The Lust for Personal Power without Popular Support Is Not a Winning Strategy Forever

Amersfoort, Netherlands     In these days, perhaps in all days, when autocracy, as a strategy and set of tactics, seems so attractive to so many politicians and wannabe royals in their lust for power under any terms, there’s some small comfort in seeing such techniques come to wreck and ruin, even if the damage in the meantime is inestimable.

Poor Carrie Lam, the mayor of Hong Kong, is a fair example.  After almost thirteen weeks of escalating protests by pro-democracy adherents both in the streets and behind doors against her Beijing-concocted policy to extradite people to mainland China and its questionable judicial system, she was once again forced to withdraw the extradition proposal.  Of course, having refused to negotiate for weeks while protests went unabated, she has no credibility now, since even conceding seems unilateral, rather than part of a corrective process.  Protests are likely to continue.  Here is the irony.  Reportedly, Lam has been trying to resign in the face of her own impotence before the protests, but has said to associates that Beijing will not allow it.  They have not reported that Beijing told her, you make your bed, you sleep in it, but it’s possible.

Then there’s the tragic case of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar or Burma, as some still know it, who has gone from the Noble prize-winning ranks to Mandela, King and others to become the stone faced and silent apologist for genocide among the Rohingya people of her country who practice Islam, rather than Buddhism.  Once jailed and quarantined by the country’s military rulers, she has now become their face, rather than their critic, in the midst of unspeakable horrors and the displacement of almost a half-million people.  Is this the price of power?

Globally, British television is more known for its dark crime procedurals than the humor of its comedic farces, which seem tailored more to a local taste, but now we all can witness in real time that the British origin of “House of Cards” is also more likely farcical, than fictional, as we watch the ruthlessness of Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit, once seen as clown, now made the fool.  First, in pure Kevin Spacey fashion, he undermines Theresa May, not that any would really care, but he does so, as she did, heedless to the peril of Great Britain.  Then once he has the Prime Minister’s position, he suspends Parliament creating a constitutional crisis so he can try to ram through Brexit, the withdrawal from the European Union, without debate by running out the clock.  The opposition and some renegades from his own party, vote him down easily, since in his antics he seems to have forgotten that he had only had a one-seat majority.  He then ruthlessly throws twenty-eight nay voters out of his party to try and force an election.  But, like Mayor Lam, having no credibility, there’s no agreement to a snap election without forcing a vote to extend the Brexit deadline.

I flipped channels before collapsing in the Netherlands and got to watch one commentator after another excoriate Johnson in English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch.  The message was unmistakable in all languages.

How is bypassing the people in your lust for power working out for any politicians today?  Maybe possible in the short run, but perhaps not for long, giving all of us hope still.

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All Politics National? All Power Local

Newark      I recently read a fascinating argument by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard instructor in The New Yorker that was wrapped in the cover of a review of some new books trying to puzzle through the political life of the nation currently.  The heart of the argument Mounk and some of the cited authors made, to boil it down, was that in these days and times “all politics is national” a rejoinder to the classic expression from former Speaker of the House and Democrat from Massachusetts Tip O’Neil that “all politics is local.”

Much of this argument was hung on a current book by the University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel J. Hopkins called The Increasingly United States.  So, full disclosure, I’ve just added the book to my Kindle, but haven’t read it yet, so I can’t pretend to do justice to him and the rightness or wrongness of his argument, but I can follow Mounk’s argument pretty well.

There is a lot going for it.  National party platforms have become more easily distinguishable.   Issues are more ideological, though the divisions in both parties between moderates and extremes within these platforms are stark, there are signposts that are easily observable by most voters.  Certainly, communications through daily news channels have become heavily nationalized with less and less local coverage past the blood and gore, traffic and crime beats.

The point is made that voters “have grown less able to name their governor and less likely to vote in local elections.”   The structure of the ballot and the diminishment of standard civics undoubtedly plays a role as well, but there has been a falloff from the top to the bottom of the ballot virtually forever unless there are heated local contests.

I don’t want to quibble though.  The real issue that leaves me scratching my head as I try to absorb this argument is less about politics and more about power.  Parties are still pretty weak in resources, structure, and their roles in daily life outside of the direct election cycle, so it is hard for me to believe that they have reached peak power in our democracy in the way being speculated in these reports.

Power is still very diffuse.  The impact of money is huge and the right with the Koch’s and the left with the Steyer’s have proven that money is especially powerful in moving the dial in the more localized frameworks of states and cities.   The way power devolved to the states and the stark differences between life and citizen expression and benefits in blue versus red states, Democratic versus Republican states, continues to make a case that pretending that all politics is national puts all of us in peril.

The truth still remains that without a strong local base, it is hard to move the political needle nationally.  My advice for what it is worth continues to be:  don’t move to Washington.  If you want to change the country, dig deep, and do the job where you are.

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