Friends with the enemy?

24 Dec 2018


Compromise has traditionally been seen as a positive trait in political circles. Any democratic system will inherently involve various parties with different viewpoints on key issues working against each other, yet in order for that system to sustain itself, there will inevitably be times when those parties must be able to compromise, when differences are set aside for the good of the nation. Those politicians should be able to get along with each other personally. A key aspect of democracy is tolerance, and that tolerance is expected to extend to those whom you disagree with.


Yet compromise appears to be fading in certain democratic nations. As economic uncertainty and social tensions linger, many Americans are much less tolerant of people who vote for other parties than they were in the past. The current U.S. President’s brashness no doubt fuels that, yet the viciousness predates his election. When Obama was in charge, the Tea Party wing of the GOP were brazenly opposed to the idea of compromise with the Democratic President.


Meanwhile, last month some criticised Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for his admission that he would find it difficult to be friends with a Tory. While McDonnell was expressing a sentiment that is probably held by many, it was still perceived as a troubling remark.


In many ways, the era of Trump comes across as a far cry from the past. George W. Bush, Trump’s Republican predecessor, was noted as being on friendly terms with the Obamas at his father’s funeral lately, sharing sweets with Michelle.


Indeed, the younger Bush’s now deceased father has lately been seen as an emblem for the dying notion of bipartisanship. Upon leaving political office, his letter to successor Bill Clinton was a warm one, more akin to that of a close friend than a political opponent. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that it will at any point be revealed that Trump has been secretly sponsoring a Filipino child. Such actions lend the deceased former President an air of humanity and decency that Trump lacks.


Yet there was an ignorance in understanding criticism of Bush for some of his negative policies, such as exploiting racial tensions in 1988 for self-gain and being unapologetic about a US military error which cost 290 Iraqi lives.


For those who were not on the receiving end of Bush’s malignant policies, it is much easier to view his presidency through an unbiased, neutral lens. For those who were impacted negatively by his policies, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s much easier for an established political commentator, therefore, to speak positively of a controversial U.S. leader than someone in another country who’s been killed or maimed in a war perpetrated by that same leader.


Similarly polarised reactions were notable after the death of another prominent Republican in John McCain. Often perceived as a maverick, McCain was seen as one of the few mildly liberal voices within his party who was willing to denounce Trump. Like Bush, McCain could be concilatory to his opponents, denouncing a party supporter back in 2008 by affirming that Barack Obama was a decent person.


Yet his opposition to Trump remained mild, and he was a compliant Republican at heart, someone who – if anything – benefited Trump’s wing of the Party by allowing moderate Americans to view the GOP as having a softer face which the President had merely distorted. Civility may be invaluable in politics, especially on the international scene where brashness can facilitate rising tensions, but civility does not stem the impact of bad policies which negatively affect the lives of voters.


Moving back to the UK, McDonnell’s recent comments become prescient. A recent UN report found that austerity had inflicted "great misery" on the country’s citizens. If I am someone who agrees with that conclusion, then the Conservative government becomes one that I do not just disagree with, but which actively harms its most vulnerable citizens.


If I turn towards Labour to overturn this Conservative government, then it is a natural expectation that I will expect a Labour representative to feel a similar sort of anger towards the incumbent government.


If politicians engage in heated arguments inside the House of Commons and are close friends once the cameras are diverted away, then the entire process can seem like a trivial game for a bunch of disconnected elites who may disagree with each other, but will ultimately go unaffected by damaging government policy.


Indeed, the comments of some Conservative MPs regarding Brexit recently have highlighted this. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit is not some abstract notion being played out for our entertainment. If it happens, it may jeopardise businesses across the UK. If you therefore oppose Jacob Rees-Mogg’s vision for a hard Brexit then it is difficult not to view him as a genuinely dangerous figure whose actions could negatively impact the lives of many Brits, as opposed to someone with whom you just happen to disagree.


That is not to say politicians should not strive to cooperate when possible. Compromise remains an important trait of any democratic system. Political leaders, no matter how principled, should be able to accept that they may not necessarily achieve everything they want to, and that sacrifices are sometimes required.


But, similarly, bipartisanship should not be regarded as some holy grail to which we must always strive. The rise of Trump has demonstrated that blunt, uncompromising figures can appeal to voters in troubled times.



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