Short on History: Context and the Electoral Process

The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.

This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.

For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any one  side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.

And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.

So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.

Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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UK Election, Hung Parliaments, and History

Watching the electoral machinations of another country carries the detached, but comforting sentiment that, “ah well, they do have their problems, don’t they!”

It makes us feel better about things back home – almost. Knowing that leadership around the world seems to be faltering on a variety of levels isn’t really comforting, but it is a distraction.

This most recent election in Great Britain has been interesting to me, for its import on a national level in the UK, but also because of the situation it created, a hung parliament.

Three-for-all

Being an American, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the British Parliament and it’s associated traditions and functions. A multi-party system has its share of challenges and this most recent election proves the point.

Three parties took the lion’s share of the general election: the Labour party (of seated Prime Minster Gordon Brown), the Conservative party, and the Liberal- Democrat party. By vote the Conservatives won the most, but in order to create a cabinet and functioning government, a more significant surplus of votes was required for an outright Conservative win. Labour came in second, and the Liberal-Democrats third, with a much smaller percentage.

This is where it gets tricky because, suddenly, the power play is in the hands of the third party – though small, it is the deal breaker. A coalition must be formed by the first two in line or no one has the momentum to rule. Thus, the third party becomes the bride and the first two her ardent suitors.

In this case the leader of the Liberal-Democrats, Nick Clegg, decided on a coalition government under the Conservatives (ironic, as these two parties tend not to be ideologically closely related) and their leader, David Cameron. Using the analogy of American politics, this is like a Republican president peopling his cabinet, attorneys general, and other administration posts with Democrats as well as members of his own party and adding into the goals of his administration, those of his opponents. Thus, you see the complications.

Once the hashing out has been done, Queen Elizabeth invites the prime ministerial candidate with the best odds of creating a coalition government to her presence and asks him to form a government (or as we would style it, an administration). This makes it official. It is the pomp part of the equation that is at once quaint and foreign to those of us from the States.

As a result the new Prime Minister is David Cameron.

Where’s the history?

That’s just it; this is history. The last hung parliament was in the middle 1970’s, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it makes for a lot of drama.

“Present-vision,” which is the inability to recognize an historical moment while one is in it, affects us all. We don’t realize until someone tells us later that, yes, your freedoms were being rapidly erased by a government with starkly different views on social structures. Or that, yep, that war in the 1940’s was a big deal!

Worse than present-vision is historical illiteracy. When people can’t look at the past, get the facts, and believe what happened happened, then they, by default, ask for a repeat performance. A few charmers from my college days, “That Soviet Union thing, well, it didn’t work out so well, especially if you disagreed with anybody in power,” and “No, the United States did not know they were going to win the Second World War when they entered the fray, that’s why they had to fight a war!”

Live in the present, but learn from the past, and look to the future!