ONE COULD ALMOST feel sorry for them. Until, that is, their propositions are subjected to robust interrogation. All around the world, conservatives are feeling the fresh winds blowing out of Washington – and they are shivering. They fear that ideas hitherto denied the full imprimatur of state power have been issued arms and are on the march. In short, today’s conservatives are feeling what old-fashioned Labourites and social democrats felt in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn-in as the fortieth President of the United States.
President Joe Biden is 78 years old. He has trod the floor of the Capitol Building for nigh on 40 years, trimming his sails to the prevailing winds as all successful politicians learn to do. All those years of experience are speaking to him now: warning him that the mighty gale currently filling the sails of the American ship of state cannot be tacked against, only run before. This will not be a “trimming” presidency: the Biden years will be a time of surging forward.
As one recent comment on The Daily Kos put it: “This isn’t Biden 2008. Something in the last 12 years has broadened his horizon and pushed him to centre-left territory. He put RFK’s bust in his office along with Caesar Chavez. If that’s where he’s looking for inspiration, I’m happy.”
Which explains the cold shivers running up and down the spines of conservatives everywhere. Donald Trump may have gone, but all the signs point to there being something much more momentous in the wind-shift than a simple return to the status quo ante.
Biden’s victory was built on the votes of America’s youth, America’s women, and, most triumphantly, on the votes of America’s people of colour. “Sleepy Joe” knows that his campaign was dead in the water until the veteran black congressman from South Carolina, James Clyburn, rallied his people behind the former Vice-President and pushed him all the way to the White House. As a long-time mover-and-shaker in the US Senate, Biden also knows that without the astonishing efforts of black activist Stacey Abrams in Georgia, neither he nor his party could have uplifted the legislative tools of change.
Someone else who knows this is the forty-third President of the United States, George W. Bush. Encountering James Clyburn in the Capitol Building on Inauguration Day, ‘Dubbya’ told the veteran congressman that he was America’s “saviour”. Without his intervention, said Bush, the only politician who could have beaten Trump would not have won the nomination.
Most certainly it was no accident that the person who ended up stealing the show on Inauguration Day was young, female and black. Rightly celebrated for the power of “The Hill We Climb”, her poem in honour of the new President, Amanda Gorman was also a flesh and blood celebration of the new America that is rising. Clearly, it is not going to be an America dominated by the values of conservative white males. Equally clearly, that message has been received loud and clear by conservative white males everywhere.
Fourteen thousand kilometres to the south, the Weekend Herald’s columnist, John Roughan, offered words of advice on the best way to reach out to Trump’s defeated army of followers. He addressed his remarks not only to the US Democratic Party, but also the American news media:
“If American Democrats and the country’s respected newspapers and television networks really would like to bridge their country’s cultural divides, rather than simply saying they do, they need to come halfway over the bridge. They need to overcome their aversion to certain views and respect the fact that a lot of people, about half the population, think that way.”
Wrapped up in those two sentences is pretty much the whole of the world view that conservatives believe to be threatened and which they are moving heaven and earth to protect. Under no circumstances should “respected” media outlets give extensive access (and, by implication, validation) to the voices of those on the receiving end of these “certain views” held by “about half the population”. Rather, it is the duty of the mainstream news media to “overcome their aversion” to such views.
Another way of saying this might be to invite responsible journalists to come halfway across the bridge (Selma Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, perhaps?) to meet the racism, sexism, climate change denial and white supremacist thinking that has allegedly enthralled half their fellow citizens – along with every other ideological defence of inequality the political right sees fit to advance.
Failure to display such tolerance will have consequences. “If the world is not to suffer more populist disasters,” warns the author of hundreds of NZ Herald leader articles, “possibly even an encore for Donald Trump, news media have to find an open mind again.”
Or, it might have to narrow its mind somewhat.
“Many journalists have had a tertiary education in liberal arts and it shows”, writes Roughan. “Some of their news angles reflect the values and explanations of a social science seminar where nobody’s misfortune can be attributable to poor personal decisions, society is always to blame, if an ethnic minority is underperforming it is evidence of ‘systemic’ racism.”
Is Roughan accusing the graduates of New Zealand’s universities and journalism schools of disseminating “fake news”? Or, is he merely giving credence to Kellyanne Conway’s classic Trumpian assertion that it is perfectly acceptable, when debating politics, to advance “alternative facts”?
Then again, if we are not to trust the evidence of social scientists: or, if we are being asked not to rely upon evidence at all; then in who and in what should we repose our trust? In the scepticism of those whose world views cannot survive the introduction of contradictory evidence? In the ‘reckons’ of people who believe democracy consists of one’s own ignorance being regarded in every respect as the equal of others’ knowledge? Or, are we simply being invited to accept that, politically-speaking, everything goes more smoothly when educated citizens agree to meet ignorance and prejudice half way?
John Roughan argues that Joe Biden struck a series of “clanging notes” when he used his inaugural address to call out “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism . . . anger, hatred, extremism . . . racism, nativism, fear . . . facts that are manipulated, even manufactured”. What the Weekend Herald columnist did not explain, however, is how the new President could possibly have kept faith with the eighty million Americans whose votes put him in the White House if he had refused to strike the Liberty Bell so forcefully.
The consequences of heeding Roughan’s advice are there in American history for all to see. In the decades following the Civil War, politicians and newspaper editors from North and South insisted with ever-increasing fervour that it was time for the people of the United States to put the rancour of those bloody years behind them. Increasingly, it was asserted that far from being about the abolition of slavery and “a new birth of freedom” for the American republic, the war had only been about its noble antagonists’ differing definitions of freedom. Before long, the veterans of Blue and Gray were warmly embracing each other like long lost brothers.
Thus was racism reprieved in the United States. As white men’s willingness to meet each other half way condemned African-Americans to a life that offered them no way at all to the full and equal enjoyment of their constitutional rights.
Amanda Gorman’s poem spells out the moral obligation this historical failure places upon her fellow citizens:
because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
New Zealanders should learn from America’s experience. Truth owes nothing to falsehood. Knowledge owes nothing to ignorance. Tolerance owes nothing to prejudice. Equality owes nothing to racism. Justice owes nothing to injustice. And anyone who suggests otherwise is most definitely offering you fake news.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 25 January 2021.