Why Obama couldn’t happen here

Many commentators and the public generally have been wondering in recent weeks given the disastrous absence of anything resembling leadership from the government why is that we do not have our own Obama on the horizon. I find it surprising that people like Vincent Browne forget so easily that we have a cabinet system of government that sits on top of a parliamentary system. For me the question is really an answer in search of an appropriate question. They start with Barack Obama as the answer and try to work back from there. It is a bit like wondering why you can’t have somebody with the foot skills of Pele playing in the front row of a rugby team. The plain fact is that different sports favour different types of players. Different political systems favour different types of politicians, The US constitution provides for a strong executive presidency that has to work in tandem with equally strong legislature and justice systems. All of this exists on top a system of governors, Mayors and down to the local sheriff who are accompanied by state senates, city councils and so on. In other words their system is designed to have a strong executive which has the lead in setting the direction but which then has to work with a larger legislative body to work out the details.
In the US the primary system, this works by means of selecting the candidate with plurality of the votes, aids in the ready adoption of new ideas and different candidates. Choosing the candidate who has the most support rather the majority of support means that an idea can move up through the system more quickly. It is true it can also favour fads and even facilitates a movement towards the extremes of the ideological spectrum. Yet this too favours a wider range of choices being on offer to the electorate or at least that portion of the electorate that is inclined to get involved at the primary stage.

It is much later on when it comes to the general election that the candidate needs majority or close to majority support. In the general election, you as a voter are faced with a choice of either/or and you vote for the candidate you like most or dislike least, but is a straightforward piece of comparison shopping. The time to have picked and worked for your particular flavour of left or right wing candidate is the primary stage. When it comes to the general election, you put your differences with the winning candidate from your party aside to ensure that the party platform is in a position to be put into effect.
In our system the stage when such majority support is required in the candidate selection stage of the process but then the candidate does not require majority support in the election itself. In an election with multiple parties and multiple candidate the people when faced with a choice between candidate A from say a left wing perspective or candidate B who is proposes solutions from a right wing perspective, the voters more often than not simply chooses candidate C. Candidate C who doesn’t give any concrete proposals but does the best impression of just wanting to help.

This process which we must remember is driven by the voter leads to the denuding indeed complete absence of policy from candidates resumes, instead replaced by their captaincy of the local football or camogie team and their winning rosette for best in show. Avoiding policy distinctions during the election campaign naturally lead to a clustering around the centre ground by all the candidates. It is then doubly hard for the parties to forge strong ideological positions if their TDs have spent their political existence expressing in the strongest possible terms their support for happiness, goodness and that people should have jobs in a spirit of equality and fairness.

So you as a voter can pick candidate C safe in the knowledge that you didn’t have to commit or subscribe to any particular viewpoint of how anything is to be done. You were after all simply endorsing a general set of goals or aspirations. Yet politics in a participative democracy is meant to be about the people making fully realised choices not just in personnel who will man the ship of state but also as to the specifics of the direction; how do we get there, at what cost, what do we place a lower priority on and why do we make this choice. Instead in our system we (the electorate) tend to vote for someone who has articulated best that they share the same vague general goal as us and then we can tune out when it comes to talk about the details. So we have candidates who want to help, to achieve equality and fairness, to give a voice to local people and so on.

Furthermore this tendency, evidenced in both elected and prospective members of the Oireachtas, to sit around the middle ground suffocates and impedes the movement in the placement of that centre ground. We forget sometimes that the middle ground doesn’t stay in the same place nor is it meant to. The one time centre ground of Irish politics is no longer so popular.

In stark contrast to the US, our entire political and electoral system in Ireland appears designed for us to have candidates who are not the least bit radical or all that often concerned about the maddening detail of ‘How’ a goal is to be achieved. It is as if politics was merely about stating a goal aloud. After which all would simply be magicked into place. Even those few radical candidates who do struggle through the system have had to be the best local exponent of clientism possible. You think that Joe Higgins wasn’t getting medical cards or helping folks out through their travails with the planning process while he was working on his latest witty put down of evil capitalists and their ilk?

So in querying why we don’t have an Obama we should perhaps spare some time to be wondering about the system we have that has given us the people we do have rather than simply bemoaning the failure of the people in the system to behave like those in other systems. Fact is in Ireland (Republic 1948 edition) Obama wouldn’t have been elected to the local council not to mind the state senate or US senate because he wasn’t from the area! Not to mind how with all that education he’s just not in touch with the common man and he doesn’t come from a big enough family to go out canvassing for him, and all the internet stuff is great but he never called to the door and asked about our auntie Mae who has terrible trouble with her bunions.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    Obamha couldn’t last in the UK. He’d last in America alright, about long enough till the cost of first melt steel soars throught the roof.

  • sammaguire

    Why we don’t have an Obama?

    The truth of the matter is Obama has yet to prove himself. I would have voted for him myself (if I was an American) but the truth is well delivered speeches and fancy rhetoric mean nothing in the real world. Hopefully he’ll be a great success and live up to expectations. Will be interesting to see how long the media honeymoon will last for. The (Irish) media were a joke during the election. No effort was made to be objective.

  • Plastic Paddy

    Three important factors to consider when comparing the Irish and US political systems:

    1) The US has a 2-party dominant system, the Republicans and the Democrats (sure there are other parties, but they are nearly in insignificant terms of electoral support) because the US legislature consists of single-seat constituencies. Ireland has a multi-party system, (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Greens, Sinn Féin, PD’s et cetera) because the Irish legislature is elected according to a system of proportional representation. Without teaching a course in political science, I assure you that it is the constitutional arrangement with regards to election to the legislature that is the determining factor in creating a two-party system.

    2) Like most western hemisphere republics, the US has a presidential system, whereas Ireland has a parliamentary system, (yes, I know Ireland has a president and we would never call the Oireachtas a “parliament”). The distinction here is that the roles of head-of-state and head-of-government are fused in a presidential system, whereas they are separate in a parliamentary system. Mary McAleese is the Irish head of state whereas Brian Cowen is the Irish head of government, crucially important hear is that the Taoiseach is also a member of the legislature – Dáil Éireann. Barack Obama will serve both functions as President of the United States, but will not be a member of Congress – the American legislature.

    3) The United States of America is/are not a unitary monolith, but a federation of 50 united states – that is, each of the “subnational” units (ie. Illinois, Texas, California) is a self-governing republic with a great deal of sovereignty. Yes, there is a strong federal government, that is the “face” of America that the outside world sees, but internally, state governments play much greater roles in the lives of ordinary citizens. The closest comparison to the American system of government is the emerging governing structures of the European Union (or the United States of Europe, if you like) or rather, what the EU will eventually become.

    What does all of this have to do with the price of tea in China? I don’t know, but Pelé wouldn’t have gone very far playing for the All Blacks.

  • Jimmy

    Obama has been lauded as some sort of great Messiah offering change and hope.The truth is he cant deliver on any of it. Hes proven so far, to be a Zionist stooge, if the Black population and minorities think he’s going to do them any favours they need forget about it, he will be living and presiding in a WASP world and system and with the economic crisis at hand its unlikely that any great ‘change’ will happen. He will just be a glorified token administrator. He could arguably be called the first ‘affirmative’ action President.
    Could an Obama like person happen here? well it kind of did with Blair and look what happened, a two party system only creates deadlock but at least in Britain Priministers have some form of autonomy but its only within the same political constraints and a defunct and immoral policy making that only serves individual and corporate interests.

  • Dan your analysis is interesting and you clearly identify the structural differences in government between the US and here. The fact is that Ireland has had its Obama moments in the past. There are aspects of Mary Robinson’s election which proved transformational as did the leaderhsip which produced the Good Friday Agreement, particularly from John Hume.

    Yes Ireland does need an Obama and yes the right person could transform our island, North and South. Does such a person exist? I am not sure.

  • Greenflag

    Comparing apples and oranges time again ? The proportional representation system with multi seat consituencies leads to having elected politicians who are tied to their local bases by umbilical cord virtually. Our legislators do not have the ‘freedom ‘ of initiative that even UK legislators have. We chose PR so as not to close out minority views and to prevent the deveopment of a one party state .

    As to Obama’s victory ? Veteran African american USA comedian Bill Cosby put it very well when he said that even people who did’nt like or care for balck people voted for Obama . They and most other people voted for Obam because they justifiably lost all confidence in the Bush administration.

    It was interesting if not surprising looking at some of the ‘nuttier’ right wing freaks who sometimes claw their way onto Slugger making comments such as ‘Americans will never vote for a black President .

    I made the comment at the time that the USA would have a black president long before Northern Ireland had a Catholic First Minister . I think I got it right 😉

    We have yet to see what Obama can deliver but so far he’s won over the support of most Americans up to 80% according to latest polls . He’ll benefit for a while anyway from the general abhorrence by most fair minded americans of the performance of the Bush administration .

    The Irish times ‘worst ever USA President ‘ poll was surprising in that 35% of respondents actually voted that Bush was not the worst . I was astonished that he could still garner so much support from so called ‘intelligent ‘ readers .

    It was only on reading some of the comments of readers that I discovered the reason for this high 35% vote . Apparently many Irish readers reserved the worst ever President status for Dick Cheney who may yet have to face trial for many of the underhanded and unconstitutional practices he is alleged to have undertaken during Bush’s first term when he (Cheney 0 was the president in all but name. Bush owes it to Condoleeza Rice who by a timely judicious phone call stopped Cheney from dragging Bush down a la Nixon in 2004 when almost the entire top staff of the FBI was prepared to resign because of Cheney’s arrogance and illegal attempts at depriving Americans of their liberties !

  • 6cp

    Gleenflag, you do talk a load of old drivvle when you get unto Cheney and Rove. However, your penultimate paragraph caught my attention:

    ‘The Irish times ‘worst ever USA President ‘ poll was surprising in that 35% of respondents actually voted that Bush was not the worst . I was astonished that he could still garner so much support from so called ‘intelligent ‘ readers .’

    Here are some comments from other ‘so called ‘intelligent ‘ readers .

    Telegraph – History will show that George W Bush was right

    Daily Mail – Bush brainier, more compassionate and much more formidable than his critics believed

    Spectator – Don’t misunderestimate Bush’s record

    LA Times – Bush and China

    CQP – The Lincolnesque greatness of George W Bush

    Foxnews – The Bush Legacy

    Telegraph – George W Bush’s 10 Best Moments

    Washington Post – Mr Bush at his best and worst

    The Australian – What went right for Bush? (Obama – GWB Mark 2)

    RMN – Bush years, pro and con – Not as one-sided as some suppose

    RCP – Bush Showed U.S. Is No Paper Tiger

    Dalai Lama stuns audience with comments on Bush

    Washington Post Writers Group – Obama endorses Bush, Actions speak louder than words

    Fox – Bush was too classy during final speech

    BBC – Bush: Africa’s best friend (and more)

    Newsweek – Bush takes his leave with serenity

    New York Post – Obama’s continuance of Bush policy vindicates Bush

    Intl Herald Tribune – AIDS battle burnishes Bush’s legacy in Africa

    American Thinker – Bush and the Bush-Haters

    National Review – A country that believes that Cheney’s a monster, W.’s stupid, and Palin’s a bimbo is a country with its head up its . . .

    Greenflag, that’s where your head is too!

  • Greenflag

    6 county prod ,

    Never mind the ‘media ‘. Even when Nixon was hounded from office the ‘right wing’ media hacks and even some from the left could be found to write some kind words on the recently departed or soon to go .

    I prefer the verdict of numbers .

    400,000 deaths in Iraq , Afghanistan ,

    2 to 4 million refugees in the war torn countries

    The American economy in it’s worst depression since the 1930’s .

    And all of the above on the Bush/Cheney watch as they say .

    But when did the facts and numbers ever matter to the ideologues of the far right ?

    Most Americans are happy that Obama has been elected . Even more are relieved that the present regime is gone .

  • 6cp

    So you prefer numbers, Greenflag. How about:

    29,200,000 Iraqis freed from Saddam

    32,700,000 Afghans rescued from the Taliban

    300,000,000 Americans protected after 9/11

    Here’s a few more of those ‘unintelligent’ Neanderthals giving their 2d on Bush:

    Independent – History will vindicate George Bush

    Slate – Hitchens: No Regrets

    Powerline – President Bush: An Assessment

    Wall Street Journal – Bush’s greatest sin: He won the Iraq war!

    NY Times – A Gentleman

    Herald Sun – Bush: A friend of Israel