The US presidential election dominated the media coverage world-wide from mid-September until Christmas - so, what have has been our experience? What is it that we know now that we didn’t know before? What, in essence, have we learned: what are the consequences for the future and what will we do next time around?
Person and performance
Disruption, populism & Professional politics
A wave (almost a tsunami) of changing political sentiment has descended upon much of the world propelled by youth but readily encouraged by widespread disenchantment with conventional political wisdom and the failure of “professional politicians” to tell the truth, engage with the voters and fulfil their promises. There is widespread belief that they serve their own purposes rather than those of the public generally, trading in moral corruption and sometimes actual corruption as well – lining their own pockets (and those of their families, friends and clan members) ahead of achieving benefits for people generally. This wave of sentiment has been dubbed in the media as “the populist movement”.
Sailing along with this political movement is the contemporary economic practice of “disruption” – the idea that a new, novel way of doing business can change the course of modern economics. Part of this process upturns the traditional means of wealth generation and transforms the economic system - and along with it social norms, creating new jobs based on a completely new set of skills and knowledge. While it creates new job opportunities it also casts millions of honest, educated and hard-working people onto welfare queues - in a word disrupting the whole fabric of life as it has been known for at least three generations.
So, all of a sudden, within a short space of not much more than five to ten years, “disruption”, and “populism” have become fashionable, acceptable and even preferable and modern heroes have become the unorthodox, the brash and the outspoken.
The beginnings of the political populist movement in most recent times was signalled by the “Brexit” plebiscite in Britain which broke the conventional direction of globalism and started the process of extracting Britain from the European Union. This was followed by the election of a “populist” government alliance in Italy, just failed to install a populist alliance in France and then succeeded in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. Trump indicated from the beginning of his candidacy and throughout his term of office that he was most decidedly NOT a politician and never would behave like one. He campaigned on a policy to reverse current immigration trends, reverse current trade and industrial policies and reinvigorate national pride, vowing to “Make America Great Again”. These are the quintessential elements of the populist movement – bold, vocal, determined leadership, fiercely nationalistic sentiments that put the interests of a particular section of the population ahead of the welfare of collective (sometimes global) interests and fosters distrust in conventional politicians and political institutions.
The strategies of populist governments include restricting immigration and instigating economic reforms that favour generating growth nationally rather than collectively with other nations (for example by imposing import tariffs).
In a perfect world one would assume that educated voters would judge their political leaders by the outcomes of their policies, and hopefully this happens. However usually the quick assessments made by voters are based upon personal appeal of their leaders – they generally put their judgement of the person above that of his or her performance.
Three and a half years is a very, very short time in which to assess political performance but ample time to assess personality and so it would appear that American voters have made a decision on their leadership that has been based on the character of the leaders rather than whether or not they have fulfilled their promises. And that, actually, in not necessarily a bad thing.
Truth, lies & fake news
The electorate, broadly, is seeking truth. One of the key reasons for distrust in politics (as in any other form of life) is the perception that one is NOT being told the truth, that politicians are creating an impression in the minds of the voters that suits their purposes rather than those of the nation. Telling the truth is a quintessential factor in generating trust. Telling lies – distorting the truth, exaggerating, or hiding the truth, not disclosing the truth – is NOT the way to engender the support of the voters. While Trump is not the first American President (or political leader generally) to lie it would appear that he has taken lying to a whole new political (low) level. To claim electoral success within 24 hours of the opening of voting, despite the knowledge that about half the votes cast were postal votes, and had not yet been counted, claims that he, himself has been the greatest American President in history, “possibly, just possibly, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln”, to claim that his opponents had “stolen” the election and his refusal to concede electoral defeat have been seen by the world as confirmation of the multitude of misguided statements that he made during the course of his presidency. One could not assume that anything he said could be relied upon.
In order to disguise his infidelity Trump accused the media of creating “fake news”. Not-withstanding the following:
(a) The media, particularly the news media, quite often promote the preferences of their proprietors
(b) Judging from the distance of a foreigner, it appeared throughout the campaign that every news agency had made an editorial decision about which candidate it favoured, and it was virtually impossible to find an American political analyst or commentator whose appraisal was not unbiased (whether Democrat or Republican). Every commentator was virtually an advocate for either Trump or Biden
it is not proper to accuse them of creating “fake news”. They might present opinion that appears to be biased but that is not to say that it is made up to deliberately persuade an outcome – which is what fake news implies.
I followed the form of a number of news agencies during the campaign and the ones that I had most faith in were the English editions of Al Jazeera (Doha and London), Deusche Welle (Berlin), NBC News and PBS News (New York). All four had an obvious leaning to Biden but I did not perceive this, necessarily, as political bias. I saw it as respected media agencies presenting political events with commentary that reflected the reality. Yes, it was a bit aggravating to pick up on the one sided commentary however, it their defence, I guess they came to the same conclusion as me- that almost all of what Trump said was patently incredible in BOTH senses of the word – amazingly outrageous and simply unbelievable.
For a leader to condemn the mainstream media as irresponsible and un-trustable flies in the face of my recollection of the mechanics of baring the truth. It has been the free press and NOT politicians, NOT the parliaments, NOT the judiciary and not even the churches that has consistently exposed untruths – President Johnson and Richard Nixon who lied to Americans about involvement in the Vietnam War, war crimes committed by a multitude of political leaders (including the Australian army in Afghanistan). It is the free media that we actually rely upon to expose those who mislead the populace. We rely upon their judgement to pursue falsehood and by showing favour to a candidate that may be one way in which they inform us about the qualities of people in the political process.
This new wave of political sentiment is populated with concepts that may have mutated since their inception.
Populism & Professional Politics
The notion of populism was created at the time of Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy and was accentuated in Nazi Germany and emerged in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. The hallmarks of Populism centred on dictatorial leadership, suppression of dissent, propaganda through manipulation of the media, use of the military and private armies to focus and control public sentiment, massive investment in “home manufacturing” and persecution, discrimination against and even genocide of ethnic and religious minorities. Whether it is proper to label the modern political activists with this term is questionable: the only visible signs that bear some resemblance to the historical examples is the strength of feeling and whole hearted devotion of supporters evident in the mass public rallies and the die-hard behaviour of uniformed devotees at public demonstrations.
Left & Right
Conventional politics applies the label of “leftist” to those who support policies that focus on life’s battlers – welfare schemes, widespread, affordable or free public health and protection for the rights of employees. Traditionally leftist groups had to fight to introduce their ideals and were often called “Progressives”.
“Right wing” politicians were those who resisted the changes of the left and sought to preserve the existing social conditions. They were regarded as “Conservatives”.
Nationalism & Globalisation (Collectivism)
Right wing politicians tended to promote “the good of the nation” and sought to protect their citizens by creating preferential treatment for “home grown” industries. They supported trade restrictions that gave preferential treatment to manufactured goods produced “at home”. They eagerly supported measures to protect the nation by creating strategic alliances based mainly on military support.
Globalisation is the concept of dismantling national boundaries to create a much broader community that would benefit from unrestricted migration and trade.
Globalism can be seen in the effort to create free trade agreements and collective alliances in which groups of nations remove restrictions on the free passage of citizens and trading arrangements (visas and tariffs). This is done in an effort to create wealth by providing the ability for people to move to take advantage of better living conditions and to reduce the price of goods and services by reducing the price of production.
Fascism, Socialism, Communism and Capitalism
Fascism arose in Italy and then Germany prior to the Second World War through the rise of dictatorships that were based on binding the nation together by the use of fear, propaganda, violence and suppression and which used ethnic minorities (mostly Jews) as an instrument to perpetrate those methodologies in the pursuit of Nationalism.
Socialism was the leftist movement that was fundamentally economic in its aim to provide an improved lifestyle for the poor and disadvantaged. Socialism has been most successfully implemented in Europe through applying public access to health and provision of welfare programs that support the disadvantaged.
Communism is a political ideology that has been aimed at creating a socialist economy delivered through a dictatorial political process.
Capitalism is a notion that economic rewards follow those who are able to develop the means to take advantage of the social and economic system to create personal wealth. At the heart of the notion of Capitalism is the idea that competition creates the climate is which there are winners and losers and the spoils of the battle go to the winners. Capitalists believe that innovation leads to progress and that the competitive process stimulates innovation.
So, how do we describe best these modern “movements”? Obviously the “old” left-right description is not very helpful – certainly the labels “progressive” and “conservative” may apply to some of the protagonists for some of the time but they cannot be applied to all of them all of the time – and that’s what labels are meant to do – provide a reliable and consistent method of identifying a political aspirant.
The same can be said of applying the labels of “fascist, capitalist, socialist”. Almost the only term applicable to all is that of “nationalist” - the common thread being support for national identity and primary protection of nationals.
What people are seeking, I suspect, is not an ideologue, someone who fits a particular description. What people want is someone who is a clear thinker, who “tells it like it is”, truthfully and simply and tries to represent their collective aspirations. People want change and they don’t trust “professional politicians” anymore. So their leaders need to demonstrate that they are coming from outside the conventional, traditional political process and that they will relate directly with the people and will not acquiesce to the political process. But in doing this they must also achieve the trust of the people – they must demonstrate that they know what the voters want, can articulate those needs and can faithfully implement action to achieve results. They have to be believable and effective. Donald Trump was neither. He was the wrong person in the right place at the right time.
Making America Great Again
Having come this far I can’t resist the temptation, whether appropriate or not, to make some personal comments about what might be needed to “Make America Great Again”.
Guns & violence
America, sadly, is perceived as the most violent western democracy. The accounts of violence, whether criminal, racial or socio-economic are endless, consistent and legendary.
The violence in the American society will continue as long as people believe that they need to carry guns. It’s an admission that the established law enforcement agencies cannot be relied upon.
Citizens of every other society, outside of America, simply cannot understand why Americans are so reliant upon guns as a means of ensuring personal security. In other places no-one has a gun and they don’t need one. It is really hard to see a change in social consciousness on this issue so I think the violence will continue, irrespective of what other law and order and judicial changes occur.
If everyone is born equal then you naturally expect that everyone should be endowed with similar community rights and obligations. One would expect that people, whether they are law-abiding or not, would be treated with respect irrespective of their ethnicity or socio-economic status. Clearly in America that does not happen. The same cultural changes that occurred in race relations in the mid 1960s need to progress to the law enforcement and judicial systems.
Similarly it is a commonly recognised right in virtually all industrialised nations that the ability to access public health systems is extended to everyone. It is difficult to argue that health care is a commodity that can be bought and sold to those who can afford it. Irrespective of the merits of private and public health care systems, it is patently wrong to withhold essential medical care from those who cannot afford to pay for it.
My understanding of the US public health system is extraordinarily basic but it seems that access to medical health care is very much subject to one being in employment. Provision needs to be made for those who are not in employment (whether those who need a job but cannot get one or the incapacitated or retirees) to obtain the essential medical care that they require.
The popular misconception about providing welfare to the poor is that it wastes other people’s hard earned money on encouraging idleness. The truth is that giving people financial assistance when they are poor goes some way to giving the poor a chance to find dignity and the chance to participate in the economic process. It may also help to empty some jails!
People are in jail because they have committed a crime. People commit crimes mostly because they are poor. Prevent poverty and you reduce crime and begin to empty jails. You also provide a stimulus to the economy, making everybody a little bit more wealthy.
Poor people don’t buy things, they steal them. Crime is a cost to the community. Buying things puts money into the system and the multiplier effect generates more wealth. It simply means that it makes very good economic sense to put money in the pockets of the poor. This the basis of socialism – the more evenly wealth is distributed the wealthier is the whole community and the less jails are required.
Trade, manufacturing & the economy
Emerging producers of consumer goods in Asia and the fast growing economy of China are bringing a total change to the balance of trade. The theory behind imposing trade restrictions is that protection of “home” industries improves employment opportunities. It tends to “keep the money at home”. The argument against trade restrictions is that it increases the cost of goods which reduces the money in local pockets to spend on other goods which dampens economic activity, reducing the beneficial effect of protection.
Removal of trade restrictions (so called “Free Trade agreements”) is intended to stimulate economies across the participating nations, putting more money in people’s pockets that will be spent on goods and services across the full range of participants.
The argument is good provided that each nation produces goods or services that people elsewhere are prepared to purchase.
The trends have been that manufacturing and production that results from manual labour has relocated to China, India, Vietnam and some East European countries where labour is cheap and developed nations are producing services rather than consumer goods (such as electronic and internet related products). The trouble is that the gap between the technological advances of the “high-tech” and “low-tech” countries is comparatively small and some countries (notably Asian) are very quick learners!
Mineral exploration (iron, coal and petro crude and gas) and changing energy resources needs are not assisting developed counties in their efforts to maintain the advantages that they currently enjoy.
The effort to generate export income is becoming very competitive and, as a consequence, more difficult.
Leadership & standing abroad
The steady rise of Russia’s military armaments and its minerals wealth and China’s economic might bring with them a transition of allegiances, particularly in Africa and South East Asia and the Pacific region.
America’s standing abroad has been based upon its military capacity and its ability to provide massive financial assistance to its strategic partners. This position is rapidly changing. Leadership in world diplomacy and the establishment of beneficial free trade agreements will increasingly depend more upon generating trust, goodwill, moral responsibility and a useful bases of exchange rather than bombs, missiles and foot-soldiers.
No-one knows what the future holds for us all in the global context of climate change.
Scientists are telling us that ice is melting in the north, the sea is going to rise and the devastation of natural disasters is highly likely to increase in frequency and severity rather than diminish. The debate is all about how we, the citizens, can intervene in that process and seek to reverse the obvious trends. Nobody has the answer but, like covid, we need to find one and the time left to find it may be more limited than we want it to be.
We have learnt, of late, that:
· We are all intrinsically bound together. No one acting alone will make a difference and we will all share in the suffering if things go bad.
· There are four absolute essentials that humans (now) cannot live without – water, oxygen, sunlight and electricity. Without any one of these there will be no continued existence.
We have just spent almost a year learning to deal with a new type of lifestyle. Instantly we had to cope with a host of measures that we had never previously imagined – just think of what it would mean if we wore surgical masks permanently, that we could only go to work if what we produced is essential and that we had to restrict all activities to the indoors for the rest of our lives!
We all hope that it doesn’t come to that but how sure can we be that it won’t? Potentially the effects of climate change are much greater than any mere pandemic.
We all hope that Mr Trump knows more than anyone else and that he delivers on his promise that the average annual temperature is about, any day, to start reducing but none of us are willing to put money on it. What we are doing, instead, is to stake our lives on it!
As I write the number of daily covid infections in the US (and everywhere else) is rising as are its deaths. The situation is getting worse, not better. The only salvation will be vaccines.
The trick will be to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible.
No-one is talking, or even thinking, about their position with regard to Israel and Palestine and that is mainly because the Jewish lobby in most English speaking nations is incredibly influential. In America it is so strong that we won’t see the nation move very far or very soon from its unqualified support for the nation of Israel which makes daily transgresses in the legal but not very binding partition arrangements imposed by Britain in the post WWII move to find a homeland for persecuted Jews.
The Israeli government continues to usurp land from the Palestinians on the West Bank and continues to threaten and shoot Palestinians in Gaza. The situation in Israel is very similar to that of South Africa in its Apartheid days. Armed Israelis intimidate Palestinians daily and the Israeli government has an open policy of expelling Palestinians from their homeland, a practice that can only result in violence and probably war.
The current policy of America is to bleed from the Palestinians the support of surrounding Arab nations. When there is a groundswell of support for Palestine (from Arab and non-Arab nations) hostilities will certainly erupt. The Israelis will, as will the Palestinians, fight to the death as neither will sacrifice their home and America will undoubtedly see itself as having to lend its military might to the cause. It remains to be seen which nations stand against them. Those that support the rule of international law and who fight for humanitarian causes will be on the side of the Palestinians. For America it seems that this may be its next Vietnam and if so it will probably have the same effect on dividing the people at home into deep division and will no doubt lead to renewed acts of terrorism. It will not be a happy place to be.
When American politicians refer to the times when America was “great” they usually refer to the forty year period from 1920 to 1960 when its military might and consumer purchases of manufactured goods were at their zenith. This is the time in which the very wealthy established themselves and the middle class grew dramatically on the back of an extremely strong economy based on manufacturing household appliances, automobiles and heavy machinery. America did not face the huge expenses of war-time reparations, post war reconstruction and post war debt that all European countries were forced to endure.
The world is now a different place. There are very few large war opportunities to stimulate manufacturing and economic activity. The conventional means of quantifying greatness have shifted location. Maybe the measure of “greatness” will shift too, from the level of military power and Gross National Product to something else – like improvement in social and economic equality and to a political system in which one does not have to be a billionaire to lead the nation and where the needs of the people are satisfied generally rather than sectionally.
America still has a bit of work to be done.
And, as they say on Al Jazeera, "that is the bottom line”.
Bryan Forby November 2020