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The politics of 'stuff'

By Richard Braithwaite

Following the recent victory of President Barack Obama in the US, many pro-Mitt Romney supporters were left dumbfounded, unable to come to terms with the result. Several political pundits who had predicted a Romney win were left with much egg on their faces, desperately trying to find excuses for their miscalculations. Some of them accepted the Obama victory as an example of true democracy, pointing to the impact of the changing demographics of modern American society.

Others, however, adopted a more obnoxious tone—like the belligerent Karl Rove, who kept insisting, on Fox News, the declaration of Ohio for Obama was premature. Then there was the irrepressible Donald Trump, who had also predicted a Romney victory. Following the Obama win, he ranted on Twitter: "This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy."

But it was Bill O'Reilly, popular host of The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox network, who perhaps provided the most compelling insight into the Republican psyche. The day after the election, he complained: "It's not a traditional America anymore, there are 50 per cent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things."

It sounded remarkably similar to the earlier statement by Romney about those who support Obama. In a secretly recorded speech, Romney was overheard stating, "There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

In light of the fact the so-called "Obama Coalition" comprises mainly African-Americans and Hispanics, the comments from Romney and O'Reilly reflect the covert racism of the Tea Party element within the Republican Party. They all share a perspective of minorities that is rooted in old stereotypes which suggested that non-whites are lazy, irresponsible and only interested in "handouts" and "freeness". It is a deep-seated prejudice that rears its head beyond American shores, even in the Caribbean.

In Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, there is a perception that a certain sector of the society lacks ambition and is only interested in URP and CEPEP. The theory is they don't want to work too hard and they only want to lime, fete and get free "stuff". This would perhaps explain the tendency to include plenty "wine and jam" and short-term handouts in so-called community development programmes.

Certainly there are those who are lazy and parasitic, but such people can be found in all walks of life. At all levels of society you will find people who are seeking tangible benefits in return for supporting a political party. It may be in the form of lucrative contracts or in appointments to State boards, but it is the same desire to gain material advantage that motivates them. At election time, the poor and the unemployed are not the only ones who vote for "stuff".

A similar hypocrisy fuels the perception that lawlessness and banditry are only found in certain communities. Just recently, a former director of CLICO, Gene Dziadyk, was reported to have said, "Some people say Trinidad is a lawless country with crime in the streets, but I have never been robbed in the streets, but by the governing elites." There is evidence that, over the years, those ensconced within the "governing elites" have been involved in massive fraud and corruption, including the illegal drug trade, yet the stigma of criminal activity is placed elsewhere. A senior Central Bank official recently stated there are people who "want work but do not want to work" and this seems to echo Romney's infamous "47 per cent" comment. Let's hope it was inadvertent.

The reality is the working class in T&T is no less hardworking and ambitious than any other group, and it is unfair to portray it otherwise. In a previous article, I wrote, "Contrary to the popular view, thousands of workers leave their homes every day with no other purpose in mind than to do a good job and feed their families. You see many of them lining the streets from as early as 4 a.m., waiting patiently for transport to get to their places of work."

I maintain this opinion and I also believe the majority of the youth in Trinidad and Tobago are capable of great achievement and self-discipline. Yet the stereotypes persist, not unlike the views of hardcore Republicans who insist non-white Americans are essentially a bunch of lazy freeloaders.

The danger with this philosophy is that it is often used to justify cronyism, racial prejudice and social injustice. Since we are better than them, it is argued, then whatever we do to advance our cause and our agenda is a step in the right direction. It is a type of ethnic chauvinism that drives die-hard supporters of the Republican Party to behave as if they were still in the days of Jim Crow. However, new voices seem to be emerging in the GOP and they are recognising that in a plural society it would be political suicide to ignore or alienate those groups not part of your traditional base.

• Richard Braithwaite is a

management consultant.

—everest@tstt.net.tt

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