Lawyer and NSW Left activist, Matt McGirr writes about why we should listen to Michael Moore about Donald Trump.
US film-maker and commentator Michael Moore has recently made an interesting case for why Trump will win the US presidential race If you missed it, Moore suggests that, for many Americans, a vote for Trump is a big "up-yours" to the whole political system.
One of Moore's arguments in favour of a Trump win is that while Americans don't like Trump, they will still vote for him because there will be a Brexit-style "screw you" to the system, the status quo, and everything that Clinton represents. In a short video, he puts it like this:
"They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be fucked over and fucked up. It doesn't matter. Because it's equalised that day. A millionaire has the same number of votes as the person without a job. One. And there's more of the former middle class than the millionaire class."
I'm not sure if Moore is right about Trump winning, and Veteran New Yorker journalist John Cassidy put some of my fears to rest by pointing out why Brexit is unlikely in the US. However, putting the debate about who might win aside, Moore draws attention to an ominous trend towards right wing populism, and Brexit proved that people can and will use the ballot box to express anger and disgust, even if the result was not necessarily in anyone's best interests.
This is a serious challenge to our progressive cause, particularly given the lurch to the right has certainly occurred here too, with the recent political resurrection of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, the rise and fall of Tony Abbott, and the emergence of Turnbull as a leader beholden to the fringe-right of the Coalition.
One conventional explanation for this trend towards right wing populism is that low wage growth, high living costs, and unemployment, has undermined the hopes and aspirations of many working people of modest means. While this is surely a factor, the rise of Trump can also be attributed to a kind of political disenfranchisement, an inability to have any meaningful say over the future of their community and political life.
In previous times, membership-based community groups, like unions, churches, schools and universities, offered a variety of forums to express political views, and listen to alternative views. Voters didn't need to rely solely on the ballot box alone to express their views. You had the opportunity to discuss them in your weekly union meeting, your local rotary club, or even through your local church.
These institutions provided a forum to participate in political discussion, and they offered you the ability to be a part of something bigger and more powerful than yourself.
More and more, however, ordinary people are denied the opportunity to participate in meaning-based communities. Union membership is, in many spheres, declining, community groups, such as art and theatre societies, are struggling, and while some political parties have improved member engagement, many people find themselves less connected with the communities in which they live.
Unions, for instance, have a proud tradition of collectivism and political activism involving ordinary working people. However, despite the important work they do, unions have been regularly characterised as corrupt, criminal, and thuggish by conservative politicians. This sideshow ignores the damaging economic policies which have undermined many industries. Faced with industrial decline, our current political leaders choose to blame the workers and unions, rather than face up to a decline in our industrial and manufacturing economies.
The recklessness belligerence towards unions, is staggeringly irresponsible. By demonising unions in the public sphere, and wrecking our productive economy, we risk creating the conditions for our very own Trump-style political phenomenon. Without institutions such as unions, many workers will be denied the opportunity to participate in the political sphere in a meaningful way. Many already are denied this, having no meaningful union. To avoid this, we must work to rebuild the public's trust and faith in unions. Union administrators must also work hard to ensure their members are continually engaged and involved political decisions.
The forced amalgamations of local councils in NSW by the Baird government is yet another example of disenfranchisement, borne of political arrogance. Local councils are an important democratic institution, and a relatively accessible political forum. Eroding their representative coverage, particularly in a draconian manner, will damage public confidence in the system as a whole, and increase cynicism, disengagement and anger.
Voter participation, and the electoral laws, can also have an impact on the ability for marginalised people to vote. Many people face difficulties voting, including homeless people, the elderly, indigenous people, and young people (who are not enrolled). Similar difficulties occur in the US, where voter law reforms have made it more difficult than ever for minorities to exercise their democratic rights.
The spectre of reform to political donations also threatens collectivism and political engagement. A ban on all political donations by corporations, unions and overseas donors, recently proposed by Abbott, would clearly favour wealthy individuals like Gina Rinehart, at the expense of collectivist bodies, including unions. If donation reform is necessary, it must be done in a way that enables unions and other representative bodies to continue making donations on behalf of their members, who deserve the ability to meaningfully contribute to political causes.
Diminishing working conditions also contribute to disengagement. Longer hours, weekend work, and stagnating wages mean that ordinary voters and workers have less time and less energy than ever to contribute to political causes, engage with ideas, and interact with others. Put simply, how do you attend a branch meeting when you're working 16 hour days?
Religious institutions, once the bastion of communal and political identity, have managed to sabotage themselves quite effectively, and thereby shrink to irrelevancy. The most clear example in Australia is the once-powerful and politically omnipresent Catholic Church. Proud little churches can found in almost every Australian suburb, funded and built by hard-working Catholics in a by-gone era. Now, much of the hierarchy has isolated itself from its own membership, choosing instead to embrace its regressive teachings on sexuality and human anthropology. Too many are excluded now.
In short, there is nothing inevitable about politicians like Trump. Dangerous right wing populism flourishes in the heady mix of inequality and voicelessness. Isolation from others breeds extreme views, which are left to fester in their own internal logic.
However, when people have a genuine political voice to lose, the prospect of an authoritarian figure like Trump becomes so much less attractive or compelling.