Realpolitik #11 – All for One

“Australian political parties are following the unattractive lead of many other Western democracies – most notably the US – in treating their leaders as brands.” – Hugh Mackay, ‘Correspondence’ in Quarterly Essay 41.

The notion of ‘presidentialization’ is one that is gaining increasing traction in debates around elections. It refers to the phenomenon described above – that is, the removal of the candidate from the broader context of partisan affiliation. Perhaps presidentialization is not the most apt term – it has only been coined in reference to America’s singularly individualistic style of politics.

Prime Minister Gillard & President Obama

The quote above is in reference to Australian politics, but I wish to explore the notion of presidentialization in a global comparative perspective. In short, is politics becoming individualised? Have politicians abandoned party decision-making procedures in favour of the dreaded public opinion poll?

Individualism in Comparative Perspective

America

America’s history of individualism is one that has been catalogued in depth, most notably by Seymour Martin Lipset in his magnificent American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The evidence supporting the case is legion – one need only look at the healthcare debates to see how many politicians would violate the line of their party in order to satisfy the exigencies of the two-year electoral cycle. But how does this compare to individualism in other advanced industrialised democracies?

Australia

In comparison to the highly individualised politics of the US, Australia bears little comparison, despite Mackay’s exhortation. The party line is followed rigidly – one may not agree with it, but one follows it nonetheless. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) expressly forbids its MPs from crossing the floor, and it is extremely rare that members of the other major party, the Liberal Party of Australia, would do the same.

The phenomenon Mackay refers to is thus not ‘presidentialization’ in the strictest sense; moreover, it refers to a kind of media-intensive politics that focusses more on winning the battle of wills via television advertising than through overt debate. In the 2010 election when the two Prime Ministerial candidates finally agreed to debate one another, it was a tepid affair that bore little in the way of firm political conviction. Neither candidate won – if anything, both proved that they were unworthy of the highest office in the land.

In a lecture delivered last year to students of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, former NSW Premier Bob Carr waxed lyrical about how the then-recent furore over healthcare, in particular the bipartisan disapproval of the bill, proved that the Westminster political system was far superior to that of America because it enforced party discipline and, in a way, kept the voting public fairly clear about the respective policies so that when it came to election time, there was a clear track record upon which the parties could be judged. You can see it for yourself below:

In the wake of the 2010 election, perhaps Carr will be more circumspect in his criticisms – both Julia Gillard of the ALP and Liberal leader Tony Abbott proved themselves extremely malleable when it came to policy – both seemed more interested in representing ‘the heart of the nation’ than actually expanding on any of their own personal convictions. With that said, Australia still has a long way to go before it even begins to approximate the individualism of the United States – so far, the only individualism so far has been the 2010 election, and time may prove that to be a mere aberration in the historical continuum. Of course, it can also be said that the 2010 election was the first step in the march towards media-dominated politics in the style of our great ally.

United Kingdom

Crossing the floor in the UK’s House of Commons is just as rare as in Australia – Winston Churchill famously crossed party lines twice in his political career. Individualism in British politics has been diminishing since the Thatcher era; Chief Whips (the enforcer of party discipline) strictly enforces the party line on all MPs. This is perhaps due to the significant levels of internal dissidence within British political parties.

The brilliant TV miniseries House of Cards dramatised the position of the whip to great effect – in the series, we see fictional Chief Whip Francis Urquhart manipulating various MPs from the backbenches to the Prime Minister himself. Unsurprisingly, this disturbing political narrative was written during the Thatcher era by a former Chief of Staff at the Conservative Party.

The 2010 UK election saw a hung parliament – a coalition was subsequently formed between the Conservative Party led by David Cameron and the centrist Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg. The election was a dry affair that provoked more interest in its wake due to the unusual result (this being just the second hung parliament in the last century) than in relation to the campaigns of the various parties.  None of the candidates expressed a particular wish to disassociate themselves from their parties – compare this to Australian Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s ‘Stand Up Australia’ ad campaign, which made not a single mention of the Liberal Party throughout its 84-second runtime.

Conclusions

What does this really mean? Is individualist politics becoming more prevalent in the post-modern world? Or is Mackay’s statement an overblown load of rubbish based on one lackluster election cycle?

It’s too early to tell. Sure, Australia had an election that took the spotlight off the parties and placed in squarely on the respective leaders. But the 2010 election in the UK did nothing of the sort – it was equally dull, yes, but one would hardly disassociate David Cameron from the Conservative Party, nor Nick Clegg from the Lib Dems – indeed, the vast majority of journalistic analysis in the wake of the election focussed on the importance of maintaining party loyalty and ensuring that Clegg and the Lib Dems in particular did not abandon their centrist base just in order to gain a share of the spoils of government.

Presidentialisation, then, is for the most part a singularly American concept. While we may see strains of it flecked in the politics of other advanced industrialised democracies, Bob Carr was more or less correct when he highlights the systemic and intractable differences between the Westminster system and the presidential system of the United States. However, perhaps a little more individualism would not actually be a bad thing – it’d be a nice change to see politicians fighting for the interests of their local constituencies rather than resignedly signing on to the beliefs of the party majority.

After all, isn’t that what democracy is all about?

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About Rage
Australian student with interests in music, film, literature, politics, pop culture and more.

2 Responses to Realpolitik #11 – All for One

  1. Very well done.

    As an American, I find the other systems totally baffling. But the differences are fundamental, I suppose. It would be difficult for a country like ours, with an ever-expanding Executive Branch, to establish such rigid discipline amongst the parties.

    With the parties becoming so rhetorical and obstinate. I’m not even sure which I’d rather prefer:

    1. More individualization, which might serve as a wake up call to the parties, or might totally collapse everything.

    2. More Westminster-like discipline… which would basically be a official version of what we have now, which seems like a de facto version of it sometimes. But in the actual elections process, it would be nice to have issues be treated as more than perfunctory.

    What you think, Rage?

  2. Rage says:

    Personally, I’m slightly more partial to our own Westminster system. I think there’s a lot to be said for the American system, though; I think the politicians in Congress have it a lot tougher, though, in that they have to balance out the needs of the party machine with what their electorate wants.

    On the other hand, when you see a divisive issue like healthcare which results in the party being split, it makes me think that the Westminster system, despite its flaws (less accountability to voters), can sometimes be more effective, in the sense that it just gets more stuff done.

    Your point about the executive is an interesting one – people are always going on about how they hate how Obama is making government bigger and bigger, but somehow Bush’s massive expansion of the executive has been given a pretty much scot-free ride. I guess as long as something’s in the name of ‘national security’ then it can’t be criticised. I don’t know.

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