Tag Archives: USA

Why did slavery decline earlier in the North than in the South of the United States?

by Tim Harding

There were enormous differences in the timing of slavery abolition in the North of the United States compared to the South.  The gradual state by state emancipation of slaves began in the North soon after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Yet there was no legislated emancipation of any slaves in the South until 1865, after a bloody and destructive Civil War against the North.  Why was this so?  Was it simply due to geographic differences in the levels of racial prejudice against black Africans?  Or were there, as I intend to examine in this essay, more complex and relevant cultural, political, economic or religious differences between the North and the South?

In terms of the abolition of slavery, the dividing line between the North and the South was the Mason – Dixon Line, which separated free Pennsylvania from slave Maryland, Delaware, and what is now West Virginia.  This essay focusses on the internal North/South differences during the emancipation of slaves, rather than the abolition of the importation of slaves to America via the Atlantic slave trade, which affected both the North and the South.

During the British colonial period, African slaves were imported and distributed to all colonies to replace the dwindling supply of white indentured labour,[1] who were not arriving in sufficient quantities to replace those who had served their limited term.[2]  On the plantations, escape was easy for the white indentured labourer who could blend into the free population, but less easy for black Africans.[3]  In the North, slaves typically worked as house servants and labourers, including on farms and on maritime docks in loading and unloading ships.  Some slaves worked in various skilled trades, such as bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and so on.[4]

Williams argues that the decisive factor was that the African slave was cheaper than indentured white servants.  The money that procured a white servant for ten years could buy an African slave for life.  He concludes that the primary reason for the use of African slaves was economic rather than racial; and that racial prejudice was a later rationalisation to justify economic facts.  Sugar, tobacco and cotton required large plantations and hordes of cheap labour.[5]  In America, these commodity crops were all grown in the South, as a result of climatic and topological differences from the North, where there were no such large plantations.

The first American plantation commodity crop was tobacco in the Chesapeake region, dating from the early 17th century.  Production of food crops – primarily maize – was usually limited to the requirements of self-sufficiency.  The switch from indentured labour to slave labour did raise productivity on the majority of plantations, just as the slave buyers had hoped.  Most of these efficient workers were Africans rather than Creoles, with slave women performing the same work as slave men.[6]

The American Revolution brought severe economic depression and social disruption to the Chesapeake region.  There were shortages of salt, medicine, shoes and cloth and slaves naturally suffered more than slave-owners.  Some slaves got to travel with their owners, where they learned what the Revolution was about, stimulating slave demands for consequential freedoms.[7]

Slaves picking cotton

Later on, after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the South and Deep South reshaped American slave life.  The slave population in Alabama and Mississippi grew sixfold, mainly as a result of a substantial relocation of 700,000 slaves from the Southern border states.[8]   Strong world demand for cotton kept prices generally high, enabling the purchase and relocation of slaves from higher latitudes.[9]  Slaves were even bought from Northern slave-owners in anticipation of the abolition of slavery in those states;[10] although there was a market preference for experienced Southern slaves who were more efficient in the ‘sleight of picking cotton’.[11]  This evidence helps to show that slavery was clearly the cheapest and most productive source of labour in the South.[12]

African slaves were also of economic importance to the North.  Whilst there were no large agricultural plantations like those in the South, slaves performed menial tasks that whites would otherwise have had to do.  For this very reason, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1828 objected to the colonisation of American slaves in Africa (which had been proposed as a solution to the perceived social problems that would arise from abolition).  The Senate Committee argued that colonisation would create a labor vacuum in the Eastern seaboard cities, increase the price of labor, and attract rural Africans and fugitive slaves to the urban centres.[13]

After the American War of Independence, there were several petitions by slaves to state legislatures begging for the abolition of slavery.[14][15]  These petitions largely fell on deaf ears at the time, although Vermont and Pennsylvania had already passed Acts for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1777 and 1780 respectively.[16]  All the other Northern states followed over the next decade or so, except for New Jersey in 1804.[17]  This gradualist approach is illustrated by the words of the key ‘Founding Father’ George Washington who in 1786 wrote:

‘I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by, which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.’[18]

George Washington, as a farmer with his slaves

The gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern states at first freed children born to slave mothers, but required them to serve lengthy indentures to their mother’s masters.  As a result of this gradualist approach, New York did not fully free its last ex-slaves until 1827, Rhode Island in 1840, Pennsylvania in 1847, Connecticut in 1848, and New Hampshire and New Jersey in 1865.[19]

In stark contrast, none of the Southern states abolished slavery until after the American Civil War, when in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in all states, except as punishment for a crime.

The original Constitution of the United States included several provisions regarding slavery.  Section 9 of Article I forbade the Federal government from completely banning the importation of slaves before January 1, 1808; although some states individually passed laws against importing slaves.  Section 2 of Article IV prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.[20]

In 1789, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, amongst other things, stated that no person (that is, a free citizen) shall be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation’.  Because slaves were property at this time, the Fifth Amendment was interpreted to mean that slavery could not be abolished without just compensation.[21]  The need to avoid expensive compensation payments may well have been the main reason why Northern governments opted for gradual abolition on an intergenerational basis.

Whilst racism was an obvious factor in the Atlantic slave trade,[22] there appears to be little evidence that racist attitudes towards Africans were more prevalent in the South than the North prior to the Civil War.  For instance, the minstrel shows in which white performers in black face disparaged and ridiculed Africans originated in New York.[23]  Most of these white minstrel performers were either born in New York or had lived in the city for long periods of their lives.[24]  Minstrel skits exaggerated racially distinctive features and behaviours to grotesque proportions.[25]  Together with newspaper cartoons and posters, Northerners were constantly reminding Africans of their alleged inferiority.  These racial stereotypes ‘hardly induced Northerners to accord this clownish race equal political and social rights’.[26]

Northern white workers protested often and bitterly against unfair competition from the far cheaper African slaves.  Founding Father John Adams observed that had slavery not been abolished in the North, the white labourers would have removed the African slaves by force.  In any case, white worker hostility towards the slaves had already rendered slavery unprofitable by lowering slave motivation and productivity.[27]

An alternative view is that the views of white workers held back emancipation in the North, through fears of labor competition from freed slaves.  White trade unions reinforced antipathy towards African labor competition.  They rejected racial unity as a way of achieving higher wages and vigorously opposed abolitionism.  To the trade unions, emancipation posed a serious threat of thousands of former slaves pouring into the North to undermine wages and working conditions.[28]  Although there were obviously conflicting views of white workers towards African slaves, they underscore the central importance of economics to the debate.

On the other hand, Litwick suggests the need to balance economic arguments for the North/South differences with consideration of cultural and ideological influences.  He suggests that political leadership was a factor in drawing attention to inconsistencies between the Enlightenment principles used to justify the American Revolution and the continuation of slavery.[29]  For instance, the Northern Founding Father John Jay (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) wrote:

‘To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused.  Until America ridded herself of human bondage her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious’.[30]

John Jay (1745 – 1829)

Another cultural difference was that the leading antislavery religious movement, the Quakers, were much more active in the North than in the South.  Abolitionist sentiment in Pennsylvania, for example, resulted largely from early and persistent Quaker opposition to slavery as inconsistent with ‘the true spirit of Christianity’.  Following the lead of Pennsylvania, annual Quaker meetings in other Northern colonies adopted similar condemnations of slaveholding.[31]

In 1785, the New York Manumission Society, with John Jay as its president was also politically influential.  In 1799, John Jay as Governor of New York signed a bill providing for the gradual emancipation of New York State’s 21,000 slaves.[32]

As a counterbalance to these explanations, Davis argues that the Southern states also had antislavery political leadership from the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, St. George Tucker, Patrick Henry, Arthur Lee and John Laurens.[33]  Yet there were no legislated moves towards the emancipation of Southern slaves, gradual or otherwise.  For example, the Virginian judge St. George Tucker despairingly wrote in 1795:

‘If, in Massachusetts, where the numbers are comparatively very small, this prejudice be discernable, how much stronger may it be imagined in this country, where every white man felt himself born to tyrannize, where the blacks were regarded as of no more importance than the brute cattle, where the laws rendered even venial offences criminal in them, where every species of degradation towards them was exercised on all occasions, and where even their lives were exposed to the ferocity of their masters;’[34]

This is not to say that there were no slavery abolition movements in the South – there were many, but they had little influence compared to those in the North.  According to Davis, in 1827 the number of antislavery organisations in the South outnumbered those in the North by at least four to one.[35]  Since 1794, Southern and Northern antislavery societies had met periodically as the ‘American Convention of Delegates from Abolition Societies’.  The number of states represented varied from year to year, but the consistent presence of the Pennsylvania and New York societies gave them a dominant voice.[36]

Slaves celebrating emancipation

The abolitionist sentiments in the South were vastly outweighed by the huge economic incentives to grow commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton at minimal labor costs.  Whilst there was some difference in the antislavery religious leadership of the Quakers in the North, there were insufficient differences in political leadership to account for the eighty year delay in Southern slave emancipation.  Nor is there sufficient evidence of differences in racial prejudice between the North and the South, at least until after the Civil War.

So we are left with a conclusion that the dominant differences between the North and South in terms of slavery abolition were economic ones.  On large Southern plantations where labor costs were crucial, African slaves were much cheaper than indentured white servants, not to mention free white workers.  There were no such plantations in the North, where white workers resented and agitated against unfair competition from African slave labour.  The emancipation of Northern slaves was most likely done gradually on an intergenerational basis to avoid governments having to pay compensation for the loss of slaves as property.


Primary sources

Constitution of the United States, 1787. (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html) Viewed 14 September 2016.

‘Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780,’at Lillian Goldman Law Library (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/023.html)

St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Letter_from_St_George_Tucker_to_Jeremy_Belknap_June_29_1795) Viewed 15 September 2016.

George Washington to John Francis Mercer. Letter dated 9 September 1786.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. (http://www.gilderlehrman.org/collections/af0e9ed4-60d0-474e-8c7d-860434909242) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Secondary sources

Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005).

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968).

Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’ in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History, Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), 61-63.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961).

Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984).

Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95. (http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/stable/30041672).  Viewed 14 September 2016.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944) in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), pp. 56-60.


[1] Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993), p.170.

[2] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944), p.57.

[3] Eric Williams, p.57.

[4] Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961), p.4.

[5] Eric Williams, p.57.

[6] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.170-177.

[7] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.187-189.

[8] Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968)’, p.236.

[9] Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993)’’ p.155-156.

[10] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.16.

[11] Steven F. Miller, p.165.

[12] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[13] Leon F. Litwack, p.156.

[14] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.76.

[15] Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven.

[16] Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780.

[17] Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

[18] George Washington to John Francis Mercer, 1786.

[19] Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

[20] Constitution of the United States, 1787.

[21] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.117.

[22] Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’.

[23] William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984), pp.39-49.

[24] Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95.

[25] Van Deburg, p.42.

[26] Leon F. Litwack, p.99.

[27] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[28] Leon F. Litwack, pp.159-160.

[29] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[30] Leon F. Litwack, p.7.

[31] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[32] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[33] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

[34] St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.

[35] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.165.

[36] Leon F. Litwack, p.18.


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Surviving 2017 – a user’s guide

The Conversation

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

At the peak of post-Soviet triumphalism in the west, amid all the hype about a New World Order and the end of history, historian Eric Hobsbawm rained on the parade somewhat by suggesting that we were in a pre-war, rather than post-(Cold) war period.

Hobsbawm was a Marxist, deeply concerned by what he saw even then, more than two decades ago, as the rise of nationalism and religious extremism.

The ideological vacuum left by the demise of the USSR and the broader decline of socialism was in danger of being filled by tribalism, sectarianism and ethnic conflict. Long dormant hatreds of “the Other” founded on reactionary creeds of racial and religious supremacy would now have room to breathe, he believed.

He didn’t live to see that prediction fulfilled, but as we leave 2016 behind and the world prepares for a Trump presidency built on white rage, it is clear that we are there.

The Long Peace which has lasted since 1945 – no wars between major powers, no world wars after the two that defined the 20th century, and despite the horrors of civil war such as we see in Syria today, no human casualties on the scale of 1939-45 or 1914-18 – is coming to an end.

Russia hacks US elections, and invades sovereign nations in Eastern Europe. China steals US drones in international waters, and builds military bases on artificial islands. The soon-to-be commander-in-chief of America writes this is “unpresidented” (sic), while endorsing the behaviour of the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. And all this before Donald Trump even gets his greedy fingers on the nuclear button.

All it will take for this bizarre mix of post-factual ignorance, nationalism and religiously fuelled aggression to become full-on war is one provocative move too far, by one side or another.

It might happen in the illegal Israeli settlements next week, or around Taiwan in June. Maybe Trump will take a shot at North Korea. Who knows?

We do know that we have a tax-avoiding, pussy-grabbing reality TV star for president of the United States, who communicates his foreign policy on social media while proclaiming he has no need for such trivia as CIA national security briefings.

And if we manage to avoid that apocalyptic scenario, we will still have to deal with nationalism tearing apart the UK, the EU, and all the gains of internationalism, globalisation and multiculturalism we have painstakingly made since the cataclysm of the second world war.

The English artists Gilbert & George produced a prescient 2014 piece seen by this writer at MONA in Hobart. It declares:

Our grandparents didn’t vote for fascists. They shot them!.

Well, now they’re voting for them again – in Austria, the UK, Australia, the US, even Germany, where neo-nazism is on the verge of again becoming respectable.

We are in an historical moment never experienced by anyone born after 1945. A moment unforeseen and unprepared for.

In that respect I am guilty.

Yes, like most observers I understood that Brexit was a possibility, given the polls showing a slight majority for Remain right up to the end of the campaign. But the wishful thinker in me chose to believe that no rational person would wish to tear up the complex web of relationships between Britain and the EU, formed over 45 years, and which had contributed so much to peace and prosperity on the continent.

Sure, the EU had its problems and challenges, but nothing a determined UK government could not have resolved through firm negotiation of the type pursued by Conservative and Labour administrations for decades. To destroy the entire edifice of economic, cultural and political union between 28 countries was masochistic and self-destructive, surely?

The Scots had rejected separation from the UK just two years before, after all, a very similar issue to that pushed by the English nationalists in the EU referendum.

What we see now with the chaos and uncertainty of Brexit would have been visited on the UK in 2014, if the separatists had won the referendum – ironically, the Scottish nationalists now cite Brexit as their reason for overturning the democratic vote for Union.

My Scottish countrymen and women made the right call there, and maybe that encouraged me to think the Brits would do so in relation to the EU, and then the Americans would elect a principled and experienced public servant such as Hillary Clinton over the mean-minded man who will soon be sitting in the Oval Office.

In the US election, again, the data showed that a Trump victory was possible, if not likely. No-one, not even Nate Silver and those at FiveThirtyEight, wanted to believe the data could all be wrong, even if we knew on recent evidence that they might be.

But we were wrong, very wrong, and now we face the most serious threat to all of our livelihoods and lives – wherever in the word we call home – most of us have known. Unless you are a rich billionaire such as Trump and his super-rich cronies, it’s time to dig in and prepare for a future of chaos and austerity.

Our grandparents DID shoot fascists, and they did win the war. We 21st-century anti-fascists can prevail too, but only if we understand the enormity of what we face.

This is a culture war, first.

As I observed in Porno? Chic! three years ago there is a global reaction underway to the historic gains of feminism and gay rights, spearheaded by radical Islam and now hijacked by the white supremacist alt-right. In what remains of the liberal capitalist world we must defend and promote progressive sexual politics as never before.

We must defend multiculturalism and the values of tolerance, against not just the white nationalists but the Islamists and haters of every type.

If our leaders had been more honest about and resistant to Islam’s assault on our progressive social values we might not be where we are today, in the UK, the US, France, Germany, Australia (where One Nation is preparing to seize its historic opportunity).

We must declare zero tolerance for religious, nationalist, and ethnic intolerance, from whichever direction it comes.

We must learn to fight the alt-right with the same ferocity and fearlessness they apply to their enemies in the media, academia, everywhere.

Forget politeness, or all known rules of online etiquette. Forget turning the other cheek, or trying to be reasonable with those who ignore the facts in the hope they will be persuaded to your point of view. Challenge them now, because the deplorables will be coming for you next.

The internet is now a target, so we must relearn how to live without the digital, and how to survive when the network gets hacked or knocked out by Russia or China (or indeed Trump).

As we have just seen in the starkest possible manner, our liberal democracies have become extremely vulnerable not just to demagogues spouting populist bile on social media, but to foreign state hacking.

It’s clear that when the Long Peace does end, the internet will be taken out first. We should all be prepared to survive the abrupt withdrawal of online services which we have become reliant on.

But look on the bright side.

Buy a turntable and some vinyl records; a nice pen that you can write with, and some notepads. Start reading hard copy books again. Reduce your dependence on the digital. Rediscover the pleasures of the analogue.

Such survival tactics won’t stop what’s coming after January 20, but they might make it just that bit easier to cope. Meantime, as we approach the new year and say farewell to Barack Obama, let’s echo his sentiments of this week:

God bless us all.

The ConversationBrian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Maajid Nawaz on the US’s vote on the UN resolution

Why Evolution Is True

Maajid Nawaz (I hadn’t realized that he was only 38) is, as most of you know, a former Islamist extremist and now an Islamic moderate who runs the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation. And he’s a brave man. I don’t know if he has bodyguards, but given his calls for moderation in Islam and his vigorous condemnations of Muslim oppression, he would seem to be in danger. (He regularly gets death threats.) His latest piece at The Daily Beast, “Why did Obama pander to the UN’s stunning anti-Israel bias?“, isn’t going to make him any more friends, for it’s largely pro-Israel.

Although Nawaz is against Israel’s building of settlements and in favor of a two-state solution, he’s an even stronger critic of despotic Arab regimes, and pulls no punches about it—or about the bigotry of low expectations that concentrates in Israel while ignoring the far greater oppression in many other…

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FactCheck: Are Australians paying twice as much for electricity as Americans?

The Conversation

Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Business here and households here, already we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity. – Craig Kelly MP, chair of the backbench environment and energy committee, ABC Radio National Breakfast interview, December 6, 2016. (Listen from 7.38)

Environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg recently left open the possibility of some form of carbon trading in the electricity sector. He later ruled out that option, saying he wanted to keep electricity prices down.

Following Frydenberg’s initial comments, Liberal MP Craig Kelly said businesses and households in Australia are already paying twice as much as Americans for their electricity.

Is that true?

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support his statement, Craig Kelly referred The Conversation to a range of sources, saying that:

… a report titled 2015 Residential Electricity Price Trends lists [on page 212] the average Australian price at 28.72 cents per kilowatt hour for 2014/2015.

In comparison, the US Energy Information Administration lists the average price for residential electricity [in the US] at 10.44 cents for 2014.

Converting 10.44 US cents at A$1/US$0.74 – is the equivalent of 14.11 cents Australia.

So using these sources (in Australian cents) we have 14.11 cents in the USA and 28.72 cents in Australia. Therefore I think to say that “we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity” (on average) is pretty much right on the money.

You can read Craig Kelly’s full response here.

Do Australians pay more?

It’s definitely true that Australians pay much more for their electricity than US citizens do (and Australian prices are set to rise even further, according to the Australian Energy Market Commission.

Using OECD data, there’s one measure that says it is twice as much – or at least it was twice as much as recently as 2014. Another measure – a better measure, in my view – shows Australians pay about 50% more than US citizens do for their electricity.

As Craig Kelly notes in his full response, there is significant variation in electricity prices across states and territories in Australia and in the United States, so comparing the two is not a simple matter. The Australian Energy Market Commission’s annual Electricity Price Trends report shows that retail prices in Australia vary from 18.44 c/kWh in the Australian Capital Territory to 29.75 c/KWh in South Australia.

But we can use Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data on wholesale and retail indices energy prices to check Craig Kelly’s statement.

The wholesale price is the cost of generating the energy that is sent to the grid. Retail prices are what householders are more used to talking about. Retail prices factor in extra costs like transmission and distribution (“poles and wires”), retailer margins and other levies (such as Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Energy Target costs). In other words, it’s what we’re paying on our power bill.

Let’s examine the data.

A tale of two measures

The two measures I have used to compare prices in the US and Australia are called “market exchange rates” and “purchasing power parities”. Craig Kelly’s calculations rely on market exchange rates, so we will start with that one.

Market exchange rates simply means converting the price in one country’s currency to that of another country’s currency, as Kelly did. This measure of comparison is more volatile than purchasing power parity exchange rates.

Using market exchange rates, OECD data show that Australian electricity prices have, in recent years, been approximately twice as high as electricity prices in the US. Recently, the gap has narrowed. In 2015, using market exchange rates, electricity prices in Australia were about 70.3% higher than in the US.

The Australian Energy Market Commission projects that Australian prices will rise even further in coming years.

By converting Australian electricity prices into US dollars (market exchange rates), we can see Australian electricity prices have been an average of twice as high as in the US over the past four years – though the gap narrowed in 2015, down to a 70% difference. Chart provided by author, using data from the OECD.

That broadly supports what Kelly said. But if we use purchasing power parity exchange rates, the data show that Australia’s prices are approximately 50% higher than the US.

Purchasing power parity exchange rates, or PPP, factor in inflation and the cost of living in a particular country, and eliminate differences in price levels between countries. This measure allows a cleaner, less volatile comparison between the US and Australia.

The chart below compares the retail prices of electricity in Australia and the United States when adjusted for cost of living differences using purchasing power parity.

Using purchasing power parity exchange rates, OECD data shows household prices of electricity are approximately 50% higher in Australia than in the US. Chart by author, using data from the OECD.

As the above chart of the OECD data shows, household prices of electricity are about 50% higher in Australia than in the US when you use purchasing power parity data.

Why are the prices so different?

As this chart shows, data from OECD indicate there has been a substantial divergence between Australian and American electricity prices since about 2008.

Retail price index: average power prices for householders in the US and Australia. The year 2000 is indexed to 100 (that is, 2000 = 100) Author provided, using data from the OECD
Wholesale price index: the average price the generators charge to the retailers (or distributors) for the power they put into the grid. The year 2000 is indexed to 100 (that is, 2000 = 100) Author provided, using data from the OECD.

As noted in the preliminary report of the Australian chief scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, household energy bills in Australia increased 61% on average between 2008 and 2014.

The main reason for this is the cost of maintaining the electricity network – essentially, the poles and wires that deliver the power. Network costs represent between 45% and 55% of a typical electricity bill. This has been the largest contributor to Australia’s increasing prices over the past six years.

Some observers have said that the “gold-plating” of the network came about because of a regulatory regime that encouraged over-investment in poles and wires. This was been partly driven by an effort to shore up electricity supply and an overestimation of demand.

The US shale gas revolution has also helped keep energy more affordable there than in Australia.

The Productivity Commission reported that, in New South Wales, network costs accounted for 80% of price rises in 2010-11 and 50% of price rises in 2011-12.

Is it really that simple?

Not really. Energy economics is far more complicated than can come across in Kelly’s quick quote or this short FactCheck.

While the Australian price is higher, this doesn’t necessarily mean the cost is higher: Australians use much less energy than Americans. This is because as prices increase, energy productivity and energy efficiency also tend to increase. In total, most countries actually spend a similar proportion of GDP on energy costs.

This holds surprisingly consistent across a range of countries. For example, Japan has high energy prices, but also has high energy efficiency and productivity. Consequently, it spends practically the same amount of GDP on energy cost as the US.

So prices may be higher for individuals, but that doesn’t mean the economy-wide costs are higher. All that said, Kelly was talking about the prices for individuals and business, so that’s what this FactCheck is focused on.


If we compare Australian and American electricity prices using market exchange rates, Craig Kelly’s comment is correct: Australia’s electricity prices were essentially double those of the United States as recently as 2014. In 2015, using market exchange rates, the US prices were about 70.3% higher.

If we compare the prices using purchasing parity power exchange rates – which I’d argue is the more accurate reflection of the costs of living in each of the countries – Australia’s prices are about 50% higher than the US.

Overall, Craig Kelly’s broader point is correct: Australians pay a much higher price for their electricity than Americans do. – Dylan McConnell.


I agree with the author’s position that purchasing power parity comparisons are less volatile and more representative of the relativity based on actual living costs. It is true Australian households pay a much higher electricity price than Americans.

There’s one important point I’d add. There is a baseline cost of having a house or business connected to electrical supply, regardless of how much electricity is used. This is called the fixed supply cost. The more electricity a household or business uses, the more the fixed supply cost is diluted in the overall electricity bill. This brings down the cost per kilowatt-hours (kWh).

American households use about twice as much electricity as Australian households. According to the US EIA, average US household electricity consumption in 2015 was 10,812 kWh. 2014 data for Australia shows average Australian household electricity consumption was 5,772 kWh (down from 6,819 kWh in 2008. At 25 cents/kWh that is a saving of $307 for Australians for using less electricity over time).

So we would expect Australian household electricity prices to be higher, because an average Australian household uses less electricity and the large fixed supply costs must be spread across a smaller amount of consumption. This raises the cost per kWh. But because Australians use less, their annual bill may be lower.

Further, in recent years, Australian energy retailers have been raising their fixed supply (or baseline) charges. So small users pay much more overall per unit of electricity they use.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that larger businesses often negotiate much better deals on their electricity prices than householders can. – Alan Pears.

Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The ConversationDylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College & the Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne

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If smoking doesn’t kill, Mike Pence, neither does the plague

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

US Vice President elect Mike Pence (who has been the recipient of funding from Big Tobacco) once famously wrote:

Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact two out of every three smokers does [sic] not die from smoking-related illness and nine out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer.

Pence is referring here to what epidemiologists call the “case fatality rate”: the proportion of deaths from a smoking-related illness to the number of new smoking-related illnesses diagnosed. According to him, the case fatality rate for long term smoking was “only” one in three, meaning only one in three long-term smokers die from a smoking-related illness (such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and smoking related cancers), which somehow meant to him smoking doesn’t kill.

By Pence’s reasoning there are many other diseases that “do not kill”. This extensive list of various diseases’ case fatality rates shows many well known highly fatal diseases with case fatality rates lower than 33%.

These include oropharyngeal anthrax (anthrax that manifests in the mouth and throat), yellow fever, treated bubonic plague, diphtheria, meningococcal disease, legionnaires’ disease, dengue fever and untreated typhoid. The 1918 Spanish ‘flu which was estimated to have killed 50-100 million people globally, had a paltry case fatality rate of around 2.5%.

Pence was also wrong about the rate at which smoking kills. A landmark study of over 34,000 British male doctors (females were excluded when the study commenced in 1951 because there were insufficient numbers of women doctors at the time) has long been the benchmark for the risks of long term smoking.

When the study reported its 50 year follow-up of the cohort, it found “the eventual risks vary from about one half to about two thirds” of all doctors who had smoked had died from a tobacco-related disease.

An Australian study of 204,953 people also confirmed the two in three death rate from smoking.

Today smoking kills some six million people a year globally, and will kill one billion people this century if present trends continue.

The US is the only significant country to have not ratified the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (the US tends to not sign global treaties). Under a Trump administration, will we see the end of regulation and strict marketing protocols? Will the US be the only nation to ever see a rise in smoking rates after decades of continual falls?

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

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Trump the demagogue looks set to rule

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

As political earthquakes go, they don’t get much more seismic or unexpected. All of the pointy-heads who have been assuring us for weeks that Trump couldn’t possibly win have been proved spectacularly wrong once again – just as they were with Brexit.

That’s the problem with democracies: the punters don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. We may have to live with the consequences of this decision for the next four years – always supposing President Trump doesn’t start World War 3 or suspend the “corrupt” democratic process in the United States in the interest of stability and national security, of course.

That’s an attempt at gallows humour – I think. The reality is though, that nothing can actually be ruled out from a man who is entirely unpredictable, and a long way from the sort of “rational actor” we like to think make the decisions that shape international politics.

This might be a problem in any country. We have become accustomed to Western political pundits making condescending remarks about the rise of populist strong men leaders in places like Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and – most consequentially – China. But when the most powerful country in the world elects a racist, misogynist, bully with little understanding of or interest in complex domestic or foreign policies, we’re all affected.

Part of the complacency about Trump flows from the fact that so many believe that “we” are far too sophisticated and steeped in democratic traditions for a Putinesque demagogue to emerge in the heartlands of liberal democracy. But the tough guys are back with a vengeance, and America – and the world – may have to deal with their very own proto-fascist.

Interestingly, I’ve just done an informal poll of Russian students in Vladivostok, where I’m currently teaching, and the majority welcome a Trump win. They don’t trust Clinton and tend to judge outcomes from a narrowly instrumental nationalist perspective. Such attitudes may become increasingly prevalent.

Indeed, the idea that the United States will any longer provide the bedrock of a stable, rules based international order of a sort that policymakers in this country endlessly invoke is no longer feasible. On the contrary, Trump is likely – by intent or neglect – to unleash a diplomatic wrecking ball that could plunge us back into the sort of brutal great power politics that characterised earlier periods of history.

Critics of early incarnations of US foreign policy may have to eat their words, too, as we find out what a world without a comparatively benign form of American hegemony actually looks like. For all its undoubted problems, mistakes and self interest, the US has often been a force for stability – the nightmares of Iraq and the Middle East notwithstanding.

We may also be about to find out what a less cerebral, cautious American president than the much-criticised Barack Obama looks like. The promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS gives a clue. Acting in tandem with Putin – a figure he admires and clearly emulates – they might reduce the rest of Syria and much else to rubble.

Alarmist nonsense? I certainly hope so. But who is going to stand up for human rights, democracy, or international cooperation in pursuit of some progressive goal? In the sort of world we may be about to enter, the simple reality is that there is no country with either the military capability or – more importantly – the political will to constrain the unprincipled, reckless use of force on America’s part.

All of this only touches the surface of the horrors a Trump presidency could unleash. It is not only Mexicans, Muslims, and minorities of one sort or another that will be anxious. The perennially skittish financial markets will no doubt have a collective seizure, revealing problems that a relatively orderly approach to economic management in the US have managed to conceal, if not correct, since the global financial crisis.

Let’s not forget that the global financial crisis was made in America, and Obama did a pretty good job of staving off the next Great Depression. Not only would Trump blame foreigners generally and China in particular for American problems, but he would also probably unleash an old-fashioned 1930s style self destructive trade war in the process.

Speaking of the 1930s, that generation of strong men didn’t work out too well either, if I recall. At least the American president of the time didn’t actually contribute to the literal and metaphorical carnage. Trump is no FDR. On the contrary, his rise, rhetoric and rationale look more reminiscent of Europe’s interwar fascists.

Admirers of the US, among whose number I count myself, may hope that political institutions and culture will have an ameliorative impact on President Trump. Perhaps they would on a normal politician, even in these highly partisan, politically poisonous times. But not Trump, I fear.

He is clearly impervious to criticism and – more worryingly – incapable of accepting advice. We know little about his advisers except that they are little known. Perhaps the Republican establishment will rein him in. But given that they, too, have also been rejected by millions of Americans and actually allowed Trump to emerge in the first place, don’t hold you breath.

What does all this mean for Australia? Nothing good, I suspect. At the very least we need to have a long overdue debate about our relationship with our most important security partner. But don’t hold your breath about that either.

Whatever happens over the next four years it won’t be boring. Let’s just hope we get through it in one piece.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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Anti-Semitism in U.S. colleges

Why Evolution Is True

Let me first describe what I consider to be anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia.” “Islamophobia,” properly construed—and of course I’m the construer—is simple bigotry against Muslims: dislike of an individual simply because he or she adheres to Islam. Now if that individual has invidious beliefs: oppression of women, hatred of gays, favoring murder for apostates, and so on, then I see no problem with disliking such a person. While far more Muslims than we think have such views (see the recent BBC poll), it’s simply unfair to dislike someone before you know their views, simply on the basis of what religion they claim, and even more unfair to write off or discriminate against everyone who adheres to a faith.

That, however, is different from writing off the faith as a whole, which I see as perfectly valid and not a form of bigotry. Islam, like all religions, is a delusion, its beliefs about the cosmos…

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Time for a real debate about our most important relationship

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

While still considered unlikely, there is now a real and growing possibility that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And yet, despite the fact that Bill Shorten apparently considers him to be “barking mad”, there has been almost no serious discussion about what this might mean for Australia.

Indeed, there has been precious little foreign policy debate so far in the election campaign. No surprise about this, perhaps: foreign policy is usually something of an afterthought during election campaigns.

Australians are not unique in being rather uninterested in foreign affairs, but one might have thought this time things would be different. We are subjected to a fairly relentless bombardment about the supposed threats to national security and the deteriorating regional strategic environment, after all.

One of the reasons there is so little discussion of foreign and strategic policy is that there are few significant differences between the major parties, or about the received wisdom among most of the commentariat. Whatever your views of the Greens’ policies in this area may be, they are at least willing to question the basis of a conventional wisdom that has seen Australia take part in every major conflict since the second world war.

Such a debate looks timely, given that prominent figures from both Labor and the Coalition have expressed deep concern about the implications of a Trump presidency. Even John Howard, who is now held in remarkably high esteem throughout the country, has suggested that Trump is “too unstable to hold that high office”.

One might have thought that under such circumstances, where there is a bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a Trump presidency, there would be an informed discussion of what this might actually mean for the security policy that has formed the foundation of Australia’s defence since the second world war.

On the contrary, though, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to shut down debate by suggesting that there should be no commentary on the politics of other countries during an election.

Opening up this debate might raise uncomfortable questions that neither of the major parties want to discuss. Most importantly, does it make sense for this country – or any other for that matter – to rely so heavily on a foreign power, no matter how intimate the relationship may have grown over the years?

Australian policy is essentially hostage to the preferences of the US and the expectations that they will always coincide with ours.

The dangers of such a strategy were revealed in the disastrous but entirely predictable decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Not only was this a folly of the grandest proportions, but it was also one that had no bearing on or relevance to Australia’s own security.

Important lessons could and should have been learned from this experience, which might be used to guide policy now when the potential threat is even more direct and unambiguous.

Australian policymakers and commentators have always assumed that what’s good for America in foreign policy terms will necessarily be good for Australia. This always looked like an exercise in wishful thinking and a dereliction of responsibility on the part of generations of Australian policymakers.

With the ascent of a potentially dangerous figure like Trump, who even prominent conservative commentators in the US have described as a fascist, the dangers of this policy are becoming painfully apparent.

Some debates are plainly too discomfiting to contemplate. It is noteworthy that, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Barack Obama has been attempting to develop a close strategic relationship with the still notionally communist government in Hanoi. Quite why two million Vietnamese had to die in the conflict, not to mention 60,000 Americans and some 500 Australians, is not entirely clear in retrospect.

One of the problems of failing to confront uncomfortable realities in the past or the present is that it becomes impossible to learn potential lessons and adjust policy in the future. Vietnam and Iraq look like entirely avoidable and pointless conflicts from this distance, especially for Australia, which was not threatened by either country and had little to gain – other than the good opinion of our notional security guarantor.

But it’s an odd sort of security that involves the continuing expenditure of so much blood and treasure to ingratiate ourselves with another country. The potential folly of this policy could be demonstrated by president Trump, who has nothing but contempt for loyal allies that are judged to freeload on American power.

Outsourcing responsibility for foreign and security policy is not wise at the best of times. There is undoubtedly much to admire about the US. As hegemonic powers go, things might have been a lot worse. But the time has come to have a mature debate about our relationship with the US and the world more generally.

There is potentially much that Australia could do as a creative middle power in conjunction with regional partners like Japan, South Korea or Indonesia. However, until we have an independent policy position on critical foreign and strategic policies that affect this country, the chances of such initiatives coming about look remote.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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Trump: the pseudo-president in waiting

The Conversation

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

Donald Trump, the bastard!

Not only has he offended Muslims, Mexicans, women, the pope, his president, peaceful protesters at his increasingly fascist-style rallies, the residents of Brussels and reasonable opinion in general, he’s gone and ruined one of my favourite TV shows.

I’ve followed House of Cards since its launch, relishing the outrageous antics of Frank Underwood as he rose from amoral congressman to deeply evil president. Sometimes the script went over the top, as TV drama tends to, but somehow the suspension of disbelief was maintained.

Yes, it was an exaggerated depiction of power politics at its most brutal, and grew more so with each season. But in the era of Obama we could say that at least the reality was a lot more palatable, and enjoy House of Cards for what it was – escapist fiction with an A-list cast and an irreverent dose of political satire.

Now, the Netflix original feels too close to reality for comfort, and Kevin Spacey’s monstrous creation like a cautionary tale. Trump hasn’t committed murder, that’s true – although he has incited violence on the part of his supporters, and hinted darkly at “riots” if he is deprived of the GOP nomination, so there’s time yet. But the wilder excesses of his campaign would make Frank Underwood blush.

His attack on Ted Cruz’s spouse – albeit a response to publication of a “glamour shot” of the current Trump trophy wife – is the kind of thing Frank Underwood might well have dreamt up in one of his battles against his spouse Claire, or rival Heather Dunbar. It was dirty fighting, and confirmatory of all the stereotypes his critics associate with the Donald.

To campaign on the tweeted slogan “I’ll spill the beans on your wife” makes Trump look like the ultimate bogan, an uncivil boor who knows nothing about government and political leadership, but all about lawyers and litigation and how to engage the angry, paranoid, largely white electorate who appear to form the core of his support.

It is a new kind of celebrity culture, complete with Trump’s referencing of the National Enquirer as a publication to be trusted when following the campaign.

And much more gripping than the Kardashians or any of their ilk because, were the (still, just about) unthinkable to happen and Trump won not only the Republican primaries but the general election in November, the world would become an immeasurably scarier place than it already is. Trump would go from being a figure of fun around the globe to being the most powerful man on earth. This stuff matters.

A recent article by L. Gordon Crovitz for the Wall Street Journal analysed the Trump phenomenon through the prism of Daniel Boorstin’s influential 1961 concept of the pseudo-event. Boorstin, argued Crovitz, in his book The Image (which I highly recommend for its continuing relevance to our mediated politics), identified the rise of celebrity as a key criteria of fame and power in itself.

Even in the early 1960s, when JFK was in the White House, how someone came over in the media was coming to be regarded as more important than what they did in office.

Trump, by this logic, represents the ultimate triumph of the image, the name, the media persona over hard-won knowledge and political wisdom. We know him from The Apprentice, from his many wives and business ventures, many of them failures, from his pursuit of famous women like Princess Diana and English journalist Selina Scott. He’s famous on TV, and he speaks his mind, and that’s enough to become president in 2016.

I’m not sure if I agree with this fatalism, though. Trump has sought political power before, including his promotion of the absurd “birther” movement – a lobby group consisting of barely disguised racists who sought to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the US and was not therefore eligible to be its president. He failed then, and should have failed this time too, like Sarah Palin did in 2008.

I have the suspicion that he entered the race never expecting to win, but as a promotional strategy for his corporate interests. To his alarm as much as ours, one might speculate, he has so far been unable to scare people off.

So what changed?

One explanation is unavoidable – the Republican Party is so starved of credible presidential candidates that Trump was able to shine despite himself. Carson, Rubio, Fiorina and the rest, for all their self-regard, could not convince GOP primary voters to favour them over a man who struggles to craft a coherent sentence, let alone a visionary foreign policy or global leadership strategy worthy of the presidency.

A bit like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, party rules combined with hopelessly weak alternative candidates allowed a marginal outsider to walk in and steal the party from under itself.

Let me say at this point that we Scots have to take our share of the blame for this hugely entertaining mess. Not only is his mother Scottish, but the Labour government of my own dear homeland, greedy for the inward investment dollar, deemed it appropriate to name Donald Trump as the country’s GlobalScot business ambassador in 2006.

The Scottish National Party endorsed that approach, kissing Trump’s arse for years as he built an exclusive golf course and hotel for the wealthy in pristine Scottish countryside.

That all went pear-shaped when Trump and the Scottish government fell out over the former’s [opposition to offshore wind farms, which he claimed would spoil his rich clients’ sea views, though his “ambassadorial” status was not removed until December 2015 when Trump called for the banning of all Muslims from the US.

I apologise, friends, from the bottom of my heart, for my compatriots’ role in making Trump the monster he has become.

And Australia, don’t forget, has had its Pauline Hanson, and is still embarrassed by its brief flirtation with Clive Palmer as a serious politician. Populists can arise and get a hearing in any democracy, which is both a strength and a weakness of our system. The danger comes when there is a political vacuum into which such figures can pour their bile, and captivate that segment of the citizenry which mistakes dangerous demagoguery for “telling it like it is”.

One doesn’t have to be a Democrat to hope that the Trump juggernaut will come to a halt when the general election campaign properly starts. Even many of the GOP elders in Washington, D.C. – Trump’s hated “elites” – seem ready to endorse Hillary Clinton rather than this crude party gatecrasher in their well-heeled corridors of power.

Until that moment comes, the world watches events in the US with dropped jaws and wide-open mouths. And it might never come. The US is in uncharted electoral territory, and no-one can predict with certainty where the journey ends.

Trump is immensely newsworthy and media-friendly, and his primary success makes him even more so with each winning result. Now he has momentum, and credibility. The GOP voters have spoken, have they not?

This might look to the rest of us like US celebrity culture on a really bad acid trip, but it’s also democracy at its finest.

The ConversationBrian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

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Demagoguery the American way

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Is it time to think the unthinkable? Could Donald Trump actually become the next president of the United States? He already looks a certainty to become the Republican nominee – something not many pundits were willing to concede until recently. Unfortunately, as Trump might say, he is “winning, winning, winning”.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is still that he’ll ultimately lose badly to Hillary Clinton when Americans come to their senses and recognise the danger a Trump presidency presents to America and the world.

But will they? Are there sufficient numbers of Americans who feel angry, alienated, disenfranchised and unhappy about America’s declining fortunes to actually make Trump the most powerful man in the world?

It would be unwise to bet against such an outcome in the febrile political atmosphere that has affected polities across much of the world. One might have thought the times were made for thoughtful political leaders recognised the complexity of the current international order and who were doing their best to come up with politically feasible practical responses to difficult challenges.

One might be wrong. The diminished political stocks of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Malcolm Turnbull are painful reminders of what happens to political leaders who cannot articulate a persuasive case for complex, potentially difficult policy. “Cutting through” is more important than policy credibility. Only connect, as E.M. Foster might have put it.

Whatever qualities Trump may lack in experience, judgement and knowledge of the world, he clearly does have an ability to connect with large numbers of “ordinary” Americans. As he points out himself, much of his support comes from the poorly educated and marginalised, who are the tragically ironic product of the very system he disowns.

Yet Trump is also a product of the increasingly polarised, poisonous and partisan politics that has come to define the US of late. It is not simply that the American political system has become synonymous with gridlock and dysfunction, but that there is no room for the sort of compromise and negotiation that is – or ought to be – the very essence of politics, especially in a democracy.

The fight over the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice is a telling indicator of just how politicised key elements of the American political system have become.

In this regard, the Republicans only have themselves to blame. As the conservative commentator Robert Kagan points out, Trump is a direct product of the vicious, uncompromising approach to politics that has characterised the Republican Party over the last few years.

Belittling and politicising the key institutions of American government, to say nothing of their political opponents, has had a predictably corrosive impact on public confidence in the existing political system.

Those Americans who have become so enraged with the behaviour of “Washington insiders” have a point. The political system really has become dominated by powerful lobby groups, and it really is possible to buy influence and shape public policy to suit private corporate interests. The rise of Bernie Sanders is a refection of the widespread disenchantment with the status quo and the desire to do things differently.

Trump’s even more rapid rise is a reminder that political dissatisfaction and alienation will not necessarily result in the adoption of “progressive” values and causes, much less reform of the very institutions that caused so many problems in the first place.

This is one of the reasons that a Clinton triumph is not assured. She is the consummate political insider and partly responsible for the increasing divisions of wealth and opportunity that have created an opportunity for Trump. She is plainly closer to Wall Street than Main Street, to say nothing of the millions with a stake in neither. Demagogues, at least, can prosper in such circumstances.

Trump is an odious popinjay with astoundingly abhorrent and dangerous views he makes little effort to conceal. In this regard, at least, he is authentic: what you see is, regrettably, what we may all get. Will Americans rediscover their self-declared historical mission as a bastion of liberty and enlightenment? Don’t bet on it.

The crowds of Trump supporters shouting “USA, USA” at his rallies probably don’t read the Federalist Papers in their spare time. True, it’s not “Sieg Heil” and the Nuremburg rallies. But as the Americans might say, it’s in the ballpark.

Condescending? Alarmist? Let’s hope so. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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