Monday, March 01, 2004
The American System

I marked up the comment section of the National Post in a graduated fashion as I ate breakfast this morning. If you moved from left to right across the page, you could see that I left George Jonas untouched, started in on Anthony Daniels about halfway through (and forsook mere underlining in favor of margin comment), and circled whole paragraphs of Colby Cosh.

I moved from Jonas' article on miscarriages of North American justice into Daniels' piece on the hopelessness of the Haitian situation, and the broiling political mess, in a roundabout way, gave me insight into why, as I queried last week, the American system of government is to be preferred over other forms of democracy. In short, I hope to answer last week's question by way of the Haitian conflict.

Dr. Daniels, in his column (not yet available online), despairs of ever succeeding in a true Haitian reformation, short of a 100-year occupation:

This time, yet another police force will be trained, that will turn out to be just as corrupt and venal as its predecessors; another constitution will be promulgated, offering the sun, the moon, and the stars, with every safeguard that constitutional lawyers can devise; and then, once everyone has gone home, the nightmare will begin all over again.

Only a prolonged occupation, lasting a century or so, might break the cycle, but no one cares enough or has the stomach for it; and the Haitians themselves, eager to loot themselves into personal wealth but national extinction, would soon chafe under it. Look on Port-au-Prince, o ye mighty, and despair!
A feasible resolution for the Haiti affair I leave to other, more knowledgeable commentators (or that ever-fictional 'later piece'). The lamentable circumstances in the Caribbean lead Dr. Daniels to briefly examine the history of Haitian conflict, dating back nearly 200 years, and to make the following comments.
Truth to tell, the Americans were never very keen on the little ex-priest anyway, with his crypto-socialist promise to raise Haitians from their abject misery to dignified poverty

It won't be long before the worst motives are imputed to the Americans as if, were it not for their repeated military interventions, Haiti would be some kind of Caribbean Denmark
Indeed - and just to break in here, elsewhere, in the news portion of the paper, the following appears:
In Montreal, about 200 Aristide supporters gathered outside the U.S. consulate and waved placards claiming the President had not left voluntarily.

"France and the US kidnapped him with a knife to his throat," Robert Ismaal said. "But the resistance is organized in Haiti to show we will not accept this coup-d'etat.
It has already started. Back to the column:
America's conscience regarding Haiti is not much clearer than France's...the Americans refused for even longer [than 70 years] to recognize [Haiti's independence] in case their own slaves got ideas above their station.
This is (finally!) what I want to discuss, if only tangentially: the view that pre-emancipation America can be considered the same as modern America; or, more precisely, the transmission of culpability (which Dr. Daniels is not implying, just to be clear) from the distant past to the present.

To blame present-day America for Haiti's difficulties (as will surely happen, if past trends continue) is to fail to recognize the very nature of the American system, and to buy into the falsehood that the members of the two-party system are, for all intents and purposes, the same. It's simply not true, and, I believe, is one of the leading misunderstandings of the American structure.

Both on- and off-line, I have seen a pattern of commentary in which an apparent hypocrisy in American foreign policy is pointed out - a suggestion that the present-day America is not to be trusted, as they have erred in the past. I would argue that this is the primary point of all of Noam Chomsky's political literature, and a large portion of what Michael Moore continuously discusses: the 'sins' of the fathers paid for with the blood and money of their children.

But this presupposes an interchangeability of Presidential administrations that is simply non-existent. Much as commentators might like them to be otherwise, the two parties truly are inherently ideologically different. [Note: I am speaking primarily of foreign policy here, and only slightly about domestic policy - an examination of the flip-flopping spectrum of American domestic policy is beyond the scope of this piece].

W. is neither Clinton, nor his father. Nor is he Reagan, nor Carter, nor Ford, nor Nixon. And those Presidents were not the same as their predecessors, either. The policies of Lincoln were not the policies of Polk, in the same way that the policies of Madison were not the same of FDR. Each administration has to be ranked and 'judged' according to its own merits and accomplishments - to make them essentially equivalent is to over-simplify a greatly nuanced set of situations.

Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, cannot be blamed upon JFK - though the latter administration can be expected to live up to the former's accrued responsibilities. In the same way, Reagan, Bush (the first), and Clinton's missteps should not be blamed upon the present incarnation of the administration. Bush (the second) is no more responsible for Haiti than Eisenhower was. In the same way, I believe, the blanket statement that Haiti should be 'America's responsibility and fault' (which will rear its ugly head sooner or later) cannot be made. There's a lot of nuance that that statement glosses over.

This very basic misunderstanding of the American system is more clear when we look at the predominant form of democracy around the world: the British Parliamentary system. In England (of course), Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Kuwait, Japan, and others, the system runs basically as follows: individual representatives are elected by the citizens for their smaller provinces (though that term differs depending on country) and join the Parliament, which is a central, generally unicameral body that writes the country's legislation. Governments are formed by plurality, and a plethora of political parties spring up. These parties have the ability to form alliances with other, like-minded organizations, and form coalition, majority governments. The largest portion of the coalition chooses the executive.

This is a contrast to the American system, where the populace chooses the executive and legislative branches separately. In the parliamentary systems, a vote for an individual representative becomes a vote for a party and its leadership. In the Congressional system, the vote for the individual remains just that - a vote for the issues and policies of a specific person, rather than for the group of politicians as a whole.

In the Congressional system, more power is given to the people than in the Parliamentary system. In essence, what the Canadian (for example) parties say is, "Here is our group representative for your area. What power he actually has will be decided by our leadership, but what you are voting upon is which group you would prefer to lead." Whereas the American parties say "Here is an individual who desires to represent you, and has joined with our group. His power will be equal to that of his peers, and he is free to exercise that power as he thinks will best fit the interests of his constituency."

The difference is focus: Parliament focuses on groups, Congress focuses on individuals. This is reflected in the country's approach to its populace, as well - Canada tends to see people in specialized and diverse groups (you are a Korean, you are an Iranian, you are a Brit, etc.); while America (on the whole) tends to look at the individual (you are an American...and that tells me nothing specific about you - so who are you, really?). That is very much a generalization and simplification, but I believe it is generally true, current trends aside.

So it comes down to a difference between focusing on the group and focusing on the individual. If we have a group focus, like most Parliamentary systems, we tend to view governments as morally culpable for the failings of their predecessors - after all, when Joe Clark (leader of the now-defunct Canadian Progressive Conservatives) was Prime Minister, he was the same Member of Parliament that sat in the Opposition a few months before, and after the party was relegated back to its minority standing, he was still a part of the overall government, albeit back in Opposition.

On the other side of the border, the government of George W. Bush is different from the government of Ronald Reagan. W. didn't sit in a parliamentary Cabinet or Opposition and have input into the way the administration was run, either positively or negatively. He was wholly outside the federal system. The same can be said for Clinton. And Reagan. Bush 'Senior' was previously Vice President and Senator, but even then, he was not in the position of power that a Parliamentary Leadership role grants.

To an extent, then, Canada's government can be culpable for the errors of its predecessors, because its 'predecessors' even 'back then' had a form of influence. America's government cannot (again, only to an extent), because the leadership was and is a wholly different entity.

Applied to the Haiti conundrum, then, America has culpability for its earlier actions only in the sense of what it should do (both in its own interests and in the interest of morality on the whole), not in the sense of what it must do, because it is led only in the short term by a system of individuals, as opposed to a long term system of group leadership. In other words, American leadership has a high and regular turnover rate.

This is not to say that JFK (to return to an earlier example) should not make reparations to Japan for Truman's decision to bomb them. Not at all. I believe that America must commit resources to repair the damage it has done in the past; but not because they are individually morally culpable. Rather, because it is the responsible and reasonable thing to do. Put another way, America is not morally 'forced' to help Japan, but does so by choice.

To personalize, I can own up to the mistakes of my grandparents, parents, or my siblings, and offer to repair any hurts inflicted by my family's previous actions (and, in more extreme cases, I should do so); but I am never held individually responsible for their transgressions. This is a very individualist view, and one to which I tend to subscribe.

It should not be a surprise, then, that I believe the American system of government to be the better choice - it is more individually focused. The irony comes into play when one looks at the superficial aspects of both systems. The Canadian system, on the face of things, would appear to be more individualized - after all, more parties equal more diversity, and a government with only two parties cannot possibly be very individualized, can it? But in reality, the opposite is true. By delineating people into smaller groups, you actually cause more generalization than if you 'lumped them all together.' To invoke my other earlier example, a Canadian government looks at groups of people (First Nations, Immigrants, Francophones, Anglos, etc) and deals with them on the group level. In the American government, because of their policy of rapid assimilation (which is rooted in the individualism that America provides), it is more difficult to do this, and there is more recognition of diversity among the groups that do exist.

Individualism vs. Collectivism. Congressionalism vs. Parliamentarianism. Capitalism vs. Socialism. Noticing a pattern?
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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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