Imagine not knowing who the President is
By Scott Sumner
I’ve frequently pointed to countries like Switzerland as a political model. The basic idea is that the Swiss have a very effective system in place, and thus we don’t focus on who is President. Thus people talk about “Thatcher’s Britain”, or “Reagan’s America”, but no one thinks of Switzerland in terms of who is in power at the moment. Switzerland is Switzerland.
Little did I know that even the Swiss don’t pay attention. Here’s the Financial Times:
Then I changed the subject, and asked my Swiss relatives if they could imagine their own political leaders tweeting. “Actually, who is the Swiss president these days?” I inquired as a preamble, feeling embarrassed that I had absolutely no idea of the answer.
Eventually Marco, my Swiss uncle, admitted that he was “not sure”.Â
“It used to be a woman — Doris something,” Katherine, my aunt, muttered. “But now? Er…”
Suddenly, it was my turn to experience culture shock. My Swiss relatives are well travelled, fluent in five languages and exceedingly knowledgeable about global affairs. But, they explained, nobody in their part of the GraubÃ¼nden region worries much about their national president, let alone what he or she may have said on Twitter.
That is partly because Switzerland has a federal power structure whereby many political decisions — and tax-raising powers — are devolved to the cantons and municipalities. Moreover, one quirk of this structure is that the presidency rotates between the seven members of the country’s federal council. Thus the president changes each year: last year it was Doris Leuthard; now it isÂ Alain Berset.
But there is a bigger cultural issue here: in Switzerland, voters tend to see politics as being about functions and institutions, not about personalities.
I think of there being three levels of politics:
1. It doesn’t matter very much which party is in power. The system is stable.
2. The party matters, but not the individual who heads the party.
3. The individual leader is what matters.
How can one distinguish between levels #2 and #3? Consider popularity ratings. George W. Bush’s job approval rating fluctuated between 90% and 25% (or 70% to 25%, if you ignore the post 9/11 bounce.) In contrast Trump’s job approval rating has moved in a narrow band, from 39% to 46%. And Trump’s highest numbers were the post election honeymoon; recently the numbers have been quite stable. He can have very good weeks (tax reform), as well as very bad weeks full of negative news reports regarding controversial statements or chaos in the White House, and it simply doesn’t move the needle.
My interpretation of this is that we’ve moved from being a nation where leaders were judged on their performance, to a tribal nation where the leader has replaced the party. Polls show that Republicans support Trump on immigration, regardless of which position he holds on DACA on that particular day. It’s about personality, not party or ideas. In contrast, as recently as 2008, Bush was judged on his performance in office. GOP voters were quite willing to be highly critical, as they felt they could keep their Republican identity even while criticizing the President.
Thus while Switzerland remains at level #1, America has moved from level #2 to level #3.
PS. Interestingly, Trump recently indicated that the Chinese were smart to make Xi into a dictator for life:
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently consolidated power. Trump told the gathering: “He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great.” Trump added, “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.”