The most interesting aspect of American media coverage of Japan’s startling “change election” is that nobody much knows what to make of it. Yes, it’s assumed that the opposition Democratic Party, which dislodged the Liberal Democratic Party by a landslide, will be cooler to the United States, even as its leader, soon-to-be Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama makes it clear nothing much will change on the foreign policy front. Maybe Americans just don’t understand Japanese politics.
But Matt Yglesias is definitely on to something in suggesting that systems in which one party dominates for long periods of time don’t tend to be terribly ideological:
One consequence of this prolonged period of one-party rule is that the LDP is not an especially ideological political party. It’s essentially a “party of government” patronage machine that contains diverse factions and different points of view. The Democratic Party, consequently, is more of a generic umbrella opposition grouping than a clear ideological alternative. Thus the Democrats are riding in on a tide of public discontent, but don’t seem to have articulated much in the way of a policy agenda beyond the obscure issue of bureaucracy reform.
Back in the late 1990s, I participated in a international conference in Taiwan sponsored by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the long-time opposition party to the reigning Kuomintang (KMT). The purpose of the conference was basically to draw on center-left experiences elewhere to help devise an ideological and policy agenda for the DPP, which had long been defined as simply the opposition party, and as the preferred party of ethnic Taiwainese who had long resented the domination of “mainlanders” from China. After a period in government beginning in 2000, the DPP (and for that matter, the KMT) has a somewhat sharper ideological focus these days.
Come to think of it, the same dynamic was evident in the “Solid South” of my childhood in Georgia. The governing Democratic Party was a catchment of all sorts of people from serious progressives to hard-core segregationists, and the Republican Party was a motley assortment of transplanted Yankess, older African-Americans, and people interested in federal patronage during Republican administrations in Washington. Ideology was not a particularly clear or important partisan differentiator until the Civil Rights Act, and even then it took a decade or two for the parties to sort themselves out.
So maybe Japan’s parties will make more “sense” to us foreigners once the LDP has been out of office for a while. Serious competition has a way of clarifying things.