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Politics is an Intimate Game
Adam Maxwell Jenkins • The American system doesn't measure up
October 2003

This summer I had the unique opportunity to work in British Parliament under a Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP), Mr. Tom Watson. Mr. Watson is a young, newly appointed member of Government, and a self-proclaimed “new generation MP.” He lays claim to the only Parliamentary weblog in the United Kingdom, on which he relies to keep in touch with his constituents and to achieve faster and denser communication between the government in Westminster and the electorate in his district. Closeness is key — between constituents and policymakers, the periphery and the capital, youth activists and incumbent legislators – closeness is the impetus driving his revolution. Watson has grasped the truth that for years has remained obscure to American government, indeed, to the entire apparatus of American political media: that the electorate must retain some sense of feeling, some substantive affection and closeness toward the men and women that elect him to represent them. This closeness is slipping away from us day by day, as television and celebrity mediate our relationship with our leaders and render the political process lifeless.


Politics must move us! And thus, our leaders must be accessible—not via the flaccid monolith of television news, not in a cold intellectual context, but in an intimate way, divorced from the one-way monotony of contemporary political rhetoric. There should be a dialogue; not in the abstruse sense of American politics, but in the intimate setting that Tom Watson and Parliament have constructed for themselves.

Here are a few examples of Watson’s efforts to sustain intimacy: Watson conducts live and informal radio interviews from his office, without any preparation. We are all asked to keep the noise to a minimum, but there is nothing synthetic about the affair—no stages or talk shows.

He personally updates his website up to four times a day, responding to comments, posting humorous links, writing about where he is and what he is doing at that moment. He provides a real firsthand account of the political life and how he feels about it.

Watson’s openness, although often criticized even in England, is essential to sustaining communication between the government and the consitituents who support it. Politicians cannot afford restraint and estrangement, for where these exist, media commentary tries to fill the empty space and inevitably succeeds only in widening it. There is no substitute for a direct link, for open lines of communication between the only two parties that matter. Media never engendered interest in the way that Watson has been able to by establishing a reciprocal voice.

It is crucial to understand this in terms of more than weblogs—- his efforts to interact and involve his constituents draw on technology but they are not confined to it. This is a way of thinking, which, if of concern to our leaders here, is certainly not substantiated by practice.

There are two problems with which America must contend: first, the problem of geography, which dampens political discourse simply by separating the relevant actors, and second, the pseudo-solution of media, which intercedes in an attempt to bridge the spatial gap and manages only limited results.

Let’s deal with the first. Compared to America, Britain is a small country-— Watson’s constituency is small and thus conducive to one-on-one interactions between members and residents. This legacy has become so entrenched and revered that Jack Straw, the minister of foreign affairs, was forced to defer his participation in part of the Iraq debates in order to fulfill the obligation they present. It is unrealistic to think that a resident from California will, on a whim, drive across the country to visit his representatives in Washington, but this sort of participation is more plausible in Britain. It would be impractical to expect the same frequency of interpersonal exchange from American leaders—- but it is inaccurate to believe that the problem is unsolvable.

In Britain, every politician, from incoming 2001 MPs up through the Prime Minister, is responsible to a local electorate, and, as in the case of Mr. Straw, is compelled to take time out of his administrative schedule for handling local issues. Neither President Bush, nor any of his cabinet, has comparable obligations. The President has no local constituency and the cabinet is unelected. In contrast, Tony Blair does have such a constituency, and his ministers are elected. The American federal system exacerbates the problem that geography creates. If American national leaders were tied to local concerns, it would considerably improve our predicament, offsetting some of the needless problems facing American politics whose causes we attribute to geography.

The second problem relates to media, which is in itself a product of our geography, an institution which necessarily arose to fill gaps in communication. Of course, Britain possesses the same institution, arguably to a disproportionately greater degree. But the content is fundamentally different. British media is starkly partisan and the discourse is inflamed to a degree that conveys politics viscerally and exaggeratedly, which in the context of this discussion, seems to be a good thing because it engenders the interest that American media seems always to neglect. Reading a British paper, one feels as if one is literally standing in the House of Commons; by contrast, American papers rarely achieve more than the sense of taking a tour. The solutions here are more obscure; it is not clear that a reform of the political process would do much to change its portrayal on television or in papers; but perhaps the most powerful indictment that can be made is that American media lacks charisma. There may be nothing to be done; we may want to maintain our standards of relative objectivity and avoid compromising between excitement and objectivity (i.e., Fox News). It is a choice to be made, and a choice, which, in virtue of the other problem, needs carefully to be considered.

In no way is this intended to ascribe blame-— America is confronted with seriously different issues and logistical constraints, and its institutions have adapted and evolved within its unique parameters. And America is indisputably placed in a distinct and preeminent position with respect to other systems of government, given its wider contextual importance.

But there is something so real and so violently substantive about British politics. Politics is, in its most compelling form, a war of a thousand coruscating duels—- it is a nexus of social life, and the core of the relationships that control, define and articulate our world. There can be no distance between it and that which it seeks to create and be created by.

Adam Maxwell Jenkins is a sophomore in Morse College.


 
 

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