Having It Both Ways

Will 2013 be a year of wonders? Disappointed in 2012 by our delayed planetary doom/arrival of our ‘space brothers’ perhaps predicted on a Mayan stone calendar or the perennially postponed performance of the Antichrist? Well if the unendingly sour and dismissive conversation on CNBC’s Squawk Box can turn entertaining, as it did early on the morning of January 3, 2013, then anything is possible this year!

What could be the least bit diverting about the dreary business talk show that conservatives turn to when they begin to weary of the inanities on Fox News? The answer is contradiction obvious to everyone, it would seem, but the show’s hosts and guest.

“Where Will Money Come to Support Retirees?” CNBC Squawk Box.

This minor miracle of amusement was the product of a predictably grumpy exchange about Congress, taxes, spending and deficits, during which Congress was assessed as dysfunctional because partisanship was preventing it from achieving consensus. Guest Judd Greg, who today is a Goldman Sachs International Advisor, a position to which he ascended after was first serving as a U.S. Senator and Governor from New Hampshire, explained it in terms of safe party districts in the U.S. House and nervous U.S. Senators running scared of partisan voters in their states.

At that point, junior host Andrew Ross Sorkin asked, “So is democracy at work?”

Greg responded by admitting that, “I’m concerned that our democracy is starting not to work.”

Senior host Joe Kernan then charged in to the defense with the following: “But look around at the rest of the world…They got six different parties that form these ridiculous coalitions between the far left and far (the next word is suppressed after the initial ‘r’ sound)…and they get nothing done. They’re out in eight months.”

With that cue, Greg added, “Under no circumstances do you want to us to go to a multiparty system. The way our system works, the way it reaches consensus, is that the first step is the party system, where you got two parties, and they are very broad umbrellas and they start to reach to consensus, and that works its way up until you get candidates from those parties, and then those candidates either get elected or don’t, and the public gets consensus.”

There is no contradiction in Kernan’s criticism of “the rest of the world,” by which he probably meant Europe, for being governed by short-lived coalitions of parties from opposite sides of the left-right ideological spectrum. He is just factually incorrect. What he got right was that, with a handful of exceptions like the United States, Jamaica and Barbados, most liberal democracies on the planet and most European countries have multiparty systems and coalition governments. What Kernan got wrong is that coalition governments are usually formed by parties that are ideologically adjacent and coalition governments are often stable. If stability is what is wanted, then Germany and not the United States should be the model. Note that there have been fewer German Chancellors than American Presidents since the end of the Second World War. Moreover, if the success of government is to be judged by other reasonable measures such as the size of the deficit compared to GDP, GINI index, unemployment rate, personal freedom, and incarceration rate, then countries with multiparty systems ruled by coalition governments such as Australia, Germany, the Norway and Switzerland shine by comparison with the United States with its two party system and one party government.

At this point the ‘Goldman Sachs International Advisor’ surely realized that the senior host was out of his depth. Rather than offer any correction, Greg proceeded to argue that the American two party system is better because it leads to consensus. Here is the problem. Greg had just gotten through explaining how partisanship wasn’t leading to consensus in Congress, but instead to dysfunction. You cannot have it both ways.

This leads back to the smartest comment that was made during the exchange, Sorkin’s question: “So is democracy at work?” Eventually we will summon the courage to examine the relationship between our political institutions and the performance of government. Will it happen in 2013? If CNBC’s Squawk Box can be entertaining, even intentionally, then maybe.

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.