‘Far left’

In this morning’s LA Times, in an article about the impeachment vote that wasn’t, the sponsor of the resolution, Dennis Kucinich, is referred to as “a far-left Ohio Democrat running for president.” Well, it was good of them to acknowledge his scarcely visible presidential campaign, but just what does “far left” mean here?

Does Kucinich advocate the nationalization of the means of production? Is he promoting the establishment of workers’ collectives? The creation of a national planning board? Last time I checked, no.

Ron is right!

Ron Paul, on this day that domestic news is dominated by the Democratic House’s surrender of its already scarcely serious efforts to end the occupation of Iraq, reminds me why I will take a libertarian (the genuine article, that is), whether of the right or left, over an authoritarian of any political stripe.

Rep. Paul:

We currently live in the most difficult of times for guarding against an expanding central government with a steady erosion of our freedoms. We are continually being reminded that 9/11 has changed everything.

Unfortunately, the policy that needed most to be changed, that is, our policy of foreign interventionism, has only been expanded. There is no pretense any longer that a policy of humility in foreign affairs, without being the world’s policemen and engaging in nation building, is worthy of consideration.

We now live in a post-9/11 America where our government is going to make us safe no matter what it takes. We are expected to grin and bear it and adjust to every loss of our liberties in the name of patriotism and security.

I can’t endorse everything Rep. Paul says at that link or elsewhere–far from it. I am a left-libertarian, after all, and he is a right-libertarian. But in his clear articulation of liberty and genuine patriotism over statism and imperialism, Ron is right indeed.

He has no more chance at the Republican nomination than the leading libertarian in the Democratic Party has of getting his party’s nomination. (Another reminder, if one were necessary, of why we need institutions that promote multiparty politics, so these relatively lone voices can be amplified in Congress by the votes of those of us outside their safe districts.) For standing up to the authoritarians of his own party, Mr Paul deserves encouragement.

Turkey, free and independent

I have been watching the crisis over the election of a president of Turkey with considerable interest. The following remark by a young woman at the protests earlier this week against the ruling party’s candidate nicely summarizes the unusual dimensions of Turkish politics:

We, the free women of Turkey, do not want the hijab. We want to be like the European females, but we do not want to join the European Union. We want Turkey to stay free and independent.

–via Abu Dhabi TV, 29 April, 2007, as translated and broadcast by Mosaic on Link TV.

Is there another country where the dimensions of political issues cut this way, with the most nationalist sectors also being the most secular? I would think not. And, while I do not claim to know much about Turkish politics, I do suspect that, with the Turkish presidency actually being much weaker than the prime ministership that is already in the “Islamist” party’s hands, that the opposition has at least as much to do with resistance to economic liberalization (among the requirements for EU membership) as with the secular-religious divide. Of course, it is the latter that evokes more intense popular passion. Perhaps someone who actually knows Turkey can tell me why I am wrong about that.

I hope to be back with a more detailed post on the institutional aspects of this crisis in the coming days.

In the meantime, I leave you with a fact that has not been widely noted in the coverage I have seen: The ruling party rules on only 34% of the votes cast at the last election. Just four seats short of two thirds, this must be the biggest distortion of votes to seats in the annals of electoral systems, or very close to it.

Early parliamentary elections have been called–for July (about four months ahead of when they would have been required). Can the AK make it to two thirds?

Recommended reading at other blogs: The Head Heeb, A Fistful of Euros, and PoliBlog.

No polarizing Democratic President–yet

What is ‘polarization’ in the context of the American political parties and presidential form of government? Was WJ Cllinton an example of a polarizing president? Republican partisans would say so. Is GW Bush such an example? Almost anyone (except perhaps the most core Republican partisans) certainly would say so.

I would argue that there has not, in fact, been a polarizing Democratic president–yet. Maybe 2008 will bring one. But we have not seen one yet, certainly not Clinton.

Just because there was intense opposition to Clinton by the core of the Republican Party did not imply that Clinton’s presidency, per se, was polarizing. Clinton always–at least after the 1994 midterm election and especially after impeachment and continuing through to the end of his term–had strong approval from “independent” voters as well as stronger (or less abysmal!) approval from opposite-party partisans than has been the case for Bush at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These indicators are better proxies for the degree of “polarization” than simply the intensity of opposition by the core of the opposing party (or of support by the president’s own party).

Back in October (yes, this planting was germinating for a long time, but it is now spring, after all), I ran across the following item by Harry Levins in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1 (found via Lexis-Nexis, so no link). Mr Levins is reviewing Running Alone by James MacGregor Burns (Basic Books, 272 pages, $26).

Older Americans tend to remember John F. Kennedy in nostalgic terms. But political scientist James MacGregor Burns remembers him as the president who pointed his office in a bad direction — away from political parties and toward political expediency.

In “Running Alone,” he weighs the consequences of this loosening of political ties. Mostly, they’ve been bad, especially for the Democrats, says Burns, who acknowledges upfront that he’s an FDR Democrat and proud of it.

His political identification sets him aside from presidential centrists, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Burns says that like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton used the party when it suited them and otherwise ignored the party, for example, when Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress, despite the opposition of the FDR Democrats in labor unions.

Those who favor this approach (the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, for example) see it as pragmatic and realistic. Those who oppose it (the various hard liberal blocs in the party) see it as opportunistic and cynical.

Burns says Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy let Ronald Reagan pull the Republican Party to the right, where it remains. In Burns’ view, popular support for this truly conservative GOP is deep but narrow. He thinks a Democratic presidential candidate who could unite his party top to bottom across the remaining segments of society could make up in breadth what this approach lacks in depth.

The more centrist, flexible and non-polarizing presidency on the model of Carter–and, yes, WJ Clinton–is more consonant with what we should expect in a presidential democracy, where parties are organized first and foremost to capture a separately elected, fixed-term presidency. The more explicitly partisan, even ideological, approach represented by GW Bush really is inconsistent with the very structure of presidentialism and the incentives it (normally) gives for presidents to construct a different constituency from that of the legislative majorities.

The question heading into 2008 will be whether the next Democratic candidate builds a more specifically partisan constituency. That is, have the dynamics of the party system and the processes for building a presidential constituency shifted fundamentally, or will the Bush presidency turn out to have been an aberration?

If a partisan, polarizing Democratic candidate were to win, he or she likely would have –given the outcome of the 2006 midterms–the necessary congressional majorities for a more partisan governing strategy to be viable. (It would be highly unlikely that Republicans would take back either chamber of Congress, but especially the House, in 2008 at the same time that a Democrat won the presidency.) I do not think a polarizing, highly partisan Democratic presidency on the GWB Republican model is likely, because the Democratic constituency is not as narrow and cohesive as the Republicans’. (Democratic gains in 2006 in some unlikely places would seem to confirm that.) But such a polarizing Democratic administration has become more likely than it formerly was.

This post was originally inspired not only by the review quoted above, but by a post at PoliBlog. There, Steven Taylor and I debated about whether GW Bush and WJ Clinton both are examples of highly polarizing partisan Presidents. I suggested, no, for the reasons indicated above. I do not have the link to the referenced PoliBlog post. Maybe Steven will stop by and find it for us.

Populist? Leftist?

There is an interesting thread (in which I have been participating, though that’s hardly the most interesting aspect of it) at bloggings by boz about the “scorecard” of leftists/populists in recent Latin American presidential elections.

I will not try to replicate the discussion here–just follow the link and see for yourself–but it is a reminder of how imprecise, and potentially useless, concepts like “leftist” and “populist” are in current Latin American electoral politics.

The label of “leftist” is often applied to social-democratic presidents like Bachelet and Lula, but also to a rehabilitated “Tercertista” like Ortega (who made alliances with elements of the right to come back to power), and self-proclaimed revolutionaries who rose through the military like Chávez. As many (including boz) have noted, this diverse group hardly fits neatly under one ideological label.

What about “populist”? This is a term that has less ideological baggage, though it has baggage of other sorts all its own. Boz proposed neo-populist, but as another commentator (Greg Weeks) noted, this term was applied by Weyland in the published literature to refer specifically to anti- or above- party, but pro-market, leaders in the 1990s (e.g. Fujimori, Menem and sometimes Salinas).

It is fairly clear that nominees of internally democratic parties like the Chilean Socialists (in coalition with other left and center parties) or the Brazilian PT cannot be meaningfully called “populists.” They represent a democratic center-left. They also have sought to retain generally good relations with the US, unlike Chávez and several of the others. But what of Ortega and Chávez? And, let’s add, López Obrador, Correa and Morales?

The term, populist, has a long and not entirely distinguished history in Latin American studies. Many of the definitions refer to specific policy directions, as in the move towards import substitution by the so-called classical populists (e.g. Perón). It was in part due to this concepts’ own policy baggage that Weyland added the “neo-” to refer to Fujimori and Menem.

But should populism be understood by reference to policies? I do not think so. It is a specifically political concept. As Riker suggested in the title of a book that deserves to be better known among students of comparative politics than it is, Liberalism against Populism, the latter term is contrasted with notions of limited government, the hallmark of liberalism. A populist conception of democracy assumes that there is such thing as a “popular will” and that it can be inferred from the electoral victory of a leader who presents himself as the embodiment of that “will.” Unlike a liberal, who accepts (at least in principle) the constraints of institutional checks and balances and competing political parties, the populist sees institutions and parties as devices for thwarting the authentic representation of the popular will.*

If we accept such a definitional dichotomy between liberalism and populism (and then recognize that they really represent endpoints of a continuum), it is not too hard to identify the populists in contemporary Latin America. Chávez and Correa would be clear examples. Both won their elections, in part, on promises to set aside existing parties and institutions (courts, the legislature, and the constitution itself). Chávez had a personal electoral vehicle (hardly a “party”), while Correa did not even have that. (In that sense, Correa is perhaps more authentically “populist” than any of these current leaders, as was Fujimori.) Morales might also fit this definition, although unlike either Chávez or Correa, he has an electoral vehicle that won a majority of lower-house seats at the same time as his initial election. Given that said fact does not necessarily imply that he is checked by a party (which, in any case, is probably not well institutionalized), perhaps it does not push him outside the “populist” concept.

What about López Obrador? His “to hell with the institutions” discourse certainly is consistent with populism, though his candidacy at the head of the PRD, which could be considered a reasonably institutionalized party (for such a young democracy as Mexico has) suggests he should not be seen as populist. Besides, not only did he lose the election, but even if he is right that he was cheated out of the 230,000 some votes that would have given him victory, that still would amount to only around 35% of the votes. Some popular will! (López Obrador seems to have missed the irony here.) So, he might have a “populist” style and ambitions, but if the term is to be meaningful, it should reflect actual political conditions, and not mere aspirations.

Then there is Ortega. Populist? Absolutely not! Not only did he win a share of the vote not much greater than López Obrador in Mexico, he came (back) to power on the back of a political party that he helped create decades ago. If anything, the Sandinista Front is over-institutionalized. That is, it is such a rigid organization that it has proven impossible for internal reform movements to alter its leadership. Yet it controls a formidable vote-delivering machine that has won it around 38-40% of the votes in every election since 1990 (but not a plurality till 2006). The populist seeks to override institutions in order to represent the “popular will.” Ortega has employed the institutions of his party and the electoral law to return to power from within. I see no sense in which that is meaningfully populist.

Fitting some of the aspects of populism (as I have defined it), but not others, would be a former president such as Menem. Like Ortega, Menem came to power through an established political party, although the Peronist party was never, according to most accounts, particularly institutionalized. It was flexible and manipulable. Whether it was “populist” after the initial burst of energy that brought Peron himself to power is debatable. Once in power, Menem certainly attempted–and in some sense, managed–to govern in a way that circumvented institutional checks. On the other hand, aside from getting approval for and winning reelection, he was also forced by the opposition both inside and outside his party to accede to new checks, including losing a bid to be allowed to run for a third term.

Salinas, classified by some as “neo-populist,” hardly even belongs in the discussion. He came to power through the long-ruling PRI, and his tenure in office was marked by efforts to re-entrench that very same party against the threat from the new PRD and the rising PAN.

In short, once we accept a political definition of populism, it is not hard to identify Chávez, Correa, Fujimori, and maybe Morales as fitting quite well. It is likewise not hard to see that López Obrador and especially Ortega and Salinas do not qualify, and that Menem probably does not. The question is whether the leader seeks to replace and override institutional and partisan checks, and not any particular ideological or programmatic leaning.

One could make a case for simply abandoning the term, populist. Yet it does have analytic value, as long as it is not used as a synonym for leftist or as a means to describe any leader who employs a discourse of being set against the status quo. Or against US influence.

* I think there is potentially a useful parallel with how these terms are used in economics. Whereas “populist” economics is often understood as redistribution of wealth and the politicized provision of benefits to lower classes without concern for their fiscal implications, liberalism subjects economic policy to the discipline of market competition and the constraints of financial markets. Of course, in the political sense, liberalism subjects executive leadership to the discipline of party competition, regulated and channeled by political institutions. Populism does not.

Previous discussion of labels like leftist, populist, Leninist, and even fascist: Getting the labels all mixed up (29 May, 2006).

Getting the labels all mixed up

In the post before this one (and in a comment in response to Greg’s comment) on Uribe and “conservatism” and the “left” in Colombia, I noted the tendency of the media to get mixed up in trying to label Latin American (or other) political phenomena. Now comes this gem from Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph, who suggests that Peru is about to make a decisive turn to the “left” in its presidential runoff, after which we are treated to these unbelievably ridiculous paragraphs:

The Peruvian election will complete the almost clean sweep of South America by anti-yanqui populists: Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile are all in the hands of the militant Left.

Even Uruguay, the squarest and most bourgeois state in the region, has joined the rebels: after 170 years in which the Blanco and Colorado parties alternated in office, it elected its first socialist government last year. Only Colombia stands as an untoppled domino.

Oh my! A clean red sweep! The dominos are toppling!

Where to start? The above quoted passages are among the funniest things I have read in a while. Well, they would be funny if they were not meant to be taken seriously by uninformed readers. First of all, while he did say South America, the ultimate Latin American domino would presumably be Mexico, and let’s not rule out Mexico’s voting to keep the moderately right-wing PAN in power, though if López Obrador wins, our Telegraph correspondent may not be able to contain himself. (If Hannan had to address Mexico, he’d also have to address Nicaragua and the possible electoral comeback by the Sandinistas; I am pretty sure he could not have handled that!)

But Chile in the hands of the militant left? When? Not even Allende was militant in any meaningful sense (though he was an avowed revolutionary socialist, he believed socialism could only be built through legality). But Bachelet and the Concertación coalition with the Christian Democrats are the militant left?

And Urugay’s Broad Front is just that–broad. Somewhat like in Chile, it encompasses the left (including a small component that is made up of ex militants from the Tupamaros, a former rebel movement), but also moderate liberal and Christian democrats. Its leader, Velazquez, has been, like Chile’s recent Socialist presidents, the very pitcture of cautious economic management and free-trade promotion.

Argentina is in the hands of the moderately “populist” wing of its old and classically populist party, the Peronists. More than anything else, this party is a collection of rent-seeking governors’ machines. It is far from a paragon of good governance, but militant revolutionary Kirchner and his party are not. (Hannan did not even mention the giant of the continent, Brazil, now into its fourth year in the vise-grip of that fire-breathing radical Lula.)

Chávez and maybe Morales, I can buy as “militant left,” though Hannan was much closer to reality when he labelled them “anti-yanqui populists.” And herein lies the common mix-up: conflating leftist institution-builders like Bachelet and Velazquez (or Lula) with militant institution-destroyers like Chávez. (The jury is still out on this score on Morales, and, obviously, López Obrador, but I don’t see either of them–especially the latter–as anywhere near the Chávista pole of militant left populism.)

Kirchner, in Argentina, has done much to rebuild institutions largely shattered by that pro-American, pro-business, free-trading Carlos Menem in the 1990s, while Peru has yet to recover from Menem’s crusading anti-communist, anti-terrorist comrade, Alberto Fujimori.

As for Peru, to call Alan García leftist misses an important point: His APRA party was founded in opposition to the old left as well as the military and the traditional parties. In Peru’s party system of the 1980s and early 1990s, APRA competed against the right and the legal electoral left (as well as the genuinely militant and terroristic Maoist guerrillas). (García was president from 1985 to 1990.) APRA is something of a classic Latin American populist phenomenon, but it never incorporated or co-opted the left to the same degree as other classic populists in Argentina, Mexico, and (pre-military rule) Brazil.

As for Garcia’s opponent in the presidential runoff, Humala, Hannan describes him well:

a cashiered ex-officer who sees [former military populist dictator] Velasco as his role-model. Humala combines socialist economics with aggressive nationalism and a millenarian appeal to the indigenous peoples.

Let’s label things as what they are. That’s not leftist. That’s fascist.

h/t Antoine Clarke.

Gerhard Schroeder and ‘liberals’

As you may have seen, the German Constitutional Court affirmed the dissolution of parliament last month, and as a result, the early-term general elections will go ahead on September 18.

I intend at some point to say something about the dispute itself in the case before the Constitutional Court, though that is hampered by lack of ability to read German. The short story is that the Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, sort of engineered his own defeat in a confidence vote in order to go to the elections (which his party surely will lose). Aside from the party just being desperate to get out of government for a bit before its popularity slides any further, an underlying political reason for the no-confidence vote was Schroeder’s lack of support for his government’s policies from within his own party.

But rather than go in detail into the interesting constitutional issues this case has raised, I wanted to just rant for a moment about one thing that bugs me, and that I see a lot in coverage of European news. Here is a line from today’s LA Times article:

The chancellor’s term was to expire next year, but he called for a new poll after Social Democrats lost control of a key state and it became apparent that liberals in his party would not back his economic and social reforms.

The emphasis is mine. Now, what is wrong with this? Well, the conflation of ‘liberal’ and ‘left.’ This is done all the time in the US, which is bad enough. But when reporting on a European country, where ‘liberal’ has a very distinct meaning—that is, distinct from ‘left’—this conflation just fails to inform people about what the political controversy is.

For the record, in Germany the party known conventionally as ‘liberals’ is the Free Democratic Party, which will form part of the next government, if it and the center-right Christian Democrats can win a majority of seats. (It is not a sure thing, but that is another story.)

Those “economic and social reforms” that Schroeder is trying to pursue are liberal: opening markets, reducing government protection and streamlining labor policy. Those within the Social Democratic Party—Schroeder’s party—who are balking are not liberals. They are, well, social democrats. Sort of makes sense, right? Some of the more committed social democrats in the Social Democratic Party do not like the fact that their leader is pushing liberal reforms in their name. (Greens, in coalition with the Social Democrats, generally do not like the reforms, either; Greens are also not liberals, at least on the dimension of economic policy.)

Well, at least it makes sense if you do not assume (even implicitly) that all market-oriented reforms are ‘conservative’ and opposition to them is therefore ‘liberal,’ as this Times reporter (and no doubt, many an American newspaper reader) seems to assume.