Monday, November 10, 2014

Lessons from two countries

I’ve been too busy to say anything about the recent US elections. That’s been for the best, though, because the time and distance gave me a chance to think about it beyond mere reaction—it’s allowed me to compare and contrast between my two countries.

One advantage of being bi-national is being able to look at both of one’s counties as an insider and outsider, simultaneously. Well, I think that’s an advantage, anyway, but it comes with a caveat: In elections, one can easily be disappointed by elections in two countries, and this is one of those years.

I can’t remember the last time I voted for a Republican candidate for any office in the US, state or federal—it would be decades. I mention that to make clear why there’s no way I’d be “okay” with the results of the US elections, no matter how much I understand why and how the results happened—and I DO understand, far better than most TV pundits and commentators, it seems, but that’s for another day.

The fact is, no matter how much I knew the results were pre-determined, I was nevertheless disappointed. In New Zealand, where the results were far less obvious, I was similarly disappointed (I’ve always voted for Labour in nationwide elections). But that’s where the similarity ends.

In the USA, Republicans are emboldened to try and govern as if they alone run the government. They’ve never been serious when using rhetoric about bipartisanship, and the next two years will be worse than since they took control of the US House back in 2010. Far worse, even.

In New Zealand, the National Party will continue to push its agenda as any party in government would: They don’t have to compromise on much of anything, and they won’t. If they moderate their agenda at all, it’ll be because they’re eyeing the 2017 elections. That’s not a slam, either: If Labour had won, it’d be the same situation. The big difference is that the party leading NZ government doesn’t pretend it will work with opponents, and usually doesn’t (except in certain circumstances, like war).

But in the USA, Republicans would have to get their ideologically driven legislation past President Obama. If he vetoes their bills—and he will sometimes—their juggernaut will be dead because the Republicans don’t have the votes to override a veto (two-thirds votes in both houses is needed, and they’re nowhere near that). I wonder how many times President Obama will have to veto repeals of Obamacare?

Here in New Zealand, we don’t have those sorts of checks and balances: If John Key and his National Party went rogue and started pushing through extremist legislation, there’s not much anyone could do about it. This has led some Kiwis to say we should have an upper chamber like other countries, but that’s absurd: Such a chamber would be an expensive way to change little if anything at all.

I think that the USA’s structure may actually encourage divisive partisanship: Having the executive and legislative totally separate invites bitter fights between the two branches, particularly when, as now, Congress is in the grip of hard ideologues who are intractably opposed to anything and everything the executive does. They know that their most extreme legislation will be vetoed (and killed) by President Obama, and that gives them license to pass extremist legislation with very little consequence (just as when Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans could endlessly vote to repeal Obamacare—and they did—safe in the knowledge it would never get past the Senate). So, Republicans will be able to pander to their most frothing base (for votes and, even better, money) while not actually inflicting extremist laws on the country. From their perspective, it’s a win/win situation (unless their partisan games piss off centrist voters…).

In New Zealand, the executive and legislative are joined. If the government of the day wants to pass more extreme legislation, it requires the support of allied parties, but that’s not as hard as having to create an extraordinary majority as would be needed in the USA. On the other hand, that occasional need for support can lead to moderation of government proposals.

Ultimately, the main check and balance in both countries is the same: Elections. But here New Zealand is far superior to the USA.

New Zealand’s MMP system ensures that our Parliament precisely matches, as closely as possible, the will of the people. Its flaws would have been addressed had John Key not killed the proposed reforms and the entire reform process.

Even so, and despite its flaws, MMP ensures that we don’t end up with a Parliament run by a party only a minority of people actually voted for. In the USA, in contrast, very often the minority candidate—one who gets less than 50% of the popular vote, and sometimes dramatically less—can easily end up being elected to office. Because Congress has no proportionality, a party supported by a minority of voters can end up in charge. That just can’t happen in New Zealand unless the voter turnout is very low. But even there NZ is better, with voter turnout usually at least double that of the USA.

So, the USA’s constitutional structure offers some, if imperfect, protection from extremism, while in New Zealand it’s primarily our MMP electoral system, with elections held every three years, that provides that function. We can quickly and easily change the entire direction of the nationwide government, while in the USA, that’s very difficult to do. The USA’s system encourages bitter partisanship when the executive and legislative are held by different parties, but New Zealand’s system—and especially MMP—encourages more collaborative approach to government, even if sometimes only marginally so.

There are specific things that I think can and should happen to fix the USA’s problems, some of which are at least feasible (proportional representation is not one of them…). There are also things that can be done to improve New Zealand’s system (and upper house is absolutely not one of them). Those are topics for the future.

For now, and from my bi-national perspective, I think that at the moment the NZ system is better than the USA’s. Reform can make the USA’s system function again, but necessary reform is far more likely to happen in New Zealand than in the USA. For me, that’s the biggest tragedy of all, and it was underscored by the recent US elections.

So, yeah, I’m disappointed by elections in two countries this year. But at least I can clearly see how things in NZ could get better, while I’m far, far less optimistic about my homeland. And that’s the bitter lesson I learned from the two countries this year.

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