The Midterms, Discourse and Singapore

By Varun Karthik (19S06A)

PW Oral Presentations were at full throttle on November 6th. The first few victims had already gone through the ordeal while the rest braced themselves for their impending doom. Throw in Deepavali and the nail-biting Arsenal vs Liverpool match that had just ended, and you might be excused for forgetting that the ‘leader of the free world’ returned to the polls on November 6th.

The midterm elections that happened in the United States of America were quite a big deal, to say the least. Americans returned to the polls to choose their senators and their congressmen and women, as well as state senators, state representatives, governors, and a whole range of other ballot measures, as the world closely watched the first real test of President’s Trump popularity.

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But elections are a lot more than the action of voting to choose who leads the country and who represents you in government. Elections are a period for citizens to think about their vision for the country. The election rallies, the vote canvassing, the dinner-table discussions, and more recently the interactions that people have with their fellow citizens across the country on social media (and at times with KGB agents in the Kremlin), are all arguably as important, as elections are about informing voters about  various issues, engaging them to decide which issues they prioritise and which policies they deem necessary. Discourse, debate and discussion play a fundamental role in the electoral process and are vital in harnessing the full powers of democracy. Thus, the midterm elections were a display of the state of discourse in America.

The road to November 6th began early, with potential candidates launching their bids starting mid-2017. Many Goliaths were slain in the first round of battles as incumbents fell and insurgents pulled up ahead in the primaries. Even Godfathers like Andrew Cuomo were forced to work for their lunch, the opportunity to decimate real flesh at the polls in November. However, the actual election night did not have as many surprises in-store. A divided country delivered a divided verdict that gave no easy answers and instead the results were a stalemate that disappointed both sides. The only consolation was that the nightmare of 2016 did not repeat itself for Democrats and that the blue wave never came for the Republicans.

As the nation reels from the euphoria, optimism, cynicism and discontent characteristic of the campaign trail, and the sobering reality of having to legislate in the grid-locked Washington sets in, here are some broad lessons about discourse that we can take away that are very much applicable to us here in Singapore.

 

Go high or kick?

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“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, a simple yet elegant line that was the embodiment of what her husband and his presidency stood for. It was an inspiring and rousing speech that salvaged a convention headed south, threw jabs at the then-presidential-candidate Trump and had the world on its feet applauding.

Eric Holder, the former attorney general under the Obama administration, however, was less restrained. “When they go low, we kick them,” he said to thunderous applause, before going on to say that “that’s what this new Democratic party is about”.  The best part? Suggesting some sort of physical altercation with President Trump, and at times his family, happens to be a recurrent theme of speeches made by various individuals from former Vice-President Joe Biden to president-wannabe attorney Michael Avenatti.

Clearly, Mrs Obama and Mr Holder have different ways of countering a man that they see as the antithesis of Barack Obama. One was able to inspire people of all colours and creeds, appealing to their higher sensibilities. The other further energized those who already live and breathe the democratic party’s blue in the same way that joker in class would, much to the teacher’s dismay.

But this is not merely the competing vision of two individuals. This is a manifestation of the much broader fight to capture the soul of the Democratic party in the Trump era, where civility has no place in the Republican party. The question is if the Democrats should be the adults in the room and hold themselves to higher standards, or fight fire with fire.

The old guards of the party insist that their duty is to not stoop to the new lows of the Republican party and to not hijack discourse with ‘sick burns’. They feel that they are obliged to tell people what they need to know and what is important for them, not want they want to hear. To them, the evolution of the Republican party or Mitch Mcconnell or the president’s tweets are no excuse to throw out the discussion of policy and issues that voters care about, laced with messages of hope, change and a brighter future ahead. In fact, true leadership, they contend, is when you stick to doing what is right even when times get rough. And so, when Mr Obama returned to the political scene and fired up crowds at election rallies for various candidates, it was with his  trademark themes of bipartisanship, hope and idealism with calls for decency and civility.

For the more radical democrats, times have changed and the party has to change with it. Evidence and logic is no longer the weapon of choice of the Republican party and the deck is stacked against them if they choose to fight a party unmoved by lies, truth, evidence or science. Because logical discussion of policy and statistics will never capture as much attention as flashy one-liners and personal insults. There is simply no way one can extinguish the flames of xenophobia or hatred with cool-headed discourse. There is no way to disprove a personal insult and win the hearts and minds of people with civil discussions, luxuries only academics can afford.

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Thus, the only way forward is to get into the dirt-pit and brawl with your opponents – reflected in their uncompromising tone, forceful rhetoric and headline grabbing insults. They believe that democrats should show no restraint and should not be vary of calling out specific individuals in the strongest language possible even, if it risks drawing the ire of some people. Because in this political era, that is the only way you can effectively counter the fear-mongering, xenophobia and the racism that has become a mainstay of even moderate Republicans, not with carefully worded PR approved rebuttals. Appealing to people’s higher ideals is no longer viable or practical in today’s climate. Or so they claim.

Beyond the fight for the soul of the Democratic party is a question for all of us closer to home. How do we engage in discourse with people unwilling to engage in rational discourse on the basis on logic, evidence and reason?

Just find any Straits Times article on any substantive issue of any kind and read the comments section on Facebook. For illustration, not too long ago on 24th October 2018 came an article covering a speech by minister Ong Ye Kung, centered around him reaffirming his belief in meritocracy despite a few tweaks that needed to be made. An article about class divide, social stratification and economic inequality –  a hot topic as of late. The comments on the post included “Many wayang shows despite the end of the hungry ghost festival” , “Where to buy parachute?” and even a couple of mentions about communism.

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So, what do you do when you see fellow Singaporeans make baseless attacks on people and are more interested in dishing out insults rather that discussing the issues at hand? Do we continue to do what we believe is right and engage in substantive arguments about the issue at hand, pointing out certain inherent biases and logical loopholes that might be present in the comments of others and the article itself? Or do we weaponize the same personal attacks, cheap jokes and offensive remarks, give them a taste of their own medicine and take them down?

There are no easy answers to this question, but it is something we need to discuss now, so that society is able to have important conversations on a plethora of social issues and policies without discourse being hijacked by people disinterested in having them.

Neither faction of the Democratic party outperformed the other at the polls, and hence we will have to wait to find out who the new leaders of the party are and wait even longer to see the impacts of the decisions they make. Either way, the new leaders of the Democratic party and the newly minted representatives will quickly learn that both sides have a legitimate claim and that there are no easy answers to this tough question. But the lack of easy answers is the very reason why this debate exists.

 

Ditch the labels

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One of the most hotly contested races was the one between Senator Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke for the opportunity to represent Texas in the senate. The race garnered national attention for the serious effort O’Rourke put up for a seat considered to be a Republican stronghold. From the fundraising records by the congressman solely on grassroots donations without money from PACs and lobbying groups, to the fawning profiles by every major publication in the country, Beto O’Rourke quickly gathered much momentum early in the race. With the seat no longer within safe reach, the incumbent Mr Cruz’s come-back line was: “Beto O’Rourke is too liberal for conservative Texas”.

Not an attack on his political positions. Not an attack on anything he said, did or was going to do. But simply, the mistake that Beto O’Rourke committed was being liberal. That was the insult. The word “liberal” was the insult.

It is a fact that most politicians vote a certain way on most policies and hence labels simplify this, informing the average voter the general stance of a candidate. Democratic candidates tend to support certain issues and Republican candidates have a different stance on other issues based on certain ideological differences. Labels like Socialist, Liberal, moderate, right-wing, nationalist and conservative make the general stance, ideology and policy positions of a candidate known to the public.

However, the keyword is general. General stance and general ideology. But these labels do no justice in accurately reflecting the true positions of many of the politicians. These broad labels do no justice in differentiating Bernie Sanders from Hillary Clinton, both democrats and yet people who definitely do not see eye to eye on various issues. These broad labels do no justice to  the pro-gun Democrat Conor o’Lamb, the pro-life Democrat Joe Manchin, pro-choice Republican Susan Collins or any of the various politicians who differ from their party’s leadership on a multitude of various issues.

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But more importantly, these labels also cement a distorted bipolar worldview. The most controversial issues being discussed, from immigration to abortion, are not issues with only two stances but rather, are complex multifaceted issues which require nuanced views of the world. However, the widespread use of the labels of individuals to replace these discussions results in the perpetuation of false dilemmas and gross oversimplification of the issues that demand us to confront them as they exist in the real world and not as we wish to see them.

The result of this distorted worldview is that we no longer try to understand the other side. We just subsume the stance of democrats on an issue as the ‘’liberal’’ stance and if we disagree with liberals on most other issues, we choose to disagree with them on this as well. We also refuse to understand where they come from and the reasons behind their varying stance, simply brushing them aside as wrong. This problem is further exacerbated when our pre-existing biases are further cemented by the echo chambers we find ourselves in both on the internet and in real life.

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At this point most of you will think that you are above all that. Really? Take the group of people we deem to be ‘anti-establishment’ here in Singapore. We ridicule them and shun them as scaremongers and conspiracy theorists. Any Facebook post or any opinion of anyone we deem to be ‘anti-establishment’ or that fits our notion of someone likely to be ‘anti-establishment’ is immediately dismissed, and we simply claim that their opinions as invalid. We refuse to listen or understand where they come from, simply because of the historic baggage the label ‘anti-establishment’ carries.

It is true that we as humans have a tendency to make judgements of others very quickly. But only when we start acknowledging that we do have our personal biases, that while others might disagree with us, and that we should not end discussions with people simply because of the label that pops up in our heads, that is when discourse in Singapore can progress. We then need to try and hear from those we don’t necessarily agree with, to understand where they come from.

The labels are meant to be an easier place from which to start longer, more difficult discussions about issues as they give us a sensing of the beliefs of other groups of people in the issue. These labels, however, are no substitute to discourse. Throwing the word ‘anti-establishment’ is no substitute for discourse, but rather a starting point for discourse and policy discussions. We might very well not agree with everything someone who is ‘anti-establishment’ might say, but relegating them as invalids is not the way society progresses. These groups that we refuse to engage with probably look at us the same way and society becomes more and more polarized the more we refuse to talk to each other.

We often hear that discourse has degenerated into a shouting match between various groups in society. One wonders why…

 

‘Change’ is overrated

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There was widespread talk of a progressive wave. A blue wave where progressive, culturally diverse young Democrats would capture seats in all branches of power in great numbers as the public stood up to the Republican party which had sold its soul to lobbying groups and a president who acted more like a clown. The primaries were thought to be a precursor.

Democrats like Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrahams and Amy Mcgrath, as ‘outsiders’ from the political establishment running against incumbent Republicans in area that were historically Republican, were the poster boys and girls of this progressive wave that never came.

To be fair, these individuals were at the forefront of terrific campaigns that invigorated voters to turn up at the polling booths in record numbers with their inspiring personal stories, fundraising prowess, charisma, as well as their inclusive vision of a better country. They played their hand the best they could and came as close as anyone else could have at unseating incumbent Republicans in historically red states. But after all, there is only so much you can do with the deck stacked against you.

The young progressives across America learnt the lesson that often optimism does not win elections or bring about change overnight and that the historic reasons why Republicans had been dominating in particular area do not simply disappear in 2018. Issues like immigration, widespread gerrymandering and racial politics don’t just dissipate. Their campaigns are a reminder to all of us that real, lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, change is small, painful steps in the correct direction that accumulate and incrementally nudge society along the right path.

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So, if we in Singapore are serious about change in society, we need to be committed to change over the long run and we need to be willing to make small steps as a society. Repealing 377A is not going to happen overnight and if we are serious about a more inclusive society for the LGBTQ community, we need to be willing to propagate the messages of inclusion all year round and not just turn up in pink shirts at Hong Lim park once a year expecting change to happen. Inequality is not going to disappear until we are willing to have difficult conversations without being influenced by personal biases or by the greater political climate in Singapore or elsewhere. Chinese privilege is not going to be an exception either.

Come January third, nearly 100 women of all colours, races and ethnicities will head to Capitol Hill to represent the interests of their constituents; a record number by any measure. This historic record, however, has been in the making for years. Discussions about the under-representation of women in politics and the glass ceiling have been happening for years and the discussions only gathered further momentum with the Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign and the misogynistic views of some office holders, manifesting in the Women’s marches that further empowered them and made them realise that it was time for them to step up.

And step up they did. After years of groundwork laid for change, change finally came and women put themselves up on the ballots in record numbers.

Do not like something around you? Stop complaining and step up. Fight for what you believe in and be committed to your cause. Even if change does not happen immediately, change is within reach. The first Native American women elected to congress, the first African immigrant elected to congress, the first Korean-American women elected to congress, the first openly lesbian mother in congress, the first openly gay man elected to congress and the 19-year-old elected to Wisconsin’s state assembly would all humbly agree.

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