OSAKA – The actual elections are months away, but politicians of all stripes on both sides of the Pacific are busy spending money like water, using devious and sometimes devilish techniques to dish opponents and grab or maintain power. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” but such a system is barely recognizable anymore in Japan or in the self-proclaimed democracies of the West.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is talking with other parties, including the opposition, to find allies to grab the two-thirds majority in the Upper House of the Diet that he needs to amend Japan’s Constitution. But this is six months before the Upper House election and before Abe has laid out his plans for the people. Don’t the people count anymore except as a rubber stamp?
Abe admitted on television: “It will be very difficult for the ruling bloc alone to win a two-thirds majority. Besides the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, I aim to form a two-thirds majority with those positive and responsible people who are thinking of a constitutional revision,” and he mentioned Osaka Ishin no Kai as one possible partner.
Amending Japan’s Constitution is Abe’s overriding ambition, but if he gets intimate with Osaka Ishin, he will have to concede a quid pro quo — probably a major revision of the governing structure of Osaka city and prefecture. This is an important issue, like revision of the Constitution, that should be properly studied, not decided on the whims or fancies of one person or group.
It may be unfair to single out Abe, but he has been relentless in pushing his own agenda, without fully informing the public or bothering to carry public support. Examples abound: the state secrets law; reinterpreting the Constitution to allow the Self-Defense Forces to be active abroad; and now the ambition to get rid of a constitution that Abe and friends consider an occupation era imposition — ironic that Washington encouraged Abe to reinterpret the Constitution to allow the SDF to operate in support of the United States.
Across the Pacific, the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers built in to the U.S. Constitution, including a separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary are contributing to deadlock. Pig-headed obstruction by the Republican-controlled Congress is making it difficult for President Barack Obama to pursue policies at home or abroad and rendering government dysfunctional.
The situation is so bad that two senior former senators, Republican Trent Lott and Democrat Tom Daschle, have written a book together, claiming that the U.S. is at “crisis point” and its politics are “broken” by “mindless and unprecedented partisanship. … It is time to sound the alarm.” There is no sign that things are going to get better. Republican front-runner for the 2016 presidential election, businessman and TV host Donald Trump, surely trumped everyone with his claim that, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” He didn’t say he would kill, but surely the boastful Trump would not miss.
All these antics are happening before the voters are given any say, and when they get a chance, it is a single choice for one candidate, with whom they have to live for years. French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau famously mocked the English belief in their freedom. “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.”
That was 250 years ago. Government has become increasingly complex, and national, regional and local domestic matters are today interwoven with regional, international and global complications — some of which strike urgently out of the blue, like natural disasters, diseases or faraway wars that lead to refugees or jihadists landing on your doorstep. Most governments and electorates have blinkered views that don’t range far beyond the here and now.
It is clearly not practical to insist that a party must submit a manifesto to the electorate and abide by every line of it if elected. Equally, it is ingenuous of an elected government to claim that its victory gives it a mandate to enact any policy listed in the manifesto — not unless voters are allowed to give their approval or disapproval against each manifesto item. Parliamentary governments are often elected with a minority of the electorate and even a minority of the votes cast.
What penalty should apply to a government that campaigned heavily on one promise, but in power devotes its time and energy to a different policy?
Governing is also about making choices, including the time and political capital spent on one policy rather than another. Who will chide Abe for faltering in his quest for the holy grail of Abenomics — or “Ahonomics,” as professor Noriko Hama and other doubters call it?
Who will question him about relentless pursuit via a new constitution of the chimera of “sovereignty”? Japan has surrendered sovereignty by joining the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Whaling Commission, an aspiring founder of Trans-Pacific Partnership, not to speak of hosting many U.S. military bases.
Apart from myriad complex issues governments face — many fermenting like dangerous viruses — another problem is the poor quality of people going into politics. The Irish philosopher-politician Edmund Burke declared that an elected member of parliament owes his constituents a duty of listening to their views, but his obligation is to parliament. In Japan and the United Kingdom, members of parliament are mostly slaves to their party, so supine that they dare not speak out even against obvious idiocies of policymaking.
Short of holding regular referendums on any contentious issue — and Japan may soon find out how flawed a referendum can be, depending on the framing and wording of the question — it is hard to bring regular popular influence to bear on politicians.
Worshippers of modern communications had high hopes of social media, but most have surely been dashed by experience that mountains of contributions are ephemeral, flimflam and fluff. In serious newspapers like The Guardian, reading comments on articles is a journey to the edge of despair, sometimes thousands of destructive, uncharitable views, even after stripping out obvious trolls. As for Twitter, a wittering of tweets: How can you enunciate or criticize a policy in 140 characters?
Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, famously declared that given a choice of a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would opt for the newspapers. Few people today, apart from the American radical right, would wish to do away with government. But it is imperative that government be constantly scrutinized, questioned, challenged to do better.
Abe wishes to change the Constitution: Is this the best use of his time and government energies? How should it be done to ensure a lasting document that will benefit the Japanese people, not just a small group with axes to grind?
Japan’s universities should offer an intellectual challenge, probing not just the frontiers of science, but the way we live, how to ensure democracy in a changing world. Where are the scholars whose eloquent arguments about amending the Constitution even Supreme Court judges would respect? Whose incisive comments on Abenomics, for and against, would make ministers and bureaucrats tremble? Whose historical wisdom would guide Japan’s diplomacy and prevent silly mistakes in great power games? My small experience of Japanese academia makes me despair: do not challenge and remember the government is paymaster.
Much of Japan’s media has become part of the entertainment business. The mainstream press forgets that the government owes its power to the one day in years when the people cast off their slavery. This is not a good basis for raising a prime minister to a minor god, especially not when some of his close associates can’t remember who has provided funds. A British newspaper back in 1860 described its ambition to be, “a light to guide the world, and a mirror to reflect it.” Japan’s academics and media should wake up to old wisdom.
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist, commentator and quondam professor at Osaka University.