Defending Local Politics

It has often struck me how people are inclined to talk of Politics in the abstract with reference to specific political systems and events. One may speak of the United States’ politics in generalities, but more often than not these generalities are extended to comment on Political theory as a whole, straying away from American politics in the empirical and specific. This is a fallacy of the worst and most obvious kind, one which has been on my mind a great deal since attending a recent lecture called “Defending Politics” at Yale-NUS College by Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale.

Professor Smith outlined his belief that global politics are not in good standing at present; that, of late, there has been a movement toward two extremes in politics, one pole being a kind of extreme partisanship ( à la Tea Party) and the other being a “trans-political cosmopolitanism,” or the desire to transcend individual regimes in favour of a “one world” political philosophy. An excess of the former leads to, in short, government shutdowns and a general failure to carry out the people’s wishes, eventually resulting in neighbours fighting each other; an excess of the latter leads to a lack of healthy partisanship and competition that usually produces the right outcomes for citizens. Therefore, Professor Smith argues, the world needs to find an Aristotelian “middle way” in politics to combat these negative trends.

The question that I want to delve into is, to what extent is Professor Smith attempting to defend Politics in the abstract from negative, universal trends? Alternately, to what extent is his case a prime example of a US-centric ivory-tower argument that takes the local (American) and unthinkingly extrapolates it to the global and universal? When I asked Professor Smith this question after his speech—noting at the same time his qualification that his understanding of Politics is necessarily shaped by what he knows, meaning the United States’ politics—he responded by saying he does believe his argument is universal, because everywhere he looks he sees the same trends. The example he gave is European nations’ drive for “more Europe,” referring to the trans-national cosmopolitanism extreme of Smith’s spectrum.

I have a number of issues with this response. Other than the fact that the response does not adequately deal with my concern, the example of Europe is utterly misleading. The past couple of years have seen Western European countries struggling with the EU as voters increasingly reject this membership, shown most obviously by the rapid growth of anti-EU parties holding seats in the EU parliament following elections earlier this year. European voters are beginning to reject the cosmopolitanism that Professor Smith worries about. His response may have been true in 2008 (the year he seems to have first delivered an identical speech, now online on YouTube (linked above), but today he seems outdated.

Yet perhaps more importantly, the biggest problem I have is that the remainder of the world is, for Professor Smith, lumped into the “European” category (which, even in itself, is problematic, as indicated above). There was no mention of other countries’ political systems, nor any attempt at engaging with the swath of Asian nations that operate under entirely different paradigms. This is a curious omission given that his speech was delivered in Singapore. The sense that American politics is the only real form of politics worth talking about seemed pervasive.

Here is the fallacy—taking the local and the specific and using it to assert what is the global and the universal. There is a place for generalisations, but this is not one of them. At the very least, it is such a gross generalisation that its conclusions can have little relevance. Had Professor Smith titled his speech “Defending American Politics” I would have little problem. But as it were, he purported to comment on the global—leaving just one counter-example capable of invalidating his argument.

Let me take my home country, New Zealand, as such a counter-example. We have a proportional representation system with a number of parties forming the current government. Though our politics are partisan, and the opposition does its job well, there is almost an invisible line of partisanship that most politicians seem to know when not to cross. Perhaps also owing to the relative power of the executive in New Zealand’s political system, and the tradition of strict party discipline, there is always a decision when one is needed. Additionally, New Zealand maintains a proud and healthy independent spirit; being a member of international organisations, but not blindly following them. Nationalism exists, but is tempered nonetheless; it is nowhere near the extent that Professor Smith described. Although New Zealand’s politics are undoubtedly troubled by various institutional squabbles and more profound problems, they function rather well, and we seem to have achieved a healthy ‘middle ground’ that Professor Smith claims the entire world is still searching for.

His pessimism for present day’s politics is not universal, and as far as I can tell is applicable only to a handful of countries. I wonder if differences in the sizes of countries affect how closely a nation’s politics resembles Professor Smith’s view—if larger nations struggle more with poles of extremism than smaller ones, perhaps because there is a wider range of opinions that populate that spectrum. This is a natural consequence of a large population, but a nuance sorely lacking in Professor Smith’s paradigm.

Professor Smith ended his lecture with the idea that the best way to obtain an education in political science—and therefore hopefully shape political systems with that “middle way”—is to read some of the classics. The authors he mentioned? Plato, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville. This laundry list of ‘Best of the West’ summed up the Euro-centrism of his speech. Even giving a lecture in Asia couldn’t persuade Professor Smith to include even a single Eastern political thinker, or to mention differences in political opinion from the European authors he mentioned. The world seemed, to those in his audience, mere variants of America; as though America alone, and the classical European thinkers that helped shape American politics, could speak for every political system in the world, despite the immense diversity within those systems. Ultimately, I thought to myself, is America in fact the exception in world political systems? Did Professor Smith use an abnormality, a system, unusually amongst democracies, being skewed to extremist poles as the rest of the world watches and tries desperately to do things differently?

There does seem to be a case for defending American politics. Other than that, I hope I’ve adequately defended local politics from the sort of extreme American-lens one-world cosmopolitanism portrayed by Professor Smith. And ultimately I left the lecture with a renewed sense of satisfaction that I attend Yale-NUS College, a school occupying a unique place, to use the cliché, between East and West, where it is taken as a given that diversity is the only universal.