Josephine Varghese: From Obama to Sunak–do representational milestones mean anything more than symbolism?

Josephine Varghese: From Obama to Sunak–do representational milestones mean anything more than symbolism?

New Zealand media have recently discussed two major representational milestones in politics. Firstly, New Zealand Parliament achieving 50% women’s representation with the induction of Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason. Secondly, Rishi Sunak becoming the UK’s first non-White Prime Minister. Major media outlets have been celebrating these events as watershed moments in history.

Indeed, these are symbolic milestones in terms of representation of women and ethnic minorities in politics, a sphere of power which had, for many years, socially and systemically excluded them. However, does greater representation of diverse identities in positions of power necessarily translate to substantive improvements for the most vulnerable who share those identities? This is a question that needs to be carefully considered.


The case of Barack Obama

 On the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, I was chatting to my pan-Africanist friend about US politics, and he said he was hoping that Hillary Clinton would lose. I asked him why he had reached that position. His answer was thought-provoking:

On the day Obama was elected in 2008, people were dancing on the streets, saying ‘one of our brothers has become the President of the United States’. But look at what he did to Africa. He bombed Somalia and destroyed Africa’s most prosperous nation, Libya. Libyans had universal public education, healthcare, and a host of social services. Libya had the highest Human Development Index ranking of any African nation, and Gaddafi was instrumental in the development of that country. And after the brutal killing of an African head of state, Secretary Clinton said, laughing, “we came, we saw, he died”. Can you imagine such a thing happening to a western leader? The most prosperous African nation was reduced to destruction and instability.

The US-led intervention in Libya does reveal the neo-colonial nature of western foreign policy in the 21st Century. And although Obama’s Presidency brought hope for change to many, he continued in the mould of his predecessors. Furthermore, it can be argued that he provided a progressive facade that effectively masked the sheer violence and exploitation that happens globally through the US State machinery.

On the domestic front, Obama’s response to the Global Financial Crisis was illuminating. His administration (which had a majority in both houses at the start of his term) decided to bail out Wall Street and the culprits of the economic crisis, while leaving the affected ordinary citizens (disproportionately black and working-class Americans) to largely fend for themselves. Thousands of black families lost their homes, cars and jobs. At the end of the Obama Presidency, the wealth gap between white Americans and black Americans had widened significantly. Many people who had supported his candidacy and worked towards electing him became disillusioned and alienated. Among them was Dr. Cornell West, renowned black activist, scholar and philosopher. Cornel West withdrew his support, saying Obama had become a “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs”, “black puppet of corporate plutocrats” and “the head of the American killing machine”.

Effectively, Obama’s identity did not seem to influence his politics as much as the other mechanisms of power at play in the US, where campaign financing and lobbying by corporations and vested interests is intertwined with supposedly ‘democratic’ processes. Policies in the social, economic and foreign policy spheres, therefore, are often crafted to secure the interests of the military industrial complex, private insurance, pharmaceutical corporations, as well as other powerful industries. Effectively, Obama refused to challenge the power of the corporate oligarchy and offered little more than an outwardly progressive face for the US Government.


Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom

The Conservative Party in the UK, known for a membership and leadership that glorify the genocidal legacy of the British Empire, also seem to have turned a page on the issue of ‘diversity’ among its top leadership. In fact, Boris Johnson, a leader well-known for racist remarks, selected a cabinet that was among the most diverse in the nation’s history, with Priti Patel as the Home Secretary and Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Johnson’s diversity record was then beaten by his successor Liz Truss whose administration was praised for its diversity. A journalist from the NPR stated:

It is notable that for the first time in British history, none of the four most senior ministerial positions — Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary — have been taken up by a white male.

After the short-lived Truss administration, Rishi Sunak was appointed as Prime Minister. Again, major media platforms celebrated his appointment as historic, and as a testimony to the “success of British multicultural society”.

Media noise aside, a cursory look into Sunak’s track record will show that he does not stand to improve the conditions of those struggling within the BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities. During his time in the Boris Johnson administration, he refused to extend the school lunch programme, which was a lifeline for poor and working-class children, a large proportion of whom are from the BAME community.

Sunak, like Obama, largely follows the Western policy line on the major ongoing crises across the world. Immigration is another area where Obama and Sunak seem to have similarities. Obama deported more people than Trump in his first term alone. And Sunak has re-appointed Suella Braverman, a fellow Conservative of South Asian origin, as Home Secretary. Braverman is known for her openly anti-immigrant stance, and famously said “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane [of asylum seekers] taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession”.

When it comes to social policy, Sunak’s approach so far is indistinguishable from his white Conservative predecessors. The private school educated, Oxford graduate, who is richer than the King himself, believes in distributing national resources to the richest. In one of his widely shared speeches, Sunak says he has had to undo the Labour Party’s policy of funding deprived urban areas, and redirect it to the affluent.


A Corporate Buzzword

It is not only neoliberal parties that have been embracing ‘diversity’. Diversity has become a corporate buzzword. Time and again, we hear exploitative global corporations touting ideas like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. Four out of five of USA’s biggest arms manufacturers, for instance, have women as CEOs.

While the dominant (neoliberal) feminist narrative views more women CEOs as a win, we must ask, whom does this benefit? US arms corporations are a major lobby group that push wars and conflicts for shareholder profits. Millions of women face violence, displacement and death due to conflicts fomented by the US, to benefit the military industrial complex and other powerful lobby groups such as the oil lobby. Having women heading these deadly organisations, therefore, cannot be regarded as progress from the perspective of poor and marginalised people both in the US and abroad.

Feminist scholars such as Nancy Fraser and Hester Eisenstein have discussed the dangerous appropriation of feminist language and aesthetics by neoliberal institutions. The focus on privileged women breaking the glass ceiling, according to Fraser, forgets the majority of women who are locked in the basement, lacking basic socio-economic security.


Jacinda Ardern and women’s representation in parliament: ‘Trickle down feminism?’

In New Zealand, the third female Prime Minister, despite originally campaigning on a ‘transformative platform’, has fallen back to a centrist policy programme, and largely abandoned a number of her progressive promises such as a Capital Gains Tax and Fees-Free tertiary education (over 3 years). Housing affordability has worsened under Ardern’s leadership and multiple instances of violence against women have been reported from emergency housing motels across the nation. Recently Ardern was the keynote speaker at the Forbes Women in Leadership summit in Vietnam, which is a corporate feminist event that celebrates a few (usually privileged) women replacing men at the top of corporations and institutions that exploit millions of working-class women and cause environmental destruction.

The fact that 50% of our representatives in Parliament are women in itself does not improve the situation of the single mother raising her children in a car or in emergency housing. The only way struggling women and vulnerable communities can be helped is through politics and policies that are uncompromising and urgent about prioritising the use of our resources to ensure that people’s basic needs are met.

And it is not like New Zealand does not have resources. The resources are just concentrated at the top, with the top 10% owning nearly 60% of the wealth, and the bottom 50% owning only 2% of the wealth. During covid, the Government was able to provide 20 billion dollars to business owners, yet at the same time, the debt burden on the poorest increased by 400 million dollars, often due to loans from Work and Income for emergencies, such as dental treatments. Free Universal Dental Care is another policy that Jacinda Ardern promised, yet refused to deliver, citing costs. This is despite experts pointing out that such a policy would save public money in the long run.


National Party embraces ‘diversity’

In the meantime, the centre-right National Party of New Zealand, through its 2020 election appraisal process have concluded that one of the areas they need to improve on is ‘diversity’. In December last year, its leader Christopher Luxon commented that the party had  “work to do” to better its ethnic diversity and gender representation. However, when you look at the policy programmes National are putting forward, as always, they cater to the most privileged, first and foremost. Whether it is the proposed tax cuts for the wealthy or the reduction in spending on social services, more diversity within National will not make things easier or fairer for poor and working-class people of all ethnicities and genders.

Diversity in this sense is hollow, just as it is for Labour, because it has not amounted to a meaningful change in policy for either major party.


Diversity in identity vs Diversity in thought

 While diversity in terms of identity is embraced under neoliberal institutions, there does not seem to be the same acceptance for diversity in thought. People belonging to minority communities are accepted so long as they do not challenge the established order (which is largely pro-market, protecting the interests of the wealthy, big business, and the professional managerial class). If the established order is threatened, then regardless of identity, such leaders are met with the concerted power of the system, often in the form of manufactured scandals, smears and criticisms. Here, I am thinking of leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn, who continues to be untruthfully smeared, as well as Bernie Sanders who twice got crushed under the might of the neoliberal Democrat establishment and allied media. Metiria Turei, a wahine Māori, and former co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party was ejected by the system, when, during an announcement on radically changing the benefit system, she opened up about having to lie to receive a higher benefit to feed her child. The bourgeois media and pro-wealthy political culture of New Zealand have maligned beneficiaries so much that even the general public has become intolerant and insensitive to their plight.

Instead of substantively challenging the centres of power that create inequality, poverty and violence, Sunak, Obama and Ardern by-and-large double down on the policies that further empower the elite, effectively narrowing the opportunities available for poor and working-class people to live in dignity and security. More important than one’s identity, therefore, is ideology (what one stands for) and action (the willingness and courage to act with urgency). Superficial ideas of progress that don’t effectively challenge entrenched systems of power allow the status quo to continue, all the while creating the illusion of change.


Dr Josephine Varghese is a Political Analyst and Researcher at the Democracy Project, Victoria University of Wellington


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.