When bad people are good at politics

This should be interesting: The third-largest party in Denmark’s parliament after the recent elections (full story➚) — the center-right “Venstre, Liberal Party” — will be trying to run the government with only 19% of the seats.

The second-largest party, the socially right-wing (and economically left-populist) Danish People’s Party (DPP), will not join a coalition. One of the most frightening things about the Danish People’s Party, given their monstrously exclusionary social and racial politics, is how absurdly good at politics they are. They don’t just do well in elections by running on demagogic populism against immigrants and Muslims, they’re not just supremely polished, and they don’t just know which economic buttons to push; no, they also know how not to lose, which is harder.

Refusing to co-rule, even when they probably could, is a great way to never expose yourself as incompetent and unready for primetime before you actually run the government:

So far, [party leader Kristian] Thulesen Dahl has declined to commit, saying only that he is after “influence” rather than “power.”
Mr. Thulesen Dahl and his party are maneuvering carefully to avoid the fate of right-wing parties in other Nordic countries. In Norway, the D.P.P.’s sister party suffered heavy losses after becoming members of a right-wing coalition government. For a party that built its appeal by claiming to represent the “people” against the “system,” it is hard to wield power without being perceived as part of the establishment that voters rejected. Therefore, Mr. Thulesen Dahl wants to pull the strings without being seen to do so, just as his party did during the first decade of this century.

Per that influence versus power scheme, the DPP plans to vote on a case-by-case basis, according to The Guardian. So that will be really unstable:

Denmark has a history of minority coalition governments – the defeated centre-left administration of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt depended frequently on Liberal support over the past four years. However, itis be more than four decades since a cabinet had fewer seats,: Liberal leader Poul Hartling held office from 1973-75 with only 22 but his administration lasted just 14 months.
“It is very likely that an election will be called before the four-year period is over,” Martin Larsen, a political commentator from Copenhagen university, told Reuters. “On average, one-party governments sit for two-and-a-half years.”

The right of center parties (including DPP) collectively have only one seat more than 50% so this is basically a permanent nightmare for governance. It also, in practical terms, means that the Social Democrats — the main center-left party, which finished first but too isolated to form a government — will likely be forced to support the center-right government on very unpopular proposals. This means the main center-left and center-right parties will both be rapidly losing popularity in the voting public together, without much to show for it, and the constantly looming threat of a very early election.

It seems to me that there’s a good chance that in 18 months to 2 years, there will be another election, and that time and the Danish People’s Party will finish first and take control of government in Denmark.


Meanwhile in Denmark, more bad news

Not only did the conservative/”centrist” coalition collectively win the 2015 Denmark elections this week but the country’s second largest party — and largest conservative party — in parliament is now the far-right (but highly polished) Danish People’s Party. The DPP, which primarily exists to bash immigrants and insist on draconian immigration controls while putting a classy “euroskeptic” spin on it all, has previously served in center-right governments before as a minor partner. But now, while still not expected to lead the government, it is still a formidable force, rather than a background player. A few more points and it would have finished first. Soon it probably will.

In my January list of 15 national elections to watch in 2015, I included Denmark. I gave one simple explanation for its inclusion:

Denmark: Will the far-right continue to be treated as a legitimate and not at all terrifying part of the country’s politics? (Yes.)

That’s exactly what happened. The ruling center-left Social Democrats’ main strategy involved campaigning as almost-as-tough on immigration as the DPP. That a fool’s errand: people generally pick the real thing over the pale imitation that they believe is openly posturing rather than committed to the position, if that issue is a major motivation in their voting decision. But is also just mainstreams (and “confirms” the validity of) extremist positions. The left should not have conceded to milder versions of DPP talking points and thrown immigrants under the bus. They should have argued the matter and fought back against vile framing. Doing the opposite confirmed my fears about Denmark’s increasingly casual treatment of political extremism like the anti-immigrant DPP.

Not only did the DPP increase from 22 to 37 seats since 2011, but it remained virtually at the same vote share it had captured in the low-turnout 2014 EU elections, which were dominated by hardline populists across the continent but which did not translate later into big wins in national elections in most countries. In the EU vote just over a year ago, the DPP came in first with 26.6%. In the national elections this past week, the DPP captured 21.1% of the vote (up from just 12.3% in 2011).

Center-right parties like Venstre and CPP lost 15 seats between them…exactly the number that the far-right DPP gained. The other big losers were the left-of-center-left parties, which is ultimately why the left-leaning constellation of parties ended up with fewer seats collectively than the right-leaning coalition, despite the Social Democrats finishing first, ahead of the DPP.

Orbanism Rising

“American ambassador’s frank memoir of Hungary’s slide into autocracy” – The Washington Post: Eleni Kounalakis, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, reports on the once-promising democracy.

“The problem in Hungary, I realized, wasn’t just the rise of anti-Semitic, neofascist voices and acts. Hungarian society at large was responding to those radical voices with disproportionate silence and apathy.”

As U.S. ambassador to Hungary from January 2010 to July 2013, Kounalakis had a front-row seat for the implosion of what was once the most promising new democracy in the former Soviet bloc. Neo-fascists were elected to parliament. Prime Minister Viktor Orban presided over a rewriting of the constitution and the passage of hundreds of laws eroding the independence of the judiciary, the civil service and the media. […]
Yet the international response to Orban’s “Two-Thirds Revolution” was muted at first. For months, the European Union said nothing as one of its members disassociated itself from Western liberalism. Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, meeting Orban during a 2011 visit, took it on himself not to raise constitutional concerns after being spun by a sweet-talking deputy.


Logo of the right-wing "Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance" ruling party of Hungary.

Logo of the right-wing “Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance” ruling party of Hungary.

Recently on AFD:
Border fence politics comes to the EU (in Hungary)

Border fence politics comes to the EU (in Hungary)

The anti-liberal far-right reign of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán continues, once again defying all basic principles of the European Union his country joined in 2004 after a referendum with overwhelming voter approval.

“Hungary to erect fence on Serbian border” – Irish Times:

Hungary plans to build a security fence along its entire border with Serbia to halt the flow of illegal migrants, despite domestic and international criticism of its handling of the issue.

Officials say more than 53,000 people – mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans – have lodged asylum requests in Hungary this year, compared with 43,000 last year and 2,157 in 2012. Most file a request before moving west, however, and prime minister Viktor Orban has been accused of taking a harsh line against refugees to counter the rise in popularity of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party.

Mr Orban’s office said yesterday the government had ordered the interior ministry to “prepare for closure of the Hungarian-Serbian border by next Wednesday; this will be achieved by erecting a four-metre-high fence” along its 175km length.
Mr Orban’s government has also erected billboards around the country, with slogans such as “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take Hungarians’ jobs”.

Clever differentiation of his far-right party from the even further right Jobbik Party. He holds a huge majority while they are a minor presence. They’re essentially a stalking horse to justify his outrageous policies.

Fascist is as fascist does. Orbanism rising. 

Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 2: Blue-ribbon America

In part 1, “Europe’s Political Crisis,” I examined the (well-intended) rise of governance and policy decision-making by unelected technical experts in the European Union, along with the effects it has had on promoting a growing political crisis there. I also suggested that a milder version of this trend is starting to make its way into the U.S. political system as well — or at least into the U.S. political philosophy that influences the system.

As I argued in [another] recent piece, in the United States, “there is now a prevailing assumption that everything can be converted into numerical values, and that we can forge our country into a Blue-ribbon technocracy of ‘best practices’ with no subjective judgment calls (or perhaps eventually even directional disagreements altogether).”



The conditions for technocracy’s growth

The circumstances that have encouraged the beginnings of technocracy to emerge in the United States are not exactly the same as the circumstances in Europe. Here, it is philosophically grounded in the now largely faded early American notions of a republican government of wise and elite elders who do what is best for the people, with or without their consent. The role of experts in the United States has so far been limited to advisory roles with far less formal and front-row power than in Europe. Very rarely have they gained official, high-ranking decision-making roles in place of politicians.

In Europe, in contrast, a major factor in the rise of powerful technocrats was the creation of the European Union as an economic union that required — but did not officially hold — significant political power to be able to implement its economic integration policies. That gap between needs in practice and anticipated needs on paper created a decision-making vacuum that the experts filled. No politicians were being replaced directly because there were no powerful federal politicians in the EU or predecessor European Economic Community to begin with. (In the United States, obviously, there has been a strong political union of the member states with its own strong and elected federal government since the Constitution of 1787.) The creation of that pseudo-federal “European” layer of unelected experts making decisions then established a precedent for deferring to national level experts when the national political systems began breaking down more recently in the face of very serious policy and budgetary demands from the Union and elections failed to produce the necessary leadership to enact them. Such crises create the conditions for the constitutional but non-democratic elevation of unelected experts to the cabinet and, in Italy’s case, even the premiership.

The stalemate in elected governance, though, does bear similarity to much of what we have seen in the United States lately. With polarization and dysfunction mounting, rather than making smaller procedural fixes like overhauling the Senate rules, there is likely to be a growing chorus of people seriously suggesting drastic alternatives for achieving policy aims. In past gridlock/crises points, radical reformation of the American constitutional system has been suggested. This time, following the European model, it is more likely that the proposed alternatives would be the gentler introduction of expert commissions empowered to present big decisions for rubber-stamping to the legislative branch or executive bureaucracy.

This solution is particularly likely to be applied, as in Europe, to budgetary reform gridlock, because a certain set of people is already convinced that such reforms are desperately needed and cannot be entrusted with making the “hard choices.” (Interestingly, we don’t see such a push on global warming.)


The gold standard example of American technocracy so far is the trend toward elimination in many states of legislature-driven redistricting in favor of unelected “nonpartisan” commissions. Nine states have abdicated redistricting entirely to outside commissions. A further 13 have some kind of commission in parallel with or assisting the legislators in the redistricting — including five where the commission serves as a “backup” when the normal process fails and a few where a commission is empowered to draw the state districts but not the congressional districts.
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Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 1: Europe’s Political Crisis

A common Republican talking point in the United States is a fear of “becoming like Europe” with its purportedly omnipresent “European socialism.” As someone who actually pays attention to the politics and economics of Europe, I dismiss that as a pretty absurd view of the world, for any number of reasons. But lately I’ve had a different question: What if the (negative) way that the United States is “becoming like Europe” is actually the adoption of its technocratic governance trends?

In part one of this two-part essay, I’ll examine what technocracy is and what it looks like in the modern European democracies. In part two, I’ll examine how it is starting to manifest in the United States.


What is technocracy?

Technocracy is a term that essentially means rule by non-elected technical experts, often academics, who (theoretically) place the country’s interests above the interests of any particular “side.” By extension, technocracy is usually set in contrast with, but not opposition to, elected partisans (i.e. champions of a specific political party or faction). It is not the same as “bureaucracy,” either, because bureaucrats carry out the policy decisions of the executive and legislative branches, whereas the technocrats are replacing the role of the decision-makers themselves. That means the experts are substituted directly for politicians at the top. Also, quite unusually compared with other systems, technocracy often exists alongside democratic systems and completely within a normal constitutional framework. The replacement of the politicians does not occur in a “state of emergency” or other extra-constitutional circumstance, as would occur in a dictatorship, but rather occurs through appointments of experts to the top level of government through regular constitutional procedures.

The most common use of technocrats around the world is a logical and reasonable one: Many democratic countries, mostly in the developing world, will hand the government over to a temporary cabinet of nonpartisan technocrats — called “caretakers” — to run the country during a very brief period during which new elections are held. That way, someone is still “at the wheel” during campaign season but the ruling party can’t control the power of government offices, the security forces, or election officials. This is particularly useful in countries with relatively young and sometimes unstable democracies, to help build ongoing public confidence that a system of elected government can be trusted and will turn over periodically as expected. If the ruling party loses the election and rejects the outcome, they can’t cling to power because they already had to vacate office to the technocrats before the start of the campaign.

But in the past quarter-century, the rise of the European Union has introduced an entirely new form of technocracy, though. Read more

The quiet authoritarian in Hungary

For those not following the Hungary situation (and I’ll admit I’ve barely had time to pay attention to it myself) here’s a line from an Al Jazeera America article that should demonstrate the severity of the problem (which goes well beyond a tax debate):

It’s rare for the usually aloof and cautious European Union commissioners in Brussels to call for street demonstrations in one of the EU’s member states. But since none of the their badgering had blunted the power plays of Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU commissioner for digital issues, Neelie Kroes, tweeted support for Hungary’s protesters. They took to the streets last week to protest Orban’s latest attempt to curtail anti-government opinion: a proposed nationwide tax on Internet data traffic — an attack on the country’s the last free platform for free thinking and dissent.

And the most appalling bit of all? Prime Minister Orban’s Fidesz party is overwhelmingly the most popular by vote and most numerous in members in the whole country. He’s not going anywhere. Authoritarianism does not always come via coup or revolution. Sometimes we just vote it into power with cheers.