Comment: Part 3 of Simon Wilson’s essay “Why I’m Afraid”
BARACK OBAMA says the important thing about American democracy is not that it is “the most powerful country on Earth”, which he puts down to “accidents of history”. Nor is it, as some of his compatriots fondly think, that their democracy has been going for longer than anyone else’s.
America is “genuinely important to the world”, he said in a magazine interview last year, because it is “the first real experiment in building a large, multi-ethnic, multicultural democracy”.
“And,” he adds, “we don’t yet know if that can hold.” Well, that’s true.
The Trump presidency, even including the insurrection he encouraged in Washington this month, was not the first time the inclusiveness of American democracy has been put to the test.
A Civil War was fought in the 1860s over it. But the hopes of the Reconstruction period that followed lasted barely 10 years before white supremacy began reasserting itself.
In 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Democrats staged an insurrection, with accompanying massacre, overthrowing the elected state government in order to disenfranchise Black voters. For most of the 20th century, Jim Crow segregation was enforced with terror throughout the South.
That only began to change with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and in particular with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There’s a good argument that 1965 marks the start of Obama’s “multi-ethnic, multicultural” democracy and there’s no sense yet that the matter is settled. The Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
It often seems that all Americans are proud of their constitution, but they do not share a common understanding of it.
Some see it as an instrument for bending the arc of history towards justice for all. While it originally enshrined the rights of white male property owners, its principles are open-ended: the Founding Fathers anticipated and allowed for its expansion.
Universal adult suffrage and equality for all before the law are the logical expressions of its purpose. The constitution, like American democracy itself, is a work in progress.
Others do not agree. They believe, although do not always openly say, that the constitution was written by slave owners to enshrine their own rights and should continue to be regarded as a white supremacist document.
One of the favourite claims of the insurrectionists who marauded through the Capitol building on January 6 was that it was “our building”. Who was “us”? The common denominator among the voting precincts where Donald Trump tried and failed to have the presidential election overturned is that they all have large numbers of Black voters.
Angry white people, storming through the halls of Congress, horrified that “they” are taking “our” power. Always the cry when a power balance changes.
THE STORMING of the Capitol was a shock, not least because one of the largest (per capita), best-trained and best-equipped law-enforcement agencies in America let it happen.
While it lasted it was also comedic. This was the best they could do? Those Proud Boys and all their strutting, shouting, preening compatriots, armed to the teeth and itching for a showdown, was that it?
They broke in because they were allowed to. They wandered the halls and defaced some property. They took no hostages. They made no demands. The blew nothing up and burned nothing down. There was little sign of military skill and they appeared to have no goal nor even any leaders. They got chased out.
It was cosplay. They had a bloated sense of grievance and their only demand, expressed in a thousand selfies and poses for the media, was “Look at me!”
Trump himself is a cosplay champion, with his fantastical hair, orange skin and stupid long tie. The rabble was there to channel him, every which way it’s possible. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!
The revolution was on Instagram. One thing we learned: if social media is a powerful grievance weapon and organising tool, turns out it can also be remarkably impotent as an instrument of actual change.
Since the day itself, though, we have learned more. Slogans like “Hang Pence” are not funny, even if it’s a clown shouting them. There were vicious attacks on police officers, especially if they were Black. And while the cosplay enthusiasts hogged the cameras, other insurrectionists, away from the spotlight, went looking for prey: the elected officials who had been hustled to safety.
They were armed, with home-made bombs, assault rifles, handguns, walkie-talkies, handcuffs and zip ties. They didn’t use them. But they could have.
Did Trump intend there to be a coup? He might dearly love there to be one but he isn’t capable of mounting it. He can’t plan, he has no larger purpose and he fell out long ago with people who do have the skills to do the dirty business.
It isn’t just that the political goals were less important than his own self-aggrandisement. Those goals weren’t important at all. His own ego was all that mattered.
So he ranted and railed. “We will never give up,” he told the crowd on the morning of January 6. “March on the Capitol!”
His accomplice, Rudy Giuliani, declared it was time for “trial by combat”. Trump said, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.”
Such insurrectionist talk. Then Trump fled back into the White House to scream abuse at his most loyal acolyte, Vice-President Mike Pence. Later, he called the rabble “great patriots” and told them he loved them.
That was Donald Trump. Bully. Blusterer. Blowhard. And now a twice-impeached outcast. He has become what Americans call a bum.
THE FEAR is not about what just happened. It’s about what they left behind and what will happen now.
Trump has acknowledged that Biden will become President on January 20, but he has not conceded or said it is wrong to insist the election was stolen. He has not called off the dogs.
Some of those dogs will be beyond fury that their cause was made to look so silly. You can bet the Secret Service and FBI are on an all-out war footing now, to prevent terrorism on Inauguration Day.
But the bigger worry is not the immediate one. It’s the Republican Party.
Ted Cruz from Texas, who has all the blustering narcissism of Donald Trump and none of the charm. That senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, who claimed that because violence is wrong, his attempt to overthrow the election on the Senate floor was even more necessary. And was photographed giving power salutes to the insurrectionists outside the building.
In another time and place, are these the men who would have strung Barack Obama and Kamala Harris from the nearest tree and run Joe Biden out of town with a backside full of grapeshot?
It’s no coincidence they are from slave states. It’s no coincidence that almost all the senators and most of the other representatives who voted to steal the election on January 6 are from slave states.
Most Republican politicians in Washington voted to steal the election. One of the two great parties of American democracy has forsaken the American people and its own principles and persuaded 70 million voters to go along with it.
For five long years Republicans have enabled Trump, a man who manages, simultaneously, to be dangerous and laughable. They won the Supreme Court but in the process, they shored up the movement to Make America Ridiculous.
That’s what we’ve been living in: the Age of American Ridiculousness. And the Republicans have to find a way to climb back from it.
AND YET, America. It’s always different from what you think. Internationally, one of the biggest tragedies of the Trump years is the loss of world leadership on climate action. But some of the best progress on that score has been made in the US, right under his nose. Many states, cities and organisations have moved ahead anyway.
California, on its own the fifth largest economy in the world, has some of the best emissions-reductions programmes for energy, transport, construction and other sectors anywhere. Texas, the home of American oil, now has 254,000 workers in renewable energy: way ahead of the 162,000 employees clinging to oil and gas.
In the corporate sector, companies like Microsoft and Google plan to be “carbon positive” by 2030. Very few governments are so ambitious.
Progress of all kinds in America is important for all of us. Those Californian climate initiatives drive change around the world. Conversely, when the moral authority of American democracy slides, darker forces benefit. Russia, Iran, North Korea and China are all stronger in the Age of American Ridiculousness.
At the very time those insurrectionists were parading the halls of Congress, China was arresting the leaders of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and boasting of its benign record in Xinjiang, where in reality more than a million Uyghurs are brutally detained in camps. It has launched an astonishing trade war against Australia.
But American democracy is not in ruins. It has survived gerrymandering, widespread voter suppression, stacked courts, a ceaseless campaign of misinformation and an actual insurrection. The 2020 election has shown the world that when the institutions are strong enough, democracy can save itself.
That’s a formidable quality in any political system.
There are lessons in this for our own National Party. Like the Republicans in America, it faces the task of reinvention. What is the role of a modern mainstream conservative party in the third decade of the 21st century?
Republicans seem to believe they can’t win unless they frighten voters with misinformation and do their best to skew the outcome. But there’s no good future in that. And to National’s credit, there is little evidence it is tempted by the same logic.
Former deputy Gerry Brownlee trotted out the QAnon/conspiracy theorists’ “just asking questions” line a couple of times during the election campaign here, but he got called on it and you could see the embarrassment flush from ear to ear. But what will National do?
Their task isn’t easy and it is important. For democracy to work well, voters have to believe their side has a reasonable chance of success, at least some of the time.
National, in other words, has to find a credible place to stand in relation to the big question we now face: how to survive and prosper in a Covid and climate crisis world. Its policies have to make sense and they have to be popular.
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton had something to say about this in a symposium last year. A former National Cabinet minister himself, he said, in apparent reference to National’s climate change policy, “It’s not good enough to pick at the scabs of public discontent.”
THE TIME has come to make democracy better. That insurrection was a wake-up call, not just for America but for all of us.
In this country we know we have to reduce poverty and overcome the terrible blight of a runaway housing market. We know we have to change the ways we live and work, in order to minimise the damage we cause to the environment and adapt to the damage already caused.
We know these things should be done inclusively, so that sections of the population are not alienated and, by that alienation, enraged. This is the lesson of America.
The challenge encompasses everything from social media to schools, all kinds of public decision making, the workings of Parliament and of the economy, the ways we address historical injustice and social and ethnic differences. In Aotearoa New Zealand, as in America, the task includes fundamental questions about the ways we address race.
It’s never-ending, but that’s not a bad thing. As hopeful Americans like to say, it’s a work in progress. But to do this work, we need to sharpen our democratic tools.
It’s not at all impossible. Some of the sharper tools already exist.
Take the operation of local councils, where failing infrastructure and “nimby” vs “urban development” disputes have blighted progress all over the country. “Consultation”, all too often, means everyone going round in endless circles and getting angry.
Here’s a thing: when local or central government consults on a project and someone proposes a good idea not included in the original proposal, for that good idea to be included, another round of consultation is required.
Better, surely, for councils to engage citizens from the ground up in planning, by working in communities, with the key being to identify problems and shared goals and then decide how to meet them.
Don’t start with airy talk about “spatial planning” and housing projects that neighbours can object to if they want. Start with a process to agree on density and its constraints and, critically, to agree on the goals of density.
Don’t announce plans for cycle lanes through the shopping centre. Start by inviting retailers and others to discuss how to increase customer numbers and make the streets safer for all users.
Reform of the Resource Management Act will help with some of this, but we could go much further.
Get local boards, where they exist, to lead the process, and take the leadership and decision-making away from the engineers and accountants in local body administration who exercise it now. It requires a commitment to new processes and new ways of thinking but fundamentally it’s not that hard.
On issues that are too big and/or too complex, grassroots democracy isn’t enough on its own. How about we start using citizen’s assemblies? They’re already popular in parts of Britain, Europe and some US states.
An assembly involves a largish group, chosen randomnly, which is presented with expert information from different points of view, and then debates the issue and reaches a conclusion. It’s public and well publicised. We could do it with drug reform, welfare and tax reform, or climate issues like transport in the cities and agricultural emissions in rural areas.
Who then finally decides? Our elected representatives, of course. But they, like we, have the benefit of hearing a well-informed, non-party aligned debate.
It’s got to be better than the current method, dominated by well-funded pressure groups and their lobbyists, with political parties relying on polling far more than facts to guide their decisions.
Citizens’ assemblies increase the likelihood that big decisions get made well, with popular support. They also reduce the influence of fake news, conspiracy theorists and all those who think government has shut them out.
They help restore confidence in democracy.
There’s talk about four-year terms for Parliament, to encourage bolder decision-making by MPs. It might help but it’s not a panacea. Timid governments are going to be timid however long they’re in power.
Besides, why reform democracy only in Parliament? It’s more important to improve public engagement with the whole process. Citizens’ assemblies, in my view, offer a good way to mandate governments to make good big decisions.
A LOT of it comes down to food. New Zealand’s future is intrinsically related to farming. But we’re not a leader in this, despite what some say.
The Netherlands, which focuses on meat, dairy, eggs and vegetables, is the second-largest food exporter in the world. It’s committed to circular farming by 2030 and a fully circular economy by 2050. That means, among other things, agriculture free from fossil-based fertilisers and other external inputs within the next nine years.
Where they go, so can we. So must we.
Yet, sadly, while agricultural emissions contribute fully half of this country’s total, Federated Farmers and the other leading farm groups want us to think they’ve already got it all under control.
If we’re going to make democracy better, we need to get better at talking about change.
At the Workshop consultancy, co-directors Marianne Elliott and Jess Berentson-Shaw have developed a process for helping with this. They call it “a framework for communicating research and science and inspiring action in relation to the big issues of the world”, and they’ve applied it to many topics, including the climate crisis.
One of their key points is to lift the focus from individual to systemic change. Russel Norman at Greenpeace makes the same point. “It’s not about individual responsibility, it’s what you do (as a council or a government or a business) to make individual decisions viable,” he told a conference late last year.
You don’t expect farmers simply to reduce their own dairy herds. That could mean financial ruin. But you do develop the support mechanisms, that must involve the banks, to help with transition.
Berentson-Shaw and Elliott offer good advice on how to go about debating this. Better democracy. It’s all part of it.
Right now, the power lies with planners who can’t think past cars and are pumping growth into the outskirts of cities – especially in Auckland. It lies with officials who want to punish the poor (is there any other way to look at it?).
The Government declared in 2017 it was committed to progressive change and reaffirmed that commitment in 2020. But it has been lacking in ideas, obstructed by officials throughout the public service and, above all, frightened that voters will not support significant reform. Councils suffer the same malaise.
The voters they are scared of are boomers. Wellington region mayors are so scared, they have refused to accept smart water meters to help avoid drought – because they think voters won’t stand the cost. In Tauranga the council was sacked because, in essence, most of its members opposed raising rates to pay for vital infrastructure.
Voters who don’t want to pay themselves, but are happy enough to leave it to those who come after to shoulder the burden.
Christiana Figueres, a boomer who led the Paris Climate Accord process, has something to say about this. “We are the generation. Our parents did not have the tools. And for our children, it will be too late.”
The good news, in relation to climate action, is that if we do really commit to it we will not be alone. The UN says its Race to Zero campaign “mobilises a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 452 cities, 22 regions, 1101 businesses, 45 of the biggest investors and 549 universities. These ‘real economy’ actors join 120 countries in the largest-ever alliance committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Collectively these actors now cover nearly 25 per cent of global CO2 emissions and more than 50 per cent of GDP.”
China is committed to net zero by 2060, the EU and Japan by 2050. Joe Biden says the US will adopt that goal too. India stands out for not yet joining the movement, although it desperately needs to. New Delhi, reported Al Jazeera recently, is the “most unhealthy place in the world right now”.
THE ARC of the moral universe bends toward justice: it’s the great article of faith for humanists everywhere. Martin Luther King made the idea popular and Obama took it up. But progress is not smooth: after Obama, Trump. But after Trump, Biden.
Will it be fast enough? Will we make our democracies strong enough to generate the speed and success we need?
Will we do it inclusively? Or, as the questions get sharper and the times get tougher, will sections of the population become alienated and if so, who will they blame and what anger will they unleash? How close are we to the bitterness now felt by so many Americans?
Democracy is always and everywhere a work in progress. January 6: the wake-up call.
Climate scientist James Renwick says: “We are in control. We can stop this.” His optimism is about to get its first really big test.
On February 1 the Climate Change Commission will tell us what it thinks we must do to hit our climate action marks by 2030. There will be some big spending. There must be a wide, deep, informed and effective process of community engagement.
And there must be leadership. Democracy is built on the power of the citizenry but, in the end, it stands or falls on the quality of those in charge. In this country we have the most trusted and admired prime minister the country has seen since Michael Joseph Savage, 80 years ago. She’s very good in a crisis. What great things she could still do.
Simon Upton, noting the “high level of trust” Jacinda Ardern generated in the response to Covid-19, says that with climate action, she will need that same trust. And, he says, she will “need to sustain it for longer than a vaccine, because, for the climate, there isn’t a vaccine”.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talking about how we, today, can’t be held responsible for the wrongs of the past. Commentators Moana Jackson and Emma Espiner have both suggested we should turn that around: we definitely are responsible for the wrongs we visit on the future.
“The actions we take, or the injustices that we allow now,” says Espiner, “will literally shape the lives of our grandchildren.” It’s not a radical idea.
Coming soon: Why I’m Afraid, part 4: The new way to look at economics that could change everything
Why I’m Afraid, part 1: A Century of crisis and we’re not coping
Why I’m Afraid, part 2: Half empty or half full? How we’re responding to the climate crisis
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