Tony Farley: the road to a better political culture after US election 2016

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Trumped: failed contender for the Republican presidential nomination Marco Rubio. Photo: Michael Vadon

By the time this article appears a new President of the United States of America will be elected. What a relief!

It’s been a campaign characterised by anger, frustration, bitterness and abuse. Many of us have woken each morning over the last 12 months and wondered what kind of outrage or scandal would come next.

With election day drawing nearer, the cringeworthy moments increased in number and the animosity grew on both sides. As Australians, our reactions are tempered by both distance and the simple fact that it’s not our President being elected.

While that is obviously the case, many of us still despair about the way in which US politics has descended into such a rancorous and divisive pursuit. While it’s hard to see how Americans will pick up the pieces from this toxic election, it has to happen and it will.

One frequent comment about the election is that it has become the rallying point for millions of Americans who are disenfranchised economically, socially and politically. They blame a political system and culture for the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor and the massive reduction in the number of Americans whose earnings qualify them as economically ‘middle class’.

There is justifiable scepticism about whether a billionaire who has only ever known privilege in his life or a consummate political insider who is very much part of the status quo can put a halt to the problems that beset American society. Maybe the best Americans can do is to take the ‘first do no harm’ approach to their next President who can hopefully begin a process of civil engagement grounded in renewal and truth.

The USA election is a useful reminder of what can happen anywhere in the world when people are disengaged and marginalised and while typically the focus in this regard concerns the poor, the American experience suggests that it’s as much about the middle classes being cut out of an economic picture that includes fewer and fewer people.

The capacity of governments, including our own, to effect the changes people apparently want is limited by many factors which include how basic goods and services are regulated and sold.

Why are people left on a waiting list for a hip replacements for so long in abject pain when other people can pay to get it done in a matter of days?  Isn’t it time the medical profession came up with some better options that don’t involve taxpayers shelling out more and more money?

Why is legal advice so costly that most of us simply can’t afford it? Isn’t it time the legal profession confronted the fact that the best legal advice is only available to rich individuals or large organisations with budgets to match?

And why do the banks make such extraordinary profits while appearing to chase every last cent in a way that leaves some asking for a Royal Commission into banks? Isn’t it time for our four major banks sat down with the government and the community to seriously discuss how our banks and financial institutions can contribute collaboratively to the flourishing of Australian society in the 21st century?

These are questions easily characterised as simplistic and naïve and yet they go to the very heart of the resentment and rage that has played out in the US presidential election. Having a public discourse about them before a crisis hits is far more preferable than after the genie is out of the bottle which is what the US looks like at the moment.

While governments can to some extent lead these discussions, individuals, interest groups and professions must necessarily be part of any process that confronts the growing disenfranchisement of citizens around the world. To put it bluntly, if you think things are getting worse and yet you refuse to change, you might be part of the problem.

Perhaps the first step is to try separating our personal interests from the public interest. You can’t help but think that not only would conversations be a whole lot more interesting, it might just lead to a better way of doing things. Surely it’s worth a try.

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