Political scientists have delineated five “crises” that nations seem to undergo, in sequence, in their political development.
Identity: People develop a national identity over and above their tribal, regional, or local identities. Bretons came to think of themselves as French and Bavarians as Germans. We see now that Uzbeks and Latvians never considered themselves “Soviets,” and because of this the Soviet Union collapsed with astonishing speed. Some countries are still caught up in an identity crisis.
Legitimacy: People develop the feeling that the regime’s rule is rightful and should be obeyed. A system without legitimacy requires massive amounts of coercion to keep it together and functioning.
Penetration: As the government’s writ expands through the country, starting usually with the capital city, it encounters resistance, for many people dislike paying taxes to, and obeying the laws of, a distant authority. Local rebellions are crushed and police are brought in to enforce national authority.
Participation: Once the other crises are solved, people start wanting to participate in some way in their nation’s governance. There is usually a struggle to expand the electoral franchise. Parties are formed and attempt to control parliament. Mass participation in politics is usually granted only grudgingly by traditional elites, but once it’s institutionalized, the country is usually more stable and peaceful. Withholding participatory rights can lead to a buildup of a revolutionary anger.
Distribution: The last great crisis, probably a permanent one, is over the division of the nation’s economic pie. Once the masses are participating in politics, their parties (for example, the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany) demand that government use its considerable powers to distribute wealth and income in a more equitable fashion. In order to fund a welfare state, taxes grow. Better off people generally fight this trend.
This is a “sequential crises” model of political development; in some countries it seems to fit well, in others poorly. Some nations’ histories are just too complicated to make the model fit at all.
In Britain, as in most democratic countries, the relationship between people and political parties is complex, a two way street in which both influence the other. The parties project a “party image,” that is, a view of how people regard the party’s policies, leaders, and ideology. Conversely, most voters maintain a party identification, a long-term tendency to regard themselves as, for example, “Tory” or “Democrat.” The strategy of intelligent party leadership is to project a party image that will win the loyalty of large numbers of voters and get them to identify permanently with that party. If successful, the party becomes powerful and enjoys many electoral successes.
Both party image and party identification are reasonably clear in Britain: Most British citizens recognize the philosophies of the three main parties in general terms, and a large portion of British voters identify with a party. The situation is never static, however; the parties constantly change the images they project, while some voters lose their party identification and shift their votes.
For the deeply confirmed Labour or Conservative voters, those whose party identification closely matches the image of their preferred party, there is little doubt as to whom should be elected.
Until recently, most British voters were reliably Labour or Conservative. The element that changes from one election to another, because either their party identification is not strong or their perception of the parties’ images shifts or both, is called the “swing” vote. A swing of a few percentage points can determine who will form the next government, for if each constituency shifts a little one way (for example, toward Labour), the Labour candidate will win in many constituencies. Single-member districts often exaggerate percentage trends and turn them into a large majority of seats. A “swing” of only one percentage point nationwide usually translates into a dozen or more parliamentary seats changing hands, sometimes changing the majority in Commons, and therefore, the government.
In Germany, as in most advanced countries, personality has become more important than ideology in the mind of many voters. With the decline of the Welanschauung parties (a view of the world), and the move of most large parties to the center of the political spectrum, the personality of candidates is often what persuades voters. This has long been the case in the United States and is now becoming the European norm as well. Some call it the Americanization of European politics, but it is less a matter of copying than it is reflecting the rise of catchall parties; throughout Europe, election posters now feature the picture of the top party leader, the person who would become prime minister. Although voting may be by party list, citizens know that in choosing a party they are actually electing a prime minister.
German (and British) campaigns are conducted almost as if they were for the direct election of a president, as in the United States and France. Officially there is no “candidate for the chancellor-ship,” but in practice the leading figures of the two majority parties are clearly identified as such in the press and in the public mind so that much of the campaign revolves around the personalities of the two leading candidates.
A German candidate for chancellor must project strength and levelheadedness. In a country obsessed with fear of inflation, the candidate’s economic background plays a bigger role than in most nations. Two of Germany’s postwar chancellors have been economists. The candidate’s adherence to democratic rules also plays a role, and Franz Josef Strauss’s authoritarian streak contributed to his defeat in the 1980 race.
Personality contributed to the results of the 1990s elections, too. The Christian Liberal coalition had the steady, optimistic image of Helmut Kohl. The Social Liberal coalition candidates of the 1990s came across as radical intellectuals; they needed an attractive moderate like Tony Blair. Much of postwar German politics can be described as parties groping for the right leader to bring them to power in the Bundestag (parliament), and chancellor’s office. When they found the right one, such as Adenauer, and Kohl of the Christian Liberal coalition, they stuck with them all the way to electoral success.
The trouble with Russia is that there are few rules or institutions to regulate and moderate political clashes. Without experience in multiparty competition, a free press, voluntary associations, tolerance, and simple politeness, the new forces freed by the ending of Party control started to play a new game without knowing the rules. Their clashes were bound to be chaotic, and they were made worse by bureaucrats who had every interest in sabotaging the reform process. Fearful of losing their power and comfortable livings, they fought change, trying to reverse it.
Many of the reformers who rallied under Gorbachev and then transferred their loyalties to Yeltsin have resigned or been dismissed from high office. In many respects they hearken back to the Russian Westernizers of the 19th century who wanted to import Western ways nearly wholesale: a market economy, free democracy, and individualistic philosophy. This led them to attempt the economic “shock
therapy” recommended by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, which earlier worked in Bolivia and Poland. The initial stages of such therapy are terribly painful, and Russia’s economy plunged downward.
The term “conservatives” covers a broad swath from moderates to extremists. Conservatives’ common link is their opposition to shock therapy and similar methodologies. Russia may need reforms, some concede, but the reforms must be ours and must be tailored to our conditions. Some old-line party types would go all or much of the way back to a centralized command economy. Like the old Russophiles of the 19th century, they reject Western models and would turn inward, to Russia’s roots; accordingly, they are nationalistic, some rabidly so.
These two general camps are halves of the Russian political spectrum that contain several graduations and combinations. The extreme end of the conservative side is sometimes called the “red brown” coalition, a combination of old Party supporters plus extreme nationalists. (Brown, from Hitler’s brown-shirted Storm Troopers, connotes fascist.) Zhirinovsky headed the largest party in this movement, but former General Lebed is seen as its likeliest leader.
More moderate conservatives cluster around Zyuganov’s Communist party.
Under the label “centrist,” another group seeks a middle ground of moderate reforms cushioned by continued state subsidies and ownership. The “Our Home Is Russia” party of Yeltsin’s prime minister, Chernomyrdin, and, indeed, Yeltsin himself are described by some as centrists, cautious reformers. Thoroughgoing reformers, such as Gaidar and his Democratic Choice party, are a weak force in parliament, and no longer a part of Yeltsin’s government. Russia’s parties come and go quickly, splitting, combining, and changing names, but the main distinction to look for is between those who want reform and those who do not.
Following the end of the Maoist reign, a new conflict appeared in Chinese politics, a split between liberal and conservative forces, similar to what the Soviets went through before their system collapsed. The Chinese moderates who opposed the extremism of the Cultural Revolution wanted to essentially go back to their preupheaval society. They earned the nickname the “17-years-before people,” because they thought the 17-year period (1949-1966) before the Cultural Revolution had been good. These tended to be older people, with secure positions in the party, army, and bureaucracy, very much like Soviet conservatives. They wanted socialism on the Soviet model, with centralized control over the economy, politics, and cultural life.
Opposed to the moderates were the liberalizers, usually younger people, who saw the unfairness and inefficiency of central control. They pointed to the amazing growth in output that came with the introduction of private and cooperative enterprises, like in the Special Economic Zones, where industrial growth set world records.
The Chinese conservatives, just like their old Soviet counterparts, feared that such a system would no longer be Communist and, even worse, that their jobs would be scrapped.
This split caused Deng Xaioping much grief. He was prepared to liberalize cautiously, hoping to confine it to the economic sector, but demands came bubbling up to go farther and faster. In the spring of 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese university students staged giant protests and hunger strikes in favor of democracy. Deng fired his hand-picked and liberal-minded successor, Zhao Ziyang, and had the PLA execute the students in Tienanmen Square. Several hundred died, and approximately 10,000 were imprisoned. A chill settled over Chinese life. Conservatives also launched anti-Western campaigns. The conservatives had one serious drawback: many were elderly. Time seemed to be on the side of the liberalizers, but not without rear-guard conservative actions.
Politics in Brazil have been and continue to be largely a game for elites: big landowners, bankers, and industrialists, top bureaucrats, and military people. The stakes of the game are political power and the patronage jobs that come with it. The rules of the game are that none of the players gets seriously hurt or threatened and that nobody mobilizes the Brazilian masses in an angry way, for that would destroy the game’s fragile balance and hurt them all. Accordingly, Vargas, himself a wealthy rancher, was an acceptable player when he supported fair coffee prices for the growers, but when he started to mobilize poor Brazilians he had to be ousted. Kubitschek was a good player who looked after his elite friends and deflected potential discontent with his grandiose plans to open Brazil’s interior. Goulart, also a wealthy rancher, was a very bad player: He threatened all the elites and mobilized the masses at a furious rate. Lula (the current President), then an anti-elite labor-union radical, mobilized Brazil’s poverty-stricken masses in a way that frightened most of Brazil’s elites and increased the chances of a coup.
Brazil’s entire political history has been the same elite game: Dom Pedro with his fazendeiro friends, the Old Republic with its Paulista-Mineiro alternation, and the military technocracy with its industrial and bureaucratic clientele. Since Vargas, however, the political mobilization of the masses has been a recurring threat to the game. Periodically, a politician who doesn’t like the elite’s fixed rules is tempted to reach out to Brazil’s masses, both to secure his own power and to help the downtrodden. Seeing the threat, Brazil’s elites, through the military, remove it and try to demobilize the masses. Mobilization and demobilization can be seen as cyclical.
South Africa’s party system is more complicated than most European party systems. In South Africa, there exists both a left-to-right axis and a black-and-non-black axis as well.
The areas where black and non-black parties touch (for example, between Inkatha and the Conservatives) enables dialogue, although not necessarily agreement. Between the Conservatives and PAC, or between the ANC and the AWB, a dialogue is impossible. The crucial area is where the parties are able to conduct a dialogue between them.
South Africa’s emerging party system does not look promising. First, no party currently links Africans and non-blacks in a serious way. Ironically, only the Nationalist party appears to cut across the color line, with its white, black, and Indian supporters. Second, the black political spectrum is further left than the non-black spectrum, making a policy consensus difficult. Third, both the ANC and the Nationalists face “bilateral opposition,” with forces tugging them both leftward and rightward. The ANC has Inkatha on its right and PAC on its left. The small Communist party is not, in fact, the most-left element working within the ANC, but is actually rather moderate in its views. The Nationalists have the Democrats on their left and the Conservatives on their right. Both of the two large parties could be pulled apart.
The Nationalist party system could collapse. Its salvation may depend upon the emergence of a large, moderate multiracial party; a decrease in the number of parties; and a weakening of both black and white extremist parties.
For over 5 decades, constructive dialogue between South Africa’s blacks and whites did not exist. The regime simply governed by coercion and repression. Avenues of legal protest were systematically closed off; black and brown protests were automatically illegal and brutally stopped by the police. It was a virtual prescription for violence: plenty of injustice that could not legally be protested. Riot police used dogs, whips, tear gas, clubs, shotguns, and automatic rifles to disperse crowds of Africans. Secret police and army “hit squads” assassinated dozens of regime opponents.
When some of the worst police state restrictions eased in 1990 and black movements became legal, there were still few constructive interactions between blacks and whites. Instead of building bridges between the two groups, the Nationalists had deliberately, over the decades, destroyed them. Few whites had contact with Africans outside of a master-servant or boss-employee relationship. For decades there had been no church, club, university, sports association, or political party to serve as a meeting ground. Today, most whites desire a constructive dialogue with blacks. This has proven difficult but is improving. After decades of abuse, many blacks are angry; some are revolutionary. When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, the apartheid program ended. Blacks and whites are now forging a reconciliation and working toward a common destiny.
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