Of Political Parties
Posted on 1-April-2007
"The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy....The reason why privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole. Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges they hold"
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
In February 1976, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France went on the television to say that Prime Minister Jacques Chirac whose responsibility it was to lead the majority in the National Assembly and to inspire governmental action would lead the political campaign of the government parties at the cantonal elections a few weeks thence. For months past the opinion polls had forecast a victory for the Left, consisting of the Socialist and the Communist parties. Chirac, who was leading at that time Charles de Gaulle's party, the Union pour la Defense de la Republique, had been urging Giscard and others that the government parties should take clear, well-defined positions against the policies proposed by the leftist alliance under their Common Programme. The left parties won at the cantonal elections. In summer that year Chirac parted company with Giscard and in December refashioned the old "Gaullist" party, renaming it the Rassemblement Pour la Republique and presenting it and himself as the main bulwarks against the Left. At the municipal elections in the ensuing year Chirac presented himself against Giscard's candidate for the post of Mayor of Paris and won. In other municipalities across the country, the leftists won most seats. From then on, Chirac became a painful thorn in the side of his formal ideological ally Giscard and, according to what Giscard seems to have written recently, at the Presidential election in 1981 he secretly helped the socialist Mitterrand win against Giscard.
In 1986, the anti-leftist Chirac became Prime Minister under the socialist President Mitterrand in a novel arrangement he christened "cohabitation"--it was for the first time in the Fifth Republic that the President and the Prime Minister came from two nominally opposed political formations. It is another matter that by then Mitterrand, who in the early days of the Fifth Republic had denounced it as a permanent coup d'etat, had acquired the sobriquet of the most Gaullist of all French presidents, having jettisoned much of his leftist, socialist programme. In 1997, the situation was reversed with the socialist Lionel Jospin serving as Prime Minister under the nominally anti-leftist President Chirac.
In the United Kingdom the eight decade long opposition between Tories and Labour did not prevent the Conservative Party shoring up in the House of Commons the New Labour government, faced with large revolts from its on own backbenchers on three separate votes between 2003 and 2007: on the Iraq war, on education reforms and most recently on the continuance of the country's independent nuclear deterrent. Clearly for the leaders of the government survival in office, even with the support of the Conservative Party, was more important than allowing their own party's backbenchers to influence policy on any of these crucial issues--in fact on the Iraq war the real division in the United Kingdom seemed to be that between the government and its supporters, including the Conservative Party, and the very large number of ordinary people who were opposed to it.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, in 2005, the Socialist Party and the Christian Socialist-Christian Democratic partnership fought a close election against each other--so close that for a few days after the result each of the two combines claimed to have won, though neither had by itself a majority in the Bundestag. During the campaign the two combines expectedly presented alternative programmes and visions to the electorate and predicted disaster for Germany if the other won. When it became clear that neither could form a viable coalition with some of the smaller parties giving it a stable majority in parliament, the two joined together in a "Grand Coalition", obviously not finding it difficult to agree on a bouquet of policies.
In the USA where the continuance in office of the executive is not dependent on controlling a majority in the Congress, party discipline has traditionally been less rigid than in, for instance, the United Kingdom. Republican Presidents have as often been able to get support from conservative Democrats as Democratic Presidents from liberal Republicans. Except when there is great divisiveness in the country as, for instance, at the present moment over the Iraq war, elections to the Congress are fought over personalities, local issues or the performance and personality of the President rather than on grand policy. Ideology and proposed policies do get talked about a great deal at Presidential elections though whether a President wins an election on the strength of his personality or on the basis of the promises he makes to the electorate is moot. Come election time for the White House and the two main parties get mobilised more as fund-raising and vote garnering machines than as platforms for debating policies. After elections, it is not unusual for Presidents and their supporters to commend the virtues of bipartisanship to the Congress and the country. Likewise, journalists and analysts underline the importance for any administration of occupying the centre of the political spectrum, that is, the area where there are the least disagreements on policy.
In the world's largest democracy, the story of political parties is not dissimilar. It is not until the middle of the 1960's decade that different caste or region based parties started emerging. Before that, because of the history of the Indian National Congress as the all-embracing movement that led the anti-colonial struggle, it had been difficult for leftist--the case of the communist parties excepted--or conservative alternatives to the Indian National Congress to arise and flourish. In the ensuing decades a number of parties based on their support among different jatis or in different regions came up. It was not unusual for the different political parties to splinter, the cause for the divisions being more often personal ambitions of individual politicians than differences over policy. It is possible to identify a large number of the forty-eight or so Indian political parties recognised by the Indian Election Commission as "national" parties as political parties of individual politicians, many of them buccaneers of diverse appearance, whose real raison d'etre is to serve as vehicles of power and patronage of the individuals who lead them. Thus the manner and speed with which different Indian politicians and political parties join or separate with each other can often be vertiginous but deeper examination shows that their behaviour is not much more amoral than that of politicians and political parties elsewhere. Here are but a very small number of examples: one of the allies of the Indian National Congress is a party whose leaders were openly accused till very recently of having colluded in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi; it is difficult to count the number of different opposing coalitions of which the Rashtriya Lok Dal has been part; the Bahujan Samaj Party has till now fought elections on a platform of opposition to upper castes as oppressors of the dalits whom it claims to represent but has on two occasions formed a coalition government in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party whose main support base is among upper castes;in Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League often oscillates between the Left Front led by the communists and the Democratic Front led by the Indian National Congress;in Delhi, the communist parties support the government led by the Indian National Congress while in West Bengal and Kerala the communists and the Indian National Congress oppose each other or at least seem to do so. Beside these open public alliances between seeming opposites, many strange backroom deals made for specific purposes are reported from time to time.
As political parties evolved in Western democracies, they served three distinct purposes: means for privileged and dominant groups attaining, directly or indirectly, government office and political power; organising a majority in parliament in support of government in order to ensure its stability, and debating and evolving policies on the basis of which to ask for popular support. This last function would presumably insure that government functioned according to the wishes of the people. In periods when contention between different social groups over different kinds of policies has been sharp, as for example in France in the 1930's, different political parties have been not only able to win elections on the basis of promised policies but also governments formed by those parties have fulfilled many of the promises. But differences between different political parties in Western democracies, barring extremist parties such as the Front National in France or the Neo-Nazis in Germany, have been dwindling. With the end of the cold war which had allowed the leadership in most Western democracies to equate the communist "enemy" within with the Soviet enemy abroad, governments have felt it possible to contemplate the dilution of various welfare measures adopted in the decades immediately following the Second World War. Major political parties have no more than marginal disagreements over reduction of government expenditure (for which read curtailment of many programmes of which the beneficiaries are the less well off), denationalisation, privatisation, free market or the role of private enterprise in national and global economies. As a result voters are given not real choices between different policies but fictitious ones between different versions of the same policies. This phenomenon of convergence between competing political platforms was most pithily described when, at the time of the 1988 Presidential elections in the USA where the choice was between George Bush and Michael Dukakis, one British newspaper said the election was for one President Bushakis.
Beyond election time, the people, the demos, have very little say in the governance of their country. The parties they elect to power sooner rather than later cease to represent them. The party system often enables a government to function with the active support of a very small section of their population: the present British government won the votes of only about one fourth of the electorate at the last General Election; in India, the best ever vote won by any political party in a national election was by the Indian National Congress in December 1984, giving it the support of about 31% of the total electorate. In the USA, all opinion polls have suggested that the Bush administration has over the last two years had the support of no more than one third of the population and declining. The frequent gap between people's aspirations, wishes and needs and government action has, as many observers have pointed out, often in many democracies created apathy or cynicism about politics and politicians--to large numbers of ordinary people politics seems to be a matter of cynical, selfish, even corrupt deals among politicians. Some politicologues have described modern democracies as polyarchies in which government policy and action is determined not by the people but by arrangements between dominant interest groups. Others, mindful of the divide between the rulers and the ruled, have advocated more direct democracy a la Suisse.
Occasionally when people feel exceptionally alienated from their government they do not wait for the next major election. Demonstrations, strikes and protest marches, allowed by ruling classes in democracies as one of the guaranteed freedoms as a means of keeping social peace, are only one of the means of protest. In the USA the mid-term Congressional elections are another. Elections to local bodies are used for registering protests in many other places. French voters used the referendum on the European Constitution to tell their government how much they disliked it. In the largest democracy of the world, protests can also mean destruction of public property, arson, looting and murder. One conclusion which is clear from the frequency of popular protests against governments in so many democracies is that in the period between two elections the masses feel cheated.
I read many years ago in a biography of G.K.Chesterton that Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc had been, in the first decade of the twentieth century, members of what they called the Junior Debating Club. In one of its meetings, the Club debated a motion that said that all politicians and political parties bamboozled the people. The motion was carried. One hundred years later such a motion would be carried in several thousand clubs and societies across the world and probably with larger majorities than it might have been at the Junior Debating Club. I have no doubt that in the largest democracy of the world where cynicism about politicians is rising fast such a motion would carry with a sweeping majority in practically any nation wide debate. It is no wonder that India's political parties have been silent about a proposal made by India's Election Commission about one year ago about giving the voter the option to cast a nil vote.
The one cause for hope is that since the days of Chesterton and Belloc, much more information at much greater speeds than ever before is available to people just as it is far easier for them to communicate with each other. For this reason alone people, the hoi polloi, everywhere are becoming more difficult to bamboozle, unless there evolve new technologies to enable the wielders of power to dam the flood of information.