The world will not end with bang or a whimper. It will end with the silent slither of jellyfish. Literally. And figuratively.
On the literal level, jellyfish are indeed taking over. As a result of global warming, overfishing, and fertilizer runoff, these surprisingly hardy creatures are spreading into new territory. Certain jellyfish can kill you. If stung by a box jellyfish, which inhabits the waters off northern Australia, you have as little as two minutes to live.
But the real threat comes from their sheer numbers. Sucked en masse into a cooling system, they can shut down a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier submarine (USS Ronald Reagan in 2006) or cause half a nation to suffer a blackout (the Philippines in 1999). They have turned the Black Sea, not to mention 30,000 square miles off southern Africa, into Jell-O.
Because of their voracious appetites, jellyfish may well push us all over the edge. As they eat their way through the oceans, they vacuum up an important human food supply and produce carbon-rich feces that hastens global warming.
I’m worried about jellyfish. If I ever go to northern Australia, I doubt I’ll put even a toe into the ocean.
But I’m also worried about the figurative threat: the jellification of politics. The human equivalents of jellyfish have invaded the world’s democracies. I’m not talking about spineless politicians, though there is certainly a surfeit of those. I’m talking about a mindless, voracious invasive species that threatens to take over politics as surely as the maritime version took over the Black Sea.
The most obvious example at the moment is the United States, where the shutdown of the federal government mystifies all sentient life outside American borders (and a large number inside as well). The reason for the shutdown is not easy to understand. Congress passed health-care legislation, the president signed it, and the Supreme Court upheld it. But those who lost the health care debate have closed down the federal government in a Texas-sized tantrum. As Jon Stewart has ruefully pointed out, the team that loses on the football field doesn’t get to close down the NFL until the score is reversed. Why do our football players behave better than our politicians?
We are currently held hostage by a group of lawmakers that has been sucked inside the Beltway cooling system and raised the political temperature in Washington to dangerous levels. By one measure, Congress hasn’t been this politically polarized since the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Certainly these political jellyfish existed before. But now they have taken over their habitat, effectively jellifying the environment. In 2011, Congress passed the fewest bills since anyone bothered to start counting in the 1940s. That number has gone down even further this year.
And although deadlines are supposed to concentrate the mind and force even a torpid Congress to act, that didn’t happen this year on key issues like payroll taxes and sequestration. On October 17, Congress must raise the debt ceiling or risk catastrophic default. It’s the beginning of the end (at least according to Maureen Dowd, who wrote an apocalyptic column that imagined bloodcults and wild animals eventually descending on a government-less Washington).
The major exception to the shutdown rule is, naturally, the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called back to work 350,000 furloughed civilian employees. Once again, the Pentagon has somehow demonstrated that it is not actually part of the government, something that the “gummint is the problem” crowd implicitly argues when it applies austerity measures to food stamps and not advanced jet fighters.
The new political jellyfish, like their maritime counterparts, want nothing less than complete domination. They’re not interested in compromising with the anchovies. They eat anchovies for breakfast. It’s easiest to see this happening at a state level. As Elizabeth Drew has pointed out, the current Republican crowd has seized total control of 24 states and gerrymandered the districts to the point of absurdity (for example, Obama won 51 percent of the vote in Ohio but the congressional delegation is 75 percent Republican). Whatever President Obama says about “Purple America,” Democrats generally do the same when given the chance. Furthermore, the increased flow of money into politics, from buckets to a fire hose after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, provides all the nutrients that the jellyfish need to thrive.
Political jellyfish have not simply taken over Washington. Over the last couple years, protests have broken out in democracies all over the world. The complaints are varied, but the bottom line is this: politicians and elected officials are not serving the public interest. In India, the chief criticism is over corruption. In Brazil, the huge protests this year focused on the price and quality of social services, including public transportation. In Turkey, the protests began around the government’s urban development plans. But “it’s not just about a few trees in a park or the government’s heavy-handed approach to urban development, I write in Standing Up in Turkey: the protests reflect an anxiety that the ruling party has drifted into authoritarianism.
Many of the complaints are longstanding. Corruption, after all, has been around since Nebuchadnezzar, and democratic politicians have long been attracted to the siren call of authoritarianism. But there is a growing perception that democratic institutions are just not working, that they have been overwhelmed by political jellyfish who care nothing about serving the public good.
Perhaps the most hospitable environment for the new political jellyfish is Hungary, where the Fidesz Party of Viktor Orban has secured a supermajority of votes in parliament that Orban has used to siphon public money into the hands of Fidesz supporters. And if the country’s Constitutional Court deems Prime Minister Orban’s policies unconstitutional, his party doesn’t have to shut down the government like a bad loser. Fidesz can simply change the constitution, which it has done multiple times. I’m sure that Ted Cruz (R-TX) looks at Hungary with envy.
Frustrated with the two main political forces, the conservative Fidesz and the hapless liberal-left, some Green-minded politicians in Hungary created Lehet Más a Politika (LMP) or Politics Can Be Different. The new party made it into the parliament in 2010 with nearly 7.5 percent of the votes. Alas, faced with the choice of siding with a broad coalition against Fidesz that included the former Socialist Party, LMP split in two. It may not make it into the next parliament, demonstrating that in Hungary at least, politics can’t be different. It’s hard to swim with the jellyfish.
As with the spread of jellyfish in the ocean, we need to look at the conditions that have encouraged the jellification of politics. The influence of money on politics is one. Growing inequalities in wealth that polarize the electorate is another. But we also shouldn’t forget methods of transmission. Often jellyfish arrive in new environments courtesy of the ballast water that cargo ships take from port to port. Democracy promotion has been a key U.S. export for decades, and democracies around the world have begun to adopt many of the features of the American system, including our fundraising and media strategies. We’d like to believe that we’re giving other countries only the good stuff, like freedom of press or checks and balances. Are we exporting our political jellyfish as well?
Foreign Policy In Focus, World Beat, October 9, 2013