Sunday, November 16, 2014

No policy for you! Seinfeld identity politics

There are a lot of parallels between Australian and American politics at the moment. Last year, Tony Abbott won government by running an almost entirely negative campaign, such that he has no meaningful mandate to accomplish any policy goals of his own once in power. This year, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate in a wave election fueled by a similarly Seinfeldian campaign about nothing, dominated by short-term non-policy issues.

Last year, Abbott's main policy was that he wasn't Julia Gillard; more cogently, he represented an older, whiter, more traditional set of values than the progressive feminists and watermelon greens. This year, the GOP's main policy was that none of its politicians were Barack Obama; specifically, very few of them were non-white or were younger than baby boomer age.

Last year, Abbott swept into government despite the electorate largely preferring the left's policy platform. This year, Republicans now enjoy control of both houses of Congress despite America as a whole (as opposed to the minority who vote in mid-terms) consistently polling favourably towards the Democrats' policies.

So we come to the rise of what is called "identity politics". Policy doesn't mean much in this framework. Who you are is much more important than what you say or do. Tribalism has been used in politics to further policy ends, but this is tribalism as an ideology in itself. There is an argument to be made that this is just tribalism being used as a pretext for running far-right ideology, and there's something to be said for that since I'm sure there are operatives who think that way. Just as Seinfeld was a show ostensibly about nothing but really about the self-centred obsessions of borderline autistic arseholes, identity politics is now being used as a front for the Koches of the world to further their ideological goals. The effect is the same in any case: old white guys running the show and doing what they like.

It's a cliche of Australian politics by now that since the Hawke/Keating era, the big policy reforms have all been accomplished and there are no "low-hanging fruit" left, thus policy-based politics is bloody hard yakka. Most posts by the Piping Shrike riff off this meme, along with the related one about unions ceasing to be relevant and thus rendering Labor without a mission. The right never really had a mission either except to oppose the left, so they should be vastly more experienced at governing without policy.

However, it's much easier to run identity politics in America with its sharply delineated white, black, Latino and Asian communities, which despite generations of effort still remain segregated to a significant degree. Here in Australia, Abbott is reduced to the rather feeble formulation of "Team Australia" to push his version of identity. Pauline Hanson literally wrapped herself in an Australian flag, and Abbott's attempts to figuratively do the same just make him look rather lame. At least John Howard's green and gold tracksuits came from a genuine place in his heart, and didn't try to exclude anyone. It's just another example of Abbott's tin ear.

During this Great Interregnum, as the world (apart from China) deleverages together, we are in a global Green Room, waiting for the show to start. What's the next act? Is it China imploding? Is it Hillary Clinton turning the tide against austerity? Is it Germany losing its fear of Weimar-era inflation and removing their economic jackboots from the earholes of Europe? Is it a massive El Nino to finally remove all doubt as to the effects of climate change? Cue the bass guitar and synth riffs, and we'll find out after the break.

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