Lessons from US shutdown

Updated: 2013-10-16 07:17

By Lau Nai-keung(HK Edition)

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People in Hong Kong tend to look at international affairs from the point of view of how they are going to affect the stock market. The government in the US is shut down, with Republican and Democrat congressional representatives unable to agree even on the terms to conduct negotiations. With the US government scheduled to run out of money to meet its financial obligations sometime this week, investment-minded people are thinking, "well, it is now a great time to be buying stocks/gold/ property, etc"

In reality, the US government shutdown means much more than a few quick bucks. The most important question is what caused this shutdown, and ultimately what it tells us about the US democratic system, and the implications for us.

Here I would like to recommend a piece of highly insightful and inspiring analysis written by George Friedman, American political scientist and founder of the private intelligence corporation Stratfor. Titled "the roots of the government shutdown", it explains the cause of the shutdown from a very different angle.

Lessons from US shutdown

The US government has seen shutdowns before, and partisanship has always been strong. It is not partisanship, Friedman believes, but the consequences of partisanship on the operation of government that appear to have changed. Friedman described what he perceives as a massive shift in the 1970s in how the American political system operates. Prior to then, candidate selection was based on delegates to national conventions, and the delegates to conventions were selected through a combination of state conventions and some primaries. Political bosses controlled the selection of state convention delegates, and therefore the bosses controlled the delegates to the national convention. In other words, these bosses controlled the national conventions.

Subsequent reforms replaced state conventions with primary systems. This severely limited the power of state and county chairmen, who could no longer handpick candidates. Political parties ceased being built around patronage systems, but rather around the ability to raise money.

Lessons from US shutdown

This unexpected consequence of the reform is well known, but Friedman told a story about the other unexpected consequence of the reform. The reformers' vision was that the fall of the bosses would open the door to broad democratic participation. But the fact was that the American people did not care nearly as much about politics as the reformers thought they ought to.

As a result, the primaries were left to the minority who cared. Over time, particular issues congealed into ideology, which differs from issue-oriented matters in that ideology is a package of issues. The ideological factions take common positions on a wide range of issues. They are relatively small minorities, but their power is vastly magnified by the primary system.

A candidate in either party does not need the votes of the majority of registered voters. He needs the votes of the majority of voters who will show up. People in the US increasingly show up because of their passionate belief in a particular ideology, and money is spent convincing them that a candidate shares their passionate commitment.

After raising the funds by convincing primary voters of their ideological commitment, the general election can turn into a race between two ideological packages. The winner will only be re-elected if primary voters see him as having been sufficiently loyal to their ideology while in office. Politics is now not about compromise anymore but about being stubborn, about not making compromise.

A true ideologue, or a person who pretends to be one, does not compromise. According to Friedman, it is exactly the rise of ideology in politics that has hampered the US government's capability to act.

People who are concerned about how Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland should develop their political systems must study Friedman's piece carefully. It speaks volumes about why universal suffrage, if not implemented with care, might bring more harm than good.

The frequent filibusters in Hong Kong can also be explained by the rise of ideology in recent years. Looking back, the League of Social Democrats' (LSD) considerable electoral success in 2007 and 2008 marked the end of an era when Hong Kong was an "economic city". If democracy is issue-specific, social democracy is a full package. Although LSD's members are not particularly committed to the ideology of social democracy, they are ideologues nonetheless and they set the trend for all dissidents to follow.

If this trend is successfully reinforced by the media, populism and universal suffrage, as dissidents have been trying hard for some time to do, Hong Kong will have its own shutdown in no time.

The author is a member of the Commission on Strategic Development.

(HK Edition 10/16/2013 page1)