Part 1: the UK and USA
By Kaushambi Bagchi, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
In a political context, ‘polarisation’ refers to the situation where parties take positions to the extreme of their founding ideologies, and the political centre-ground is wiped out. Recent years have seen increasing polarization both within and between the far-left and the far-right positions. In brief, the right-wing approach tends towards a top-down approach, emphasizing national pride and personal responsibility; the left-wing approach tends towards a bottom-up approach, emphasizing equal opportunity and social accountability. Two key political events during 2016 have brought the world’s attention to how these positions have polarised: England’s vote to leave the EU, and Trump’s election as US President.
In America, A 2014 survey of 10,000 adults in the USA by Pew Research Centre found that Republicans and Democrats were very divided along ideological lines, and partisan antipathy was more extensive than at any time in the last two decades. 92% of Republicans were found to the right of the median Democrat and 94% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican.
Parties traditionally all invoke sentiments that intimidate and incentivize the public before elections. Donald Trump was a master of this. Racist, sexist and xenophobic comments and politices, such as proposing a ban on Muslims entering the USA, appealed to a regressive mindset and reflected his political agenda: to win votes through creating scapegoats.
Politicians, economists, journalists all over America spoke out against Trump’s bigotry through his campaign. Yet despite widespread criticism and the transparency of his agenda, Trump’s arrow still managed to find its mark, and he won the recent Presidential election against all expectations.
What was largely ignored when assessing Trump’s electability was that, on top of the large proportion of xenophobic, racist and sexist content of his speeches, he also spent significant time speaking of trade and the economy. As Thomas Frank writes in The Guardian — “It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.” Support for this orange-haired capitalist came largely from distressed, middle-class, unemployed Americans who still face the repercussions of the 2008 economic recession.
Britain’s referendum on the European Union on June 23rd , is another example of how right-wing focus on nationalist pride and scapegoating ‘outsiders’ can win over voters, when coupled with promises to deliver a new economic dawn. The UK’s choice to ‘exit, or ‘Brexit’ the EU was praised by far right wing parties across many countries, such as in France, where Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, suggested that France should follow in Britain’s footsteps, and hailed Brexit as the beginning of “a movement that can’t be stopped.”
The ‘Leave’ campaign has come under huge criticism from everyone else though; both moderate right and left, for making false promises and polarizing the debate in order to manipulate voters. The campaign had promised British citizens that Â£250 million/ week would go into the NHS if Britain left the EU, which was immediately retracted after the vote went their way. Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, an anti-poverty advocacy group, described the campaign as “pandering to nationalism, building a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and fostering the spurious notion that outside the EU we can return to an age when Britain was the world’s foremost ‘great power’.”
However you look it, both the UK and USA have made decisions in a day that will have implications for the whole world, and for future generations.
But is the left wing any better? In the 1990s, left activists and liberals in America used the Community Reinvestment Act and anti-discrimination housing laws to charge those housing lenders with discrimination, who excluded non-creditworthy borrowers. This led to abysmally low standards of creditworthiness among borrowers and an irrational insistence on discounting bad credit history, lack of savings, lack of steady employment and other crucial factors.
The credit risk of the entire financial system expanded tremendously and in addition to that, President Clinton’s over-regulation finally culminated into a recession that not only affected America but also the rest of the world. Arguably then, it is the fallacies of a polarized left that led middle-class Americans to look to an unapologetically racist man to rescue them from troubled waters.
There is, however, something else to the story. A monster called neoliberal capitalism that has successfully tamed every political wing. All rants of government regulation, enhancement of domestic production, uplifting of the downtrodden from either the right or left wing fall hollow when greed for profit is allowed to outweigh passion for welfare. “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning,” writes George Monbiot.
Neoliberalism is perhaps why we have slowly been losing the game of putting humanity first. Neoliberalism has not only commodified citizens, it has also not left nature in peace. It perhaps obscures the true debate if we insist on dwelling in binaries of left and right and hide the real vested corporate political interests behind the veil of ideologies. Ultimately, a government is meant for the welfare of its citizens. Commitment to people and planet before profit is what is needed by all political wings, if the future is to look any brighter.
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