Keeping Up With the Candidates

What happens when politics turns into “reality” TV

keeping up with the candidates

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve been reading Julia Azari’s article on Bernie Sanders’ and Ted Cruz’s “electability” (or lack thereof) in this year’s American Presidential election. More than whether they are “electable” or not, I was interested in the article because this concern with “electability” – the idea that some candidates are inherently better or worse general election candidates than others – is something that I find deeply worrying about modern politics, not just in the United States but also here in Portugal: whenever a political party, be it in the United States, in Britain or the United States, selects a political candidate for any political office, their first concern – if not their only concern – seems to be whether said candidate can beat their opponents. Although understandable – parties naturally aim to win elections –  the current excessive focus on “electability” in selecting a political candidate changes the nature of the political process, and not for the better.

Take the American presidential election:  given the candidate’s troubled relationship with words and both their meaning and veracity, when Donald Trump scheduled a press conference on the day after a major Republican debate with Super Tuesday just around the corner, promising a “big announcement”, one couldn’t be blamed for being skeptical of how worthy of attention such an event would be. But in a campaign in which the unexpected has become the rule, Trump surprisingly delivered on his promise: as he stood behind a lectern and in front of the cameras in the Forth Worth Convention Center, Trump had Chris Christie by his side, the former Presidential candidate and current Governor of the State of New Jersey ready to formally – and shockingly – declare his endorsement of Trump’s candidacy to be the Republican Party’s nominee in this year’s race to the White House.

“I am proud to be here and endorse Donald Trump”, he began, before praising the New Yorker for his friendship. “Donald Trump is a person who when he makes a promise, he keeps it”, Christie proceeded, before going for what a football color commentator might describe as his “shot play”: “the single most important thing for the Republican party”, Christie claimed, “is to nominate the person with the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton”, and “the one person Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage, come next September, is Donald Trump”. “Undoubtedly”, the Governor said in a forced tone betraying his need to convince himself even more than the audience, “the best person to beat Hillary Clinton in November is Donald Trump”.

Almost immediately, the media jumped on Christie for his hypocrisy and careerist opportunism. After all, he had once claimed Trump “has not the first idea of how to run a government”, and he was now telling the American people they should vote for him; he had once stated that it was essential for the United States to reform Social Security, and he was now supporting a candidate who claims that America is going to be so rich that Social Security won’t be a problem anymore (a statement Christie himself mocked every chance he got); he had once nominated a Muslim judge to a New Jersey court, and he was now standing beside a man who thinks every Muslim should be prohibited from entering the country. But even those criticisms failed to pinpoint the true significance of Christie’s statement: he claimed, very clearly, that the single most important thing for his party was to nominate the person who would be better positioned to beat the Democratic candidate; it didn’t matter to Christie if that person promises to do the exact opposite of what he repeatedly said was necessary for America – all it matters to Christie is that he wins. In the Forth Worth Convention Center, Christie had said, without room for any misunderstanding, that one should vote not for who would be the best President if elected, but for who is the best at running for President during the campaign.

In that, Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump was one of the most symbolic moments of campaign as a whole. Perhaps more than ever before, the 2016 primaries show the transformation of the electoral process from a competition for who will be a better office holder into a competition for who is the best campaigner.

In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted his bafflement with the popularity of both the Vermont Senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Blair’s successor as leader of his country’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, because of “the question of electability”: one person may approve of what candidates like Sanders say, but not everyone will agree, and any political candidate needs to “get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help”. Blair, in a sense, is obviously right: if a politician does not ascend to a position of power, he won’t be able to do what he believes in, and so a voter needs to consider his or hers prospects of convincing the greatest number of people that he or she will be the best office holder. But Blair is wrong in insinuating that it is somehow odd for such a great number of people to support an “unelectable” candidate like Sanders, for what should it matter to a Sanders supporter who believes – for example – Clinton’s ties to Wall Street would make her a bad President if she is likelier to get to the White House? What should it matter to a Rubio supporter if Trump is more effective in attacking Clinton, if that same Rubio supporter disagrees with Trump on every subject? If it is true that a politician needs to “get there” first in order to do some good afterwards, it is also true that no good will come of a politician “getting there” if the policies he or she will enact turn out to be detrimental to the country’s “best interests”. People who believe in Sanders don’t care (or care less) about is “unelectability” because they believe Clinton’s “electability” won’t translate into positive policies for the country’s future.

Blair may find “one of the strangest things in politics at the moment” that “when you put the question of electability as a factor in your decision to nominate a leader, it’s how small the numbers are that this is the decisive factor”. But if one follows the politicians, their debates and the media coverage of them, their “electability” and their respective abilities to manipulate it (their “campaigning skills”) are all that matters.

Marco Rubio, for one, was personally introduced to this reality during the New Hampshire primary. Christie – him again – was unfavorably comparing Rubio to President Barack Obama, probably the last thing the Florida Senator wants to see incepted into people’s minds. On the defensive, Rubio felt the need to distance himself from the man he wishes to replace, and proceeded to say “let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing”. Christie, as he is wont to do, jumped on it, mocking Rubio for repeating a line he constantly uses on his stump speeches. Somewhat ineptly, Rubio responded to this by once again repeating his line. Christie once again mocked him for it, and Rubio once more responded by repeating the line. “It looked like that sequence form the 1970’s thriller the Stepford Wives”, wrote Jonathan Freedland for The Guardian US, “when a software glitch reveals that a human-like character is in fact a robot”. Astonishingly, he actually managed to makes matters worse just a few days later, when in a campaign event in Manchester, he flubbed a line about raising his children in the 21st century, repeating it over and over, until the sentence made no sense at all. Ever since, Rubio was never able to establish himself as a leading Republican candidate, nor as the clear alternative to Trump.

Jeb Bush too fell victim to poor campaigning. After he dropped out of the race, The Guardian US ran a story on – an obituary of, really – his presidential hopes, claiming “the cracks in Jeb Bush’s candidacy for President surfaced before he formally entered the race”, when, in an interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly he failed to convincingly answer a question about what he would have done about Iraq “knowing what we know now”. Throughout his unsuccessful bid, Bush was bullied by Trump for his last name, his ties to the establishment and to big donors, and for generally looking “weak”. The moment in New Hampshire when he followed a few of his lines with asking his audience to “please clap” reinforced his perceived haplessness.

Chris Christie too was no stranger to being looked over as a prospective President simply for underperforming as a presidential candidate. Trump also called him “weak” (there’s probably not a single human alive who “the Donald” does not consider “weak”), and “a little child” (for hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, a picture that still hurts him with Republican voters), and last December he was discouraging people from voting for Christie on the basis that “he can’t win because of his past” and the weight of the “baggage” he carries around.

This phenomenon is not an exclusive of the Republican campaign. Hillary Clinton, despite seeming to be on the verge of getting the Democratic nomination, is still dealing with concerns about her “electability”. An Annie Parnes story in The Hill quoted “people in Clinton’s orbit” who were “worried she doesn’t pass the would-you-like-to-have-a-beer-with-her test”; in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein argued that her trouble in “connecting with young voters” would “pose a greater challenge if she wins the Democratic nomination”, considering this would be the first election in which “the Millennial generation will nearly equal baby boomers as a share of eligible voters, and Democrats need big margins from those young people”. As Christie seemed to insinuate in his endorsement of Trump, Clinton’s last name and closeness to “the establishment” would also make her an imperilled prey of Trumps populist rhetorical assaults. So it’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders has stressed that “electability matters”, and declared himself – no surprise there – as the more “electable” one, given his “substantial advantage over Republicans in the general election versus Secretary Clinton”.

Clinton, on the other hand, says it is the Vermont senator who wouldn’t be able to beat a Republican in a general election, and who would also hurt “the party’s prospects to win back the Senate and make inroads on Republicans’ wide House Majority”.

This extraordinary focus on electability and the campaigning skills of each candidate is a by-product of the political process’s much-mentioned-yet-little-understood growing resemblance of to “reality” TV: just like “celebs” nowadays are “famous for being famous”, political candidates run for office on a platform of being good at running for office.

There has always been a component of theatricality and performance in the pursuit and exercise of political power, as anyone with even the vaguest notions of Ancient Roman history or of the societal mores of the Versailles court will understand. As democracy slowly substituted other systems of selecting those who should hold the responsibility of public office, the need for performative talents became even more paramount. Whether it was the skilled oratory displayed in a parliament or in the bully pulpit, or the incantatory radio voice of a Roosevelt or a Baldwin, the human race did not have to wait for television to arrive for a politician with any aspirations to have to be a showman in one way or another.

What television did, however, was to bring the hitherto distant politicians into our homes, and more importantly, to our level. Radio had already made possible for the political leader to communicate directly with the anonymous voters in their own domestic comforts, but still did so in a way that reinforced at every moment the superiority and authority of the speaking pastor over the listening flock. Television, on the other hand, shows us the would-be leaders as “people like us”, who the more – or less – they appear to be like us, the better – or worse. On the one hand, television affords political candidates an immense power, that of communicating directly with huge numbers of people. On the other hand, it makes them wholly dependent on the latter’s perception of them, and on the narratives construed by the media around their personas. Just like “reality” TV stars are dependent on the audience’s perception of them and the narrative the producers of the show they’re in concoct around them. And the more political campaigns have become 24/7 television news-cycle and social media events, the more they adopt the grammar of “reality” TV.

A few years ago, the Kentucky essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan was assigned by GQ to spend a few days with some former Real World cast members on their “appearances” circuit. In the resulting piece he wrote for the magazine, Sullivan noted how “reality TV has successfully appropriated reality”: “you’re watching people caught in the act of being in a reality show”, which is “now the plot of all reality shows”. It’s the same with campaigning politicians: there must have been a time, way back when, when politicians campaigned in order to be elected to the office they were running for, but the act of campaigning was only a necessary effort to showcase the candidate as a prospective office holder; as years and years of modern, TV-and-internet-covered campaigns have established their own vocabulary as a variant of a “reality” show, the candidate no longer presents himself – nor is he evaluated – as an office holder to be; he is seen as a candidate, covered and evaluated for the way he performs the choreography we have come to expect of someone in his position, just like we have come to expect new Real World cast members to fall into one of the categories established in previous seasons of the show, as writer Chuck Klosterman observed many years ago in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. Supposed “reality” competitions like American Idol are in fact competitions to find out which contestant better replicates – that is, better fakes – our preconceived ideas of what a “star” is, of what an American Idol winner should look, sound and behave like. They might be lauded for their authenticity, but only inasmuch as it resembles the “authentic” ways in which previous winners presented themselves and managed to capture the voters’ sympathies. Likewise, campaigns are no longer devised to make us see what a candidate will be like if and when he gets elected – what his policies and choices are likely to be – but are instead meant to showcase how well does he overcome hecklers’ challenges, how craftily he manages to give an endless amount of speeches without ever saying anything with even the slightest vestige of meaning.

Klosterman once described Survivor, probably the most influential of all “reality” TV shows, as “a popularity contest based on lying”. Anyone who watched and remembers the season won by Richard Hatch will understand why: he approached the game with a strategy built on betraying people, and managed to beat the athletically superior rival by convincing the people he had betrayed that he deserved to win for betraying them: Sue, another contestant, compared Hatch to a “snake” that had treated the other participants – including herself – as “rats”, and then proceeded to announce she would vote for him to win precisely because he had acted like a “snake”. As elections and the campaigns that precede them have grown more and more like “reality” TV, we have come to think and behave more and more like Sue from Survivor: as the TV critic for The New York Times James Poniewozik recently wrote on Twitter, one of the keys to understand Trump’s popularity lies in his willingness to say and do things just “to win”, just because “it’s part of the game”, and in the voters’ “acceptance” – not to say embrace – of his attitude. In the political-campaigns-as-Survivor era, we too tend to admire the manipulator, the “Richard Hatchs”, the “Parvatis” and the “Todds” and “Courtneys” of the political world. Campaigns are now meant to show us men and women competing for who is better at deceiving us; we know that they are deceiving us; but because the mediated grammar of modern political campaigns has appropriated political life as much as the language of the Real World has appropriated the actual real world, we end up falling for the very deceit we are fully aware of being playing on us; we become as “complicit in the falseness of it all” as Sullivan noticed we had become about “reality” shows.

Klosterman argued that there was a paradox inherent to any “reality” show: “they have a nonfiction situation that is supposed to have no relationship to other nonfictions” – Real World cast members act as if their behaviour is not a replica of the behaviour of previous Real World cast members. Political campaigns have the opposite problem: they are a nonfiction – the day-to-day tasks of someone running for office – that is supposed to have a relationship with other nonfictions – the reality of daily life in a political community and the problems affecting it which the candidate purports to ameliorate if he wins the race – but said relationship is consciously faked: the candidate’s seeming nonfiction – his campaign – only pretends to be addressing anything that has something to do with the nonfictions of voters’ lives, thus turning political campaigns into fictions with an artificial relationship to other nonfictions.

Even people who are not familiar with the concept of postmodernity or its meaning are fluent in its vocabulary: because we live in a world that is inundated with “narrative” – a neatly organized simplification of the complexity of the world before us, a “story” presented to us in order to make some sense out of the multiple and random events of everyday life – we are aware that we are judging a product – a fiction – when evaluating a political candidate. We as voters have a cynical detachment from politics, because politics presents itself to us in a manner – a format – that invites cynicism and detachment.

Immediately after Rubio’s New Hampshire debate nightmare, @RubioGlitch already had its own twitter account, and Rubio had turned into a meme himself, likely dooming a campaign that probably never had enough chances of succeeding. But in mocking – and judging – Rubio for making a mess of his lines, with no consideration – either positive or critical – of his proposed policies, we made sure that the true – and more troubling – “glitch” is not Rubio’s, but that of democracy: in judging candidates not on the merits – or lack thereof – of their views, but instead on the quality of their performance, we judge them not as the future Presidents a democratic system presupposes us to evaluate them as, but as characters; we judged them based not on how good they would be for the country, but on how good they are at advertising themselves as product; we think like casting directors, not like voters; we turn real democracy into “reality” democracy, an approximation of the actually real thing that, while mimicking it, fails to be it.

In an essay in defence of reality TV, the great Heather Havrilesky mentioned Joe Schmo, a reality show that aired a few years ago, whose second season consisted of having two contestants fooled into thinking they were participating in a Bachelor-type dating show – Last Chance for Love – by a cast of actors pretending to be their potential romantic matches. One of them wised up to the ruse, and was then hired by the producers as an actress for the rest of season, so that the remaining contestant was kept unaware of the deceitful situation he was in. In political campaigns, the voters are the ones being fooled, except that we are fully aware of it, and we keep being a part of the hoax not to dupe someone else, but because we feel the show must go on (thus resembling I Wanna Marry Harry, in which every cast member obviously was aware that the show’s titular character was not actually Prince Harry, and yet kept pretending they did just so they could be on TV). Havrilesky noted how “the process of getting to know the characters, of discovering the qualities and flaws that define them, and then discussing these discoveries with other viewers creates a simulation of community that most people don’t find in their everyday lives”. Maybe it’s the same with our modern political campaigns of the Keeping Up With the Candidates-variety: maybe “real” democracy is just a way for us to convince ourselves that we have more power over our collective destinies then what we – both us voters with our limited influence in the political decision-making process, and the politicians with the various constraints on their ability to affect and improve people’s lives – do actually have. And maybe in that people can find some consolation in the case of a Trump victory in the upcoming election (or that of another “reality” candidate in any election anywhere): even if he does get elected, there are limits to the damage he can inflict.

 

Bruno 2014Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, for These Footbal Times and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.

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Eurosceptics do it better

euroscepticism On December 28th, there was an article in the Opinion pages of The Daily Telegraph that must have filled the hearts of most British eurosceptics with hope. In it, Leo McKinstry argued that “the EU is in desperate trouble”, for its “edifice of federalism is crumbling, broken by its own ruinous contradictions and spectacular failures”: the single currency and the economic policies it implies have, McKinstry writes, created a “political fallout” in countries like Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain, where extremist parties have earned an ever greater support from the electorate; and the migrant crisis, he warns, is “threatening to tear apart the social fabric of Europe”, as “fiercely anti-immigration, anti-EU movements like the Front National in France, the Dutch Party for Free and the Swedish Democrats” also attract more and more voters.

Optimists and Europhiles might read these words and take them to be nothing more than gloomy wishful thinking to be expected from the reactionary Telegraph. But the same could hardly be said of The New York Times and its Sunday Magazine, which – in its December 20th issue – wondered whether the EU has “reached its breaking point”: Jim Yardley, the publication’s Rome bureau chief, noted how Europe is facing the simultaneous threats of terrorism in its cities, of an aggressive autocratic Russia in its periphery, of the migrant crisis in its borders, while a stagnant economy and a rising political extremism in countries like France and Belgium are rotting their democracies from within. And to complicate things further, Yardley argued, the EU is particularly ill-suited to deal with such issues: “European Union institutions have vast regulatory powers over everything from data roaming to environmental standards to trade deals to antitrust rules”, but “often lack the structural power, political decisiveness and bureaucratic efficiency to act collectively when faced with big, unforeseen problems like the Greek crisis, the surge of migrants or the standoff with Putin over Ukraine. National leaders are often forced to decide these issues in marathon emergency meetings in Brussels at the European Council, and even then, only incremental progress is made”, producing “a perfect recipe for public cynicism: a system of intrusive regulators whose tentacles can spread into your personal life, even as leaders appear indecisive in the face of genuine crises”.

And yet, in Brussels, no one either is aware of these problems or seems to care. On the last December 11th, The Guardian reported that the EU Commission was devising plans to “to strip national governments of authority over their borders in an emergency and to create a border guards force to police the EU’s frontiers, supervise asylum claims, and detain and deport failed asylum seekers”, in response to the refugee crisis. As Ian Traynor, the report’s author, explained, while “in theory, the new regime and the powers ceded to Brussels over its operation apply to all 26 countries in Europe’s free-travel Schengen area”, it would, “in practice”, only “apply to the external borders of the Schengen area, so would not greatly affect countries such as Germany that are surrounded by other Schengen nations”.

In other words, some countries – Italy, Greece, Spain – would be subjected to policy decisions taken by other countries – Germany, Poland, Austria – that would not bear the brunt of their consequences. Perhaps these plans won’t ever be put into effect, once the lawmaking process in Brussels stalls and indecision takes over. But the mere fact that people with responsibilities within the EU came up with such an idea is a sign that “euroenthusiasts” have failed to grasp what the events of the last decade or so should have made clear to them: that the EU has gone too far in the political “integration” of its member states.

Since its conception, the “European project” was meant to bind the countries that joined it in such a manner that going to war with one another would never again be in their interest. It began by pooling together the energy resources of France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium within the European Coal and Steel Community. And it grew, not only geographically (with the multiple enlargements taking in new members) but in scope, with consecutive advances in transferring powers and (in “Eurocrat” parlance) “competences” from national states to Brussels. After all, the “project” was always meant to achieve an “ever closer union”.

“Europe’s” founders, however, understood how that process should only be carried out by way of “small steps”, to ensure that none of those ever jeopardized the fundamental interests of the club’s membership. But from the 1980’s onwards, with the European Single Act and the road towards the 1992 Maastricht Treaty – and later culminating in the Lisbon-Treaty-Formerly-Known-as-The-European-Constitution, that prudent outlook was discarded.

And so it was that, for the last 30 years, the “steps” taken by “Europe” have been too great, both in quantity and in length. The increasing number of policies subject to qualified majority voting and of powers transferred from national parliaments to the “Community’s”’ sphere meant that in a growing number of issues the various countries of the EU have lost the power to defend what their electorates believe – rightly or wrongly – to be their own national interest. The result, aside from weakening the health of each nation’s democracies, was to change “Europe” into a conflict-generating machine between the various European countries, instead of the peace-building institution it was meant to be.

Back in 2003, just as the “Union” became far from united on whether to side with the Americans on their intervention in Iraq or not, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the other proponents of the “Constitution” kept pushing for a Common Foreign Policy and a Common European Army. At the time, the Portuguese columnist José Pacheco Pereira wrote an op-ed piece warning that if such plans were brought into effect and a situation like the dispute over the Iraq war would arise, what in 2003 was a simple difference of opinion between sovereign countries with diverging interests, would by that point turn into an institutional conflict within the EU, leading to its disintegration and possibly worse.

Looking back, it’s easier to see that Pereira didn’t need to imagine such a scenario. There already was – and still is – one not-merely-hypothetical-but-very-much-real factor bringing discord into the “Union” and threatening to pull it apart: the Euro.

What happened with the EU’s single currency was exemplary (albeit in the worst sense the word can have) of the problem. It was born, as most things in “Europe” are, out of a bargain between France and Germany, in which the former supported the latter’s unification, and Germany gave up its old currency and at least some control over its traditionally tight monetary policy. It allowed for a gigantic leap, symbolically and practically, towards a true “European Union”, a political entity with powers previously intrinsically linked with national sovereignty. What it created, however, was far from the harmonious and free-from-nationalist-and-self-interested-feelings space from Monchique to Cape Greco and Limassol to Nuorgam in which everyone would join in singing the “Ode to Joy” in multiple languages but in tune and in unison.

By joining within the same monetary area economic realities so distinct as to make them have incompatible economic policy needs, the Euro meant, on the one hand, a currency undervaluation in Germany with the corresponding loss in value of its citizens’ income, and on the other hand, a currency overvaluation on countries with less competitive and attractive economies (like Greece or my native Portugal), posing significant obstacles to those who, unfortunate enough to live in them, wished to export goods or services that could otherwise have benefited from a weaker currency that would make them more appealing to holders of stronger currencies.

At the same time, and to make matters worse, the euro created a bubble in those countries’ sovereign debt bonds: comfortably seated under the same monetary umbrella that sheltered Germany; theoretically obliged to meet certain budgetary criteria aiming to protect the euro’s stability; and with the implied promise that, should things unravel, the simple fact that they shared a currency would make countries like Germany pay for the solvency of countries like Portugal, Greece or Italy; these countries were able to borrow money for German-level interest rates, while following Greek-style budgetary policies. Once the subprime crisis in American crossed the Atlantic, it didn’t take long for the monetary umbrella to become powerless to shelter them from the fears of their creditors.

Once Greece or Portugal were on the brink of bankruptcy and had to be bailed out, the need to do so without jeopardizing the euro’s credibility as a stable currency created the terrible combination that has brought us to our current predicament: paying for the “bailout packages” by the richest countries angered their voters due to their perception that they are paying for the “sloth” and “profligacy” of the other countries; in Greece or Portugal, the “harsh” measures and the loss of budgetary autonomy inherent to those packages and the EU’s Budget Treaty made their electorates despise the “lack of solidarity” of the “austeritarian” rich; and the solutions that might help overcome the worst economic and financial consequences of this arrangement – a deeper economic and political integration, with Eurobonds, euro-wide welfare benefits, and new and wider “competences” over national budgets given to the (undemocratic) EU institutions – would end up worsening not just the problem of the lack of democratic control of political decision-making, but also – especially – that increasingly serious “war of electorates” created by the way the euro and the EU were designed.

One thing “euroenthusiasts” are not able to say is that they hadn’t been warned. For exemple, in 1997, the Nobel laureate in Economics Milton Friedman famously wrote an article in which he argued that the Euro would be a huge mistake: The EU, Friedman argued, lacked the prerequisite attributes that would allow for a sensible adoption of a common currency between its member states:

“Europe’s common market is composed of separate nations, whose residents speak different languages, have different customs, and have far greater loyalty and attachment to their own country than to the common market or to the idea of “Europe.” Despite being a free trade area, goods move less freely than in the United States, and so does capital. The European Commission based in Brussels, indeed, spends a small fraction of the total spent by governments in the member countries. They, not the European Union’s bureaucracies, are the important political entities. Moreover, regulation of industrial and employment practices is more extensive than in the United States, and differs far more from country to country than from American state to American state. As a result, wages and prices in Europe are more rigid, and labor less mobile. In those circumstances, flexible exchange rates provide an extremely useful adjustment mechanism.”

Adopting the Euro, then, Friedman warned, “would have the opposite effect” of what its advocates intended:

“It would exacerbate political tensions by converting divergent shocks that could have been readily accommodated by exchange rate changes into divisive political issues. Political unity can pave the way for monetary unity. Monetary unity imposed under unfavorable conditions will prove a barrier to the achievement of political unity.”

And Friedman was far from a lonely voice. Today, as the EU and its various member states face the refugee crisis and its political consequences, it would be wise of them to mind the lesson of the euro cautionary tale: sometimes, Eurosceptics do it better; sometimes, a healthy dose of Euroscepticism is exactly what “Europe” needs if it wants to be healthy. The EU was a stabilizing element in the European continent for decades because it served the interests of those who’d joined it. By taking too many steps too far towards “an ever closer union”, those countries lost their ability to protect those interests. And by making itself unable to serve its members’ interests, the EU is making it ever more likely that one day, those countries will no longer be interested in being a part of it.

 

Bruno 2014Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.

What the hell is going on in Portugal?

AP120322132487-750x400A couple of weeks after the October 4th parliamentary elections in Portugal, I met a friend of mine who was visiting the country, and it didn’t take long for the subject to take over the conversation. My friend, whose face Plato must have envisioned when he imagined the Form of adorableness even though she was born only a few decades ago, left Portugal to take advantage of a job opportunity abroad, and living far away from the country she naturally doesn’t follow the day-to-day details of Portuguese politics as closely as someone who persists in trying to survive here. After all that had come to pass since Election Day, the only thing that occurred to her was to ask “what the hell is going on in this country?” She hasn’t been the only one asking this question.

On November 24th, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a former Prime-Minister from the center-right party PSD, nominated António Costa, leader of the center-left Socialist Party (PS), as the new Prime-Minister. On October 4th, no one would have foreseen such an outcome. After four years of implementing severe austerity measures, the governing center-right coalition between PSD and CDS emerged from the proceedings with the largest share of the vote (36,8%) and MPs (107 out of 230), while PS and Costa wasn’t able to get more than 32,4% and 86 MPs; the extreme-left party Bloco de Esquerda (BE) managed to obtain 10,2% of the votes and 19 MPs, while the Communist Party (PCP) and their satellite party Os Verdes – ‘The Greens’ – got 8,3% and 17 MPs (the animal rights party PAN elected the remaining one, with 1,4% of the votes). The next morning, the London’s Daily Telegraph reported Portugal had “made political history” for having the first government “in the euro’s five-year lurch from debt crisis to debt crisis” to get re-elected after ‘overseeing a bail-out programme’; The American Interest hailed the result as a “victory of ‘un-populism’”, in which – in contrast to what had happened in Greece – ‘the anti-establishment parties have not been able to present themselves as real contenders for power’. Even the understandably-less-enthusiastic (left-lwaning) The Guardian said “the result shows that Portugal is not Greece” and provided “an opportunity for the two main parties to cooperate”. Yet just a few days later, things changed so dramatically that one could be led to erroneously believe that another election had taken place in the interim.

Even as President Cavaco Silva approached Pedro Passos Coelho (the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of PSD) and asked him to try to form a new government, António Costa announced he was to engage in meetings with both the Communists and BE to form a government with the support of a parliamentary majority. On the right, Costa’s initiative was seen as a coup d’etat, an attempt to climb into power even after losing the election; on the left, the coup d’etat accusations were directed at Cavaco Silva for nominating Passos Coelho even though he was sure to lose a parliamentary vote of confidence. To make matters even more confusing, the (conservative) Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard sided with the latter, claiming the President had “refused to appoint a Left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF Troika”. In fact, PS, BE and PCP were yet to reach an agreement by October 25th, the day Cavaco Silva nominated Coelho to try to form a “stable government”, so there still was no absolute majority that would justify bypassing the party with the largest share of the vote.

On November 6th, just three days before the parliamentary vote of confidence the PSD/CDS coalition would have to face if it were to remain in power, the agreement was closer but still hadn’t been finalized. The Telegraph reported: “Communists ready to assume power in Portugal and topple conservative government”, which wasn’t totally true: the deal in store would not contemplate an actual participation of neither BE nor PCP in the government; they would merely support a Socialist government in exchange for a few policy measures they deemed fundamental for the country’s well-being (public sector and minimum wage raises, tax cuts, cancelling public transport’s privatization).  Communists wouldn’t “assume power”; they are propping up PS into power in order to secure benefits they regarded as crucial to the country and the interest groups that support them.

Back on October 4th, the chattering classes hurried to interpret the coalition’s then-still-regarded-as-such victory, and many believed that, faced with a still looming uncertainty and far from being safe from financial difficulties, the Portuguese electorate put aside their poor opinion of the coalition and voted for the devil they knew:  they might decry the austerity that had been imposed on them, but they were reluctant to empower the Socialists (who had been responsible for the near-bankruptcy that brought austerity on) for that would carry with it a degree of uncertainty that looked frightening to them, considering the country’s yet-to-be-overcome predicament. I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that Costa was one of the people who held this interpretation of the election results. It seems to me that Costa believes that the reason why PS failed to take advantage of all the anger against the incumbent government (two days before the election, a poll revealed that only 19,7% of the people thought PSD/CDS had improved the country’s condition) was that people were gripped by a conservative fear of the unknown, and that if PS managed to get into government and had the opportunity to introduce a few popular measures easing austerity, that same impulse to go with “the devil you know” would hurt PSD/CDS instead of the Socialists in a future – probably early – election.

Costa, like the Telegraph, The Guardian, The American Interest or my friend, didn’t understand “what the hell is going on” in Portugal. The result of the election showed two things: first, a huge dissatisfaction with the job the coalition had done; and second, an even more significant lack of trust in PS as a credible alternative. Going into government after it failed to look like a preferable choice than a failed government, PS would likely also fail to overcome that pre-existing distrust: Costa’s every decision would be confronted with the same lack of credit he and his party merited in the election; even the “popular” measures he plans to introduce would in all likelihood be regarded as shameless attempts to buy votes, policies “too good to be true” that would end up costing much more in the near future with another bail-out programme than they would pay in the short-term, and instead of propelling into the electoral victory that escaped him this time around, it would cause him to suffer an even more resounding defeat whenever his government were to face the voters’ judgement.

Costa has seriously misjudged the nature of the crisis afflicting Portugal’s political system: far from resulting from a simple – and circumstantial – lack of a parliamentary majority, it consists of a structural lack of trust in every available political alternative by a huge chunk of the electorate, that even after rescinding their support from one party neglects to transfer it to the main opposition party, instead choosing either to vote for a protest party with no chance to win or to stay at home (the turnout in this election was the lowest ever in a parliamentary election in Portugal). As with many of the problems the country faces, it is a situation caused by the inability of every government of any party to tame the Leviathan that is the Portuguese State.

Passos Coelho’s government inherited and –despite its rhetoric – kept a statist monster that suffocates Portuguese society: the State keeps spending half of the wealth created in the country; the services it aims to provide are largely ineffective; the supposed egalitarianism of a “Welfare State” that aims to provide everything to everyone – to those who need the helping hand of the State and to those who don’t – turns into an unfair system that – precisely because it wants to provide for those who need it and those who don’t – ends up giving too much to don’t who don’t need it and not enough to those who do; and to make matters worse, the State needs to extract more and more wealth from the pockets and bank accounts of its taxpayers in order to feed this Behemoth.

People naturally dislike this situation and what it means for their daily lives. And yet, about 60% of them are (according to estimates by Henrique Medina Carreira, a former-Finance-Minister-turned-commentator) directly or indirectly dependent on State money to conduct them. That, in turn, results in a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: people are simultaneously dissatisfied with the status quo and opposed to its reform; every government, whether it chooses to keep things as they are or to fight the interest groups opposed to reforms, is then doomed to be punished with the electorate’s wrath. And the lesser the electorate at large supports any political alternative, the more every main party becomes dependent on those interest groups that are dependent on the status quo, thus making reforms even less likely, the consequences of this ever more grave, further marginalizing a large part of the electorate and consequently deteriorating the country’s condition.

Come to think of it, maybe my friend is the one who fully understood the mess Portugal is in, and was wise enough to go live somewhere else.

 

Bruno 2014Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.

What’s next for Portugal?

naom_534af975b6b0eLike it has always happened for the last 40 years of democracy, the Portuguese President asked the leader of the most voted party to form government. Like every president before, he gave a political speech on what he believes the next government should do. He is also far from being the first president to warn about the risks of having communists in power. But, unlike what has always been the democratic tradition, the second most voted party will not allow the most voted party to form a minority government. It is their constitutional right to do so. So what is next? Here is what the future holds for Portugal:

Over the next few weeks:

1. The current PM will form a government with some people of his close group MPs and a few moderate party members. It will be hard to get good names on-board for a government that might not be around for more than 2 weeks
2. The government will not pass in parliament due to the votes of the socialists, left radicals and communists
3. The president will then ask the leader of the 2nd most voted party to form government. The supporters of the idea of a coup in Portugal will be saying some other nonsense about some other country
4. Costa will form a government without members of the radical left or the communists. Radical left and communists let the government pass in parliamentary vote.
5. President Cavaco will warn about the lack of stability of the new solution and once again defend the tradition of the defeated centrist party to allow the other centrist party to lead the government

In November-January:
6. The socialist party will have to get its first budget approved. In order to do so, it will make changes in the labour law (making the labour market rigid) and eliminate some of the expense cuts of previous governments in agrrement with Left Radicals.
7. The first draft will not be approved in Brussels, but after a few rounds and over-optimistic assumptions on growth and tax collections, the budget will be approved in Brussels and by the Portuguese parliament
8. The minimum wage will increase in January
9. The centrist candidate Marcelo will be elected president in January. During the campaign, he will be intentionally ambiguous about what he would do in different political scenarios.

After January:
10. Growth will continue the path of 2015 but employment will stop increasing at the same rate
11. The left-wing parties will be united in the first months of the year. A short-lived increase in consumption will be used as proof that ending austerity works. External balance will deteriorate. Left parties will change labour law, banking regulations and increase capital taxes.
12. After missing the original budget targets, the government will have to get a new revised public budget approved somewhere in April. This will be a hard one.
13. If the communists don’t approve it, and the right wing parties do not change leadership, the revised budget will not pass in parliament and the government will fall
14. The socialist party will accuse the right wing pro-european parties of being irresponsible for not approving their Brussels negotiated budget. Brussels will put pressure
15. New elections in June
16. If the communists approve the budget, the government will stay in power until the end of 2016. Around that time, the budgetary difficulties for 2017 will be impossible to address by a government with support from communists and left radicals. The wounds of a 1 year unexpected and unwanted coalition will become obvious.
17. Points 13 and 14 will happen anyway just a few months later.
18. Elections in March 2017.

The six graphs that explain what’s affecting the upcoming Portuguese elections

Many wonder why, after reducing public pensions, salaries, among other austerity measures, the government coalition ends the campaign ahead in the polls. Pedro Magalhães, a portuguese political scientist explains why. Here is a summary:

Austerity: after an initial austerity shock, the last 2 years saw a loosening of the austerity belt.

figure1

The widely antecipated recessive spiral from the initial austerity measures did not happen (both in unemployment and GDP)

Figure-2

Figure-3

Moral and confidence is increasing, both in terms of confidence in the economy…

figure4

…and consumer confidence:

Figure-5

After an initial recovery, the socialist party has failed to keep growing in the polls after the economic recovery started. Most voters do not believe the Socialist Party would have done a better job in the last 4 years.

Figure-6

Worth reading the full article in the Washington Post.

Three large polls released today indicate political instability for the next months

The most comprehensive polls developed in this campaign were released today, 3 days before the election. Interestingly, the three have similar results: Government coalition (center-right) winning but with a left-wing majority in parliament.

If these are to be the final results, there will be a hung parliament with no clear government coalition. Cavaco Silva, the outgoing president, announced that he will break protocol and will not be present in the Republic celebrations on Monday due to the need to solve what is likely to be a very difficult post-election period. The socialist party already announced they would embark in a grand coalition and would prefer to join forces with the left. The left doesn’t seem to be interested in joining government (the communists wouldn’t do in any case and the Left Bloc wants to avoid Syriza’s faith).

Adding to this, there is the real possibility that despite losing the elections, the Socialist Party will elect more MPs than any other party. The government coalition is made of two party running together, but after the elections there will be two party groups in parliament, but potentially smaller than the Socialist Party’s. This adds an additional complication: traditionally, the PM comes from the most voted party who is also the party having the most MPs. This time, as two major parties are running together, the winning list might not include the party with more MPs. There is no precedent of the in Portuguese democratic history.



Interesting days ahead.