Saturday, January 14, 2012


I've been following as best I can the current Maltese drama with the government. It's a convenient situation for me as a professor--I'm teaching comparative politics this semester and Malta may end up illustrating a variety of what seem very odd and exotic political processes: a parliament, a vote of no confidence, the leader of a country possibly changing through an internal party decision...or none of these things and a portfolio shuffle.

But, the American electoral system is even odder, I think. I'm also teaching American government and I think it will be a challenge this election year and not merely entertaining or mildly annoying. One of the big differences in the current electoral cycle (which in the US seem to have started long ago and will not end until Nov has been caused by the Supreme Court Decision: Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. The "Supremes" decided that rules against money going to independent Political Action Committee violated free speech. In effect, it says that corporations and non-profits are people even in the right to free speech. So, now we have SUPER PACS, which can take money in very large quantities from individuals and then these entities can spend to make their own independent TV ads and so forth. They aren't supposed to coordinate with any of the candidates' organizations. So we are getting ads that are rife with exaggerations and hyperbole. Why, one from a Super Pac that supports Gingrich, attacked Romney by showing him speaking a bit of French (while at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee!). Why it would be bad for a potential president to speak even a little of another language eludes me. I suppose it's supposed to show how unAmerican it is. He's also being attacked for the buying and selling of firms by Bain Capital. I truly dread the ads once the Republicans are done tearing each other up and the Democrats and Republicans go after each other for real.

One thing I'm starting to think is that these PACs, with all their private money and their new-found right to free speech, may be illustrating a lot about the character of business in America--even more than when our financial and banking institutions utterly failed us and the world in common sense. The new PAC show how little they respect their country or their fellow citizens. It's even worse that we already thought. They really have zero ethics and zero belief in the public or respect for democracy or the republic.

Now, getting 'free speech' (as opposed to the quiet and influential conversations they already could have with elected officials) is probably a heady thing. It's new and they are not behaving themselves at all. It's confusing the candidates and the older parties: who is in charge? The electorate is often baffled, from what little we can now see. It might be effective in small ways, but it might also cause a major backlash (perhaps Americans will have to talk to each other more as the ads have to be heavily discounted). How do you control your message as a candidate (in the US, unlike in Malta, individual candidates mostly have to control the message, not the party)? In the 1790s when my country was new, leaders and their friends engaged in all kinds of dastardly attacks on each other through the media of the times, newspapers. But at least they knew each other and worked with each other everyday and actually believed in the idea of a united United States; that is probably not the case with the new PACs. Eventually the founders of the new republic toned it down some--because parties formed, as Ellis says in his book, Founding Brothers. I wonder in this current craziness, if the unregulated superPACs will learn. Will billionaires really want to bankroll this sort of nonsense for decades to come? Will counterveiling social responses arise?

So, it's a challenge to teach my intro to American govt class with all this brand new behavior. It's interesting for me as a teacher, but a challenge. As a citizen, I rather imagine I'll be wanting to weep for my country this year.

Meanwhile, my Maltese friends, good luck with your own politics!

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