08/10/2013

The Consequences of the Rise of Populism in the U.S. and Geneva

A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.   

Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.


 

I was thinking of what it means to be so sure that you are right. After all, Obamacare was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and declared Constitutional by the Supreme Court. There is no reason for President Obama to negotiate ex post facto. But the extreme wing of Republicans has decided that it will hold the government hostage because they are sure they are right. “Here we stand, we can do no other,” they are saying. Even the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Iran recently have indicated their willingness to negotiate with the Obama administration; the Tea Party has not.

Not to be outdone in the embrace of extreme politics, Geneva saw the surprising advance of populist parties in the result of the October 6 election. Whether on the right with the Mouvement citoyens genevois (MCG) or the left with Ensemble à Gauche, there is no question that voters were expressing dissatisfaction. But what does that dissatisfaction mean in terms of governance?

A television interview with Eric Stauffer of the MCG was most revealing. He was frankly asked whether his maverick behavior merited serious consideration to be a member of Geneva’s executive. His response was that as a member of a minority party in the parliament, his role was to be the opposition, to question, to provoke. On the other hand, he pointed out, if he were a member of the executive he would have to assume another role; he would have to play by other rules. He used the example of his consensual behavior in his current position as an executive in a commune to illustrate his ability to work with others.

Whether one agrees or not with Mr. Stauffer’s self-analysis, his general point is a good one. Those in opposition can play by one set of rules, but when they enter other positions such as the executive, they must be different. The recent performance by Oskar Freysinger at the Café Comédie on September 25 was not dignified for a cantonal executive or even a national parliamentarian. By the way, the same problem of behavior and roles could be said of journalists who have often been called irresponsible because they only play by the rules of journalism and have no governmental responsibilities. (Many are watching the new American Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, to see how this ex-journalist will fit into the world of diplomacy.) 

Can populists govern? The example of the Tea Party’s recent behavior shows a level of irresponsibility unique in American history. There have been earlier shutdowns of the government, but never defaults on payments; the very possibility of default has affected world markets. In Geneva, if a member of the MCG or Ensemble à Gauche gets elected to the executive, it will be worthwhile to see if historic Swiss consensus will prevail. At least that is what Mr. Stauffer has promised for himself. I would feel much better if the Tea Party at least said the same.

October 8, 2013

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