Never underestimate the power of the negative — especially when it comes to election campaigns. Scare tactics often trump logic at the ballot booth.
If you are feeling somewhat scratchy following the budget hair shirt our maestro minister of finance had to wear on Wednesday in parliament, look away from these shores for some relief.
I don’t want to strike the Jacob Zuma one note –‘’all our economic pain comes from the world, not from my government.” But, in the unfolding spectacle of the rapidly escalating primary election contests in the US, there is both happy distraction and doses of local relevance.
First, if you don’t like our local political leadership crop, just look at the leading contenders hoping to lead the world’s hyper-power, the homeland of global finance and innovation and one of oldest democracies on the planet.
On the Republican side, improbable and still leading front runner, Donald J Trump, is a self-declared misogynist, xenophobe, anti-Islamist, papal-bashing braggart. Yet he taps deep into the psyche and feels the pulse of his party better than any other contender.
The irony here is that the party leader stands deeply outside the Republican mainstream – on everything from the war in Iraq to Obamacare–he opposes the first and has some appreciation of the latter. He even likes Planned Parenthood, the family planning group which is about as popular with the majority of anti-abortion Republican voters as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes is among local university ‘fallistas’.
He even managed last weekend to win big in South Carolina, regarded as the Bush family firewall, and to rubbish former President George W and bundle his sub-prime brother Jeb, out of the race entirely.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is consolidating her position as likely nominee. But there’s an extraordinary disconnect between her objective accomplishments –as a US Senator, innovative First Lady and as Secretary of State and what people think about her.
Though she has policy mastery and actually speaks in perfectly joined up sentences and not the sound bite rants of Trump, voters viscerally distrust her.
An extraordinary metric from the first primary contest, in New Hampshire, aside from Clinton’s big loss there , was an exit poll of Democratic voters. 90% of those who declared that ‘trustworthiness’ was the most important attribute in a president, chose her opponent, the septuagenarian Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. In Nevada, last weekend, Clinton won, but lost again on the ‘trust’ issue by 6-1.
Back at home, last weekend’s Good Governance Africa poll suggested 78.7% regard their government as corrupt or incompetent, which doesn’t mean that they won’t still vote for it.
Actually, Sanders makes Trump seem like a party insider. He was not even a member of the party he hopes to lead until a few months ago.
He has shattered many assumptions: that a self-declared ‘socialist’ could get so far in a country which apparently worships only at the altar of the free market or that a 74-year angry old man could be a huge favourite among hip, young voters.
The obvious explanation for all this tumult is that ‘the rage against the machine’ trope has relevance not just on SA university campuses or in disruptions in our parliament but across the Atlantic as well.
Someone recently told me that protesting students here or enraged local parliamentarians had much more to complain about than broadly middle-class Americans and their elected representatives.
But when you drill down on some statistics in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ a much less happy and prosperous picture emerges.
Trump and Sanders, and even Clinton, do not appeal to the winners inside their country’s magic circle of elites. They all, to varying degrees, understand that real US median income today is now $4000 below its peak in 2007 and that 49% of America’s population believe that America’s ‘best days are behind us’.(The Good Governance Africa poll found even a higher percentage here have ‘given up hope that government will listen to them’.)
Younger Americans – who typically leave college $35 000 in debt – face, in the words of the Financial Times, ‘more competition for jobs which they might never find’. Most school leavers here will identify with that.
Trump’s greatest supporters are the most pessimistic Americans –working class whites ,and while some certainly are racist, many are simply ‘people struggling to get by in an economy they no longer understand’. Their candidate’s solutions, from a trade war with China to building a wall against Mexico, might be mad cap. But they resonate.
If you want a tour in crazy economics here –in contrast to the sober words provided on Wednesday by Pravin Gordhan, surf the website of the Economic Freedom Fighters. It promises free everything, from land to food to new roads. Paid for, how? It does not say.
Doesn’t really matter, though, to Julius Malema supporters. If Trump’s symbol is the figurative middle finger, then Malema’s is an expletive outrage, not to be mentioned in a family newspaper.
Like Trump, he burrows deep into the zeitgeist of the marginalised and the left-behinds.
Professor Achile Mbembe once wrote of the EFF leader: “for those who know too well the what it means to experience social humiliation first hand, Julius Malema fills the gaps of disappointment…his stock is rising in a landscape of ruins.”
It might very well be that Malema is caught short in the local government polls, unable to translate his populist fury into votes. Trump, too might be stopped yet by US Senator Marco Rubio. And Hillary Clinton, trust deficit and all, is likely both her party nominee and the next US President.
Here at home there was a lot of tut-tutting about the latest disgraceful bouts of behaviour in our parliament and the name-calling and personalised attacks, particularly on President Zuma.
But in SA, just as in the US, never underestimate the power of the negative. Whatever high mindedness our constitution summonses us to perform, just as the winners of the American contest will demonstrate, scare tactics resonate.
Or as Hillary Clinton’s electorally successful husband, Bill, put it: “It’s highly complicated: people don’t like negative, divisive environments. But they frequently reward them in elections.”
Watch the temperature raise further both here and in the US to demonstrate the universal truth of Bill Clinton’s observation.