Power, Democracy, and associated matters

Had a most enjoyable lunch at the Wellesley Club with the Victoria University of Wellington Research Centre.
Three presentations, all of which were quite good, but the most thought provoking was from Pol Sci lecturer Jon Johansson on the US presidential race.

Johansson suggested it might be better for US democracy if John McCain wins this year. His reasoning (and I may be oversimplifying here) is that the Democrats will win both houses of Congress. Bush has beefed up the powers of the presidency to such levels that having one party in control of the legislative and executive branch is probably asking for trouble, in the short term anyway. The imperial powers are such they can only lead to further overstretch, albeit probably in different directions.

He had been discussing this with an American academic colleague on a recent visit and had wondered about, conversely, the effect of having a black candidate lose.
His colleague’s response was intriguing: that particular battle was already won, he suggested. One of the main parties had put up a black candidate in Obama, and – this is the important bit – race isn’t an issue in the battle.

All of which is quite thought-provoking. Personally, I’m enjoying watching this US presidential race more than any one I can remember, except perhaps the first one I followed – the Reagan-Carter 1980 battle.
The main reason I’m enjoying it is the race is between two people who, thus far anyway, seem to be basically fairly admirable characters.

I can’t remember a US election where I could look at the candidates and think that, basically, although with the flaws which are part of being human, they had qualities which fitted them for their job.

The worst example was 2000, where both candidates were so utterly hollow it was real bury your head in your hands stuff. Other races, though, have not been much better (2004 and 1996 being perhaps the best examples)

The Obama-mania worries me, not for any ideological reasons (I’d be equally concerned if he was a Republican getting the same reception).

It’s bad having any political leader get the sort of over-the-topl adulation he has received. It is bad for democracy and bad for the politician themselves.

Power, and the exercise of it, should not be an occasion of exaltation by anyone – governors or the governed. It is a duty, a trust, and a perilous one – again, equally perilous, although in different ways, for the governors and the governed.

Local parallels? Not a lot, except the perennial ones about power and its excesses.
It used to be said that National had a born to rule attitude but although you get that with the odd member its not endemic any more. The electorate has slammed them upside the head a few too many times.

The last time I saw anything like it, and I’m sure it was a trace of what it once had been, was in mid-2000 when Shipley was still leader. There was a presentation of some sort at the Beehive Theatrette. Labour had nosedived in the polls, and there was a definite attitude of ‘voters are realising their mistake and will put us back at the next election’.

Of course, the next election saw their worst result ever. There are few MPs still around who were in that 2000 caucus: those that are have either learned quite a bit since, or are now on the outer.
Its Labour that has the born to rule attitude now. Worse, they have a Born to Preach attitude which goes with it.
Despite the bad run in the polls for over a year, the sense of entitlement which comes through from senior government levels is almost tangible. It’s an ugly thing, born of a conviction of one’s own moral superiority and being in power for too long. (And I stress, not all of their MPs, or even all their ministers, have it.)

And yet, and yet…despite the polls, despite everything, I keep having a gut feeling they’re going to hang on, or at least have only one term out of office.

That, though, is the subject for another day. For now, I just hope New Zealanders have a sufficient concern for restraining the powers of government as the Americans – usually – do.

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