culture wars

Our Romney Moment

When Mitt Romney went to Israel and wondered out loud about the role of “culture” in explaining the income disparities that exist between the Jews and Palestinians, he was branded a racist. But his intent was not to court the Jewish community back home who almost always vote Democrat, but to engender support from the evangelical Christians who constitute one major wing of the Republican Party.

He followed this up by attacking President Obama for winding back welfare-to-work reforms introduced by the Clinton-Gingrich consensus in the 1990s. These claims were roundly criticised for being untrue, but yet again, the point was not to be accurate, but to create clear points of distinction between himself and the president due to his inability to do so over Obamacare, the single most reviled policy by the GOP.

What is going on in American politics is a battle for the very soul of the nation. Americans due to their history are a nation that believes in self-reliance. Any attempt to improve the welfare of citizens through the government is frowned upon. So fundamental is this principle sewn into the fabric of the nation’s psyche that the centrepiece program of the Obama presidency was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. Its constitutionality was affirmed on a mere legal technicality.

Every country develops a kind of cognitive bias, it seems, which gets woven into its collective identity. Call it culture; call it institutions, but I believe the general point Romney was trying to make, albeit callously undiplomatic, is essentially true.

In Australia, for instance, the idea of “the fair go”, that each individual should be given equal footing to pursue his or her dreams and aspirations, is part of the social contract that binds the citizenry to each other and their government. This is why when PM Gillard introduced a carbon tax, the struggling blue collar heartland of her Labor Party base could not understand why as it posed a risk to their ability to have a fair go.

The same can be said about the Philippines and its devout adherence to Catholic beliefs in considering the passage of a reproductive health bill. The fact that the nation is still divided over this issue demonstrates Filipino aversion towards any form of state intervention in what is considered a private affair.

If the RH bill is passed, and it most likely will be, at least in the lower house, then you can be sure that the campaign to unseat those who support it will be vicious in the 2013 congressional elections. This is why while some legislators will in private support the measure, publicly they will tend to stand with the opposite side.

That is why a bi-partisan coalition, which is what existed when then minority leader Edcel Lagman who co-authored the bill locked arms with the administration, is so essential. During the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, Ms Gillard’s predecessor, support for an emissions trading scheme had the backing of then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Unfortunately, both these bi-partisan agreements were put asunder in the lead up to the vote. Both Messrs Lagman and Turnbull were dismissed by their respective party-mates and replaced by people who chose to use the issue to wedge the voters and the government. In Australia, Tony Abbott, a former seminarian took the helm of the conservatives, while in the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, a devout Catholic pulled the strings to have her nominee replace Lagman.

As she fights for her political life and personal exoneration, it is clear that she intends to harness anti-RH sentiments in the community to rally to her cause as she awaits trial for various high crimes. If the clergy who have been quite obliging to her in the past stand shoulder to shoulder with her on this issue, they might mobilise formidable resources to oppose the government in the courts and in the congressional races. Already, the Liberal Party faces stiff opposition in the senatorial derby from the UNA Coalition whose leader in the upper house is staunchly opposed to the RH bill.

What this means is that if the bill is defeated before this congress adjourns, it will have a harder time when it reconvenes after the elections. Those who support this bill should not be disheartened, because the struggle to promote their cause is not a matter of merely changing the law of the land, but of fundamentally altering the psyche of the nation.

Those peering from the outside will always wonder, what is so reprehensible about offering universal health care to Americans? Or why is putting a price on carbon so revolting to Australians? The same could be asked about Filipinos as to why they are still so divided over the issue of reproductive health.

As floods ravage the country causing mudslides, floods and misery all around, the question is how will it manage the deadly cocktail of grinding poverty, population growth and environmental degradation without a reproductive health law and program?

To outsiders, it would seem like a matter of good common sense and prudential risk management to have such policies and programs in place. To those that belong to such cultures, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.