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US Politics

Newly confirmed as US Secretary of State, John Kerry delivered his first policy speech last week, making the case for a renewed and proactive American diplomacy. Directing his remarks to the US Congress – and to Beijing’s leaders – more than to his actual audience at the University of Virginia, his message was urgent: “This is a time to continue to engage for the sake of the safety and the economic health of our country. This is not optional. It is a necessity.” Given the looming March 1 deadline for across-the-board sequestration which would reduce State Department operations by $850 million and foreign assistance by $1.7 billion, the US’ chief diplomat used his speech to defend the foreign policy budget against spending cuts, portraying foreign affairs as the guarantor of American economic prosperity.

Last week, I gave a talk at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute about the German historian Reinhart Koselleck (left) and the relevance of his conception of ‘historical time’ to the study of ideologies in America. We are used to thinking about ideology as a pejorative term — a utopian blueprint for world order with all the consequences that totalitarianism brings. But this is a narrow view. Ideologies are, more broadly speaking, a particular type of political thinking that operates in-between political philosophy and what we can call ‘real politics’ — that is the practical doing (and thinking) that goes on in political life. By ‘in-between’ I mean distinct from philosophy and ‘real politics’, but not mutually exclusive to them. Ideologies are, to put it crudely, where ideas and political action meet; they are ideas with an active prescriptive component which aim for political influence. Ideologies are types of political thought that want to influence political conduct.

The American president has signed the bill drafted by Democratic and Republican leaders, which allows the United States to avoid “fiscal cliff”. The solution adopted by the Congress does not, however, solve the problem, but only touches some of its elements (tax policies) and postpones dealing with the others (cuts in governmental spending) for a few weeks. So who won in this dramatic battle, fought late into the first night of the New Year? Choosing the winner depends on one’s point of view, but no matter the viewpoint we take, one thing seems to be certain – the national interest has lost.

It was a sunny day in March 2011 and Stephen Colbert was getting restless. Colbert had been working out a comedic sketch of a political ad by the former Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, but he did not quite know how to end the parody. Then Colbert had an idea: he would substitute ‘LibertyPAC.com,’ the name of Pawlenty’s political action committee, for ‘ColbertPAC.com’ and would buy the URL in jest. Almost immediately after the episode aired, Colbert received a frantic call from the Comedy Central network, which had evidently bought the joke and insisted that he refrain from forming ColbertPAC.

Now that November 6th has passed, Americans will stop keeping up with politics and continue Keeping up with the Kardashians. Yet, several of the most crucial elements of American democracy still warrant close attention, including voter identification laws, the restrictions on early voting and, not least of all, the newest phrase to have permeated American politics, that “corporations are people too”.

I think it’s fair to say that democracy in the United States is already pretty “deep”. As a US citizen, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a society whose history is rooted in democratic ideals—a society that continues to benefit from the types of “elections with integrity” that the 2012 Report of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security promotes. It’s therefore tempting to say that everything is just fine, that democracy in the United States is “deep” enough. But I would argue that democracy, in any meaningful sense, requires an informed citizenry—and, accordingly, that an informed citizenry is a necessary precondition for all of the recommendations that the 2012 Global Commission Report contains.

One of the big questions in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election was what the turnout would be. Would the supposed “enthusiasm gap” lead to lower turnout amongst some of the key demographics behind Obama’s 2008 victory, like African-Americans and college students? Would the absence of the extraordinary volunteer mobilization seen around the Presidents’ first campaign leave his re-election effort without the capacity to expand the electorate through large-scale voter registration efforts and an extensive and intense effort to get out the vote?

Barack Obama won re-election, his party managed to hold the Senate, and the House of Representatives is still – exactly as before the elections – dominated by the Republicans. Licking their wounds, they remain hostile to presidential administration. Has anything shifted? More than it seems. Certainly there is scope for a number of changes on the horizon – the most important ones concerning the American right.