Once a week in London, Gordon Brown squares off against his political opponents. As British Prime Minister, the Labour Party leader must personally appear before Parliament each Wednesday. This isn’t the same as memorizing speeches written by some third person or sending proxies to field softball questions from a tame press corps. When Brown goes before the House of Commons, he gets grilled by the Conservative Party and David Cameron, current Leader of the Opposition.
This British constitutional convention, known as the Prime Minister’s Questions, is not unique to the UK. Such question-and-answer sessions are commonplace in English-speaking democracies. Canada has a similar convention, known as Question Period, which occurs each sitting day in the federal Parliament, and also in the provincial legislatures. India’s Lok Sabha has Question Hour. The Dáil Éireann in the the Republic of Ireland has what are called Leader’s Questions. Oceanic democracies Australia and New Zealand both have Question Time.
In fact, the United States of America was the sole English-speaking country I could find that has yet to institute this sort of practice.
A replay of yesterday’s PMQ aired on C-Span last night as I was drifting to sleep. I was startled awake by the blunt frankness of PM Greg Hands:
“The biography on the Prime Minister’s website records no achievements in the past year, but it does boast about his popularity as a schoolboy. We are told that he “joined in every aspect of school life, quickly becoming popular. Given the Stalinist adulation from the past, can he explain why this week he has become Britain’s least popular Prime Minister ever?”
These weekly events ensure that lines of communication remain open between the Legislative and Executive branches of government. They put pressure on elected officials to hold other elected officials accountable for bad decisions. A sense of transparency exists between the government and it’s people.
We don’t have that in the United States.
The annual State of the Union Address, in which the U.S. President addresses Congress, not only occurs less frequently but has become little more than a formality. The format of this ritualized event leaves no opportunity for political opponents to challenge what the President has said and–usually more importantly–to inquire about issues not mentioned and things left unsaid. Knowing that his words will go unchallenged, the President is free to proceed with a series of remarks that lack substance. Instead of candor and explanation, the President offers platitudes. Opposition figures like House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, planted directly behind the President, have to (or perhaps want to) clap and cheer. The clever soundbites are organized in such a way so that not clapping would be interpreted as being against “protecting the American people from another 9/11.”
Only once during his eight years as “leader of the free world” has George W. Bush faced anything near the level of flak that confronts British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on a weekly basis. That was when he ran for reelection in 2004; and even then, all he had to do was memorize articulate speeches and regurgitate sound bites Karl Rove whispered through his earpiece.
Watching the way they do things elsewhere may shed light on why people in foreign nations tend to perceive the USA as intellectually bankrupt. The leaders we elect speak volumes about who we are as a people. Can you fathom George W. Bush under the sort of cross-examination that fell on Gordon Brown yesterday? Can you imagine Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi giving it to him with the effectiveness of David Cameron? Not only are American politicians not scrutinized; neither are they versed in the art of scrutinizing each other. Four years of cross-examination from an articulate Left would have outed our President as the incompetent and morally empty man that he is. In such a political environment, any citizenry (even one as politically disengaged as America’s) would have then had the wherewithal not to reelect him in 2004 to keep fucking things up for another four years. In fact, the mere prospect of facing such a daunting audience would probably have discouraged Bush from running in the first place; or led his supporters to weigh his strengths and shortcomings and to refrain from nominating him in 2000.
It seems the elected representatives in Great Britain actually want to be politicians. By contrast, American “public service” has evolved to mean something else: attending ritzy functions and shaking hands of fellow-elites. “We the people” have become an annoyance, like a bug bite that’s hard to reach. The trick for politicians is figuring out how to neutralize us–hence the politics of mutual back-scratching America’s elected officials and wealthy campaign funders with special agendas.
We need to fundamentally alter how politicians approach their jobs. That starts with updating our expectations. Both Barack Obama and John McCain promise to “fix Washington” and to “end partisan bickering.” But what cripples the American political system is not partisan bickering, per se, but rather the tangential issues that Republicans and Democrats bicker about. Vibrant debate is a good thing. Imagine a Legislative Branch where the Right acted more like Ron Paul and the Left more like Dennis Kucinich. Both are willing to do the thankless legwork of a true statesman, knowing full well that they’ll be mocked and ridiculed for it. Currently these men are outcasts withwithin their own respective parties; in a nation that truly valued representative democracy, they’d be party leaders.