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Abe Lincoln on the beach

This small coastal town of Brittany is swathed with mist so early in the morning. There are only a couple places open to have breakfast, but there are a few people out and about including a woman with two small well groomed goats on lead heading for the boulangerie.

Luckily, the fog clear and the sun comes out and it’s time to settle on a sandy beach with some French newspapers and some holiday reading. The press has a different – and actually rather substantive – mix of bad news. Libération and Le Monde make The Guardian seem daft and fluffy: motorway tolls are up going up; Roma aslyum seekers live in Third World conditions on the streets on Marseille; a new populist faction of President Sarkozy’s party want to co-opt some of the illiberal themes of the National Front; France is friendly with unsavoury African dictators; the latests French translation of the Famous Five (Le club des cinq) is awful, fans say.

Having  swallowed a load of sea-water attempting to swim and had a coffee, I settle back with Crawley public library’s battered copy of  Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – ‘the book that inspired Barrack Obama’.  And it’s easy to see why.

A tall gangly politician from humble background , whose charisma, people skills, intellect , hard work and good judgement propel into a successful career in the law and then into national politics, where he comes from nowhere to blindside the clear front runner and other established politicians, but pull them all together in a coherent adminsitration and saves the country in a time of national emergency.

The book itself is rather uneven. Despite a mass of detail the first half, which relates the background and political career of Lincoln and is three more fancied rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination of the newly formed Republican Party is absorbing . It can be read either as textbook of What It Takes To Win In Politics and a window on US political and social history, which like many Europeans I know practically nothing about.

Abe comes through on top because he is intellectual able and grasps the issues; affable , making politically useful friends as he goes and rarely making enemies; moderate and centrist within this own party without being too obviously unprincipled; a charismatic speaker and good communicator comfortable with modern media; and a good strategist and campaigner, who builds up his position by making a series of good calls over the years, rather than waging brilliant short-term campaign.

A tad too folksy and pragmatic for my taste, but likely I suspect to have been my second choice if I was a mid 19th century  US Republican – and being everyone’s second choice is, of course, an excellent strategy for the moment when, as always seems to happen, the front runner’s lead slowly and inexorably crumbles.

All in all useful advice for anyone planning a political career and a useful reminder  to me why I am not Prime Minister or President of USA.

Political scientists with a taste for historical political science in the form of a historical party formation and political realignment with an intriguing mox of social and geographical division with a strange mix of  democratic free market capitalism and slavery, which European societies seems to have separated out into motherland and colonies.

The second half of the book is a bit less focused.  All of a sudden with the White House won, we are pitched into  secession and the Civil War, of which Lincoln’s victory (or rather that of any Republican candidate, I assume) is the casus belli. From thereon  in we get a  rich, but rather knotty narrative covering manoeuring and man management within the Lincoln administration(s),  the domestic politics, and diplomacy of the Civic War and the unfolding military picture.

It basically draws to a close with Lincoln’s assassination and a brief epilogue of the main dramatis personnae, most of whom seem to end up personally and politically unfulfilled with their greatest days behind them.

Overall, a readable if uneven holiday reading, but you feel basically rather uncritical in its treatment of Lincoln, whose political virtuosity seems in the end of the less interesting things about him.

>The EU: Viable or friable?

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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s  What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.  

The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning  of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.

Such a comparison Glencross argues, means we need an expanded concept of ‘viability’ embracing not only the formal allocation of institutional and legal powers and ‘competences over competences’, but also actors’ understandings of the purposes of the union and whether popular sovereignty is ultimately invested in the centre, the member states, or both. Applying this framework, he identifies two distinct approaches to achieving viability in a semi-federal, semi-confederal state unions like the EU or the early US: ‘1) voluntary centralization’ where the different actors negotiate their way to a stronger, more integrated state; and 2) ‘dynamic equilibrium’ where institutional and political ambiguity – far from being a problem to be solved – is the key to viability.
The viability of the antebellum US, he argues, was in the end fatally undermined by an emerging politics of ‘voluntary centralization’, while the EU has survived precisely by sticking to a pattern of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In this light, projects to fix the European Union through various forms of democratization and constitutionalization appear best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. There are, Glencross acknowledges, important differences between the two cases: the US was created through a constitutional instrument, the EU through an inter-state economic treaty; the US had a nationwide party system with a dominant cleavage (slavery) dividing member states, the EU has only an embryonic party system with many cross cutting divides between states. Nevertheless, he argues, the parallels are sufficient to merit serious rethinking about the reform of EU governance.
What Makes the EU Viable? is, admittedly, an uneven book given, in places, to opaque and overlong and over-defensive theoretical asides as books-of-PhD-dissertation often do. It would also benefit from more simply explained engagement with mainstream EU studies literatures and the burgeoning subfield of historical democratization. However, at bottom, I thought it succeeded in its objective of asking a big and timely question and deploys anachronistic comparison to deliver some genuinely unexpected and worrying answers. Academic viability, if ever I saw it.

>If I only had a brain…

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In the wake of a not too well received panto last year, this year he theatre Royal Brighton has the Wizard of Oz as its big festive show . For copyright reasons, they stick closely to the film script with only a few panto-ish touches supplied by producer (the Good Witch of the North looked suspiciously like a Good Fairy) and audience (the Wicked Witch of the East got roundly boo-ed on every appearance).
“You’ll be blown away” the poster said. Well, not quite. But it was a good time was had by all. My daughter and my niece knew the story and liked the songs, munchkins, flying monkeys, melting witches and other fairytale stuff. I liked it, of course, Wizard of Oz is actually a political allegory. A populist parable about the advance of financial and industrial capitalism in the late 19th/early 20th century US and a covert pre-Keynesian appeal for economic reflation by issuing currency backed by silver (as well as gold). As Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers University explains in The Journal of Political Economy (98: 739-60, 1990) Dorothy represents traditional rural American values, Toto the Teetotalers, an influential compoenent in the US Populist movement, the Scarecrow the farmers; the Tin Man the industrial workers; the Cowardly is Lion William Jennings Bryan the Populist Democratic and unsuccessful four time presidentiial candidate; the Munchkins are the citizens of the East Coast the Wicked Witch of the East is Democrat Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West is Republican politician and later US President William McKinley; the Wizard Marcus Alonzo Hanna, chairman of the Republican Party; the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard; Oz is, of course, the abbreviation for an ounce of gold (or anything else).

Others see the 1939 film, a Depression era musical concoction with multiple writers which drew on various of the many Wizard of Oz books written by L. Frank Baum earlier in the century, as a a satire on the New Deal and the technocratic Keynesian fixes it (the fraudulent Wizard adulated by the people being FDR, whose magic is less effective than good ol’ family and rural values that finally will Dorothy back to Kansas). And, of course, there are more recent parallels. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s devasting reportage of the inadequacies and self-delusion of US occupation administrators cocooned in Iraq’s Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, also has a WoOZ allusion (Is George W. the Scarecrow or the Wizard, though?).

For anyone interested, there’s an excellent overview of economic, political and religious allegories in the WoOZ by Quentin P. Taylor of Rogers State University, as well as a Wikipedia article on the same subject, and useful hub site with links to various critics’ essays here. And, if you’re really interested there’s also an academic book on the subject: Ranjit S. Dighe (ed.) The Historian’s Wizard of Oz — Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory, (Praeger Publishers, 2002). Wow.

In truth, however I was most taken with bit of social satire at the end when the Wiz tells the Scarecrow not to too worry about his lack of brain:

“Why anybody can have a brain – a very mediocre commodity. ( … ) Back where I come from we have universities – seats of great learning – where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But – they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma!’. “

He then awards the Scarecrow a Th.D., Dr. of Thinkology (Mind you, only an honorary one. – nothing too unethical here). Not sure if this is promoting wider participation in higher education drawing attention to the problem of degree inflation or just a good of populism anti-intellectual smack in the face. Still, I laughed anyway and was still smiling when forked out for some very overpriced magic wands on the way out…

Update: And, for anyone, who doesn’t like political and social allegory, there is a more or less politics-free radio essay on the Wizard of Oz, by Salman Rushdie for next week here on the BBC Radio 4 website.

>I’d like to teach the world to… vote

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Ever been frustrated that the decisions of the US affect you when you have no influence on who gets to the Oval Office? If so, you at least have a chance to ‘vote’ online in a global online poll organized by two Icelanders (who obviously have more reason than most to feel vulnerable in the face of big power global politics and economics just now). Unsuprisingly, Obama sweeps the board in most countries of the world byhuge margins. The more hawkish McCain only gets a decent level of support (20-30%+) if rom online voters in US allies facing some kind of external threat (Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia – the subject of Russian hostility), Israel (no detailed explanation needed) and Columbia (narco-mafia, FARC). He also does well in Nicaragua and Venuzulua, presumably because of pro-US inclination of opponent of left-wing populist governments. I guess McCain’s 20% from Iranian ‘voters’ might also be a gesture of anti-regime sentiment. I’m at a loss, however, as to why McCain does well in Macedonia (90%) or gets a respectable 24% in Russia. My finger hovered over my mouse for a second , but I really wouldn’t want Sarah Palin a heart-beat away from the Presidency, so I clicked for Obama.
At least one British blogger seems to have toyed with the idea of UK becoming the 51st state, which would seem to be a kind of low taxing, eurosceptic’s dream but for those on the liberal-left would have the upside of abolishing the monarchy and putting Obama and sundry other liberal Democrats in the White House. However, as Wikipedia – ever packed with useful information – helpfully points out there is actually a rather long queue to become the 51st state (sorry, I should perhaps say ‘line’, shouldn’t I) with Puerto Rico, Cuba, Australia, Israel and Iraq all having some kind of claim too.