Every four years the US election bombards our television screens, allowing us to observe a political system far more politicised than our own. The evidence is everywhere: a string of partisan 24-hour television services, erstwhile students devoting the best years of their lives to campaigns, and literally billions of dollars spent. Here, almost every attempt to inject more politics is greeted with scepticism or apathy: earlier this year elected mayors were voted down, the move towards open primaries by the Conservative Party has been quietly dropped, and people are hardly enthusiastic about Police Commissioners. Americans certainly care a lot more about who is in power rather than simply complaining about it.
It is right to decry many people’s lack of interest in politics, but this is not the same as the sort of excessive commitment to the political process that exists in the US. The octopoid claws of politicisation do not stop at candidates and political questions; they latch onto questions of morality and fact that ought rightly to be distinguished. Even worse, these questions become indistinguishable from a political party. This makes it impossible for a debate to be progressed and creates the division of party membership rather than conscience.
The abortion debate is long and complex. It rests on the philosophical questions of when life begins and whether it is possible to privilege one life (the mother’s) over another (the foetus, which may well not be a ‘life’ at all). These are not political questions. It is perfectly possible to be a socialist and still be pro-life if one concludes that life begins earlier than the current 24 week limit. However, since the 1980s it has become impossible to detach the abolition of abortion from the Republican Party, so much so that Mitt Romney had to perform one of several political somersaults to become pro-life to get the Party’s presidential nomination. In fact Romney’s conversion was prefigured in the way that several prominent Democrats including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Ted Kennedy suddenly became pro-choice. Romney may be a Republican through and through, but an issue of conscience (abortion) has been thrust upon him not because of any change to his thinking but because the Party required it. In this environment, the progress of debate over ethical questions is stymied by the party-political machine. Ironically, it is the Republican Party’s rabid moral monopoly over abortion that makes its abolition in the United States impossible. By extension, Democrats are thrust into a position of opposition because the language of abortion is, effectively, ‘If you are pro-life, you are a Republican.’
One of the least recognised effects of the Labour Party’s adoption of hitherto Tory economic policies in the mid-1990s was that it meant those who were economically liberal no longer had to associate themselves with the Conservative Party. It liberated many from a narrow party-political position and, in turn allowed the Conservative Party to be criticised internally for its social policies. Many Conservative MPs are now strongly socially liberal, which is why it is possible for the Party even to contemplate legalising gay marriage. It’s why advocates and opponents are spread across the party divide in a way that is not possible in the US.
It is only when politics and parties do not monopolise moral questions that they can be debated freely without incurring the slur, ‘If you believe that then why aren’t you X?’ This does nothing to move on a debate, but only shuts it down. It is necessary to engage in these questions independently of your party to be able to wade through the complexities of an issue before reaching a compromise.
Bill Clinton, in his speech to this year’s Democratic Convention, was striking when he said, ‘I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats.’ Arguably, it works both ways. Because politics has infected every sphere of life, and the parties have monopolised the alternative positions in non-political debates, it is no longer possible for Republicans and Democrats to talk to each other. Politicisation has simply created more party and less thought.