Op-ed

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With the future of liberal democracy hanging in the balance, what next?

by Robert Muggah

Open Democracy
November 14, 2016

Last week one quarter of American voters lit the world on fire. By voting in Donald Trump as their forty-fifth president and leader of the free world, they've set in motion the most wrenching shift in global order since the end of the Cold War. His election also signals a break with the post-Second World War liberal consensus that has reigned for the past seventy years. Team Trump´s arrival could prove fatal for liberal democracy, free trade, and peace and security on the home front and across the planet. So what’s to be done? 

Before apportioning blame or issuing recommendations, give credit where credit’s due. Trump’s campaign was grimly impressive. He won the nomination of his party and the presidency in the face of opposition from the Democratic and Republican leadership, most editorial boards around the world, the entertainment industry and in spite – or perhaps because – of his misogynistic, bigoted and short-fused temperament. Without any real campaign organization, he roundly defeated two of the most formidable political machines of the modern era. There are lessons to be learned from the ascent of America´s first post-modern President.

So why are billions of people now suddenly in a state of shock? To be sure, the US presidential election result was unexpected, including to most Republicans. But was it really a stunning surprise? Though hindsight is 20/20, the signs of a Trump victory were there for everyone to see. Some scholars - including Allan Lichtman – called it sooner than most. Outspoken commentators such as J. D. Vance and Michael Moore shouted warnings from the rooftops. Yet many dismissed his candidacy as a "clown car", refusing to accept the dreadful possibility of a Trump win. It will surely go down as among the greatest political miscalculations in American political history.

The blame game

The blame game is in full swing and will continue for some time. The targets of opprobrium range from Russia, Wikileaks and FBI meddling to the unexpected enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of evangelical, rural, Black and Latino voters. Others are focusing on Hillary Clinton’s record, her character and her campaign's strategic decision to advocate “more of the same” instead of radical “change”.

Some analysts are convinced the Democratic failure came down to third party protest votes and rising premiums due to the affordable healthcare act. But none of these excuses on their own adequately explains the Trump win. To focus on just one would be an error. The truth is that there is a spectrum of causes, each of them worth considering.

Before turning to solutions, here’s a non-exhaustive catalogue of what´s (or who’s) to blame.

*It's because of rampant neoliberalism. Prominent writers like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot have laid the blame squarely at the feet of unfettered capitalism and globalization. They trace Trump’s rise to forces unleashed during the 1980s by Thatcher and Reagan. They condemn the rise of a stealthy ideology that celebrated greed, eviscerated safety nets and stable jobs, exacerbated inequality, diminished living standards and dispossessed millions. The election of Trump is the culmination of failure of a flawed system and the pent-up resentment of elites by those left behind. Trump merely released, and then harnessed, the furies.

*It's because of people’s rejection of the “political system”. In the US and across much of Europe, there is growing resentment of and opposition to what is described as the “political establishment”. A poll just before the US election found that eight in ten voters were disgusted with politics and parties. While an ambiguous concept, the “establishment” includes career politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and media who enrich themselves at the expense of the periphery.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman believes that by positioning himself as the ultimate outsider candidate, Trump provided a vehicle to channel the public’s disgust. A vote for Trump the “businessman” translated into a vote against the corrupt, quarrelsome, and ineffective D.C. establishment. By way of contrast, Trump promised to “shake things up” and “get things done”. 

*It’s because the working class and rural folks are really hurting and upset. A frequent narrative advanced by scholars like Arlie Hochschild and journalists such as John McCormick, Tim Jones and Jennifer Oldham is that many white, undereducated, low- and middle-class Americans are feeling real economic pain and simmering discontent. As Joan Williams writes, blue collar workers and so-called class migrants “resent professionals but admire the rich.” Coupled with this is a growing mistrust and resentment of urbanites and “their values”. This is not the first time that rural sensibilities played into a White House bid – recall the wrath generated by Obama’s throw-away line that rural voters “get bitter … [and] cling to guns or religion".

*It's because of Democrat hubris and tone deafness. Although certainly the more qualified presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton may not have been the right candidate for the moment. She was painted as the embodiment of the establishment. Clinton also faced the wrath of huge numbers of Republicans – especially values voters – who resented her call for more of the same. Throughout the campaign she struggled to generate excitement and support from womenAndrew Buncombe echoes the views of many who believe the septuagenarian Bernie Sanders was (paradoxically) more suited to the times. Notwithstanding misgivings among the party faithful, it was impossible to shake the persistent belief among senior Democrats about the "inevitability" of Madam President.

*It's because of years of right wing scaremongering. According to Leslie Savan and Jeff Sposs, decades of racist vitriol spewed out by Fox news, Breitbart and talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck took its toll. There was nothing new about the demonization of Blacks, Muslims and Mexicans: Trump simply harnessed and amplified the narrative. He not only has a gritty gift of the gab, but a fluency with righteous anger. His team converted latent anxieties over minorities, migration and free trade into a major existential threat. He showed how tariffs and walls were real solutions. As Birther-in-Chief and with Fox as his witness, he whipped segments of the US public into a frothy rage.

It's because of deep-seated racism and sexism. The legacy of slavery permeates all aspects of US society. Virtually every commentator acknowledges that alongside sexism, racism may have been the dog whistle and driver of Trump´s victory. Van Jones describes the “white-lash” as a response to the election of an African-American president in 2008 and 2012. Obama's win came as a shock to a broken white working class while fanning extremist networks. Rather than ushering in a post-racial society as many hoped, it instead reinforced toxic racisms and the deep fault-lines of America. Zack Bauchamp shows how Trump gave visible expression and voice to white Americans – including a majority of white men and women - aggrieved about their apparent decline relative to others. Seen from this perspective, Trump’s enthusiastic support from the Ku-Klux-Klan was just the tip of the iceberg.

* It's because of a flawed electoral system. Like Al Gore before her, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but not the electoral college. Trump is in fact the fourth president to win the electoral college and thus the presidency despite not winning the popular vote. There are many commentators who believe that the latter should be abolished. Ezra Klein and John Koza show how the electoral college is in some ways the weak link of the American democratic system since it does necessarily lead to the victory of the candidate selected by the majority of voters. As Steffanee Wang points out, the other big challenge is gerrymandering at the state legislative level. It is no surprise that one of Obama´s priorities after leaving office is redistricting reform.   

It's because of technology. The complaint against technology is twofold. First, technology is fundamentally disrupting labor markets and erasing more jobs than it creates. Trump´s support from the rustbelt states speaks to the anxiety born of automation. Unfortunately, the fourth industrial revolution promises more of the same. Second, social media – especially Facebook and Twitter – are enabling the spread of “fake news” and perpetuating echo chambers. Writers like Janko Roettgers and Olivia Solon and others fear that a digitally-enabled post-fact world could lead to permanent polarization. Meanwhile, tech companies are refusing to accept responsibility (presenting themselves as neutral technology platforms) even if it is where the majority of Americans now get their news.

Despite the warning signs, how did virtually all the media, pundits, pollsters and liberal activists get it so wrong? Polling groups like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight consistently showed Clinton in the lead, even if the race was tightening near the end. One of the problems was that they fell victim to group think. Many fell squarely behind their anointed candidate, Hillary Clinton. They were moved as much by fear of a prospective Trump administration as by the warm halo of Barak Obama's popularity. There was so much investment in her prevailing over Trump that almost everyone failed to consider the possibility of her defeat.

What happens next?

Trump's victory is a black box. On the domestic front, it throws into question how voter preferences and campaigns are monitored and analyzed. The conventional approaches to reading elections and predicting policymaking may no longer apply. One reason is that Trump, by inclination and experience, appears to be less motivated by polls than by gut instincts. On the international front Trump´s views are more clear-cut, albeit unpredictable. He sees the world in transactional terms, where one “does business” and “makes deals”. He is in some ways a consummate realist: the US has become a diluted power and the best way to make America great again is to re-establish control through economic bargains. Questions of human rights, environmental standards, and ethics are secondary, so long as the deal is a "good" one. 

It is still too early to know what happens next. Notwithstanding checks and balances, the office of the president is incredibly powerful, as is its potential to do irreparable harm. Trump´s power is magnified by Republican control over the Senate and House of Representatives along with the intention to stack the Supreme Court with as many as three new Justices. The question on everyone´s mind is whether Trump will follow through with some of his more unsettling campaign pledges. While clearly intent on pushing through tax cuts for the wealthy and infrastructure spending, he is already back-pedaling on health care reform. But what about mass deportations, wall-building and so much else? 

There are many flashing lights ahead, on both the domestic and international front. At home, Trump will be under pressure to see through far-reaching social reforms (from abortion to same-sex marriage) and stripping away environmental and consumer protections. The depth and breadth of these reforms will depend on the team assembled by the White House's newest Chairman Trump and CEO Mike Pence. Even if Pence can make peace with the Republican Party and temper some of Trump´s excesses as he is expected to do, it is quite likely that the country will be led by a group of politicians who are both fact-resistant and endowed with huge discretionary powers.

Even more disconcerting is the potential damage that a Trump administration could unleash on the international stage. In a world where US stature is already in decline, world leaders are understandably uneasy. Even if he adopts an outwardly conciliatory tone, the Trump administration will transform the international order - an order forged and upheld by the US for decades. It does not necessarily follow that the world is going to end (even if that´s what some Christian sites are excitedly reporting). But there are countless ways Trump could upend the global architecture for peace, security, trade and development. 

Simply start with the “known knowns”, what Trump has already said he will do. The renegotiation and termination of the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran could have devastating neighborhood effects in the Middle East. The weakening of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) – including non-compliance with Article 5 – could embolden Russia and set off any number of dangerous conflicts across Europe. A trade war with China, the withdrawal of support from Japan, or recalibration of policy toward India, could lead to a variety of military confrontations. Then there is Trump´s desire to quickly pull out of climate change treaties, renegotiate major trade agreements such as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and revisit long-standing alliances, all of which will have generational impacts. Needless to say, the United Nations will be weakened – the new secretary general, Antonio Guterres, will face a tougher life entering an already impossible job.

Then there are the “known unknowns” of a Trump administration. Ground zero has to be western Europe where reactionary populists in AustriaFrance, GermanyItalyHungarythe Netherlands, and the UK feel emboldened. France and Germany are Europe´s last stand. If Le Pen rides the Trump wave and wins in 2017 and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) successfully pushes back on the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, then the European project will crumble. The vote could pivot due to a sudden increase in refugee arrivals in advance of upcoming elections (the role of Russia and Turkey looms large). There's a reason why EU politicians are on edge.

Time for action

So how to respond? The first order of business involves self-reflection and making an earnest attempt to listen to grievances from the other side. Democrats, as much as Republicans, need to genuinely acknowledge the ways in which deindustrialization, technological change, and inequality have badly weakened the middle class. There is still too much celebration of the winners and high tech disrupters, with little regard, even condescension, for the losers and disrupted. Trump supporters, many of them left behind, unheard, unhappy, and facing diminishing options, were captured, not created, by him. The way to slow the demagogues is to recognize and address the underlying problems that fuel their rise.

Second, liberated from the shadow of the Clintons who have dominated the Party for three decades, the Democrats are in a position to reinvent themselves as a modern, agile and inclusive party capable of genuinely audacious thinking. They must seize the opportunity to re-connect across social, economic and identity divides. They have the potential to attract and represent again those who, in the words of Elizabeth Warren, "voted for Trump despite the hate ... out of frustration and anger, and also out of hope that he would bring change". As in 2008, “change” is a keyword. But looking to 2020, “inclusion” is even more poignant and, as Charles Taylor wryly observes, the point of democracy itself.

Third, strategies to confront resurgent populism in the US and Europe are urgently needed. Ben Wright fears that it poses a clear and present danger to the survival of the liberal democratic project. Liberal democracy is already in retreat and illiberal democracy on the rise around the world, whether led by strong-men from Philippines and Turkey or indicated by the return of razor-wire strung up across eastern and southeastern Europe. While the results of the US election should be respected, Democrats (and liberals everywhere) must rapidly begin organizing to push back. They cannot yield to resentment ("you broke it, now fix it") or apathy (which a whole new generation disillusioned with the election may find tempting). There is simply too much at stake.

There is no shortage of ideas. There are already calls to develop a diverse coalition that extends beyond race, gender and sexual orientation to include values and class. They will need a vision – a new radical liberal project, even a "populism of the left". Bernie Sanders is saying the right things: support the president when he helps the middle class and the poor, but fiercely challenge and resist any racism and bigotry and wrong-headed policies. Elizabeth Warren is also agitating Democrats to keep Trump under constant pressure while simultaneously developing an alternative vision, including one that builds from the grass-roots.

It is worth recalling that we've seen this storyline before. Populism and illiberalism are hardly new. As in the past, they must be confronted: now is not the time to be paralyzed or defeatist. We must imagine bold new ways of doing politics and developing solutions, harnessing progressive global networks, and offering a powerful vision that speaks to the real concerns and aspirations of people. As Democratic singer-song writer Joe Hill memorably stated: “Don´t mourn. Organize.” For unless we have the wisdom to see the larger arcs of history, there is a real danger that we find ourselves in a truly dangerous, even cataclysmic, place.

Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

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