Those Undisciplined American Politicians

To Europeans, where party discipline reigns supreme, all American politicians are mavericks. EU Ambassador John Bruton explains why, and makes the case that the only traits that all politicians share are the good ones.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What’s the difference between American and European politicians?

John Bruton: Well, one very big difference is that American politicians are sole traders. Each one of them makes his own calculations as to what he is going to do in the interest of his reelection in his own particular district, or state. In Europe, there’s much more party discipline and members very often are placed on a list and they are elected from a national list that is selected by the party. So they are much more looking for the party for approval than to their immediate local electorate for approval. And in general terms, party discipline is much stronger in the Parliamentary System in Britain and Ireland, and indeed in all of the European countries. Whereas here in the United States, party discipline is important, but it is not that important and it is difficult to get members to do something that their constituents don’t like. But if you have a situation where people will not ever do anything that their constituents don’t like, you’re probably would not be able to lead or take initiatives on things that need to be dealt with.

Question: Are there any universal traits evident in all politicians?

John Bruton: I think that politicians are extremely varied. I mean, I obviously have very good knowledge of Irish politicians having worked with them, I know a lot of party leaders from European countries and many members of the European Parliament and now I know almost most of the members of the House and the Senate. And the thing that really strikes me is that they are all very different. They’re personalities are different; they are literally representative of the population in their variety. So, you can’t generalize, some are very academic, some are very stern, some are very cheerful, some are very populace, some are very relaxed, and some are not so relaxed. But that’s the case in every politician system. And I think that the overwhelming majority of politicians are not in politics for the money. They could, most of them in most countries, do better in some other career. They are in politics because they believe it gives them an opportunity to serve the public and to serve their ideals. Obviously, they have to make compromises along the way because compromise is the essence of politics. And sometimes those compromises maybe are more than they ought to have made, but politicians are there to serve the public interests in the majority of cases. And while there will be examples of people that ought not to be in politics because of things that they have done, the overwhelming majority are not in that category. And I think that its important that we don’t encourage and anti-politician attitude. Because if you have an anti-politician attitude in the country or in the media, then in essence, you have an anti-representative democracy attitude and representative democracy is the way we run our affairs. You can’t have every issue that’s important put to the electorate individually to vote in a referendum, you’d be having a referendum every two or three days if that were the case. And people would get thoroughly sick of it and nothing would happen.

So, what we have instead, representative whom we delegate to deal with things for us on the basis that we can sack them at the next election. Well, its important that people understand that that’s the essence of democracy and that the people who are their representatives deserve a modicum of support and respect in their work and that they should respect one another in their work while of course disagreeing when that’s the right thing to do.

Recorded on October 1, 2009