Peter Smith

Divisive politics

President Obama, as the first black president, was rightly lauded as having the potential of bringing Americans of different racial origins closer together. It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

Consider this electoral appeal: "young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again". How about middle-aged and older white men? Are they somehow pitted against the rest?

Recall Obama, without knowing any of the facts, saying that the police had acted stupidly, when black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by white police sergeant James Crowley. Obama had to back down. When the facts were known only Gates appeared to have acted stupidly.

Now, after the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a man of white and Hispanic parents (who by the way claims self-defence) he said in part: “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”. Exactly what does that mean? He is the president for everyone. What exactly is the relevance of Trayvon potentially looking like his son? It is an extraordinary statement to make. He also said that, “I think we all have to do some soul searching to figure out how did something like this happen”.

Homicides in Obama’s old stamping ground, Chicago, have been higher than the normally high rate this year. Consider this recent report. “On Wednesday, a man was fatally shot in the 2800 block of South Kildare Avenue, officials said. On Saturday, a 6-year old girl [Aliyah Shell]was shot to death in the 3100 block of South Springfield Avenue, police said. Three days earlier, a 19-year old man was fatally shot in the 3000 block of South St. Louis Avenue, officials said. Meanwhile, a 58-year old man was beaten to death on Sunday in the 3500 block of West Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park, police said. Thirty three homicides have been recorded so far in March [up to the 21st]”. Some soul searching is certainly required for this carnage.

Why exactly haven’t we heard from the President on these killings and the others like them that go on every day? Why couldn’t the six-year old girl have looked something like the President’s daughter (whatever possible relevance that has)? The reason seems clear. None of the murderers, so far as is known, were white. Of course there are demonstrations, hoodie marches and national mourning for Trayvon, all whipping up racial tensions; there are none apparently for Aliyah. Instead of adding perspective and balance, Obama’s remarks can only encourage racial division.

He carries that divisiveness across to economics where this time the fat cat bankers and the wealthy are the target villains, pitted against the rest. And to his health care “reform”, where the Catholic Church’s religious objection to providing insurance to its employees for contraception is pitted against women’s rights. It is no wonder that America is more politically polarised than it has ever been.

All democratic political leaders have a stark choice. They all know the right one because they all usually make the point explicitly, when first elected, that they will govern for everyone – including those who did not vote for them.

Some manage to broadly live up to this noble aspiration; some don’t. We have prime minister who opposed pension increases in cabinet because old people didn’t vote Labor. We have leadership that describes people demonstrating against the carbon tax as “climate change deniers” and of “no consequence”. We have a leadership which maligns rich miners if they don’t toe the government line.

Do left-wing parties and divisiveness go together as a matter of course? I don’t necessarily think so. Certainly left-wing parties want always to undo the status quo, which means some vested interests will lose out. Making particular vested interests into villains might at times be thought helpful to the cause. However, on balance, I think divisiveness is more a product of policy failure than it is of political allegiance per se; even if such failure is intrinsically more likely with left-wing governments.

A popular government, confident in its policy choices, is much less likely to play one interest against another. Once a governing regime understands that its policy choices have been seriously astray and unsuccessful, and there is no easy line of retreat – which applies to both President Obama and the Gillard government – it tends to flail around like a cornered animal looking for any way out of its predicament.

Once it cannot win on its policies it turns to less savoury battlegrounds. This can mean exciting divisions based on race, or on wealth, or on gender. For example, in the US, on the basis of some crass and base remarks by one conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh about activist Sandra Fluke, Republicans apparently have declared war on women. Abbott is portrayed as having a problem with women. Protestations will always sound stretched and pathetic. Oh no, I like women, doesn’t quite cut it.

We should expect divisiveness to characterise both of the next general elections in the US and in Australia; together with that other accompaniment of policy failure, personal denigration. We saw that in the Queensland election and Mitt Romney (I assume) and Tony Abbott will be the butt of it in their turn. A failed government is a dangerous animal; particularly as elections draw near.

Peter Smith’s book, Bad Economics, will be published shortly by Connor Court. You can pre-order (post free) here…

Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here…

Leave a Reply