian people, though this may be due in part to the feudal nature of the country (as it emerged from Tartar rule) at a time when the rest of Europe was emerging from medieval rule and had begun to develop more democratic forms of government and market economies.  Russia’s economic development lagged behind the rest of Europe significantly; the abolition of serfdom did not occur until 1861 and this in turn created a situation in which the majority of the population had zero rights and power was concentrated in the aristocracy.  In these conditions meaningful political organisation or opposition would have been almost impossible to achieve and hence the rule of the Tsars went unopposed. 
When socialist revolution arrived in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century it developed into a uniquely Russian form.  The Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin reinterpreted Marx’s original theory of proletariat revolution into an altogether more autocratic form; the Russian working class would not be able to achieve class consciousness by themselves and could therefore never lead a revolution to emancipate themselves.  Instead the Russian nation required an intellectual vanguard to show them the way, to explain to them how they were being exploited and how to escape it via a socialist revolution.  Following their ascension to power in 1917 the vanguard led the way until the death of Lenin and the seizure of power by Stalin whose despotic and autocratic rule came to represent socialism in the eyes of much of the world during the 20th century.

Democratic rule arrived in Russia in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union following several attempts at modernisation and pluralisation.  The chaotic collapse of both economy and society has perhaps left a deep impression on a nation used to the rule of an all powerful individual; democracy brought misery, hardship and corruption to a nation that has only recently recovered.  So how has barely twenty years of democratic rule resulted in what many are calling a ‘mafia’ state? 

The structuralist view points towards a natural disposition for autocratic rule; the wills and actions of the millions of individuals within Russia has made it possible for once person to emerge as an all powerful leader for the past five hundred years.  Without this will of the people this could not have happened.  The source of this will may indeed be the unique geography and history of Russia unlike the majority of European nations.  The structuralist would also point toward historical institutionalism as a major factor; simply that previous decision made by an institution restrict its ability to freely make future decisions.  That many of the institutions in existence during the rule of the Tsars simply continued to exist during the Soviet Union – the Tsars secret police simply became the KGB – but slowly morphed around new leaders and priorities helps to indicate why the revolution was unable to shake the yoke of absolute power.  This same process would have continued following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its transformation into the Russian Federation; though the emergence of the oligarchs has also had a significant impact on the behaviour of government.

This argument is not conclusive and is open to much disagreement; the intricacies of Russian history give rise to a whole plethora of other competing interpretations.  But the Russian penchant for bureaucracy, the slow development of its civil society and its history of Mongol rule have undoubtledly influenced a national ‘spirit’ or ‘character’ that has subsequently shaped government. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on power looks set to continue as he stands for President once again in 2012;  should the Russian people freely return him to office we should not be so surprised.