So Barack Obama is still President of America, and many column inches have been expended on musing about why. Received wisdom has 2012 down as an election that the President should have lost, based on one of the most fundamental of all political truisms: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Incumbent Presidents in the US, or governments in the UK, don’t win when the economy is in meltdown, but Obama did, suggesting that we should probably be checking whether anyone’s still got the receipt for the wisdom we’ve received, and seeing if we can exchange it for something more useful. Like a hand blender or bobble hat.
What seems to have changed the electoral mathematics for Obama is good old-fashioned demographics. As many Republicans in the US already know, the party had slipped into the trap of only appealing to people just like them, and had failed to realise that that wasn’t going to be enough. Republican senator Lindsey Graham boiled the realisation down to a handy soundbite earlier this year when he noted that, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Unfortunately the need to focus on widening the base was somewhat undermined by incidents such as a black journalist having nuts thrown at her by Republican conference delegates, and the tendency of various Republican candidates to come over a tad unattractively wrathful on issues like rape and abortion. Probably not the way forward if you’re trying to broaden your electoral appeal beyond those angry white guys.
“But why does this matter? This is all about America, and you are a British based blogificator,” I hear you cry. At least I assume it was you. It’s also perfectly possible that the voices have come back. Well, it does matter, and there is a point. If you could just bear with for a few paragraphs more, I will totally get to it. It involves looking at the wider narrative about those demographics. So, it appears that Obama won because he held onto votes from African Americans, Latino Americans, younger voters and a significant proportion of women. In some quarters this has caused proper flarey-nostrilled consternation. Bill O’Reilly, who is reliably nutty on Fox News, came close to spelling it out in this clip, with its implication that self-interest is a somehow a non-white, non-masculine, non-American trait, which the non-white (and as Donald Trump would have it) non-American President played into.
Now you can form your own opinions on the intrinsic rightness, wrongness, reasonableness or racism of O’Reilly’s comments. What he’s doing is, in many ways, no different to what politicians and their supporters do in any election campaign at any time the world over. What he’s doing is what historians, anthropologists and sociologists would call “Othering.” That’s the process by which you define one set of values, and people, as Right, Good, and American (or British, or French etc), and one set of values as immoral, debauched, and un-American (or just not British). That second set of values are the ones held by the opposing side, by those people over there, who are different, other, not like us.
The key for a politician is to make sure that the big scary Other that you construct doesn’t end up being bigger or more attractive than set of “people like us.” That seems to have been where the Republicans fell down in this presidential race. By sticking to the hard right on issues like immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage, they shifted a whole lot of people who might have embraced a “hard-work, family-centred, low tax, small government” narrative, into the group of Others (or Obama voters as they are now known).
Othering phrases that do seem to work in politics are those which are inclusive enough for lots of people to think you mean them. “Hard-working families” was the buzz phrase in UK politics for close to a generation, and is still in use today. Politicians stick with it because they know that very few people will self-identify as lazy or idle, even if their work ethic rarely extends beyond bashing out a blogpost two days later than intended. In the long-term the phrase, potentially, falls down on the demographics again – as a nation we now have more single people and more couples living without children, so the emphasis on families becomes potentially alienating.
Ed Milliband’s more recently coined “squeezed middle” is another great example of an, apparently inclusive, othering phrase, because not only do a lot of people think they’re part of the “middle”, they also have a really strong notions of who isn’t part of the “middle.” Different people’s ideas of what the “middle” is will be wildly different. That doesn’t matter, so long as enough people think that the “middle” is them, and think that they are different from, and more deserving than, those Others, whether the Others are swanking around with undeserved millions or lounging around on undeserved benefits. If you achieve that, then the phrase is doing its political job.
And political rhetoric does matter, because effective rhetoric defines the terms of political debate. Phrases like “hard-working families” get used again and again with little examination. Those phrases allow politicians to obfuscate and talk about policy in generalisations rather than specifics. They also create a political narrative of division. By focusing on a notion like “hard-working families” politicians solidify a language where benefits claimants, for example, can be painted as undeserving because they are seen as not hard-working, and therefore not like us. The implication is that “hard-working families” are right and good, and people outside of that are Other, different, to be punished, to be feared. Getting sucked into the notion that people who aren’t like us are less deserving in some way seems like a dangerous path. So I think it matters that we notice when politicians, commentators and political journalists talk in othering terms, because then we can employ the oft-underrated skill of thinking about what they’ve said, rather than simply absorbing the underlying ideas.
That is all. Off you go now and have cake, or some celery, or just sit quietly. It’s very much up to you.