Donald Trump took a metaphorical dump on every single page of the modern political playbook. Under those rules, a candidate with no solid organisation, establishment backing, strategy, strong fundraising or coherent narrative, whose speeches were just WWF wrestler-level theatrical braggadocio, shouldn’t have stood a chance. But Trump more ably understood widespread political disenchantment and anger from those who didn’t care for professionally-crafted speeches or being accused of racism or misogyny and had nothing to lose. Learning from The Apprentice, he ran a reality TV character candidacy where ethics, lies and outlandish statements are just part of a successful character.
This is a wake-up call for the political geeks and pundits who have turned politics into what Pitchfork Media is to music – changing an accessible concept into an overly-analytical, unintelligible cultural branding exercise and personal journey. Especially outside America, many believed they understood the political behaviour of 18-49 year old White college graduates from Ohio based on what they gleamed from New York Times articles reinforced by Facebook likes while constantly hitting refresh on Five Thirty Eight. We ignored warnings from the frequently-dismissed Michael Moore, who probably better sensed the mood of his white working class Michigan kin than any pollster. The columnists and pundits who we worship no longer understand politics, let alone our their citizens. Where we don’t speak a narrative that ordinary people understand in times of trouble, right-wing populists create them with devastating effect. French President Marine LePen and Dutch Prime Minister Geert Wilders in 2017 are no longer remote possibilities.
It’s not enough for politicians to digitally stitch together hypothetical demographic-geographic voter coalitions based on polling algorithms, we need to engage different perspectives outside of our personal echo chambers.
This is an indictment of the approaches of the mainstream left worldwide. Our democratic and economic models are badly failing to provide healthy political debate, economic and social stability and solve deep national and global problems in a post-GFC world. Yet, many of us mistook a pro-corporate, pro-Iraq War foreign policy hawk and poor political campaigner for a dynamic reformer based on gender alone rather than demand actual reformers and good candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Now, to paraphrase Veep, ‘The fact that you are a woman means there will be no more women presidential candidates because we tried one and she fucking sucked.’
This election confirms that large parts of our societies no longer understand each other and seethe with mutual hatred. Now that Hillary lost, the onus is on the broader left to get its act together. Currently, we don’t know what we want nor are we collectively capable of comprehending what would drive people to vote for Trump or Brexit beyond often overly zealous and moralistic applications of privilege frameworks or just punching down on our social inferiors.
The only way out of this mess is through listening and trying to understand what motivated a Trump victory or Brexit without being condescending. Most of these voters aren’t Hooterville-dwelling, rabid racist, sexists and homophobic rednecks looking for their next marginalisation. There’s a deeper sense of disempowerment and insecurity in a national and global democratic and economic model no longer fit for purpose for which people like us don’t have a simple yet convincing answer. Many of whom might not agree with Trumpian or Faragian rhetoric or thrust at least find an open ear. The wholesale political reforms that are required need less Hillarys, more Elizabeths and Bernies, and many who have made political choices that we despise. Their votes have to be earned without demanding they conform to every item on our idealistic utopian wish-list. Democracy isn’t a nightclub queue guarded by social media bouncers checking your political dress code.
Politics is ultimately about power: who has it, why they have it, what they use it for and how to change it. Change requires listening to different views, learning to think from different perspectives and arguing a case rather than curling up into a ball and shouting ‘safe space.’ Participating in politics means being confronted with people we dislike or hate and if that we can’t learn to coexist or engage, then Donald Trump is the perfect consequence when our political brands and self-enforcing algorithms matter more than what other people think.
Like Jeremy Corbyn, no one saw it coming: a 74 year old Larry David-lookalike and soundalike socialist Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders, is a serious contender against one of the most powerful political dynasties in modern history for the Presidency of the United States. The script was supposed to be simple: heal the wounds of the 2008 primaries through achieving both outcomes: the first Black President, then the first female President. The Democratic Party establishment and the party machine are behind her and she dominated the polls until now.
Hillary’s campaign is struggling in spite of her newfound populist, left-leaning narrative because it is unconvincing. Her career as part of the Clinton duo has been defined by slickly-calibrated, centrist positions and messaging to appeal to as many voters as possible. However, this has come at the expense of grassroots passion and real progress on poverty, racial and gender discrimination, economic fairness, politica, financial, and corporate corruption, and international peace. Combined with accusations of personal and political scandal, the Clinton brand has become associated for many with corruption and secrecy. No amount of repositioning will convince voters of the authenticity of her rebirth. In contrast, the rumpled, messily white-haired, gruff, Brooklyn-accented Sanders is believable in an endearing way, not unlike Corbyn. We celebrate this as opposed to the plastered smiles and rehearsed talking points we associate with politicians like Hillary. Sanders’ campaign also appears to have successfully captured the liberal and leftist grassroots passions and energy of the Democratic Party akin to Obama’s 2008 campaign through appealing to discontent against Obama and the establishment – including Hillary – with concrete policy alternatives. The lack of ground breaking political and economic change, continuation and expansion of Bush-era restrictions on civil liberties, and international military interventions have perhaps taught voters both the sheer challenge of a corrupt political system and a more realistic idea of what hope and change actually mean. From ‘Yes We Can’ to ‘Yes We Must.’
Either that or Sanders’ campaign is a flash in the pan, Eugene McCarthy-like movement that could at the least greatly weaken her successful nomination and at most have her withdraw but then collapse in the face of more acceptable, establishment-backed opponents. Sanders’ campaign is supported largely by the young, college educated, and White but is significantly behind in Hispanic and Black support that’s traditionally been a Clinton bedrock. If Sanders’ campaign continues to hurt Hillary, a Joe Biden, Al Gore or another with a similar level of fame but without her drawbacks could become aHubert Humphrey-esque saviour and inherit Clinton’s constituencies. However, like with Humphrey, leading bruised party against the right Republican candidate could end in defeat.
Though the odds are that she’ll still win the nomination, Hillary is fast becoming the Mitt Romney of the Democratic Party: someone the public is coming to dislike and finds uninspiring but is well-placed across a fan of Democrat red meat and electorate box-ticking positions and is the more ‘electable’, least-bad option compared with the other candidates. That’s not great for a general election, unless your opponent is a billionaire narcissist with the morality of a Mean Girl. In order to win, changing positions in accordance with political realities isn’t enough if Hillary won’t emphasise her main strengths as a skilful, ruthless politician who will get things done.This would work with framing the other candidates: a socialist curmudgeon who would lose badly against a good Republican candidate and a long-serving White, male Senator and Vice-President when it’s time for a qualified woman. Otherwise, Hillary will end with karmic comeuppance to the theme tune from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
It is claimed that the UK Labour establishment is in panic over opinion polls and endorsements indicating that left-wing leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner in the leadership election. Former leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has fronted criticism of Corbyn in an attempt to temper left-wing Labour members with realism, yet this might not be enough. Corbyn’s level of support arguably reflects a wider shift in centre-left values worldwide. In this environment, there are signs that primary voters are moving away from mainstream options in favour of their ideal candidates. Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primaries is independent, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on a left-wing platform similar to Corbyn, and is performing far better than anticipated. Both candidates are fuelled by grassroots campaigns with strong youth support. In that sense, Corbyn’s obvious parallel is Tony Benn’s close challenge to Labour deputy leader Dennis Healey in 1981.Corbyn and Sanders are, like McCarthy and Benn, transformed from rebels to serious contenders. Sanders’ campaign has similar vigour to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, in which a narrow Johnson victory in the New Hampshire primary caused him to drop out. The outcome of these elections depends more on how their mainstream opponents respond to the new political environment.
So far, the Labour leadership election campaign has been lacklustre and often limited to the ad-nauseum repetition of words such as ‘aspiration‘ that have stripped of meaning to a degree that it wouldn’t be entirely surprise the public if the main candidates are either clones or alien replicants. Though Liz Kendall has arguably had more success articulating a coherent, down to earth narrative than other mainstream candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has been the main beneficiary of this, probably because he has claimed the mantle of idealism. Corbyn acts as a Tony Benn-like figure representing a grassroots socialism and whose appeal contrasts with the image of professionally-designed, poll-driven, focus-group tested, policy and talking points communicated in pure political speak synonymous with the downside of New Labour. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is hindered by a long-entrenched image as an inauthentic, calculating politician in opposition to the curmudgeonly but passionate Sanders who has taken up the abandoned mantle of idealism which Obama had used to defeat her in 2008. In any case, what worked for Tony Blair in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1992 might not succeed in 2015. In a world of austerity, ongoing inequality, mass data collection, drone strikes, and failed military interventions, there is an arguably greater passion for figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and others who articulate an passionate idealism rather than those who stake out calculated, strategic, tested positions. Candidates must acknowledge the limits of an overly cautious, professional approach.
The basic challenge of whoever wins is to achieve what Ed Miliband failed to do: channel empathy and articulate policies that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives in a way that captures an idealistic desire for change. For Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, or Clinton in America to win, this means communicating with authenticity and empathy rather than gimmicks and orthodox solutions. UK Labour MP Simon Danczuk cites Andy Burnham’s idea of more regional accents in shadow cabinet as a patronising, cosmetic solution that doesn’t address a deep distrust of politicians. Danczuk proposes that leadership candidates should listen, communicate authentically, and relinquish greater power to local government and service users for communities to find solutions to unemployment, poverty, and education that reflect their needs. This approach articulates both idealism for political change that is also pragmatically grounded.
If Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, Clinton or any centre-left politicians worldwide disagree with radical opponents, they would be better served with an authentic, pragmatic idealism rather than dismissal. If they cannot do this, then candidates like Corbyn and Sanders become – at least by default – the best candidates.
We make daily choices/ or hold beliefs that – even briefly – raise feelings of self-doubt, but rather than repent we justify them. As a vegetarian, I’ll order a vegetarian Thai curry knowing it probably contains fish sauce and shrimp paste, but justify it as a convenient exception for an otherwise good ethical record. Sometimes, we find solace with attributes we see in our actions, choices, or beliefs that provide a veneer to justify our acts and beliefs. Consumerism is the best reflection of this insofar that we simply want is the option to be good, even if we choose not to. I call it the McDonalds Salad Principle. I provide three prominent examples that best demonstrate this.
1) MCDONALDS SALAD
By the time I entered university in 2002, McDonalds was starting to experience a global decline. Influences included the gradual adoption of healthier eating practices, opposition to corporate chain restaurants, their labour practices and concerns over animal cruelty, corporate gaffes such as the McLibel case and the Indian lawsuit over beef fat in fries, and attention from films such as Supersize This and novels like My Year of Meats, and Fast Food Nation.
In spite of this, McDonalds regained profits and started expanding again. McDonalds was rebranded with healthier choices. With changes such as healthier oils, taglines such as 100% pure NZ/ Australian beef, the inclusion of salad, apples, and sandwich roll options, a partnership with Weight Watchers on recommended intake, and the Justin Timberlake-sung slogan “I’m lovin’ it”, McDonalds seemingly addressed ethical concerns and consumer responsiveness.
However, those who appreciate a good salad aren’t likely to consider McDonalds. Indeed, it was revealed that McDonalds in America attributes only 2 to 3% of total sales to salads. McDonalds remains the familiar burger place that the public loves. The flavours and smells are as nostalgic as Mum’s home cooking. Most people wouldn’t deny that burger ingredients are low quality and unhealthy. The salad option provides existing customers with possible satisfaction of a healthy, ethical choice, even if they don’t take it.
2) FOX NEWS
Fox News is a Republican network all but in name. The closest alternative that Democrats have is MSNBC (Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell,and Chris Hayes), which is still not nearly partisan or successful as Fox. A New York Times/ A CNN poll on September 29th, 2009 stated that 78% of interviewed Fox viewers defined themselves as Republican voters, while 45% of MSNBC viewers identified as Democrats.
There’s a widespread insinuation that Fox News deliberately misleads people, but not enough consideration is given to Fox’s successful energisation of the Republican base. People would rather think of themselves as independent and judge information obtained from news and not propaganda. Fox uses basic features that provide a veneer of news, most obviously the name. If it were called ‘Republican News Network’ with the slogan “Believe in America” (Romney’s campaign slogan), Fox couldn’t have succeeded. The slogan “Fair and Balanced” justifies the audience viewpoint as ‘balanced’ no matter how conservative it is, and anything against them is unbalanced and extremist. Frequent use of Democratic politicians as contributors creates the impression of balance, but contributors usually fit two stereotypes. One is the belligerent liberal such as Al Sharpton or Barney Frank. The other is the mild mannered, conservative Democrat like Joe Lieberman or Harold Ford Jr. Pantomime villains or pushover wimps. These well-designed elements cater to Republican viewers who want news to justify their views with a veneer of balance.
3) ELECTING A ETHNIC MINORITY OR FEMALE CANDIDATE AS THE SOLUTION
The song ‘Obama the Magic Negro’ was racist. But LA Times writer David Ehrenstein, who coined the term ‘Magic Negro’ to describe part of the appeal of Obama during the 2008 Democratic Primaries, had a point:
“He’s there to assuage white “guilt” (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest”.
Though part of the attraction was liberal ideology, people might have also seen Obama as a cure for American racism, as if electing him would make America forgiven for the legacies of slavery, segregation, and lynchings. Democrats Joe Biden and Senate Majority Harry Reid made controversial comments about Obama being clean cut and articulate as a key to his success. Though rather offensive, there is an indication that perhaps the public preferred someone less confrontational like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – the “Angry Black Man” – and more assuring.
The election of ethnic minority or female politicians, though symbolic, is no panacea for racism, sexism, inequality, or war. Obama has continued important mechanisms of the Bush War on Terror such as Guantanamo Bay, PRISM, and drone strikes against foreign nationals. Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard – to varying degrees – faced strong pressure to disprove the insinuation that women are too weak to be leaders, were realist politicians as products of their political systems, or both. Thatcher presided over over some of the biggest economic reforms that disproportionately affected the poor, while maintaining only one female cabinet member. Clinton supported the war in Iraq in 2003 and three strikes imprisonment. Gillard cut single parent payments for 87% of single parents, and reintroduced John Howard’s Pacific Solution and the ‘No Advantage‘ rule that prevents those approved for asylum from gaining work, study, and welfare rights for a five year period. The McDonalds Salad Principle applies insofar that although we congratulate ourselves for electing ethnic minorities and women to higher office, yet often do not think about the structures and attitudes that marginalise.
The McDonalds Salad Principle considers our role as consumers. We believe that we can solve exploitation through treating our consumer choice as the ultimate power. Choosing ethical brands or those who convince us they are, where we get our news from, and which brand of president or prime minister we vote for. We assume that the right choices will change society, but it will just make institutions and politicians try harder to appear more responsive and relateable. In other words, style over substance. American public policy expert and former Clinton Secretary of Labour Robert Reich sums this up brilliantly when he takes on the anti-Wal-Mart movement.
“Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to consumers as lower prices…. The fact is, today’s economy offers us a Faustian bargain: it can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities”.
The solution, Reich claims, is not to attack singular corporations and use our collective power as consumers, but as citizens:
“The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one. A requirement that companies with more than 50 employees offer their workers affordable health insurance, for example, might increase slightly the price of their goods and services. My inner consumer won’t like that very much, but the worker in me thinks it a fair price to pay. Same with an increase in the minimum wage or a change in labor laws making it easier for employees to organize and negotiate better terms”.
Solutions to unethical and unfair economic practices, misinformation, and marginalisation are not consumer but citizen-based. Minimum standards of wages and working conditions, reforming media ownership laws and a strong movement in citizen journalism, and democratic mainstream party organisations and political party funding reforms. These are not consumer choices but substantive ideas that need to be part of public dialogue rather than having the choice between an apple or fries.