Thursday, November 6, 2008

From the Sublime to the ... PS

America has been born again, but the post-Hollande Parti Socialiste, scheduled for delivery in a few hours, will probably be stillborn. Alas. The maneuvering of the various éléphants, gazelles, dinosaures, et hippopotames, ainsi que quelques ratons-laveurs et autres rongeurs, has been a regular theme of this blog. I had hoped that some clarity would emerge, some fil conducteur for the renewal of the left that would make sense not only to me but also to a plausible majority of voters in the next presidential election, which, after all, is the goal. Constructing a party is not an aesthetic or intellectual exercise; it is an enterprise with a purpose, which (in a system like the French) is to win elections. And at the moment nothing suggests that the PS is going to succeed in that effort, no matter whom it chooses.

Why the failure? To be sure, the clash of ambitions, the kaleidoscope of alliances of convenience, has not helped. The promiscuity has been so ubiquitous that at times it seems as though every potential leader has at one time or another been allied with every other. Fabius is now with Aubry, who once said, "je n'ai rien à dire à ce mec." Moscovici the Strauss-Kahnien is now with Delanoë, but his erstwhile partner Cambadélis is with Aubry. Montebourg has been with everybody, but for the moment he's with somebody, while his one-time co-author Hamon has become un cavalier seul, hoping to turn the party's left flank, supposedly in arms in the wake of the financial crisis. Hence there is no ideological clarity.

But is that really the fundamental problem? No mass party is ideologically pure, and without a mass party you can't win in a presidential system. To be sure, one narrative of the Socialist dilemma runs like this: the PS was proceeding smoothly toward renewal, toward embrace of the "social market economy" and long overdue accommodation with the niche of reality reserved for social liberalism, when the crisis stirred long-dormant militants supposedly yearning yet again for la rupture finale, thus throwing everything into disarray. I don't believe this. I don't think that a revolutionary column lurks within the PS awaiting its captain. I'm skeptical as well that a revolutionary column lurks outside the PS, warily eyeing Besancenot while secretly hoping that another Mitterrand will emerge to unify the diverse left and sweep it once again peacefully into power.

Here is a hypothesis. I don't know if I believe it and invite your comments, but here goes: What voters want, what militants want, is a leader who can credibly embody their hopes and aspirations. Like it or not--and for the most part I don't like it--a presidential system calls for political incarnation. A candidate is a personality more than an idea. The policies he or she embodies may be incoherent, incompatible, even in part repugnant to followers, but the personality must be clearly legible. America veered from Bush, who in 2004, despite already evident failures, still embodied the fears and vengeful fantasies born of 9/11, to Obama, who incarnated the atonement engendered by all that aggression. France in 2007 was content to move from the avuncular, familiar, fatigué et usé Chirac to the brash, punchy, energetic Sarkozy. Despite much continuity in policy, this change in the personality of the state was enough to simulate renewal, a promise of change.

The Socialists have yet to come up with an equally plausible embodiment of a set of policies that haven't really changed all that much since the Jospin of 1995-2002--and why should they have, since on the whole the record of achievement was not all that bad. The figures on comparative economic performance, which once spoke in favor of the need for fundamental changes, and in which I myself probably placed too much credence in the early days of this blog, are now to be taken with a grain of salt; we can no longer tell what part of relative growth and high employment was due to infusions of the growth hormones of creative finance and what was real.

Yes, I know: the American election of 2008 was decided by the economy, stupid, not by any nebuous notion of political incarnation. But let me indulge my fantasy. I'm still in the grip of euphoria.

12 comments:

Leo said...

Although a little more clarity on what the PS stands for would be helpful, I think I can follow you on this one. A case in point is that it was Segolene's personality (questionable as it definitely is) that energized the Left and gave it its highest recent score during the last elections.
And yes, even though I would also prefer voters choices to be founded on ideas and solid capabilities, we have to live with our political systems.

But political incarnation does have its virtues and I am not certain your last sentence correctly states the mood of the electorate. Sure, the economy fundamentally changed the electoral background, but it is Obama's incredible stature which swayed those who always end up deciding the elections, i.e. the Centrists.

Alain Q. said...

Yes, it is true that there is no clear "présidentiable" in the PS, nobody to embody the hopes and aspirations of the militants.

But it is also true that the conversion of the PS to the market economy has always been reluctant, they have all been quite shameful in their way to recognize it. Remember the uproar when Delanoë was brave enough to use the word " liberal" outside of trying to be insultant !

This is why on the occasion of the present crisis, you can hear all the old anti-capitalist rethoric florishing again, from Hamon who wants to negotiate with Besancenot, to Aubry who now dares to claim that " the 35-hour week was only a first step ". Even the epitome of the so-called " 2ème gauche", Michel Rocard, managed to get on Art's nerves..

The very light coat of social-liberalism on the PS facade is badly crackling and the dull gray paint of marxism is showing again..

kirkmc said...

I think your point about a "personality" is spot on. The Socialists don't have _anyone_ who has what it takes to be a serious contender. Look at Hollande; how could he have been where he is for so long. Just look at how he was mocked - and this for as many years as he has been the head of the party - on the Guignols. I think they caught exactly his problem: he seems like a lump, no character, no spine.

As for Segolene, I'm one of those who thinks she was just about the worst possible choice. Not only is she someone with little real experience (deputé and regional president don't really cut it), but her "on va discuter avec les partenaires sociaux" was one of the worst repeated waffles I've seen in this country's politics. Add to that the left's attempt to win by a negative (tout sauf Sarkozy) and it's clear why they lost.

No, I don't think any of the power-hungry socialists have a chance - none of them seem credible. They're too worried about airing their grievances in public, whereas I've always felt that internal party manipulations should be done out of the spotlight.

Mr Punch said...

I think the PS's basic political problem, which you do not escape here, is a failure to grasp how far removed in a presidential election is the personal "embodiment" from specic policy -- in effect, how different a president is from a premier.

The PS doesn't need a "plausible embodiment of a set of policies" going back to Jospin. Jospin himself was a plausible embodiment of those policies; but he was not a plausible presidential candidate.

In presidential politics, the left is dominated by the PS, which functions as a parliamentary party, whereas the right functions as a presidential coalition. These models both worked for their founders, but in this regard Giscard's legacy is better than Mitterand's.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Keep the comments coming! I don't want to interfere with the free flow of ideas, but I did want to react to Kirk's comment on Royal's lack of experience. Obama, too, lacks experience (you can see what's dominating my thinking at the moment), but he made this work for him rather than against him. Note how many comments there were on his steadiness, his "first-class intellect and temperament" (improving on the famous comment on FDR, whose temperament was first-class but intellect only second-class in the eyes of one judge), etc. All this may come back to haunt him. Expectations are greater than any mortal could fulfill. But the meagerness of his record meant that his steadiness could shine through, and in a context of economic turbulence it was that quality that attracted many centrist voters. I was once on a ship at sea in a storm. Everybody was reeling around the decks, retching, clutching the rails, but the captain with his sea legs was able to walk ramrod straight through the cabin in his impeccable uniform. It was somehow a very reassuring sight. Obama reminds me of that captain. Ségo, on the other hand, reminds me of the passengers desperately reaching for whatever pillar or stanchion was nearest to hand.

kirkmc said...

I don't want to sound like I'm repeating Obama talking points, but Obama's experience goes beyond his elected offices. I think his being a lawyer, having taught constitutional law, and other things are experience that are quite valid. What did Royal do?

But your point about a ship-captain is quite good. I, too, see Obama as someone extremely stable and lucid, and Segolene's outburst in that debate showed that she was anything but.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Kirk, Of course I always made your argument whenever anyone expressed a concern about Obama's lack of experience, and often the reply was, "Yes, a teacher of constitutional law is a fine thing, but I'm talking about executive experience." For some people, there is something transformative about giving orders. I don't think the presidency is at all comparable to a managerial or CEO position, but for some this matters a lot.

Boz said...

If your going to debate the quality of PS candidates you also have to consider how they are chosen. The US primary system may be incredibly long, money filled, and favor states that are not very representative of the country, but it does allow for no-names to have a real shot (think Dean) or allow someone like Obama to gain momentum over time. If you have a single vote with limited party membership, your limiting options from the start.

As for the actual campaign, I'd agreee with Sarkozy's belief that "les deux élections présidentielles les plus difficiles au monde sont celles des Etats-Unis et de la France, en raison des modes de scrutin et de la longueur des campagnes," and agree that Royal ran a terrible campaign. No personality or politics could have changed the fact that Sarkozy's campaign made Royal's look like a bunch of amateurs.

Tom Holzman said...

Mitterand was probably the last really good candidate the PS had for president. He was a terrific orator and had some charisma. I have not seen anyone like that since. I think it is difficult for anyone to plausibly "incarner" a party that is so splintered, much less for that person to present him or herself in that context as some sort of unifying force for France in the same way Obama did in the US or Mitterand was able to in his time. I am very pessimistic that this any of this generation of PS leaders will be able to win the presidency; to extend the metaphor, extinction of the dinosaurs is probably necessary.

bernard said...

I would urge all the kind souls who commiserate on the low level of living socialists as compared to dead socialists to join the socialist party. That way, they will have some legitimacy and they can even help select tomorrow's leaders. I have already heard this song many times, for instance in the early nineties when all of Europe appeared conservative and the socialist party was supposed to be dying. And then, lo and behold, by the late nineties most governments were socialist, or better put, progressive. And so on.

I wonder whether people realize that they sound awfully like Karl Rove in 2004 with his Republicans in control forever?

Yes, Sarkozy is a gifted politician from the right who shifted language and policies sufficiently far to the right to attract the far-right electorate and win (I would remind people that the only age category in which he won a plurality of the vote was the over-65).

He is now realizing that he has gone so far right that the danger is for him to loose the center electorate as Bush did. He will thus talk about more moderate policies from now on. But it will be talk only, because the last time I checked he doesn't have one spare cent that he can spend (500 million Euros for his bull..t sovereign fund, this is spare change on financial markets, I used to move that every day).

Within a few days the socialist party will have selected a leadership. This leadership will by definition be mocked by all, especially if Royal is the dominant figure there. I would incidentally remind people that Paul Krugman's (he does not lavish praise easily on a professional level) favorite French economist is Royal's chief economic adviser. One wonders what such a smart man is doing with such an idiot, or could it perhaps be that he knows something you don't.

In any case, given the economy, the next socialist victory will likely be the European elections in a few months. Readers might remember that the last victory took place six months ago.

I do agree that the socialist party is too parliamentary in a system that is presidential. This in fact was Royal's major insight during her unsuccessful bid and this is why she organized her désir d'avenir committees. Strangely to me, no other major would-be leader seems to have understood this. That her campaign was poorly run, I would agree with. You should have watched Mitterrand's campaign in 1965, he was terrible as well.

If there is anyone who can demonstrate that Delanoe would make a better presidential candidate, I would love to see the proof: just close your eyes and try to imagine the kind of national campaign a Delanoe would run.

The only one who could have made a perfect presidential candidate was L. Fabius, but obviously events precluded his ever running a long time ago. He remains probably the brightest and most politically astute man in the party, although too inclined to Florentine maneuvering.

Tom Holzman said...

Fabius learned at the feet of the master, Le Florentin.

kirkmc said...

Watching Ferry-Julliard on LCI this morning, they pointed out that only 120,000 people voted for the new PS head. That was a 55% turnout, so we're talking about a party that can only get about 200,000 people to subscribe to its ideas enough to be involved?

I've said it before and I'll say it again; this isn't news. This is the internal workings of a political party, and doesn't deserve front-page news. In fact, it being granted that status makes it all the more complicated, because the would-be-heads-of-party are playing to the press as much as they're playing to the people willing to vote for them.