Political homelessness

June 08, 2023 06:00

He hails from Phoenix, Arizona.

In 2016, he voted for a third-party candidate. He felt neither Clinton nor Trump was a fitting choice for the presidency. He was half-tempted to write in Mitt Romney.

In 2020, he voted for Joe Biden. He had hoped for a fresh start to the presidency, and that some semblance of normalcy would be restored in the aftermath of the diabolical 45th. After all, Biden might not have brought something new to the table, but he was at least competent.

As it turns out, Biden has indeed been largely ‘competent’. He has assigned the briefs to a studded cabinet. He has sought to - and somewhat succeeded in - drive forward domestic legislative bills aimed at increasing American employment, boosting public healthcare and infrastructure, and adopted substantially more progressive policies on education and school subsidies. All is well.

Yet my American friend remains dissatisfied. He sees the White House’s approach to China as fundamentally untenable, undergirded by a combination of aimlessness, restlessness, and Quixotic heroism. Climate change isn’t getting addressed; nor, indeed, is the palpable polarisation and acrimony that have flared between African-American middle-class families and white working-class workers.

Many amongst the former feel that the US remains an institutionally racist society, armed with glass ceilings and systemic prejudices designed to arrest, molest, and prohibit the rise of ambitious folks on grounds of purely their race. As for the latter - they remain swept up in the commotion and concocted fabrications that their plights are somehow the fault of the black other, castigated and ostracised by the conservative mainstream despite their contributions towards America. Conservatives accuse progressives of undermining the constitution. Progressives frame conservatives of being fundamentally misguided bigots.

My friend feels neither here nor there. He self-identifies as an isolationist on the foreign policy scale, largely progressive on economic issues, yet restrained by a strong sense of Catholicism-instilled social conservatism, which has compelled him to vote against Donald Trump - “There’s nothing Christian about that man, Man!”, he laments, before chugging down a jug of beer. Uncharacteristically brusque.

My friend, you see, can be aptly described as being “politically homeless”. Political homelessness is a phenomenon that can be ubiquitously observed across the world. The Blue Labour supporter who found Miliband and then Corbyn’s approach to economic policy offputting, if not atavistic. Miliband was inept, but Corbyn - for them - was absolutely the worst choice possible. Yet they were equally reluctant to endorse the Tories, and found the Lib Dems too lamentably ineffectual.

Or, the progressive voter in France who opted for ‘Manu’ Macron with a pinched nose. They found le Pen unbearable and Melenchon a non-starter of a candidate. It was not out of love that they opted for someone who has been extensively lambasted for being an establishment shill and a PR machine. I reserve the right to differ from them, but that’s a complete aside.

Or the Kosovan Serb who finds the authoritarian rule of Serbia against his own nation too oppressive to ever tolerate, and yet equally faces the controversial, if not downright exclusionary, policies prosecuted by their own government, which have inadvertently exacerbated long-standing ethnic tensions.

Or, those who love dearly a flawed country, want to change it for the better, and yet find themselves repudiated by both sides - one side castigating them as delusional fools accepting the fundamental structures that govern them; the other portraying them as hopeless and disloyal romantics succumbing to the false narratives of the ‘other’. There is no way of pleasing either side - let alone both sides!

And thus, the homeless beggars march on, their rucksack-encumbered backs bent against the harsh winds, their muddy heels dragging their abhorred weights through the pitch-black snow. They call this a pilgrimage.

To be politically homelessness differs from being a sworn centrist, or being an émigré. The former is guided by the undying, perhaps hubristic, conviction that the ‘centre’ is where the truth lies, that hope rests in triangulating between polarities. Centrists aren’t the ones who come to realise that the center could very well be no better than the extremities. Emigres, on the other hand, are perennially excluded from the corridors of power, consigned to the side lines of historical tragedies and comedies. They may end up as tragic heroes, but very rarely do they effect change in the real world.

Homelessness leaves one deprived of energy, of a community. It turns one into a casualty between powerbrokers and Machiavellian villains who enjoy turning humans into pawns, and pawns into crumbled shreds of paper and statistics - a side benefit and casualty to the power elite going their way. Until at some point, the power elite also become the non-elite, as the non-elite turn the table on the former’s heads.

Inspiration politics only goes so far. It’s easy to behave in a way that signals seeming courage and bravado, after all. Indeed, conversations with strangers only go so far. My American friend snaps at me, asking me if I want anything else. Whiskey? No thanks, I’m a teetoller, remember? He nods, dazed, recalling that I do not in fact drink!

And so slowly, amidst the raucous clashing of glasses and the chanting of “Last Order”, I come to the realisation that there really are certain truths that are more universally applicable than others.

Universal truths apply everywhere, and yet are hard to find. Local truths apply sporadically to select contexts. Most truths, ultimately, lie somewhere in between - intimate yet widespread, localised yet universal in ambitions. And don’t we all? So do we.

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Assistant Professor, HKU