Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

Different Systems That Should Yield Different Outcomes

       McConnell Talking in a Typically Empty Senate

Imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he was required to show up every week to answer questions from members of the Senate.

The long shutdown of portions of the American government shares some features with the Brexit impasse that has left the U.K. in a catastrophic stalemate.  As this is written, neither system seems capable of building coalitions to execute needed changes.  But one system has the better odds: a better structure for moving forward.

From a political and communications perspective, the standoff in the United States is much more predictable than the impasse in the United Kingdom.  Here’s why.  A communications starting point typically emphasizes direct discussion and negotiation as basic tools for moving a lumbering government off dead center. A parliamentary model has the kind of deliberative infrastructure that requires direct communication. Debate in the House of Commons will not allow members to exist only in their own informational bubbles.  The system requires public and frequent contact between key ministers and their shadow counterparts literally just a few feet away.  Since the key business of the House is debate, members must be prepared to be effective advocates and better listeners.

British parliamentary debate is often riveting, and it is also public. Granted, positions tend to solidify when spoken in public.  Any system emphasizing public discussion can turn intellectual fluidity into hardened cement.  But debate in the commons is still better than our ‘no debate’ Congress, which emphasizes “statements” issued mostly for the record rather than the ears of other members.

All of this leads one to expect that Brexit would be closer to resolution than it is. Alas, the problem in London is really not structural, but one of basic leadership. The nation has weak leaders in the form of Prime Minister Theresa May and the Labor Party’s Jeremy Corbyn.  May is especially risk-averse and inflexible: precisely the opposite of what seems necessary.

 

What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims.

 

If it’s possible, the American system right now is even more anemic, having just come off a two-year period with a mostly comatose Congress that had been thoroughly rolled by the President.  As is obvious, the checks and balances that are ostensibly part of the system have been absent. Compliant Senate and House majorities have shown little interest in challenging a rogue executive.

More misery in the country was only avoided when enough Americans voted last November, resulting in split party majorities in the two houses of Congress.  The House of Representatives will now fulfill the oversight function the founders envisioned. But the GOP-dominated Senate and White House are still sufficiently entrenched to make it difficult to build coalitions to solve problems.

What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims. Remember that C-SPAN cameras controlled by both bodies of Congress routinely conceal the truth that few are present when the House and Senate are in session.  Elected deciders are usually not in the room to hear the comments of those on the other side. The cameras are never allowed to show empty seats.  Instead, we depend mostly on journalists to summarize and sometimes create proxy debates on some core issues.  And that’s not journalism’s job.

Journalism is not structured to foster direct one-on-one debate.  It is almost never in the interests of news organizations to turn over control of a venue to opposing political figures. To be sure, we have many fine journalists working these days.  But routine journalistic practices require the interruption of direct debate. Journalistic norms range from the need for heavy editing in the interests of time or space to a compulsion to introject new issues for discussion before old ones have been fleshed out.  Television and ‘short-read’ articles make discursive political discussion problematic.

So it seems clear that the Parliamentary system has the edge in resolving a political impasse. If that judgment is not apparent, try to imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if—as in a parliamentary system–he was required to show up every week and answer questions from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.  There’s a big difference between being a party leader in Congress and being an authentic champion of democratic discourse.

Eventually we will hear of a privately negotiated deal to end the shutdown.  That’s our de-facto system, put in place not because of any constitutional requirement, but because we have mostly ignored the collective action of a body of legislators working out their differences in public debate.

The All Purpose Advocate

                           Speaker John Bercow

All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and the other smaller factions in the Mother of Parliaments.  The stunner is how well the Speaker has managed the chaos.  

Anyone spending time listening to the President and others in the current American stalemate might wonder what has happened to fluent advocacy.  The President’s impoverished lexicon leaves him ill-prepared to make coherent arguments for policies.  He clings to one comfortable idea that he understands: a wall. It has the virtue of being a thing rather than an idea. In his one-note campaign he seems to have missed the irony of arguing in favor of one of the crudest tools in any government’s arsenal: a symbol of political failure that even Ronald Reagan understood when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of Berlin’s concrete barrier. A wall was perhaps a more appropriate military weapon in the 14th Century than it is now.

Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.

Because I teach advocacy, my courses these days come with a caution to my students to aim higher than the rhetoric coming from the White House and other corners of Washington.  Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.  When “bye bye” is the President’s way of ending negotiations with other political leaders, we hear yet again a rhetoric of petulance that is more appropriate to a child than a leader of a great nation.

A far better model is on view almost daily in the form of the current Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons.  I’ve been on a busman’s holiday recently following the often dismal Brexit debate unfolding in London. The tense standoff involving elected members to the Mother of Parliaments has been managed by John Bercow, whose job it is to bring order to a body that is always rowdy. The 55-year old former Conservative, the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, has been a formidable and sometimes controversial Speaker, lecturing members on their behavior and keeping the House more or less on schedule.  He is also a marvel of fluency.

In the current climate of U.K. politics there are even more daily eruptions than usual in the compact chamber, mostly motivated by opposition to the Prime Minister’s plans for carrying out a divorce from the European Union. All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and other smaller factions in the body.  Yet, the stunner is how well Bercow has managed the chaos.

Bercow has created some additional fury from the Tories in power, who claim that he is playing favorites in the ways he has adjudicated various amendments and procedures. Even so, if I were asked to give a student an immersion experience in hearing eloquent advocacy, I’d give them at least several hours of material showing Bercow presiding over debates in the Commons. He listens with precision and grace. And his answers and explanations to doubting members show a number of attributes of effective advocacy.  He’s responsive, courteous, patient, forceful, and rarely at a loss in finding exactly the right words.  He also seems to know the names and biographies of most of the body’s 650 members.

Here’s a sample of Bercow in the thick of it.

Recently he declined a member’s “point of order” asking the Leader of the Opposition to apologize for allegedly muttering the phrase “stupid woman” made after comments from Theresa May. The rules of most deliberative bodies do not allow personal attacks on members.  But Bercow said that neither he nor his deputies heard the comment. His unpopular decision left him with the difficult task of making a case for not ruling on a possible verbal slight against May, even in the midst of the #MeToo era. If this is not Bercow’s finest hour, his efforts still illustrate how a master advocate articulates a position in the face of fierce resistance.

MPs call on Bercow to discipline Corbyn after ‘mouthing stupid woman’

Today marks only a hundred days to go before Britain finally pulls the trigger and exits the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in parliament. SCHEDULE: 0930GMT – Exiting the European Union Committee 1200GMT – Prime Minister’s Questions begins Read more…