Political Friendship and Rivalry in the U.S. and the U.K.

I detest every bit of legislation he has put forward and he openly loathes my entire political outlook. We had lunch last week; he’s actually rather charming.

So commented a friend in the UK parliament. I assume similar sentiments informed Lexington’s analysis of U.K. versus U.S. cross-party relationships, which contains this acute observation:

After they heap scorn and vitriol upon one another in the debating chamber, members of the British Parliament retire companionably together to the bars and tea rooms of the Palace of Westminster.

Lexington contrasts this public vs private inversion of behavior in Parliament with its parallel in the U.S. Congress, where opposing politicians who exhibit “exaggerated decorum” during C-Span covered debates can be absolutely vicious with each other in private. Like me, Lexington laments the end of bipartisan friendship in Washington. In the U.K, such friendships are easier in part because:

British politicians accept the rules of a simple game: the ruling party governs (occasionally in coalition) while the opposition bides its time.

Meanwhile in the U.S., many Tea Party Congress members believe that the vote of 90 million people in an off year election nullifies the legitimacy of a President and party elected two years earlier by a vote of over 130 million people. They came to destroy, not to befriend.

Despite agreeing with most of Lexington’s article, I find it glosses over an important US-UK difference in intra-party political friendships. As the Congress gets more polarized and each party feels constantly attacked by an external enemy, friendships within parties often grow extremely strong, akin to the friendships of war veterans from the same unit. In the UK, intra-party friendship can be more difficult for politicians to maintain because of the Parliamentary system of government. At any moment, a Minister or Secretary can stumble and immediately return to being a back bench MP while one of his fellow party members climbs over his dead political body to join the front bench. Hence, in the words of Jim Hacker of Yes, Minister fame, in British politics “The opposition is in front of you, but the enemy is behind you”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “Political Friendship and Rivalry in the U.S. and the U.K.”

  1. You don’t have to agree with the Tea Partiers, but the Republicans’ current majority in the House of Representatives is every bit as legitimate, their authority every bit constitutional as President Obama’s in the White House. The turnout in a particular election is irrelevant.

  2. Obama’s Presidency is entirely legitimate. So is the Republican legislative majority which was legitimately elected to obstruct what he was doing, and undo what he’d already done. Their opposition doesn’t imply illegitimacy on either side. Yes, they came to destroy, not befriend, but that says nothing to the legitimacy of those they came to destroy.

  3. The dynamic is odd, though. In the UK, they can just ignore the opposition, while in the U.S. they theoretically have to get along except during the rare times of unified government.

    I’m not sure the structural explanation really holds water. I’d blame Limbaugh instead.

  4. In the mean while, “If you love me…”; Hasn’t that got to be the most pathetic political appeal a President ever made? If we love him? I’d been laughing off the claims he suffers from “narcissistic personality disorder”, until this episode. But what sane President would utter those words?

  5. Brett: So is the Republican legislative majority which was legitimately elected
    Bruce: the Republicans’ current majority in the House of Representatives is every bit as legitimate

    Sigh…undaunted by the lack of opposition to your views, you remain defiant..

  6. opposing politicians who exhibit “exaggerated decorum” during C-Span covered debates

    This aspect of American politics has always revolted me. I don’t know who politicians think they’re fooling with “exaggerated decorum”. Maybe, once upon a time, they thought they were fooling David Broder, but he’s dead now.

    –TP

  7. Keith,

    It’s hard to read your mention of the relative vote counts as anything other than a minimizing of the authority due to the House GOP.

    Mind you, some of the Republicans are certainly over-enthusiastic and seem to think their winning of the latest election trumps all other constitutional considerations. They’re wrong too.

  8. I blame Madison and Hamilton for saddling us with the independent executive and overdetermined legislature. Checks and balances are good and all that, I know, but the assumption was that there wouldn’t be parties. That barely survived Washington’s presidency. There is something about the parliamentary system that bears an even strain about head of government and the opposition. The head of state and head of government as one but facing an extremely strong senate (admittedly the filibuster chokehold was not part of the original design) seems liable to very unreasoned stand-offs. The senate as old boys club providing some kind of balance no longer exists, if it ever did. But then again, that’s who we are.

  9. The tea-partiers’ position is pretty much the same as Gingrich’s in 1995, i.e. that the country can be governed from and by the House of Representatives. This time the claim is that a minority faction of the majority can dictate to the rest of the House while the Senate GOP, for its own reasons, enables the faction’s position.

    Madison argued that institutional loyalty, meaning self-regard and attachment to the privileges of the institutions they sat in, would prevent representatives, senators, and executives from cooperating with over-reaching by any one of those three elements. The senate is now the real weak link; bush II, once it got rid of Lott, was able to control the senate through its creature Frist and eliminate it as an autonomous body, and McConnell’s use of the automatic filibuster has effectively stopped everything.

    Does anyone remember the old poster that has an argument between body parts over which one is most important? It turns out that the asshole wins– because when it closes up, the whole body stops working. That’s sort of where we are. We have a rogue rump in the House that insists it has to have its way in everything, and a senate that’s essentially clenched. No wonder the vision is getting blurry, the thought process hazy, and the body politic woozy.

  10. An interesting quote I ran across…

    “The parliamentary battle of the NSDAP had the single purpose of destroying the parliamentary system from within through its own methods. It was necessary above all to make formal use of the possibilities of the party-state system but to refuse real cooperation and thereby to render the parliamentary system, which is by nature dependent upon the responsible cooperation of the opposition, incapable of action.”–Ernst Rudolf Huber

  11. Bruce: It’s hard to read your mention of the relative vote counts as anything other than a minimizing of the authority due to the House GOP.

    I don’t think you are giving President Chester A. Arthur enough credit, and as for your endorsement of artificial turf, yes it is easier to maintain but it increases player injuries and detracts from the traditional spirit of baseball.

  12. Well, lowering taxes, cutting spending and easing regulation is the solution to all our problems. In fact, anything else is the cause of all our problems.

    While these sentiments are I suppose coherent, they are also paranoid, overly dogmatic and self-righteous. There’s something very Kindergartenish and perseverant to the current Republican ideological position, a seige mentality to the last.

  13. Brett: context matters. If I recall correctly, the context was:

    Man in stands interrupts Obama, yelling “We love you bro!”
    Obama immediately responds with, “Love you back!”
    (crowd erupts in cheering)
    When the cheering subsides, Obama continues, “If you love me…”

    Sounded like an effective off-the-cuff emotional appeal to this listener.

  14. “I don’t think you are giving President Chester A. Arthur enough credit, and as for your endorsement of artificial turf, yes it is easier to maintain but it increases player injuries and detracts from the traditional spirit of baseball.”

    Ha!

  15. Tom H.,

    surely, then, Brett must have been unaware of the context of Obama’s words. After all, we know Brett’s comment cannot have stemmed from a desire to cast a political opponent in the worst possible light. As Brett is forever instructing us, that is what “the Left” does.

  16. “They came to destroy, not to befriend.”

    George W. Bush always gave me that impression too. He seemed to appoint people to positions they did not care to do. For example Bush appointed Spencer Abraham to run the department of energy. Abraham was a one term senator whose only sponsored legislation was a bill to kill the department of energy.

    So your telling me you want the guy who wants to get ride of the DOE to run the DOE? And the FEMA horse racing guy? What better way to destroy the government than from the inside by appointing people whose goal is to destroy.

  17. Bruce Ross says:

    “You don’t have to agree with the Tea Partiers, but the Republicans’ current majority in the House of Representatives is every bit as legitimate, their authority every bit constitutional as President Obama’s in the White House. The turnout in a particular election is irrelevant.”

    I didn’t hear too many Republicans saying that during the administration of Bush the Lesser.

  18. Mrs Tilton, my consistent stance was, “Obama should be required to prove that he’s a natural born citizen, and he can.” As it happens, when a court finally scheduled a hearing on the matter, rather than dismissing on standing, he demonstrated quite promptly that he could. Should have done it when the subject first came up, but apparently he finds it useful to have people haring off after conspiracy theories he knows can never come to anything in the end. Perhaps it keeps them from finding one which WOULD amount to something…

  19. Brett Bellmore says:

    Mrs Tilton, my consistent stance was, “Obama should be required to prove that he’s a natural born citizen, and he can.”

    I don’t recall you saying this about Bush.

    As for proving it, he did already – that’s how he got on the ballot in all 50 states. Or did you figure that nobody checked on that back in ’07-08?

  20. Note how Bellmore has again hijacked the conversation on to irrelevancies. It is what most right wingers do. It’s a feature, not a flaw.

    He should be ignored until he demonstrates the ability to engage with real issues raised here. If he wants to raise other issues, he should do it on his own blog. As I do.

  21. Toqueville had something nice to say on the subject (Book 1, Chapter 12)

    If, among a people who are imperfectly accustomed to the exercise of freedom, or are exposed to violent political passions, by the side of the majority which makes the laws is placed a minority which only deliberates and gets laws ready for adoption, I cannot but believe that public tranquillity would there incur very great risks. There is doubtless a wide difference between proving that one law is in itself better than another and proving that the former ought to be substituted for the latter. But the imagination of the multitude is very apt to overlook this difference, which is so apparent to the minds of thinking men. It sometimes happens that a nation is divided into two nearly equal parties, each of which affects to represent the majority. If, near the directing power, another power is established which exercises almost as much moral authority as the former, we are not to believe that it will long be content to speak without acting; or that it will always be restrained by the abstract consideration that associations are meant to direct opinions, but not to enforce them, to suggest but not to make the laws.

  22. Well, now that I’ve examined the context, the “If you love me” remark still strikes me as stupid, but the only person whose sanity is at question was in the audience…

    Mrs Tilton brings up “birtherism,” and *I’m* the one sidetracking the discussion?

  23. Gus diZerega says:

    “Note how Bellmore has again hijacked the conversation on to irrelevancies. It is what most right wingers do. It’s a feature, not a flaw. ”

    I agree, and accept blame. Brett is a dishonest troll, and should be treated as such.

    DNFTEC

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