I want to reflect, in this column, about what has come to be known as enablement, although has been known as leadership, role modelling and the like. There was quite a lot of it about in 2017.
What I mean by an enabler is someone who, in a position of leadership, states an idea or position that leads to a significant shift in perception by a large sector of society, and which in turn leads to action based on that shift.
I can think of four clear examples from 2016-17: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and the reporters and women who outed Harvey Weinstein. I have excluded Jacinda Ardern because the change in fortune she achieved for the Labour Party was not based on an idea or position she held, but simply on a perception of change. Jacindamania, while a fascinating sociological phenomenon, was not a position or idea, but simply a perception.
So let’s start with Donald Trump. The idea or position that he most clearly enables is, simply speaking, that white men are the inheritors of the earth. Women, in particular, may be smart but primarily they must be beautiful. Poor Melania’s role is to stand there and look gorgeous. She is not expected to do or be anything.
Hispanics, black persons, people from the Middle East and so on are looked on with suspicion as being lesser humans and probably up to no good. This view has enabled the rise of neo-redneck groups, the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies and the rise (and fall) of the (quoting from Wikipedia) “racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic” and sexual assaulter Roy Moore.
More recently, the Arizona racist Joe Arpaio, pardoned by Trump in 2017, has announced he will stand for the US Senate in 2018. An extreme form of sexism and racism now runs free in the USA to a great extent than for 50 years. Fortunately, it has also spawned its own fightbacks.
Bernie Sanders, a politician in his 70s known for his democratic socialist views, sought the Democratic nomination in 2016. His anti-inequality, anti-extreme wealth and anti-corruption campaign captured strong support, especially among the young. Hilary Clinton won the nomination with huge establishment support, but only just. His unofficial campaign slogan, ‘Feel the Bern’ really took off, as did his call for an economic revolution. He may run in 2020, although the field may be a bit crowded.
In the UK, the ‘unelectable’ Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, experienced a massive increase in popularity and nearly snatched a 2017 election victory. This was again driven by the youth vote. Issues such as nationalisation of the railways is now back on the political table. Corbyn captured the hearts and minds of a big chunk of the voting public. The Jeremy Corbyn chant has supporters singing to their leader at every meeting he attends. Fascinating – a politics of hope which the Guardian calls an anthem for a revolution (but a bit overblown, I think).
Finally, the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon, which has seen women all over the world declaring #MeToo. I must say that I am not quite sure at the present time how transformative or enduring this movement will be. I mean, there is little in it that that we/women did not know before. The only new thing is women owning up publicly to being victims of sexual assault by men in power. In order to stop this, we have to balance gender power, wealth and influence throughout society.
There is already a fightback movement against the #MeToos, and I would not be surprised if women went quiet again reasonably quickly. We have learned that women, working together, can take down individual males, but we have not dismantled either capitalism or patriarchy. In short, the conditions for the sexual exploitation of women (among many exploitations) are still in place.
What we have learned from these recent enablers is two things. The first is that dominant discourses of politics can be disrupted in explosive ways (by this I mean both fast and extensive) by particular views that have or gain a willing and enthusiastic constituency. The second is that enablers produce echoes in the wider society. Trump led to Charlottesville and beyond, Bernie and Jeremy to a generational change in thinking about politics, and the women to a voice for people who have been silenced for years.
The late Jim Anderton and his movement was potentially an enabler. But the neo-liberal political project which he opposed has trundled on ever since and has outlived him, which is a shame. We could do with a new transformational spirit here to overcome inequalities and the rise of the super-rich and overpaid and the poor and underpaid. Any candidates?
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).