THE STUMP MARCH 23, 2012
In this week's Economist, the Bagehot column (in the magazine's section on the U.K.) concerns itself with the improved relations between the basketball-watching pair, Barack Obama and David Cameron, raising the question whether British Conservatives are now closer to Washington's Democrats than its Republicans. It's all well and good until this bit at the close of the column:
During his two days in Washington, Mr. Cameron did not meet any Republican presidential contenders. A senior figure denies that today’s Tories are closer to the Democrats, but agrees that American conservatism is now very different from the British kind. He calls it frustrating that an “interesting debate” begun by the tea-party movement on the size of the state has now taken on a zeal that surpasses British understanding. Among the candidates, Mitt Romney is “not 100 miles away from a sort of fiscally austere British Conservative,” yet is seen struggling with his party base as a result. As for Rick Santorum, his fierce, faith-based views “don’t make any sense” to most Tories.
Elite convergence, in other words, is matched by popular divergence. The explanation is democracy, or, rather, mechanisms such as Congress, talk radio and the primary system, which transmit American popular opinion to policymakers with unusual directness. Senior Americans, it is said, often sigh to British counterparts that if they could only borrow Britain’s constitution for a year they could fix the tax system and the budget.
Yet British public opinion cannot be ignored entirely. Consider the war in Afghanistan, which overshadowed the visit and has the power to strain Mr. Cameron’s and Mr. Obama’s high-level bonding. At the White House, both leaders faced questions about the pace of troop withdrawal. After ten years of war both the American and British people are “weary,” Mr. Obama replied, but both countries would complete the mission responsibly.
Now, I've not delved into the pros and cons of various systems of government as, say, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias have, but I'm pretty sure that Bagehot gets it completely backwards here. “Senior Americans” occasionally envy the British parliamentary system not because it allows for skirting popular resistance to tackle the country's biggest problems but because it allows for expressing popular intent—and skirting the resistance of the political opposition. When a party wins a majority in government, it is able to implement the program it has campaigned on without worrying that the humbled minority will be able to stymie it via an abused filibuster. It is thus the British voters who are able to “transmit public opinion to policymakers with unusual directness”—if they don't like how the government has gone about implementing its program, they can vote it out the next time around. It's in the U.S. where matters get confused—if a party that swept into power in one year fails to do what it said it would, whom should the voter punish? The party in power, for lacking the gumption to see things through, or the minority party, for standing in its way? It's even more of a muddle when, as is common, the party in power is able to pass only a badly compromised version of its program. Who should be penalized for the 2009 stimulus package's lack of visible success? The party that forced it to be smaller than necessary, or the party that acceded to the compromise? And what if, as is so often the case, one party controls the White House but another controls Congress, or just one house?
This misreading of U.S. politics is very, well, British. In England, there is still an Economist-reading elite that spans the three major political parties and shares enough of a consensus that it is easy to imagine its members believing that their biggest obstacle is not their political rivals within the elite, but the short-sighted, tabloid-reading masses who just don't get it. Whereas in the U.S., the elite is divided to an extent that is simply inconceivable to the British—between the Kochs and the Katzenbergs, the Cheneys and the Kennedys, Paul Singer and George Soros, etc. Each elite strives to get “popular opinion” on its side, but even when it does so for a year or two, finds itself unable to fully realize its agenda.
I'm pretty sure that Obama wouldn't want to trade places with Cameron—for one thing, there's no college basketball on the other side of the pond. But I'm also pretty sure he would tell Bagehot that in this case, the magazine for Anglo-American elites is badly mixed up about the comparative woes of Anglo-American government.