I’m a non-partisan conservative, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that I still don’t know how I’m going to vote when July comes. Last time, I submitted an invalid vote. This time, I’m leaning towards voting for the Liberal Party (because my ALP candidate is a total numpty). More importantly, I’m not the target audience for any of the major political parties. Getting my vote is difficult because I’m a high-information voter. Presenting arguments that are about persuasion, trying to engage with people who disagree with you, is resource-intensive and political parties have limited budgets. A dog-whistle (of either political variety) is cheaper and will get more votes.
Being conservative, I’m subjected to a lot of abuse online. Progressive males are absolutely the worst, but there’s an entire genre of abuse from female Baby Boomer progressives. And conservative women online get it a hundred times worse, almost exclusively from brogressives who have internalised a lot of misogyny. There is an attitude that, if you’re dealing with somebody who has different political beliefs to you, you can take the gloves off and be as vicious as you like.
Matt Bruenig was dumped by Demos as a writer following complaints about his behaviour online. There will, no doubt, be a lot of thinkpieces written by either side of the political divide, cherrypicking details that suit their argument. Bruenig’s supporters will claim that he was dropped for using the word ‘scumbag’ and for criticising Clinton supporters (which might affect Demos’ funding). Bruenig’s detractors will claim that he has a history of encouraging attacks on women and other minorities, and that Demos should be able to protect its reputation from being associated with misogyny and racism. And so on and so forth. All good arguments.
Both of these vignettes are really marionette shows of a larger political drama: that political discussion is a blood sport.
In Bruenig’s case, the Sanders v Clinton debate long ago abandoned any premise that this was about two different visions of the Democratic Party. Instead, it is about swearing fealty to your tribe. The facts behind whatever they say are entirely irrelevant: Clinton could say that bacon is delicious, and Sanders’ supporters would boycott bacon for a month. And vice versa. It’s not mere difference of opinion: it is a conviction that everything uttered by your opponent is factually wrong and morally bankrupt.
Rather counterintuitively, the sort of political leadership that I want to see in politics is actively punished by the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain was at a rally where Republican voters kept trying to tell him that they were scared of Obama because he’s an Arab. McCain kept shutting down the line of inquiry, saying:
Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States
He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].
The crowd booed, and McCain was unable to get the voter turnout he needed to take on Obama.
We see this in Australia as well. It’s not that progressive Australia merely disagrees with Turnbull, it’s that Turnbull is evil and trying to destroy Australian literature and trying to send refugees to gulags and commanding a secret police to raid political opponents and he’s a money smuggler and he runs secret companies offshore…
In the mainstream media, News Corp constantly runs abusive campaigns about the Greens. Conservative columnists took this to extremes when it set out to destroy some poor bastard who happened to ask a challenging question about government policy on national television.
It’s not that some people have policies that reflect different priorities, it’s that Australia will burn to the ground if the people we oppose get elected.
The same people who keep praying for a better quality of political debate are usually the first to hurl slurs about those with whom they have disagreements. They want facts. They want open debate. And they really want to tear strips off anybody who disagrees with them.
Let’s get real. The outcome of the next election is not going to seal the fate of the world. Some people are going to be a little bit better off. Some people are going to be a little bit worse off. The system, by and large, will go undisturbed because that’s what our democracy is all about. Similarly for Sanders and Clinton. Clinton is obviously going to be elected, but wouldn’t we all be better off if, at the end of the election, we were all constructively working towards broadly similar goals?
The argument that I advance here is one about balancing tensions. There needs to be room for sharp, heated disagreement. There needs to be room for protest and passionate expressions of dissatisfaction. It’s often the case that people who advance the ‘We should all be more civil towards each other’ are actually advancing a ‘Dissenters should just be quiet and stop trying to challenge the existing order which privileges me’ argument. It’s exactly this kind of rhetoric that’s used against protests from minorities who have no alternatives but to resort to violent protest. ‘Look at Gandhi,’ come the tut-tutting replies (usually from Baby Boomers), ‘See how he used the morally superior form of non-violent protest? You should be more like Gandhi.’ This sort of historically inaccurate fluffing is used only to silence people with legitimate grievances: ‘Oh, their cause might be just but they went about it in entirely the wrong way and so I just can’t agree with them.’
But the alternative is not ‘Let the Purge begin!’
If we had a political culture that wasn’t about tearing down people who disagree with us, we would get better politicians. We would get more experts and public intellectuals. We would get better policy discussion. But with the culture that we’ve created, what incentives are there to be better?