When people say ‘politics’, it’s a fair bet that your mind doesn’t go straight to Lincoln’s second inaugural. Instead, you might think about the candidate that Lincoln’s party has chosen this year – a candidate who if elected would be the first president in American history never to have held military, executive or legislative office.
Few politicians have trafficked in hatred like Donald Trump. He refers to his main opponents with nicknames – ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and ‘Crooked Hillary’ – and has questioned their sexual prowess. He wants to bring back torture, has called women ‘pigs’, and made fun of a reporter with a disability. After the worst mass shooting in US history, Trump tweeted ‘Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism’. A remark at a campaign rally last week was widely interpreted as encouraging the assassination of his rival.
On race, Trump has advocated a ban on Muslim migration, and called Mexicans criminals and rapists. He claimed that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Obama was only admitted into Harvard through affirmative action. In a television interview, Trump failed to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan. He dismissed an American-born judge as a ‘Mexican’ who could not fairly hear his case, and attacked the parents of a Muslim soldier who was killed in action. Summarising Trump’s behaviour over four decades – including lawsuits brought against him as a property developer – New York Times columnist Nick Kristof concluded ‘I don’t see what else to call it but racism’.
Across the Atlantic, anger is rising. A week before the Brexit vote, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot by a man shouting ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. In the days after the vote, more than a hundred incidents of racial abuse and hate crime were reported to police, including a school in Cambridgeshire, where vandals left a sign saying ‘Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin’. In France, Marine Le Pen draws parallels between Muslim migrants and the occupation of her country during World War II. Joint acting Austrian president Norbert Hofer holds similar views. The view of immigrants as terrorists and job-stealers is powerful in the politics of Hungary, Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands. As The Economist puts it, ‘Across Western democracies… large numbers of people are enraged.’
In too many countries, voters don’t merely dislike their political opponents – they actively hate them.
In The Luck of Politics, I used post-election surveys to calculate the share of Labor and Coalition voters who say that they ‘strongly dislike’ the opposing party (meaning that on a 0 to 10 scale, they rate that party a 0). Since the late 1990s, the share of people who hate their opponents has risen from under one in six voters to over one in four voters.
A similar pattern can be seen in the US, though over a longer time period. Since the 1970s, voters’ average rating of their own party has stayed constant, but their rating of the opposite party has halved. Partisans regard those in the other party as less intelligent, more selfish and – my personal favourite – more closed-minded.
In 1960, just 5 percent of Americans said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, 41 percent said they would be unhappy at such a prospect. Americans are more disturbed by cross-party marriages than by interracial marriages. The typical American parent is also more troubled by a cross-party marriage than learning that their child is gay. You can imagine the scene here in Australia. ‘Oh, thank goodness, sweetheart – when you said your girlfriend was a lesbian, I first thought you said a Liberal’.
Partisan dislike can affect employment outcomes. Asked to choose between two hypothetical job candidates, people tend to discriminate against those who have political experience in a different political party.
Partisanship shows up in odd places. Under the prime ministerships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the same cat – Humphrey – lived in 10 Downing Street. Yet when shown a picture and asked to give Humphrey an ‘approval rating’, Labour partisans were nearly twice as likely to approve of the moggie if he was described as ‘Tony Blair’s cat’ than if he was described as ‘Margaret Thatcher’s cat’. Another study found that Barack Obama’s dog, Bo, received a lower rating from people who disliked President Obama.
Within parliaments, the partisan gap is widening. An intriguing new study of partisan language asks the question: if you listened to a member of the US Congress speaking for one minute, what are the chances you could guess his or her party? In 1990, the answer is 55 percent. Today, the answer is 83 percent. The disappearance of moderates has led to more political polarisation in the US than ever before. A similar picture emerges in Australia, where the share of ‘crossover candidates’ (Labor candidates who are to the right of the average Coalition candidate, or vice versa) has halved since 1996. The floor of federal parliament is the only workplace I’ve ever been in where it’s considered socially acceptable to shout insults at your co-workers while they’re trying to do their job.
Australian politics has always been a full-contact sport, but it’s getting rougher. In recent years, Annabel Crabb has noted the ‘hostile, scratchy feel to politics at the moment’, while Laura Tingle claims that ‘Australia’s politics and our public discourse have become noticeably angrier’. Technological shifts in the media landscape have played a part, with more media outlets now focusing on a particular ideological niche. It’s a problem made worse by the fact that so many people now reach news stories through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. If our friends curate the news we read, we may be more likely to consume stories that reinforce our biases rather than challenging them.
What’s the best response to rising hate? Martin Luther King put it best, when he said ‘I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councillors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.’
Instead, as King wrote in Strength to Love: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’
The best answer to anger in politics is an idea we don’t talk about much in Australia: a politics of love.
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I was first introduced to the idea of the politics of love by two New Zealand thinkers – Max Harris and Philip McKibbin. As progressives, they point out, we sometimes get too attached to the detail of programs. Our language can be alienating rather than inclusive. Gonski. 0.7 percent of GNI. 45 percent by 2030. TPP without ISDS. As an economist, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. By contrast, a politics of love is a politics that is grounded in everyday values. Love is not just a value – it is the most valuable value.
What do I mean by love? A standard cop-out is to say that we can no more define love than the metaphorical group of blind men can define an elephant. Or we can take the approach of the US Supreme Court judge who defined pornography by saying ‘I know it when I see it’.
I think we can do better. First, it might be helpful to say that I am not referring here to the ‘special kind of love’ that Jim Cairns once professed for his chief of staff, or the less special kinds of love that have blossomed in Canberra’s infamous late-night venues. We are here tonight to talk about the politics of love – not the love of politicians.
The Greeks divided love into four categories. The first three are easy. Éros, erotic love. Storgē, love for your family. Philía, love for your friends. The fourth, agápe, is the tricky one. Agápe is unconditional love for other humans. Thomas Aquinas described agápe as ‘to will the good of another’. Martin Luther King called it ‘spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative’. When Christians say ‘love thy neighbour’, it’s agápe they have in mind.
Some will baulk at the idea of love going beyond your family and friends. How can we love people we barely know? It’s a hard idea. Kierkegaard acknowledged just how hard when he called it ‘perfect love’.
Perhaps one way is to look for more familiar examples of agápe.
In the male-dominated history of the trade union movement, there’s an old notion of ‘brotherly love’. Today, unionists proudly talk about solidarity. It’s not a tactic to win the day, it’s a way of life. As the song says, Solidarity Forever. Lately, Pope Francis has taken to talking about solidarity too. For him, it’s a way of reminding ourselves that the injustices of some are the injustices of all. For the Pope, solidarity is a form of love.
‘Comrade’, a word much loved by Gough Whitlam, expresses the same sense of fellow-feeling. It came into being in the nineteenth century, as an egalitarian alternative to titles like ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. To be a comrade was to share a passion, an interest, a journey. It was to be an equal.
Mateship shares the same essence. When Whitlam poured red dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, Lingiari summed up the moment with ‘we are all mates now’. That mateship is agápe, and in that moment Lingiari created perhaps the most profound moment of love in politics that Australia has ever seen. I’m aware of its blokey overtones, but I enjoy using ‘g’day mate’ to greet a bus driver, a doctor, a security guard or a CEO. You can’t love someone while looking down your nose at them. The politics of love is the politics of egalitarianism.
There is a peacefulness inherent in the politics of love. When Mahatma Gandhi faced down the batons and the bullets of the British, he did it with nothing more than the power of his words and the strength of his convictions. Gandhi’s willingness to serve time in jail for his beliefs led to a correspondence between him and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, then in his final years of life, praised Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign against British rule. Letters from the Russian came back repeatedly to love. Tolstoy praised Gandhi for what he called ‘the law of love’, which stressed unity, and represented ‘the highest and only law of life’.
Essential to the politics of love is a sense of warmth and respect towards others. Rather than regarding those of a different gender, sexuality, class or race as enemies to be crushed, a politics of love requires an attitude of care towards those who are different from us. A politics of love does not stop at the edges of our political party. Jimmy Carter described it as, ‘a love of unlovable people, who don’t love us back’. So yes, a politics of love must even include the National Party.
Because a politics of love is inclusive, it does not stop at the Australian continental shelf. As the saying goes, charity begins at home – but doesn’t end there. My former employer Michael Kirby argues that love expands our circle of regard to peoples everywhere. ‘The essential underpinning of fundamental human rights is love. Love for one another. Empathy for fellow human beings.’ Love – of the agápe kind – is international.
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Enough of generalities. After all, I know what the economists in the room are asking. ‘Does the politics of love pass a cost-benefit test?’. Well, it’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked it. So let’s turn to a few specific examples, to see how the politics of love could change the way politics is practiced today.
Let’s start with Indigenous policy, an issue on which there are plenty of reasons for non-Indigenous Australians like me to feel guilt. Our ancestors committed the murders, stole the children, and practiced official discrimination. Even today, progress on Closing the Gap targets is frustratingly slow.
A politics of love should create a sense of urgency. Because we are all Australians, we all deserve a fair go. The national apology to the stolen generations was an act of love, a moment in which, as Kevin Rudd puts it, our nation was ‘wrestling with our own soul’. There were plenty of hugs that day, and plenty of tears. There is plenty more work to be done.
But Indigenous reconciliation also requires a sense of celebration, a touch of pride in the achievements of the Cathy Freemans, the Rover Thomases, the Faith Bandlers, the Adam Goodes. A politics of love should bring a smile to our lips when non-Indigenous Australians remember how lucky we are to share this continent with the longest continuing link to the land of any community in the world. We think of the Romans, the Greeks, the Assyrians as ancient civilisations. Yet sometimes we forget that Indigenous Australians – our Indigenous Australians – were around for tens of thousands of years before those civilisations emerged. And they are still here today. What’s not to love about that?
Or take welfare policy, where there has emerged a worrying tendency to divide the population into ‘us’ and ‘them’. In Britain, it’s ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. In the United States, it’s the 47 per cent ‘who are dependent on government’. In Australia, it’s ‘leaners’ and ‘lifters’.
One response to this is to point out that social policy is more like insurance than transfers. In any given year, only 20 percent of working age people get welfare. But if you look over a decade and a half, around 70 percent of us live at some point in a household that gets welfare.
But the politics of love burrows deeper into our hearts. It reminds us that any of us could experience the bad luck of job loss, disability or family violence. It was what led Australians to support increasing the Medicare levy to help finance the creation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. There is no ‘them’ in the politics of love. There is only ‘us’.
In international affairs, there has been a trend in Australia over recent years to withdraw from helping the rest of the world. We’ve cut foreign aid, reduced our refugee intake, and increased the carbon emissions from our electricity sector. Often, the justification is that ‘we have to take care of ourselves first’.
This misses the fact that altruism can also be in our self-interest. Foreign aid reduces the risk of terrorism. Asylum seekers can make great entrepreneurs. There are scads of new jobs in renewables.
But even if these facts weren’t true, we should still engage with the world because it is the right thing to do. If I saw a child drowning in the Yarra, no-one would think it was reasonable for me to stand on the edge because diving in to help would ruin my business suit. And yet saving a life through foreign aid costs much less than the price of a suit. As philosopher Peter Singer points out, if we believe in the universal value of human life, we should be willing to share some of our wealth with those less fortunate.
A politics of love requires us to value citizens of other countries. Speaking to parliamentarians recently, Tim Costello talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Tim made the point that because the victim has been beaten and stripped of his clothes, he lacks the outward signs that would usually denote which group he belongs to. To be a Good Samaritan, he pointed out, is to help people because they are human, not because they are in our tribe.
Or take discrimination. In the case of race, we’ve seen already how Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi drew on love in their campaigns for racial justice. When it comes to sexism, bell hooks makes a similar case. When men embrace feminist thinking, she argues, they move from thinking of the world through domination and coercion to valuing mutual growth and emotional wellbeing. Feminist politics, bell hooks writes, is not only good for women, it’s good for men. Feminism brings us ‘from lovelessness to loving’.
Or take same-sex marriage, of which I’m a strong supporter. There is a sharp-edged way of making the case for marriage equality – which focuses on the need to scrap prejudice and remove discrimination. Some have argued that opposing same sex marriage is a form of homophobia. I can recognise the anger among those who have waited a long time to marry. In Canberra, same sex marriage was legal for five days in 2013, during which time 31 same-sex couples tied the knot. Three years later, their marriages remain void. If that happened to me, I’d be seething too.
But when we look at the most successful campaigns for same sex marriage, they often have the word ‘love’ in the title. In the United States, Mildred Loving, whose Supreme Court case (Loving v Virginia) ended miscegenation in 1967, was been a strong campaigner for equal marriage. In 2007, the year before she died, she said, ‘I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry… I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.’
In 2015, when the US Supreme Court secured equal marriage, it was celebrated on social media with the hashtag #lovewins. Ireland’s referendum that year saw posters saying ‘This is about love & equality & nothing else’. One campaign website was simply voteforlove.ie. Opposing same-sex marriage in the abstract is easier than when it’s about real people in love.
As an MP, I’m privileged to hear many of those stories. Cristy, the daughter of Meg, tells me how much it would mean to her if her mother could marry her partner, Anne-Marie. She thinks Lily, Meg’s granddaughter, would love to be a flower girl too!
Daniel Edmonds wrote to me ‘When I was young, I asked my grandmother what her view would be on having a gay grandchild. Her response was steadfast: “I could not support it,” she said. “It would be against God, and against everything I believe in.” Years later, I came out to my family before leaving home to move to university (an economics degree!). My grandmother was unsteady in the knowledge that she now had a gay grandchild, something that was seen as uncommon in North Queensland at the time. It was years before she was able to bring it up in conversation with me. However, when she finally did, it really moved me. “I want you to know that I will always support you, and love you, no matter who you love.” Ever since, she has met my partners, opened her arms to them as part of the family, and consoled me when these relationships didn’t last. I am very lucky to still have my grandmother, but I only regret that in all likelihood my grandmother will not be able to attend my wedding day. I appreciate you fighting for the right for future grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters to be able to attend the wedding days of their beloved family members.’
And then there was Bill, a non-practicing Catholic, who wrote to tell me that he opposed same-sex marriage. We had a brief email exchange, and he said he was grateful I’d treated his position with respect. A few months later, Bill emailed again to say that he had changed his mind. The turning point had been a dinner party, attended by an older gay couple. He wrote: ‘These two elderly men, Lee and Craig, had been together for many years and their love and affection for each other was so great and so touching that I felt ashamed of the position I had held which would deny them the dignity of being able to express their love for each other as every other Australian can.’
Finally, a politics of love should shape how we practice politics. Trust in government and politicians is as low now as it’s been in two decades. Only 5 percent of Australians agree that people in government ‘can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time’. About 2 percent say they trust members of parliament ‘very much’. (At this point, I’m starting to think that the only reason I’ve got your attention right now is that you’re worried that if you turn your back, I’ll steal your shoes.)
Australians have never put their political leaders on a pedestal – not even in the days of Ben Chifley, Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating. But it is apparent that we’re rating very low. Roy Morgan regularly asks Australians to rate the ethics and honesty of people in different occupations, and politicians typically fall near the bottom, along with stock brokers and real estate agents. It’s scant consolation that the profession who report these findings – journalists – are rated about the same as us.
When I co-edited a book on trust in politicians in 2002, our publisher chose a cover image of one dog sniffing another’s backside. It hasn’t gotten much better since then. In part, distrust of politicians reflects a general decline in civic engagement, which has seen a decline in membership of community groups, attendance at church services, union membership and formal voting. Compared with past generations, today’s Australians have fewer friends and are less likely to know our neighbours; we are less likely to play an organised sport; and we are less likely to attend a music concert.
Bad behaviour by politicians isn’t the only reason for distrust, but it doesn’t help that people often see their parliamentarians on their televisions shouting, accusing one another of lying, or otherwise doing things for which most parents would send their children to the naughty corner. That angry politics I talked about earlier is a turnoff for many voters.
Distrust isn’t just a plague upon both our houses. Progressives like me are more likely to be making the case that government has a role in redressing injustice. The risk is that if people think politics is broken, they are more likely to believe that government is broken.
Barack Obama put it best when he was running for President, arguing that no matter how angry Democrats were at the nasty tactics of Republicans, it would be a mistake to copy them. ‘I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in. I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.’
My side of politics needs government to work more than our opponents do. And so we need politics to work more than our opponents do.
Putting love in doesn’t mean taking politics out. US Senator Cory Booker showed that when he spoke about love at the recent Democratic National Convention, concluding with a wry smile: ‘In America, love always trumps hate’.
A politics of love doesn’t mean compromising on our values, or accepting the mushy middle. There are plenty of issues in which I firmly believe that my side is right and the other side is wrong. The primacy of two-party systems around the globe reflects the fact that they are a valuable framework for debating big questions.
But a politics of love does mean that we need to always have in the back of our minds that how we practice politics matters as much as the outcomes on particular pieces of legislation. Politics isn’t a game – at its best, it’s a noble profession. As former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff notes in his wonderful book Fire and Ashes, it’s always worth having in mind the young person at the back of the room, and thinking about how to speak to them in a way that they can be inspired, learn from your mistakes, and one day come back to do a better job than you did.
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In speaking about love, I recognise that I may be raising more questions than I answer. You might reasonably be asking how a politics of love can coexist with sending our troops to take the lives of others, with a policy that says refugees who come by boat will not be resettled in Australia, or with taking corporate political donations. Each of those ethical questions could merit a speech in its own right. In brief, I would answer the first by invoking the theory of just war; the second by saying that asylum seeker policy must find a way of ending the suffering of those in Manus and Nauru while not consigning others to the fate of the SIEV-X victims; and the third by noting that it’s not much good having the right message if you can’t communicate it.
Similarly, the more technocratic areas of government aren’t necessarily amenable to an injection of emotion. What does a politics of love mean for the Reserve Bank’s understanding of the transmission mechanisms for monetary policy, air safety directives issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, or whether it is in the national interest to encourage competition between stock exchanges? You might have an answer, but my first thought is: ‘not much’. Indeed, my own belief in wonkish ideas like randomised policy trials doesn’t fit neatly into the frame of love.
Just because we can’t fit everything into a politics of love doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fit anything into a politics of love. If what you end up taking away from today is ‘politics needs a bit more love’, then that’s okay with me.
In one sense, a politics of love is a fresh idea. In another, it’s an ancient one. The New Zealand Maori concept of aroha is similar to the Greek agápe. Aroha is a love for living things, a genuine concern for all, no matter what their health or wealth. Latin American, Asian, African and European thinkers have all advocated variants of a politics of love. In her book Why Love Matters for Justice, Martha Nussbaum notes that many of those who have transformed their countries have drawn on an ethic of love, including Nehru, FDR, Mandela and Vaclav Havel.
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Every now and then, I’ll get an email from someone who’s been touched by something I’ve said or written. It doesn’t happen often – maybe once every 10,000 emails. But when someone writes to say that I’ve helped renew their faith in politics, encouraged them to get engaged in Labor, or made them proud of their local representative, it makes my heart swell a size.
When I think back to what I’ve said that’s prompted these emails, it’s not me getting angry or coming up with a pithy insult. It’s not even when I’ve quoted a little-known statistic. Instead, it’s when I’ve told a story about someone who’s inspired me, when I’ve offered hope, or when I’ve expressed gratitude. It’s when I’ve shown vulnerability, grace, or love.
We can place a lot of emphasis in politics on cleverness – on designing the smartest policies, and forging cunning plans that will make the politics work. That stuff matters. But I’m increasingly interested in wisdom: how to live a good life and how to be of service to others. More smiles, fewer scowls.
Because narrowness and nastiness tend to go together, I’m keen to expand the political conversation. There should be space in our polity for people who are introverted, gentler or more softly-spoken.
*Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh delivered this speech at Collins Street Baptist Church, Melbourne, on August 16, 2016