Commentary |
28 August 2020

Why the American public has tuned out of politics

The American political class are fighting their private culture wars that have sidelined the concerns that ordinary citizens have. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Sam Roggeveen
Sam Roggeveen

Tony Abbott once said that ‘‘few Australians would regard America as a foreign country’’. That was always a stretch, but it looks especially naïve as we observe from afar the bizarre spectacle of the Republican National Convention.

Speaker after speaker has warned that the Democratic Party is under the control of the radical left, and that America is at risk of becoming a socialist country. Americans will be disarmed and enslaved, they say, police forces defunded and prisons emptied. Traditional values will give way to ‘‘wokeism’’ and cancel culture.

There was nothing comparable at the Democratic Convention that nominated Joe Biden as its presidential candidate. Ideologically, the Democrats have not moved as far to the left as the GOP has moved to the right. But what has marked Democrat rhetoric in the Trump era is an undercurrent that Donald Trump himself is illegitimate because he so radically breaks with the norms of the presidency.

There is solid evidence that American values are becoming steadily more unified and more tolerant.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that Biden should not even debate Trump because he will behave in a way that is “beneath the dignity of the presidency” is typical of the mentality. It was a gift to Trump. Pelosi was essentially saying that the President is not worthy of the election debates because he doesn't behave like a “normal” politician, thus reminding Americans exactly why they voted for him.

The extremism of American political rhetoric, and the cultural gulf that separates the two parties, is difficult for us to comprehend. There is simply nothing like it in Australian mainstream politics, and from this distance, there’s a natural temptation to think America looks more foreign – and more radical – than ever before.

But we should be careful about such judgments. There is solid evidence that American values are becoming steadily more unified and more tolerant. Support for interracial marriage, for instance, is rising and Americans are more accepting of homosexuality.

And despite the scenes of protesting and rioting we have seen on our TV screens in recent months, America is becoming less racist. Hollywood star Will Smith put it succinctly in 2016: “It's clearly not as bad as it was in the 60s, and it's certainly not as bad as it was in the 1860s … racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed.”

Yet American politics doesn’t reflect this reality. Its political parties and its media create the impression that America’s cultural divide is widening when by many measures America is more unified.

This illustrates where the great division of American politics truly lies. It is not between left and right, or between Democrats and Republicans. The real gulf is between the public and the political class as represented by the two major parties and the mass media, which has turned the national debate into a perpetual culture war that is largely divorced from the priorities of the public.

The Republican National Convention has focused obsessively on “cancel culture”, for instance, but how many of Trump’s voters would even have heard that term, let alone understand what it means?

The public has largely tuned out of the culture wars and ignored politics altogether. But every once in a while, the voters intervene, as they did in 2016 when they rejected the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, who personified the political class and elected a president who came from outside it.

Trump wasn’t even particularly right-wing by the standards of the modern Republican Party; he certainly didn’t embody its “family values”. Trump didn’t talk in ideological terms and seemed not to have much of a political belief system. He rarely used the culture-war language of the kind that was on such prominent display at the Republican Convention this week.

But that has begun to change. Trump’s speech at Mt Rushmore in July was replete with dark warnings about the “new far-left fascism” and the totalitarianism of cancel-culture mobs. And in his address to the Republican Convention, Trump said: “This election will decide whether we save the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”

This is not a promising sign for Trump. Whatever instincts he had about connecting with a mass of voters who have been left out of the political conversation, they seem to have been overwhelmed by the Republican orthodoxy about countering the “radical left”. It is popular to argue that the Republican Party has become Trump’s personal plaything, but at least rhetorically it looks as if the GOP has captured the President.

The ray of hope for Trump is that, like 2016, the Democrats have chosen an insider as their presidential candidate. Guardian columnist Ben Judah described Biden cuttingly as an “American Brezhnev”, the frail standard-bearer of an establishment dedicated to preserving a crumbling status quo. And also like 2016, the Democrats seem obsessed with Trump himself, motivated largely by their offence at the President’s vulgarity.

More presidential verbal atrocities undoubtedly await us during this campaign. If Biden ignores them and sidelines the culture-war debate altogether, we will know the Democrats have learnt a lesson that Trump himself seems to have forgotten.

Sam Roggeveen is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.