In which I think about American elections, British politicians and Others

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.

In which democracy isn’t working

There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.