Like many, I watched in shock when Donald Trump got elected President on November 8. But soon as the numbers came in and I read the different analyses on how his election come to pass I was not surprised. What was surprising is that the Clinton campaign had ignored what we already knew. Trump was right. His campaign was Brexit Plus. Besides the America-specific reasons for electing Trump, there are two things that are a common ill of Western liberal democracies: The negative consequences of globalization and the failure of representative democratic institutions to respond. My hope is that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The Trump electorate – economic angst
I am not sure whether either candidate really understood the current electorate or what was moving them. Trump just seemed to shoot from the hip in response to what he was hearing. But I guess he was at least listening. Clinton was paying lip-service to the discontented white lower- and middle class voter and his concerns about global trade and globalization, as a lure for Sanders supporters. Once she was nominated, Clinton’s platform and speeches kept reflecting that concern, but – as it turned out – neglected the voter who has that concern. Not campaigning in the so-called Rust Belt, states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, took the voter for granted. Because it was supposed to be solidly Democratic. Clinton read the electorate wrong, on an old-school assumption that the white middle- and working class vote was a shoe-in for Democrats. The economic angst and just lack of enthusiasm for Clinton cost her among all minority groups and across economic ’classes’. She did not turn out the vote, because she didn’t really acknowledge their economic pain. Clinton fell into the Brexit trap.
The Trump electorate – cultural anxiety
I have said it many time and in many places: economic plight due to globalization, and erosion, shrinking of own identifiable community and values partly due to globalization, breaths religious fervor and xenofobia, i.e. cultural anxiety. Both are easily aroused in every human being regardless of color or creed. So it doesn’t make sense after the election to blame Trump’s racism or the inherent racism of all white voter.s When morals and values around you change, religion becomes even more important as a moral compass. In the US, the Obama years saw such things as marriage equality. Other measures got passed in several states on November 8, such as gun control measures, higher minimum wage and legalization of weed. So cultural anxiety cannot explain everything, or the whole of the Trump electorate. I would suggest that it is the old slogan ’It’s the economy stupid!’ still applies. How ironic for Hillary Clinton. For it was her husband who had urged the campaign staff to pay attention to such states as Michigan and Wisconsin.
The wrong approach
In hindsight, Clinton’s strategy of letting Trump be Trump, and bait him with careful timed provocations, such as in the presidential debates, was equally misguided. While effective to those who have been following and reporting on politics and elections for years, the electorate didn’t seem to care. Those debates got Clinton great footage of Trump’s failings as a human being, but his supporters already knew that he was obnoxious. As I saw it said in my Twitter feed, Trump’s opponents took him literally, but not seriously, his supporters took him seriously, and not literally. Think about it. The issues were hardly discussed. Clinton only pointed out that Trump allegedly did not have substantive plans. She even mocked the anger of her supporters: ‘Anger is not a plan!’ was a favorite phrase. According to traditional standards, Clinton was trouncing Trump, and I thought so as well. But we were all wrong, because we did not bother to look into the actual motivations of the electorate. I wonder if any focus groups were done at all.
Bashing the elite
In essence, representative democracy itself has been on the ballot around Western democracies. Representative democracy is perceived as not delivering and what comes out of the democratic processes is no longer seen as legitimate. Why? Well, a representative democracy is supposed to be run by a responsible and morally upright elite. And if there is one thing that people are bashing, it is the elite. The political elite has not addressed their problems. It is now politically correct to distrust what have start calling the ’mainstream media’, even with its own abbreviation. And ivory tower intellectuals and experts are no longer believed as they view ’regular people’ with disdain. Now, the political class have been adopting the language of the common folk, and the media has become more fragmented and polarized to reflect partisan divides. But that has not resulted in more effective and responsive government. So now there are increased calls, especially in Europe, to bypass the elites through more direct democratic means such as referenda.
Fundamentals of representative democracy
But I do not believe that the representative character of our democracy is the problem, or conversely, that direct democracy is the answer. It is the elite that is both the problem and the answer. Trying to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, the founders of the US erected an Electoral College and a Senate to tame the passions of the people. The Electoral College was the body that actually elected the President to ensure that the people’s pick was actually qualified(!). And the purpose of the Senate was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” And this principle has been institutionalized in one form of another in other liberal democracies to ensure stability in society and of decision-making. In addition, any government is bound by the rule of law, which limits the powers of the branches of government and guarantees certain fundamental rights to its citizens. The tyranny of the majority, as well as that of a minority has to be avoided, by inserting a benevolent elite between them and the reins of power.
A benevolent governing elite
Any governing elite, whether it is the political-, media-, or intellectual elite must be competent, morally responsible, and looking out for the general interest. On all counts, the public feels that the present elite has failed. The question is why. Generally, government is still successfully restrained by the rule of law. The true reasons are known already. Human nature is even worse than we thought. The political elite has been able to create enough space between the population and themselves, yet, still get re-elected. I am talking about too much money in politics that buys too much influence, leading to a manipulation of the public instead of politics. Besides elections, politicians are supposed to take note of public opinion, despite being elected to act in the nation’s interest. But in order to exert the right kind of influence, the public must be informed and have trust in public officials. There are several reasons why this is not the case anymore: experts are no longer trusted; and the Internet. Yes, the Internet, where everyone can create his own truth.
The governing elite must look itself in the mirror, recognize its own failings and correct the error of its ways. Direct democracy, the rule of the mob, will provide dangerous, unstable, erratic and ultimately ineffective government. Elites must change, but will only do so if we, the people, force that elite to change. Not towards authoritarian and/or mob rule, but by restoring the system to how it was and how it was meant to be. In the meantime, let’s be vigilant.