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Jack Sprat’s Law

Is there some connection between republican government and nastiness? For politics in America is a nasty affair, is it not? Oh, I don’t mean it’s nasty the way Syrian or Ukrainian politics are nasty. Rather, they’re nasty in the way that politics in Britain and Canada aren’t nasty.

Right now Britain is going through a secession crisis. What, you didn’t hear of it? On 18 September next, the Scots will vote on whether Great Britain will become a little less great, shorn of 5 million North Britons. It looks like a near-run thing, but it’s still a remarkably calm debate. As for Canada, I’ve lived through perpetual secession crises, and while I knew people on both sides I never lost a friend over it. For me, as a (bilingual) Anglo in Quebec, secession would have been a déchirement, but one wasn’t going to lose one’s sense of humor over it.

It’s a little different here. Forget secession. I’ve lost friends over plans to install bike lanes on my street. And then there are presidential politics, where Americans are bitterly divided. Chances are you don’t know too many people on the other side, apart from idiot uncles. We pick our friends not by their literary tastes or hobbies, but by their politics. Even our local associations are separated by partisan divides. Churches used to be segregated by race. Now they’re often segregated by politics.

American politics are increasingly totalitarian, in the sense that they suck all the air out of the room. Obamacare, gay marriage, Iraq, those are the issues that matter, and were are lucky to find some respite from the serious business of political rancor in sports, where our hatred of Obama or Romney can be usefully diverted to the New York Yankees.

Were I to speculate, I might ask whether the different methods of government could explain the difference. In parliamentary countries, it’s hard to take politics too seriously if one watches the slanging matches between buffoons in the House of Commons. There’s nothing much like that in American government, where speeches read to an empty room in Congress invite pomposity and buncombe. The greatest difference, however, is likely the union of head of state and head of government in America. In parliamentary systems they’re kept separate, and one’s reverence is reserved for a politically powerless monarch. Much safer that way. Jack Sprat’s Law, I call it in The Once and Future King, the fat of ceremony kept separate from the lean meat of power.

In a presidential regime, one’s patriotism is wound up in a politician, to whom god-like powers are ascribed. A great feat requires a presidential medal, a tragedy, a presidential speech, and Peggy Noonan’s tears of gratitude. I think that also explains the hatreds seen in American politics, the Bush derangement syndrome of a dozen years ago. As I am an American I must love my president, and if I cannot do so because he is of the wrong party I must like a spurned lover hate him.

That’s not good politics. And it’s not very healthy either.

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