Is our leadership debate heading down the US path?

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I was struck by John Kehoe’s headline “America isn’t broken but it may not be fixable either”, summing up his five-year posting as the Australian Financial Review’s Washington correspondent.

Whilst many believe Americans inhabit a different planet, the USA still holds significant cultural relevance for Australia. To my mind Kehoe offered a few clues as to where our local leadership discourse might be heading. I’d encourage you to consider the following overview of Kehoe’s thoughts in the same light.

A key theme that resonates across America is that immigration is the source of many of the country’s problems. What is deeply ironic though, is that people are typically civil and friendly to their fellow countrymen when they are sitting next to them, yet if those very same countrymen are unknown, they represent exactly what some Americans think is wrong with the country.

Behind the hostility to immigration is a strong feeling that prosperity is not being shared. Here’s a few US-related statistics to consider:

  • Half of Millennials are financially worse off than their parents were at the age of 30.
  • The chance of a poor American child rising up the societal income ladder, known as intergenerational earnings mobility, is far behind that of Australia.
  • Incomes for all, except the top 20% of earners, have barely moved in real terms since the late 1990s.

Two people’s view of the world will diverge dramatically depending on whether they are receiving their news from Fox News or The New York Times. Americans are divided sharply by geography: Republican voters increasingly live in the same towns and rural areas, whilst Democrats congregate in the cities, often on the coast. They are divided by race, with 58% of whites voting for President Trump, but only 8% of African Americans supporting him.

Party activists, financial donors and lobbyists wield disproportionate power, shifting progressive Democrats further to the left and conservative Republicans to the right. The gap between the political values of Democrat party voters and their Republican counterparts is now wider than at any point since the Pew Research Centre started measuring the divide in 1994.

Incumbent politicians are often more worried about losing an intra-party contest than a general election. A politician reaching across the aisle runs the risk of being kicked out by their own party in favour of a more hard-line candidate.

It is well worth noting that in this current environment President Trump – for all his pompous and egotistical behaviour and apparent distain for the truth – is widely credited for keeping his election campaign promises. It remains to be seen whether the current global slow-down in economic growth will ultimately prevent him from being elected for a second term.

It becomes increasingly tempting in this environment for leaders to tap into the elements that divide society rather than those that unite as a means by which to secure power. The tougher challenge is to unite by tapping into society’s better instincts.

 

As Kehoe observes, Americans can be incredibly generous at looking after their family and neighbours. There isn’t just a willingness to help – Americans seem to start from a proposition that they will naturally like each other.

 

The challenge for Americans is to find a way to take their civic mindedness and compassion for people in their immediate neighbourhoods and translate that into a more civil discourse with the rest of the country. I can’t help considering whether this presents a similar challenge across Australia?

So from a leadership perspective, what do you believe are the elements that unite rather than divide Australians?

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