A few years ago, I did a Masters thesis on German Greens politician, Petra Kelly. I was inspired by her energy and commitment to green issues, but also how she and her colleagues made the move from activist to politician. As someone who certainly railed against the idea of the establishment, I was interested in how they made this transition, and realised that the trade-off was not as simple as I might have thought. Working at a grassroots level, Kelly and her colleagues were easily able to get involved in protests, or participate in acts of civil disobedience. They had a fluidity of movement which came from their widespread connections with other activist groups, and were motivated by the need to speak out about changing the status quo.
But once elected into parliament, there were conventions to which one needed to adhere, although Kelly and the other Greens certainly stretched the boundaries in many cases, and being sitting politicians didn’t prevent them from continuing to protest about issues which were relevant to their cause. Kelly found that working within the political system brought with it benefits, but that everything moved a lot slower than they wanted, or had expected. It was a source of frustration, to her and to others, that despite the increase in resources at their disposal, they still had to work within the hierarchies and norms of government, which had been set out over decades.
Petra Kelly comes to mind these days, as I read about and listen to discussions of politics in countries whose news I tend to follow most: that is, Australia, the UK and the US. In recent years, we’ve had a number of politicians surge to power on a wave of popular support. In 2007, I was delighted to have Kevin Rudd as our prime minister; ending 11 years of John Howard, whose party stood for ideas which were often so opposed to my own. Rudd promised an apology to Indigenous Australians whose rights and opinions had been so dismissed and disregarded; he wanted to make our country a greener, more sustainable one; his party was going to return us to the left after having been so much further to the right (although, to be fair, our right is not as far right as some other places).
And then Barack Obama. I remember watching BBC World News with such excitement, seeing the votes come in and realising that he was really going to win. This was going to take America in a new direction, I thought. I had felt so utterly distressed at some of the Bush policies (and the way in which Howard had appeared to follow them) and I saw Obama’s administration as a step towards an America, and a world, which was perhaps going to begin to address some of the issues we really needed to tackle: climate change, racism, extremism.
Fast forward eight years. That was then, this is now. Was I too naive, or am I now too cynical? When Jeremy Corbyn was voted in as leader of the Labour party, I was happy, but not overjoyed. He’s been hailed by some as a saviour of the party, a man of the people, a conviction politician–different from the private school boys from the wealthy upper class who find their way to the top jobs. But as leader of the opposition, what can he really achieve? And should Labour win the next election–which is years away–what will they change?
And I have a similar sense when looking at the US and the very, very long run up to their federal election, still over a year away. At this point, Donald Trump is one of the most talked about candidates, for the same reason as we can’t look away when we see a trainwreck. And then there’s Bernie Sanders, whom I would love to see as president. All the policies he’s suggesting fit into what I think a healthy, functioning society should be.
But I’m cautious. How did that work out for Obama?
How is this going to work out for any of them? When Petra Kelly and the German Greens managed to get into parliament, they worked hard to steer Germany into a more environmentally conscious future.And the Greens did a good job, there. Germany now has one of the best environmental track records in the world. Was Kelly satisfied with that, though? One of the difficulties she had was that some of her colleagues made compromises with which she didn’t agree. For their part, they were likely being pragmatic, looking for a long term solution within the system. But Kelly saw it as selling out. Losing her own seat in parliament might have meant she could remain true to her ideals, but it also meant she lost resources, which made it harder to achieve that, in which she believed.
I think the reason these dominant personalities are so popular at the moment is that we’re sick of what our governments are doing. Austerity measures which have made life so hard for many in the UK are particularly difficult to handle, when it turns out that politicians have been rorting their travel allowances, something that’s also happened both here and in the US.
We’re sick of the duplicity we see. A couple of weeks ago, we had a change of prime minister (yes, another one). Malcolm Turnbull, the new PM, was hailed as a breath of fresh air, despite the fact that simply changing the leader of a party does not change the direction of the party–something Turnbull came out and said, quite openly. But most of us were caught up in the emotion, and Turnbull has a more attractive personality. On the other hand, outgoing PM Tony Abbott, in his final press conference, claimed that ‘a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery’.
Perhaps there is something to that. The outrage machine, the way social media can take an issue and run with it, ever upping the ante, attempting to be the most angry, the most acerbic. But in many ways, the spotlight of the 24 hour media have also meant that politicians are more accountable for their actions. Of course, they are people, who are fallible like the rest of us. But they’ve been given a position of duty and responsibility. We need for them to step up to the challenge.
It’s our disappointment with politicians who take advantage of their positions which prompts us to hang onto such charismatic or bombastic personalities as Obama, Corbyn, Trump and Sanders who are promising that with them, things will change. Things will be different. We’re so disillusioned with the status quo, the way government never seems to do anything, and where there seems to be so many issues which need attention and are ignored. So we put all our hopes in these individuals, forgetting that that’s just what they are: individuals who, should they even make it into positions of power, will then still be part of the massive, clunky and often unwieldy machine which is government. With so much stacked against them, how can they succeed? And yet… is that any reason for them not to try? And is it any reason for us not to hope that this time, it might be different?