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Britain and America – the plodders and the jackasses fight it out

February 24, 2016
Hamilton Burr

Vice President Aaron Burr duels with Alexander Hamilton, 1804

This year’s US presidential primaries are a gruesome spectacle, even if you’re disinclined to spend hours watching the TV debates. They don’t kill each other in duels these days, though you wouldn’t put that past at least one of the Republican candidates. But there’s one upside for observers from Britain, my country. Many of the candidates over the pond make the participants on either side of the EU referendum debate seem like paragons of reason.

Perhaps that’s a bit of an inappropriate accolade when the likes of Nigel Farage and George Galloway are throwing themselves into the mix. But our jackasses seem unlikely to influence the voters to the same extent as the jackass-in-chief currently lashing and trashing his way across the world’s most powerful nation.

In fact, the antics of the Republican camp have given me a new appreciation of our political system, and of the politicians it produces.

The inevitable wrangling over the appointment of a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, the decently-deceased Supreme Court judge, provides a stark contrast between the two systems.

The US Supreme Court consists of judges whose political leanings are well known, even if their views are described on a spectrum between conservative and liberal, as opposed to Republican or Democrat. Scalia has been described as ultra-conservative. His departure presents President Obama with the opportunity to nominate a candidate whose views are closer to the liberal end of the spectrum.

This is important, because it potentially shifts the balance of opinion within the court. The Senate can block a president’s nominee, so while Obama prepares his short list, the Republicans are girding themselves for a battle to prevent a candidate not to their liking from making it past the post. Some even argue that no nomination should be made before the presidential election.

In case anyone outside the US thinks that this is a pretty arcane argument, we should remember that in 2000 it was the Supreme Court that effectively handed the presidency to George W Bush by its ruling on the legitimacy of a handful of disputed votes in Florida.

That’s not to say that each member of the court automatically delivers judgements based on partisan political views. They are intended to be guided only by the letter and meaning of the US constitution. But it’s the interpretation of the constitution that allows the ideological views of the justices to come into play.

Because the rulings of the Supreme Court are all about principles enshrined in the constitution, the cornerstone of the US legal system, its decisions often have wide-ranging significance. Roe Vs Wade, for example, determined that individual states lacked the power to prevent abortions. The importance of many of the court’s rulings, and the fact that nominations are publicly – and often vociferously – debated, mean that the identities of the individual judges are reasonably well known throughout the country.

Our Supreme Court, on the other hand, is virtually anonymous outside legal and political circles. I doubt if a survey of Britain’s high streets would show that more than a handful of people could identify the president of the court, let alone any of the individual members or their ideological preferences. What’s more, because we have no written constitution, the court rules on a mish-mash of statute and precedent. Appointments to the court are not usually subject to lengthy public scrutiny by the legislature. Although the result of a general election could theoretically turn on a judgement of the court, the decision would affect political parties rather than a directly-elected executive.

I’m very comfortable with a low-profile judiciary whose impartiality is rarely challenged. The idea that the ideological make-up of a supreme court should be so critical to a nation’s future that political parties go to war over appointments to it seems to fly against the original concept of America’s founding fathers – that an impartial body of judges should be an integral part of the checks and balances that prevent the executive and the legislature from gaining a disproportionate amount of power.

As for the politicians, in the US at least, the jackass seems to be winning out against opponents who appear plodders in comparison. Jeb Bush has pulled out of the race, and John Kasich looks to be going that way. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, whose views would be ridiculed as impractical and virulent in any other year, also look set to lose out.

In the UK, the electorate seems to be able to distinguish between the jackasses and the plodders. Farage and Galloway didn’t exactly prosper in the last election. The anonymous plodders of the Conservative party did. The closest the Tories have to a jackass is Boris Johnson, yet even he speaks in joined-up sentences and has a credible record of political achievement behind his rhetoric.

Having said that, while the American jackass-in-chief tells an audience in Nevada that he would like to punch a protester in the face, our guys seem quite capable of acting rather than mouthing. Witness John Prescott taking a swing at a heckler in the 2001 campaign, and Harold Wilson’s body punch on the then fledgling BBC journalist John Simpson, after Simpson was impertinent enough to ask the Prime Minister if he was planning to call an election.

Despite the mainstream media’s attempt to portray Monday’s debate in the House of Commons as a Punch-and-Judy show, at least both sides of the referendum debate appear to be making arguments rather than blood-curdling invocations, even if they are – as all politicians do – selecting facts to back up their positions rather than the other way round.

Comparisons between the two campaigns are admittedly a little unfair. The US primaries are mainly about personalities – winners and losers – as in “would you trust this person with the nuclear suitcase?” In the referendum campaign, none of the politicians are likely to lose their jobs, except possibly the Prime Minister, who might conceivably fall on his sword if the vote doesn’t go his way (hence his rather acid put-down of Johnson on Monday). Cameron excepted, they can therefore afford to use words rather than knives.

The big picture is that there’s a serious difference in scale. The little matter of Britain abandoning the EU and re-launching itself into splendid isolation pales when you think of the consequence of the lunatics taking over the asylum in the United States.

Should Donald Trump become president, America – and the rest of the world – will perhaps have cause to be thankful that the checks and balances of the US constitution exist to curb his wildest inclinations. From afar they may seem a recipe for paralysis, and no more so than over the past six years during which President Obama has repeatedly been stymied by a republican-dominated congress on issues like gun control. But they also mean that Trump may find it impossible to implement some of his loopier policies in the face of fierce opposition, even within his own side.

We foreigners might have thought that Obama’s battles with Congress have been pretty counter-productive. But we should perhaps be holding our breath at the prospect of Trump’s struggles to persuade the legislature to give him the money to surround the nation with walls. The Supreme Court might also be kept busy if he attempts to discriminate against sections of the population on grounds of race or religion.  Likewise, Rubio’s tax cuts and Cruz’s intention to carpet bomb ISIS would be unlikely pass without serious resistance.

Two years on from now, the Democrats – assuming they don’t manage to regain control of at least one of the houses of congress next November – are likely to benefit from the frustration of a disappointed electorate in the 2018 mid-term elections, thus compounding the problems a Republican president might face in getting things done.

If we are entering a period when radical change is a possibility, I would rather that modest changes be pushed through by worthy plodders rather than radical ones by angry jackasses. Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were no plodders, but neither were they fundamentally angry people. Nor is Obama, who has broken several moulds during his presidency.

It seems that the choice facing US voters is between ideologues (Sanders, Cruz and Rubio), a rabble-rousing jackass (Trump) and a pragmatic plodder (Clinton).

My bet’s on Clinton, but you never know. If Trump’s passable impression of the Antichrist doesn’t slip, he may yet enlist the fundamentalist right in sufficient numbers to win the battle. After all, many of them are waiting keenly for the end of days. Who better qualified than The Donald to usher in the final apocalypse?

Rather as our Baftas precede the Oscars, Britain’s referendum will come and go without much fuss beyond Europe. The main event is in November. In over fifty years of watching presidential elections, I can’t recall a scarier contest.

From → Politics, UK, USA

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