I remember back when I was young (when life was hard, and 64K was a lot of memory, blah blah blah), playing a certain simple video game
. Basically, the screen was a big empty rectangle with a ball bouncing from wall to wall inside it. The object of the game was to start from the edge of the rectangle and draw lines to form smaller rectangles inside the big one. Once you had covered a certain percentage of the screen with rectangles you could move on to the next level. But if your cursor was hit by the bouncing ball while in the middle of drawing a box you lost a life, so you had to tradeoff building big boxes to save time versus building small boxes to minimize the chance of getting hit.
In a way, this game reminds me of a certain style of politics. In this style, a party views the electorate as a series of discrete groups and tailors its policies to appeal to as many groups as necessary to win election. So, for example, you might try to win the seniors vote (a big box) with increases to public pension plans. Or you might try to win over voters in a certain area by announcing spending projects in that region. Once you win over enough groups (build enough boxes) you cover a large enough percentage of the population and you win the election.
This form of politics is generally regarded with a bit of disdain. Terms like 'special-interest group,' 'single issue voter,' 'pork barrel politics,' and 'vote buying,' all carry a perjorative tone.
In 'The Unconscious Civilization
', John Ralston Saul explains why we denigrate this 'aggregation of interests' type of politics,
"For the moment, I would like to expand on the particularity of gods, kings and groups. They cannot function happily within a real democracy - that is, within a society of individuals. They are systems devoid of what I call disinterest. Their actions are based entirely on the idea of interest. They are self-destructive because they cannot take seriously the long-term or the wider view, both of which are dependent on a measure of disinterest, which could also be called the public good or the common weal."
But for all that we criticize attempts to win power by appealing to a collection of group interests, there are worse methods. One approach which has recurred throughout history is to invert this process. Instead of identifying groups and appealing to their interest directly, identify unpopular groups to oppose, thereby winning over enough of the remaining population to win election / maintain support.
One advantage of this approach, the politics of exclusion, is that, unlike in the first approach where you actually have to repeatedly give people something in their interest to win them over, with the politics of exclusion you don't have to give people anything - all you have to do is punish the unpopular groups. This means that the government can implement both approaches at the same time. Win votes by punishing an unpopular group, and still have money left over to buy the votes of other groups.
Historically, popular choices for groups to punish have been ethnic and religious minorities - especially those which were more successful economically than the majority. Of course the Jews fit all those categories and the history there doesn't need me to retell it. In many parts of Asia, successful Chinese business communities have faced persecution, and here in Canada, the internment of the Japanese during WWII followed a similar pattern.
Fortunately, the second half of the 20th century saw the most obvious and odious of these tactics fall into disrepute, and while there are still politicians who look to punish ethnic groups for political gain, they generally have not had much success with this approach recently.
But tactics have moved on, and there are new groups to demonize. It has become a truism of American politics that if it is an even numbered year (i.e. one with an election) you can expect to hear Republican politicians talking about the threat posed by the gay community. Here in Canada, the Conservative government has adopted the same tactic but, recognizing that Canadian society is more tolerant of gays than
America, they have focussed their anti-gay rhetoric on immigrant communities, reckoning that since people in these communities have immigrated from socially conservative countries, they will be receptive to this message (thankfully, immigrants, to their credit, largely did not fall for this tactic).
One hazard of the politics of exclusion is that you lose the votes of the people you exclude, as voting patterns among gay people and Blacks in the United States demonstrates. This problem can be avoided by going after groups which can't or don't vote. Under don't vote, think the poor, especially welfare recipients. Under can't vote, think non-citizens (both legal and illegal immigrants) and foreigners.
Back in the U.S., the Republican party recently ran into trouble when it attempted to make political hay by promising to punish Latino immigrants. But when huge demonstrations erupted, the Republicans realized that they had, to go back to my game metaphor, tried to build too big a box and taken a hit. Soon they were backpedalling and trying to spread lies to blame the whole thing on the Democrats.
As for foreigners, there are any number of examples to choose from, the most recent one being Iran, already described as part of an 'Axis of Evil', and now cast as an ever more dangerous threat by administration talking points as the U.S. leads up to an election in the fall.
The last excluded group I want to talk about is 'the elite'. I put 'elite' in quotation marks because the so-called elite in question is not the extremely wealthy and well-connected families who own almost all of our media and wield extraordinary influence over our society (what I would normally consider the elite) but rather an abstract group of people constructed by an ongoing rhetorical campaign.
You'll see what I mean if I list some of the words used to describe this 'elite': 'Latte-drinking', 'Starbucks', 'effete', 'volvo-driving', 'academic', you get the picture. In the U.S., this abstract elite has been conflated with a particular word used to describe members of this elite - 'liberals'.
The ever helpful Wikipedia even has an entry
on the liberal elite:
"An ad by the supply-side organization Club for Growth sums up many of the stereotypes: "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."
The fact that this hypothetical 'liberal elite' is being constructed as group to be punished for political gain is pretty obvious.
Consider this quote
from Time magazine covergirl Ann Coulter,
"When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors."
Or maybe buy this book by Jonah Goldberg, "Liberal Fascism : The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton"
and while you're at the bookstore, get something for your kids as well, 'Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!
Back in Canada, there is not, as yet, an equivalent to the American usage of 'liberal elite', perhaps impeded by the word Liberal already being occupied. But if you're wondering what prompted this post, it was me wondering why something Stephen Harper said the other day
bothered me so much.
"The Prime Minister concluded, 'ordinary parents - people who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules - do not have a taxpayer-funded lobby group. They don't have the time to hold demonstrations, or make regular trips to Ottawa for news conferences. But they do support our plan.'"
The implication is that those who oppose Harper are not ordinary, don't work hard, don't pay their taxes, don't play by the rules, and are just taxpayer funded lobby groups. I was immediately reminded of
something Warren Kinsella said about the recent federal election,
"It wasn't about Left versus Right. It wasn't about Urban versus Rural. It wasn't about East versus West. It wasn't about French versus English.
It was about us (the people at hockey rinks, holding cups from Tim's or Coffee Time) versus the elites (the ones who have never been on public transit, and who read the Sunday Times at Starbucks)."
Sound familiar to the stereotypes listed in the Wikipedia entry?
Reading the above quote from Harper I could just imagine he wished he had some Canadian equivalent of 'liberal elite' which he could use to demonize those who oppose his government.
History tells us that while the politics of aggregating group interests is not ideal, the politics of exclusion is even worse. So many of the things we look back on with regret originally stemmed from a plan to win votes by appealing to the majority's dislike or hatred of some unpopular minority, and I think that is why the quote from Harper bothered me so much. It clearly signalled that Harper planned to sell his policies not on their merits for the public good, and not (solely) by an appeal to the self-interest of certain groups within society - but by demonizing those who oppose his policy. Or in other words, by resorting to the politics of exclusion.