All the wrong issues

Despite 7 years of stagnant economic growth in Europe, austerity in Britain and growing inequality in the US, the political left has never looked weaker. That is a problem. All good political systems require competition of ideas to help both sides refine and improve the policies which they offer their electorates. In the founding of any democracy it is widely acknowledged that a failure to create two equal political parties, who can act as counterweights to one another, is essential. Some even believe that if the Russian Communist party had split into two parties in 1990, one moderate and the other traditionalist, it would have fundamentally changed the trajectory of Russian democracy.

But why are the political left so weak? The answer is that they are focusing on all the wrong issues. LGTBQQ rights, climate change, religious tolerance and gender equality are important issues in making our world a better place. But they are not the reason why people decide to vote for one party or another at the ballot box. Hillary Clinton did not lose because every Trump voter is a climate-denier, racist, misogynistic homophobe who wishes to punishes poor people. Though there were likely many of those too. But the reality is that people vote for bread and butter issues and as Bill Clinton once famously quipped, it’s often about “the economy stupid”.

Politicians in the modern era have a tendancy to focus on issues that are at best tangental and at worst, irrelevant, to the day-to-day lives of most citizens. Climate change is a huge issue, one that I passionately seek to help fix every day. But it isn’t something you can explain or resolve in a tweet. It also is something that is extremely hard to explain to citizens that work 9am – 5pm in an office. The same is true with the rise of identity politics issues. It is morally clear that Donald Trump’s ban on transgender service in the military is wrong, but if democrats think that they will win votes over these issues then they are misguided. As sympathetic as the ordinary citizen is to the suffering of others, it takes more than the empathy that one may feel from an article or a youtube clip to vote for a political party that is also raising your taxes or restricting your social rights.

If we acknowledge that the issues championed by left wing parties are the wrong issue to win elections and political power, then intuitively one must ask why parties cover these issues. In part the answer lies in the  membership base and in part it is a feature of the social media age. Political parties draw their strength from loyal members, who contribute funds as well as time to help win elections and in exchange they are granted an input into the policy making process. Today though, members are no longer content with “an input”. Grass root activists, inspired by social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street and other online anarchist strctures, are seeking to rebuild the entire political governance of their parties. In doing so, the parties are sacrificing external clarity of message for the ostensible goal of greater internal cohesion, as all factions and members feel more engaged in the policy creation process.

In the social media age, these internal struggles play out across the public sphere and muddle the waters. Moreover, the areas of greatest acrimony and therefore greatest publicity, are not issues of inequality or climate change (where agreement is much stronger) but rather the extent of engagement with identity politics issues. These topics, ranging from the appropriate use of social pronouns (if such a thing still exists), towards use of public facilities (notably toilets) and removing statues, hold no interest to the vast majority of society but they are fought though they are an existential battle, by left wing activists across social media platforms. In the maelstrom all other issues are lost. The conservatives in the US understand this well. Breitbart, Fox and other right wing activist groups are easily able to distract the political left from delivering clear messages on inequality, healthcare and the economy by effectively trolling the political left with social politic clickbait. Milo Yiannopolous andDonald  Trump are experts at this.

Many could contest that the political left is stronger than it has been portrayed, but the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Macron in France is misleading. Macron was the ultimate example of the “lesser of many evils vote”, a product ofthe disastrous   Socialist government election process, a crippling leadership scandal in the Republican party and a desperation to keep the National Front out of power. Corbyn is even stranger. A product of the anger felt by many in the UK who suffered disproportionally from the reduction of public spending in social services and a rising anger that the system is rigged which came from the financial crisis. Such anger against elites is ironically why Corbyn and Macron share so many similarities with Trump, in that they are all populists that are riding a wave of anger against the perceived liberal, effete elite. But the perceived success of these leaders is due to electoral circumstance, not the strength of their political positions.

Jeremy Corbyn persuaded young students that their debt would be removed, while sending two contrasting visions of Brexit to Labour voters in the north and labour voters in the south. Macron did even less. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Macron’s popularity has dropped faster than any French president in the last 20 years. Meanwhile Labour may being riding high in the polls, but Jeremy Corbyn still polls as a “less trusted to govern” leader than Theresa May. A leader that lost an election and is expected to be removed in the next 12 months.

In politics there is a disctinction between doing the right thing because its right and doing it because it looks right. The Conservative party in the UK will never outliberal the Liberal Democrats and they will never be seen as more progressive than parties whose foundations were built on championing the rights of excluded groups in society. Similarly the Labour party and Democratic party will never win over aspirational voters, who want a better quality of life by championing social issues as their primary selling point.

The obsession with social politics issues is a problem for the political systems of western liberal democracies. If we can’t move on from it and focus on the bigger picture issues that affect the day-to-day lives of millions, citizens will start to wonder what democracy is doing for them anyway. Confused onlookers from China and Sinagpore may be asking that already.

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The politics beneath the noise

Whenever people ask me for my opinion of US politics at present, what always strikes me is how little is actually happening. While the press covers Trump’s regular tweets, public gaffes and the inevitable criticisms of his actions, the most interesting aspect of Trump’s presidency is how little in reality is happening.

Let’s start with the economy. While the US market certainly has been caught up in the “animal spirits” surrounding Trump’s proposed fiscal stimulus boost, few analysts have actually looked at how this would work in practise. For starters, Trump’s long expressed desire to boost US energy infrastructure is trapped in a permanent limbo until the number of FERC appointees rises from its present 2/5 to 3/5 or more. At present, the lack of a “quorum” for the US energy regulatory agency means that no energy projects can be approved at a federal level until a new appointee is selected and approved by the senate. That is still a long time away. Next consider how Federal fiscal stimulus actually works: The US federal government does not contract for infrastructure projects within states, rather the states themselves manage the process. Thus as most states are heavily indebted at present, it is highly questionable whether a large financial giveaway from the federal government would lead to increased infrastructure spending (it is far more likely the funds would be used to pay down debt). But beyond even the potential for a stimulus lies the more significant question of whether congress would even approve such a bill. With the Republican party still heavily influenced by the Tea Party, it certainly shouldn’t be assumed that tax cuts and increased spending is a given.

On healthcare, the picture is similar. While people expected a bonfire of medicare “repeal and replace” style, there have been no plans put to the public, the President or Congress that provide a clue about how Republicans will do this. Moreover, the few suggestions that have been raised are politically toxic with Republicans. These include aspects around Medicaid/medicare cuts and non-discrimination provisions (very popular with voters and hated by the US health insurance lobby). With the senate at 52-48 Republican, no democrat support for reform and division in the Republican House of Representatives. Reform here also seems unlikely.

Regarding defence, the Trump administration is remarkably consistent with previous administrations, including Obama. Additional military support in Iraq, statements of support to Japan and South Korea, Covert ops in the Arabian Peninsula and commitments to spend more on defence. So far, so Republican. Even on NATO, an area often attacked by Trump in his speeches and tweets, the actual messaging to Europe has been more focused on “we value NATO, but you need to pay more”. This again is hardly new. In fact, the last five Secretaries of defence (under Bush and Obama) have said the same thing publicly.

On law and social justice, the reality of what is happening is also far less controversial than the noise. The reforms to H1B visa are one example. While portrayed as a Trump attack on skilled labour, the area has been under review for years, with Obama considering raising the minimum required salary to $110,000 and Trump considering similar numbers. Even the delay in processing within 90 days, appears to be more a product of overworked government agencies than a specific anti-migrant move. Trump’s choice of Supreme Court nominee is also a good example. Despite the criticism in left wing circles, Neil Gorsuch was approved to his current position by a unanimous senate vote (including all Democrats) and was in fact a Bush Jnr era appointee. Moreover, Gorsuch is a replacement for a previously Republican supreme court position (he is even seen as a perfect model of the last figure), thus ensuring the balance in the court has barely shifted since Obama.

None of this is to say that the noise and tone of the Trump administration is not having a significant impact on America’s standing in the world and how people in America view themselves and their fellow citizens. However, it is striking how much focus and attention the tone and voice of a world leader receives, rather than the reality of what is happening on the ground.

A final observation I would share is how little resistance there is within the States to the actions of the President. While a number of states are certainly fighting specific actions, such as the travel ban executive order, there is a remarkable lack of strategy behind those who oppose Trump. For one thing, there is no meaningful discussion of candidates who could revive the Democrat party and provide a real leadership challenge to Trump. Nor is there any clear sign of a moderate Republican leader coming through the ranks. One challenge may be the desperate lack of new faces in both parties, but it is interesting that no US political figure seems like a ready replacement for the President. Interestingly as well, the momentum of protests appears to have petered out entirely. In Washington DC, the protest momentum after the inauguration seemed to be growing, but now there has been little to no real action. In part because, I suspect, there are few well organised and funded organisations that are able to sustain the momentum. Instead those in the nation who oppose Trump appear numb and subdued. A tragedy for democracy, and perhaps an answer to the question of whether Trump would seek a second term (and win).