Monday, January 25, 2010

Reading elections: Lessons from Japan

Today, a note on how implacably elections are reduced to a single-issue frame so quickly and easily. Many Bay Staters are reasonably irritated that outsiders (especially those in Washington, DC) are taking Brown’s victory last week as a repudiation of the health care reform process underway in the nation’s capital. While health care was an issue in this election, it was not the only issue. Such a view ignores Brown’s skilled campaign, the Coakley implosion, Democratic over-confidence, and a number of other factors in the result. Worse still, it led to a short press to force House passage of the Senate health care bill, almost regardless of the bill’s contents.

Many bad effects of the special Senate election stem not from the results themselves, but a widespread inability to view an election result as having more than one cause. Just as the Brown victory was likely a combination of the factors listed above (see Nate Silver’s dissection) but has been reduced to a health-care referendum by DC Republicans, it has been simplified a populist surge among Bay State Republicans, and a poor Coakley campaign among most Democrats. However, this tendency to over-simplify election results is not necessarily ideological, nor is it restricted to the American press. One obvious example is the tendency to view every Israeli election as turning on relations with the Palestinian government(s). The fact that Netanyahu was largely elected on economic concerns rather than relations with Fatah and Hamas was almost ignored worldwide. A smaller example presents itself today in the BBC’s summary of the recent election for the mayoralty of Nago on the island of Okinawa. I choose the BBC as the high-water mark of thinking English-language journalism, and even that august organization has failed the test today.

This election occurred against the background of change in Japan. Recently elected prime minister Yukio Hatoyama has declared an interest in a more equitable relationship with the United States, and has been seeking allies within and without Japan on that score. Meanwhile, the US military was well into plans to move a large base on Okinawa (a source of great tension with the surrounding Japanese) per government request, when Hatoyama was elected. His activism on this issue has led to some arch tension between the two countries.

Anyway, let’s get into the story. The prospective new site of the base, the city of Nago on Okinawa, held a recent election wherein a candidate opposed to the base won election, beating the incumbent by a 53-47 margin. And universally, this election is being back-labeled as a referendum on the incoming American base. If the BBC is playing the role of FoxNews, Hatoyama is playing the role of the Republicans, trying furiously to spin a victory of a distant candidate who shares a belief on one issue as confirmation that the people are on his side.

But there are many things at play here (a partial list of issues from the subjective Stars and Stripes for example). Japanese frustration with incumbency has reached levels beyond even the American public and is narrowly targeted at the Liberal Democratic Party, that of the former mayor of Okinawa. The victor, Susumu Inamine, was kept at arm’s length by the government throughout the campaign, the actions of a popular party that wants to claim someone else’s victory of their own only after the fact. At the same time, the LDP is identified with the assimilation of the unique religious and cultural traditions and dialect of Okinawa into the larger Japanese culture, a trend that concerns many Okinawans. Add to this the ongoing problem of the economy – the main point of discussion about the base in Nago wasn’t about the cultural disruption of the American military, but the economic impact of it – not to mention the ground-level dynamics of the election, something that was a major factor in last week’s result for Brown.

The fact is that this election result was the sum of an array of elements, and not one issue -- you have a complex beast that’s being oversimplified by media from outside the electorate.

Kinda like our own Senate election. One wonders how many frustrated Okinawans today are having words put into their mouths by the Japanese prime minister and the worldwide media, just as is happening here in Massachusetts. Something to keep in mind next time we’re told why an election ended the way it did -- at home or abroad.

PS: Not at all related, but worth passing on; I present to you the most professional newscaster in Australia. That's the danger of using a live feed as a backdrop.

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