Between fear and hope

The grand theatre of American politics showcase political acts with conflicting narratives

Between fear and hope

Karl Mannheim, in his seminal work Ideology and Utopia, argued "[P]olitical conflict, since it is from the very beginning a rationalized form of the struggle for social predominance, attacks the social status of the opponent, his public prestige and his self-confidence".

Indeed, events that shape politics in any country are effected by how well the political elite face up to the challenge of political conflict. The political elite, can either annihilate the opponents by engaging in personalist attacks, or instead focus on the politics of issues.

In the last few weeks, the grand theatre of American politics showcased an exhibition of the political acts that reinforce the claim made by Manheim.

The most crucial of the events that is the focus of this article is the narrative that played out at the two political parties’ conventions: The Republican National Convention (RNC) at Cleveland versus the Democratic National Convention at Philadelphia. The Republican Convention prized on stoking fear among white voters; whereas the Democratic Convention, strove to kindle hope among the diverse populace.

At the RNC, Trump’s rise in the Republican Party reached its crescendo with the three incidents; first being the snubbing off the anti-Trump camp at the Convention; second, the "plagiarised" speech by Melania Trump; and the third being Trump’s acceptance speech, a 75-minute-long monologue.

Discord at RNC was evident but was stomped by Trump supporters. Ted Cruz the Republican frontrunner against Trump was booed-off at RNC. Cruz, on his part, therefore, did not show (any explicit or tacit) support to Trump.

On the "plagiarised" speech, Trump’s team showed no remorse. In fact many of the Republicans at the Convention, when asked by media to comment on "plagiarized" parts of the speech, rejected the allegation bluntly. Newt Gingrich who is an avid supporter of Trump instead claimed "Melania delivered them [the alleged plagiarized words] heck of a lot better than Michelle"!

In his 75-minute-long acceptance speech (the longest ever by any nominee), Trump targeted Democrats in general, and more specifically Hilary Clinton. He lampooned his rival, while his supporters chanted "lock her up".

Trump’s acceptance speech was a narcissistic monologue that featured the classic Trump "I" and "Me" narrative. His monologue played on the fear and anxiety of the voters. The speech may have identified why, and what of the political, economic and social issues, but how these issues would be resolved was left for audience’s imagination. It seems his incessant reassurances to his supporters that he is their messiah is working for him -- especially among the white American working class.

In contrast to RNC, the Democratic National Convention focused on the issue of uniting the Democratic voters -- hence the slogan "Stronger Together". The Trump campaign slogan forms the Republican slogan; the Democrats on the other hand, strove to channel their internal divisions for uniting their voters in order to reach out to the Independents, and the dissident Republican voters who are dismayed at Trump’s nomination. Independents are that segment of American voters who do not identify themselves as either Democrats or Republicans; because of the two-party system of US politics, voters have no choice other than to vote either of the two political parties.

At the Democratic convention, speeches made by Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren urged voters to unite against bullying. Bernie Sanders the vanquished Democratic contender made an emotional appeal to the Democratic voters as he backed Hilary Clinton to be the next US president.

Barack Obama, in his speech launched attack on fear-mongering Trump and his rhetoric; and made an emphatic appeal to "reject cynicism and reject fear". Obama declared Trump as a "home-grown demagogue" and listed him along fascists, terrorists, and even jihadists. Obama urged voters to vote and not to sit back, as according to him "democracy is not a spectator-sport" and one has to be in the ring to effect change.

One of the high points of the Convention came when parents of a Muslim fallen soldier (who had died in Iraq in 2004) came on the stage to speak about their loss. The family of (late) Capt. Humayun Khan, migrated to USA in 1970s from UAE before leaving their country of origin: Pakistan.

Khizr Khan, father of the slain soldier spoke with passion and challenged Trump head on by asking him: what has he sacrificed for America that he wants to ban an entire faith from making contribution to the American society? Declaring his family, the proud Muslim American, he even offered to share his copy of the American Constitution to Trump -- an image that shook and stirred the Democratic party supporters.

Finally, Hilary Clinton in her acceptance speech touched upon the need to make compromises through dialogue. Basking in the moment of being nominated as the first female presidential nominee by a major American political party, she let her supporters know that unity and staying together makes them strong. She argued only through collective efforts the issues faced by their society can be resolved. And, then came attack on her rival Trump -- the classic jab came when she questioned his machismo demeanour lacking composure "[A] man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons."

Concluding this discussion on the two Conventions, it is argued the personality-driven imagery that played out at the Republican Convention is a sight that most of us in Pakistan can relate to. There is this one plutocrat who declare himself the "saviour" of the masses. But he is, in fact, no less than a "home-grown demagogue" who by evoking fear among the masses made inroads into the political landscape.

In contrast to RNC, what happened at the Democratic Convention was completely a different visual and emotional experience. Visual in a sense that the supporters of the two Democratic leaders came together under the party’s banner. Emotional because the vanquished Democratic hopeful urged his supporters to vote the party’s nominee and transcend the divisions. This Convention shows how institutionally strong this political party is, though supporters of Sanders believe their candidate was disfavoured by the party’s establishment. Nevertheless, the narrative of hope, unity and stronger together at Democratic Convention was in sharp contrast to a reality-show styled Republican Convention that thrived more on fear and personal showmanship.

We in Pakistan, can take a few lessons from these two party conventions. The foremost lesson relates to the need of strong political institutions such as issue-based political parties. The political parties provide social and political platforms enabling the populace to mobilise and organise around issues of particular and common societal concerns. The presence of political parties bridges the communicative link between the political elite and the ordinary citizens. This communicative bridge functions insofar if it drives on issue-based politics, however, it collapses when action on issues relies on false promises and rhetoric. Indeed, in real life politics, line between demagoguery and leadership is thin.

In Pakistan, however, there is a third dimension to politicking; it is politicians’ social status that acts as the decisive factor in his/her rise on the political landscape. In our politics, the lines between demagoguery, leadership and social rank dilute: the fact about our politics is that we believe more on patrimonialism than meritocracy. The political parties are only secondary to Pakistani styled representative democracy; it is the familial lineage that defines one’s credentials. The political elite is the society’s elite; their interests supersede popular interests. Pakistan is more of a case of plutocracy than democracy!

Even though the country has multiple political parties mobilising and vying for support among the masses, however their approach to garner popular support is not issue-driven, and this has been a common trend among the major political parties. As the political party grows in strength, it tends to move away from issue-based politics, and therefore drives more on personalist showmanship of the party leaders (either the living, or the deceased). Any meaningful discussion on issues of common concern are only secondary.

When political institutions are weak it paves the way for personalist style of politicking that is only detrimental to the ideal of democracy.

Between fear and hope