Over the last few days I’ve been watching the strange debate over vaccinations unfold in the USA. Senator Rand Paul, libertarian and potential Republican Presidential nominee, fired the opening shots by claiming that vaccinations should be voluntary and to make them otherwise is an infringement of the parents’ freedom of choice. This stance is in fact nothing new for Senator Paul who has previously stated his belief – widely discredited by the medical profession – that vaccinations can cause mental disability. Perhaps he is talking from personal experience.
Not to be outdone however is his rival for the Republican nomination, Governor Chris Christie, who was confronted during his bizarre PR trip to London over his comments that there should be “some measure of choice” in whether children are vaccinated against measles and other contagious diseases.
For many of us in Europe it seems incredible that individuals holding such discredited and, some would say, uninformed views would get anywhere near the top of the political tree. (Not that European politicians are necessarily any more sensible, they just hide it better!) It only reinforces the belief that political power is bought rather than earned. However, there are two interesting factors at play in a situation like this. First is the seemingly unbreakable bond between America’s citizens and its Constitution. The Constitution has a mystical, almost religious quality in American life which allows it to maintain a dominant position over any ruling government. The belief and respect for this document cannot be understated and it was interesting to hear that Edward Snowden chose to become the world’s most high-profile whistleblower out of a desire to defend the Constitution. It is revered for its guarantees of individual liberty and the limits it puts on government power and is thus frequently cited by libertarians to support a freedom of choice and action. It is a document that has influenced not only national democracy but has also shaped what it means to be American. Any political reference to individual freedom is thus an appeal to both the Constitution and the heart of American identity.
Where the libertarian view of individual rights falls down however is in cases of ‘public’, or ‘common’, interest. For all the free market mania espoused by both sides of congress, it is surprising how little attention is paid in American political discussion to economic basics. Any university student can easily spot that negative externalities – where an individual does not face the full cost of an action – are one obvious potential consequence of allowing people to make individual choices in a communal and interconnected world. One person’s right to bear arms is another’s fear of gun crime. The market is notoriously unreliable in being able to ‘value’ externalities so perhaps it is no surprise that free market libertarians like to gloss over these details. However, framing individual choices in these terms shows that there is more to a functioning society than self-interest. I am not, of course, supporting totalitarianism of any kind but it does make sense to consider specific situations where one person’s freedom of choice and action can impact significantly and negatively on another individual’s quality of life. The ‘right to bear arms’ is the most oft-cited example here, and for those able to observe the consequence of this in practice, it is astounding that the second amendment’s wish to protect the personal freedom of gun enthusiasts is valued above the many lives lost in its wake.
As raised by Senator Paul and Governor Christie, another point of immediate relevance is of course vaccination. If the beliefs of parents preclude them from vaccinating their child, who are we to object? Well, first of all, perhaps there are the rights of the child to consider. If the state is able to offer support and protection when a child’s physical or mental well-being are being harmed then surely this power extends to moderating the decisions which can put them directly in harms way. In this context we must look again at the possibility of externalities and consider what happens when an unvaccinated child contracts measles. Do the parents simply lock her in a room until a full recovery is made? Probably not. More likely, this child will infect any other unvaccinated children in the vicinity and require care from an adult and medical practitioner over a period of days and weeks. Where parents miss work to look after their sick kids, economic costs are imposed on the employer, in addition to the financial or economic costs incurred by seeking medical treatment. For a country that places so much stock on how markets respond to decisions, it is very strange that much of the GOP does not seem interested in cases where libertarianism is related to poor economic outcome. One person’s freedom of choice is another person’s negative externality. However, all this can easily become lost in the game of Identity Politics, where identification with America’s founding values can be more valuable to politicians than considering their contemporary consequences.
But there is another issue that occurred to me while thinking about this over the last few days. To put it simply: how on earth to people like Chris Christie, Rand Paul, George W Bush and several others I could name get anywhere near political power? In Europe, Bush was ridiculed for the way he seemingly had no grasp on policy issues and the way he was clearly out of his depth in meeting more ‘informed’ political figures. He did, however, have the common touch. Nothing demonstrates this better than when, after he had nearly chocked to death eating pretzels while watching NFL, his wife went on national TV to make it clear that these were in fact large, man-sized pretzels, not just the regular kind. Bush’s success hinged on a macho, cowboy image and he marketed himself as a figure that many Americans could relate to. Rand Paul is no stranger to this either and his recent cry of “She’s going down” in his tirade against U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, helps him to paint himself as a gunslinger from the wild west, defending freedom.
These politicians owe much of their success to an ideological vacuum I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In the absence of strong alternatives, capitalism has entrenched its hold over the psyche, with the result that our identities are now linked to commodities. Politics has increasingly become one such commodity so it therefore makes sense for politicians to craft their language and image as if they were on a TV commercial. In the world of capitalism and marketing, celebrities are used as aspirational figures to promote consumption. We are encouraged to model our own actions and lifestyle in what we see in the rich and famous and this of course leads us further down the road towards debt-fuelled consumption and continual identity modification. I discussed this in the ‘Inner Class Divide’ and how it relates to new ideologies and political alternatives. But the point here is that it also relates directly to the politicians themselves. When Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 he was offering a new ‘third way’ (or complete sell out depending on your point of view) politics. However, with his slick persona and love of Britpop music he was also clearly not Neil Kinnock. Voters bought into his personal charisma as much as his policies. And so it was also with George Bush, offering a down-to-earth image of a President who was more at home at a baseball game than at the UN.
You could argue that as long as the policies are sound, it doesn’t matter what the politician looks like or says. But it does if this image of the politician is merely an extension of, or a figurehead for, a wider ideal being promoted by the establishment. We live in a world where it is not politicians who shape society but society that shapes politicians. Political leaders are usually pushed to the fore because they reflect and embody the agenda of the capitalist classes. Blair embraced big business and became its figurehead as a young, ambitious policymaker. The ideology of his youth was dumped at the side of the road. Rand Paul and Chris Christie, although widely mocked in the media over their comments, are in fact playing an astute political game. Espousing individual freedom over vaccinations is a direct throwback to the spirit of the Constitution, with its desire to limit the power of government over the individual. Whether they actually believe the nonsense they spout is beside the point. By calling on the spirit of the ‘Founding Fathers’ they are trying to appeal to all aspects of the electorate, reflecting themselves in the core beliefs of the people, and shaping an identity synonymous with the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is professional Identity Politics.
But this is all a consequence of the tremendous ideological vacuum. With no credible popular alternative to organising society according to market norms and values, our identities and beliefs are influenced and shaped by the individuals (and associated corporations) we are duped into aspiring to. We are brainwashed by the media, our capacity for free thought constrained within a proscribed set of societal norms. And we are therefore led to vote for the candidates who best craft their political and personal identities in a way that directly appeals to our own aspirations, lives and identities. Until we can create and empower more social institutions to help to unplug us from the markets and break our dependence on capitalist consumption, politics will continue to be a sanitised, impoverished tool of neoliberal ‘democracy’. Or to put it another way, it will remain a popularity contest, with the winner being the most marketable blend of corporate power and popular culture. The popular uprisings in Greece and Spain offer a hope that citizens are beginning to feel empowered to rebel against the institutional bureaucracy of the current system, but do not doubt that neoliberal capitalism will bite back with increasing force. When it does, those searching for alternative visions of society must innovate, mobilise and stand together in order to resist the lure of Identity Politics as the figurehead for neoliberalism.