There are many lamentations, not least audibly from me, about the gridlock and general current futility of the U.S. political system, as well as the comparative mediocrity of most high officeholders, a trans-partisan problem. I was bemoaning to a contemporary, recently, that when I first became interested in American politics, the president, vice president, Senate leader, and House speaker were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, and all were generally respected in those roles. And all are still deemed with historical perspective to have been distinguished occupants of them, whatever controversy enshrouds some of them in other posts they held. The same is unlikely to be the case for all the current incumbents in those roles — President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senator Reid, and Speaker Boehner.
But Americans can at least be grateful that the political-party system has not fragmented. No durable national party has been founded since the Republicans in the 1850s, who united the Northern Whigs with many anti-slavery Democrats and elements of what was known as the American party — called “Know-Nothings” because of the password at their clubhouses, but an apt description in other ways. The American party was militantly anti-immigration and especially anti–Roman Catholic, and without it, the first Republican presidential nominee, Colonel John C. Frémont, an eccentric explorer and son-in-law of a leading Democrat (Thomas Hart Benton), might have run the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, a very close race.
In the last century, the disgruntled ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, running in 1912 against his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and Ross Perot in 1992, running against the incumbent, Republican George H. W. Bush, have been the only independent candidates who influenced the outcome of the presidential election. TR threw the 1912 election to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, and Perot threw the election of 1992 to Bill Clinton. Roosevelt and Taft had a personality and policy dispute, but Perot’s appearance was inexplicable. He ran in favor of an unspecifically balanced budget, abortion on demand, tightened gun control, an even more severe war on drugs, trade protectionism, militant environmentalism, and transfer of much authority to electronic referenda: a hodgepodge of causes of Right and Left. He abruptly withdrew from the race, but was back two months later, claiming he had been forced out by the Republicans who had threatened to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. He was, politically, an implausible charlatan, but he won nearly 20 million votes, almost 19 percent of the total, against 44.9 million for Clinton and 39.1 million for Bush.
The Progressives carried the single state of Wisconsin with Robert La Follette in 1924, running against Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis, and southern states’-rights parties won some states in 1948, 1960, and 1968, but did not influence the results of those elections. (In 1960, if the Alabama votes cast for Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia had been counted as independent, rather than for the official Democrat, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon would have won the popular vote, though the election result itself would not have been affected.)
In most other large democracies, the main political parties are steadily fragmenting. Germany, the world’s rising power — more so even than China, as whatever remains of the eurozone will be benignly satellized by Germany, and France is no longer strong enough to lead a counter-German party in Europe — is suffering a gradual multiplication of parties. Any party achieving 5 percent or more in a general election receives its prorated share of members in the lower house of the German federal parliament (Bundestag), which chooses the chancellor. For many years, there were effectively only three parties: the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, and a small business-conservative group, the Free Democrats. Though a faction of the Social Democrats was quite socialistic, and favored appeasing the Soviet Union and East Germany, the broad national consensus was fairly steady and, from a Western-alliance standpoint, reliable.
The Christian Democrats and Free Democrats still form the governing coalition, as they sometimes did in the times of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl (eight terms as chancellor between them, and nearly half the whole history of the Federal Republic), but the political scene has been joined by, in chronological order, the Greens; the residue of the imperishable former Communists of East Germany, known as the Left party; and now the Pirates. Yes, the Pirates: They started as an Internet party based on a Swedish group of the same name, but have broadened into a relatively peaceful neo-anarchist party. To call them libertarians would respectabilize their almost incoherent cyberspacey view of the world, and the traditional parties, even the Greens, have so far judged the Pirates, as well as the former Communists, unsuitable for coalition-building. If present polls are replicated in the elections next year, the two latter unloved groups, the parliamentary rump of unreconstructed East Germans and the disaffected techies, would deploy about 20 percent of the Bundestag, probably forcing Chancellor Merkel into a Grand Coalition with the chief opposition Social Democrats, in an ideologically ambiguous government.
This is the essence of rational conformity compared with to the French, who have been the masters of political eccentricity since the Revolution of 1789 started to veer into the sanguinary thickets of the Terror. In their presidential election this year, the front-running candidates, a centrist Gaullist (Nicolas Sarkozy) and a left-socialist (François Hollande) received only about 55 percent of the vote between them on the first day at the polls. There was an Archie Bunker, anti-immigration, anti-Europe third party that once was represented as extreme, the National Front, and a very rational centrist; but then came Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Left Front, who wanted an absolute maximum compensation for any executive of 20 times that of the lowest-paid employee and a tax rate of 100 percent on all incomes, however derived, above 360,000 euros. He was also going to tax unspecifically defined “unsocial” and “ecologically unsound” imports, and punish expatriates fiscally, seizing any assets they left behind in France. He won over 11 percent of the vote, but was a mere warm-up for the New Anti-Capitalist candidate for the presidency, Philippe Poutou, who declined to campaign because he was seeking the abolition of the presidency, and the candidate of Workers’ Struggle, Nathalie Arthaud, who also declined to campaign, because she considered elections “worthless” and believed that only armed struggle would accomplish anything useful for the disadvantaged, whom she unrequitedly championed. This disaffected duo bagged almost 2 percent of the vote between them.
The stable and unflappable United Kingdom, though well short of the French in political exotica, is becoming rather fissiparous also, and is going through its first peacetime coalition government in over 75 years. None of its parties would qualify as extreme, even by German standards, but the governing Conservative party is polling only 28 percent, eleven points below Labour. And the UK Independence party (UKIP), which is an absolutely sensible, Thatcherite party, is severely critical of the official antics of Europe, and advocates an enterprise economy, is now running five points ahead of the coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (14 percent to nine). The UKIP is likely to win the British elections for the European Parliament, where its talented leader, Nigel Farage, has been a star of dissent. If present trends continue, the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, when it is time for a new election, will have to ditch his present partners, offer 100 constituencies (out of about 630 in the House of Commons), many of them winnable, to Farage, and make a sharp turn to the right on Europe and several other issues. If he does not, Labour will be back with the most left-wing regime in British history. Britain seems, exceptionally, to be settling into coalition government, just as Canada exits it.
The American political system isn’t working well. But neither are many others. There is little wrong with American politics that the elevation of some new leaders won’t put right, and the system being what it is, the campaign for the next presidential election has already begun. Merry Christmas to all.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, recently published, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at email@example.com.