Tuesday 15 November 2016

The American Crisis

 "These are the times that try men's souls"- Thomas Paine

The election of Donald Trump to the Oval Office is a disaster for America. It is a huge victory for the most vulgar and reactionary political and cultural forces domestically in America. Internationally speaking it's a victory for nativism, identity politics, authoritarianism and bigotry. 

Reactionaries all around the world from Putin in Russia to Marine Le Pen in France and even Islamic Jihadists have praised the election of Trump. This is a defeat for the republic, its constitution and its cherished ideals.

Like most people I believed Hilary would win. I thought Trump was well and truly finished with the Access Hollywood revelations and even the last minute FBI probe into Clinton's emails would not be enough to save him. How wrong I was. 

The mainstream media and most political commentators and pollsters were wrong too. Few people, if they are honest, saw this coming. 

It seemed too ridiculous that at the helm of the most powerful country - and arguably empire- in the world would be that guy from The Apprentice.

Nonetheless, it is amusing to see on social media and in the political commentary people playing the blame game and blaming their pet scapegoats for the election of Trump. 

Hilary supporters will blame Berniebros, Wikileaks, James Comey, Russia and third party voters for sabotaging her campaign. Conservatives claim Barack Obama and his policies enabled Trump. People on the cultural left are blaming white people and their 'unbearable whiteness'. Those who would call themselves 'anti-regressive left' liberals blame 'the left' for driving voters to Trump because of their promulgation of political correctness, identity politics and even 'anti-white racism'. 

At this point searching for the scapegoat is pointless, especially when all that  it motivates is scoring points with adversaries on Twitter. If we wish to understand the precarious position we are currently in then we need to understand the political and economic forces that enabled the Trump phenomenon.

 There are two main narratives used to explain the election of Trump. Some think it was a revolt by the downtrodden against elites by an economically insecure working class who are victims of globalisation.

Some Liberals having none of it and feel it was a 'whitelash'; the expression of angry white people fueled by racist rage, reacting in opposition to liberal, multi-cultural, cosmopolitan America as represented by the presidency of Barack Obama.

It is true that 58% of whites voted for Trump, while 88% of African Americans backed Clinton. Trump was supported by 53% of men, Clinton by 54% of women. Similarly 55% of over-45s voted Trump, while 55% of 18-29 year-olds chose Clinton. Three-quarters of those educated to postgraduate level supported Clinton; barely a third backed Trump. 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump, and just 16% backed Clinton.

Superficially, this may support the 'whitelash' thesis since the majority of whites voted for Trump. But in reality, it is more complex than that.

The majority of white voters may have supported Trump, but he gained only 1% more white support than did Mitt Romney in 2012. On the other hand, 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, an 8% rise from 2012.
This isn't to say racism and white nativism has nothing to do with the reasoning of those who supported Trump. Trump's isolationist rhetoric and his views on Muslims and immigration do appeal to a white nativist tradition that has a long history in America. An example being the Know Nothing party of the 19th century who rallied against Chinese and Irish Catholic immigration because they perceived it as a threat to the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant identity that was dominant in America.

 In addition, it is known that White nationalist movements and groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right endorsed Trump and were certainly elated when he won. Moreover, there has been reports of hate crimes and racial abuse occurring against minorities. 

Some have turned out to be false, but this still a worrying development that ought to be condemned. So yes, it has something to do with race. Not nothing and not everything, but something.

On class,  53% of those earning less than $30,000 voted Clinton, while only 41% voted for Trump. This does weaken the claim that Trump’s success was rooted in working class hatred of the Washington establishment. But what the figures show is that among the poorest sections of American society, who traditionally overwhelmingly vote Democrat, there was a huge 16% swing towards Trump as compared to 2012 when they voted for Obama.

This shift reveals the most striking difference between Trump and Clinton voters. More than 75% of Trump supporters feel financially worse off today than in 2012, 72% of Clinton supporters feel better off. 

When asked about whether life for the next generation would be better, 59% of Clinton supporters thought it would better, 63% of Trump supporters thought it would be worse.

Ultimately, both narratives of white nativism and economic insecurity have some truth to them. The problem is both sides fall into the trap of mono-casual explanations. 

Different people can cast the same vote for different reasons and multiple factors can work at the same time. 

Those who have suffered the effects of de-industrialisation and 'outsourcing' who have been left behind by globalisation and are experiencing economic instability may have voted for Trump because they naively believe he will bring back American manufacturing jobs and economic security. 

Others who are more economically comfortable and possess a racist worldview may have voted for Trump because they were turned on by his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

The two are not purely distinct and mutually exclusive. They can also interact, as people are more susceptible to fall into angry, parochial nativism when they feel increasingly economically insecure.

The fact is there is mass disillusionment and disenfranchisement among the working class and some sections of the middle class with both the mainstream political parties - Republicans and Democrats. 

Congress' approval rating is at an all time low. An exit poll from last Tuesday suggested that 72% of voters thought that "the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful", 61% felt that "traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like [them]", 68% agree that "traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like [them]" and three-quarters believed that "America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful".

Trump is no representative of the oppressed or a 'man of the people'. 

His economic policy will invariably benefit the the rich and powerful, not the working class, as well as almost wreck the US economy. 

His authoritarianism will unfairly and/or unconstitutionally target Muslims, Hispanics and others. Trump will arguably be the most unpredictable president in American history. It will be horrible but what form the horror will take is yet to be revealed.
I fear much of the political and media elite will draw the wrong lesson from this election. During the campaign and now after the election some were wondering, explicitly, if this animal called democracy is all that it is cracked up to be, and that it may be democracy itself that is the problem.

Take for instance Andrew Sullivan's much lauded essay for New York Magazine, entitled "America has never been so ripe for tyranny". His argument is essentially that Trump is what happens when ordinary people are given too much say in the political realm or in his own words "democracies become tyrannies when they become too democratic".

 According to him the American system is supposed to 'cool and restrain temporary populist passions', but in recent years democracy has become too 'direct', meaning that people’s 'untrammeled emotions' can now shape political discourse. 

His solution to the right wing populism of Trump is for the rebuilding of the 'elitist sorting mechanism' that allowed American politics to remain kind of distant from the urges of the masses.
Elsewhere, in a new book called 'Against Democracy', Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University argues for an epistocracy. This is an 'aristocracy of the wise', who should bare the responsibility of deciding political matters for those of us who are of 'low information'- a cute technocratic euphemism for stupid.

The lesson I take from the election of Trump is not that there is too much democracy in America, as Sullivan and his anti-democratic cheerleaders would assert.  It is that there isn't enough democracy in America, either in its institutions or in terms of holding representatives accountable. 

Habitually voting for the lesser of the two evils like a thoughtless drone isn't all there is to democracy - it’s about substance, debate and the people having control over the future political direction of their societies.

 Over the past few decades, democracy in its very real sense has withered away and has been replaced by technocracy and the rise of expert cliques playing a significant role in shaping public life.

 This is why Hilary was a bad candidate to run against Trump since she perfectly represented the corrupt, liberal technocrat more interested in representing corporate power than the American people.
"Where do we go from here?", you may ask.

No simple answer will suffice, but I can offer a few suggestions.

Firstly, we need stop being so obsessed with Trump and his odious personality and start addressing the issues that lead many voters to support him and the political forces that enabled him. 

It is true that many of Trump's policies are immoral and repellent and many of his supporters, following the example of their 'daddy', hold obnoxious views about women and ethnic minorities. 

It is also true that hardcore white nationalists supported Trump, which is very worrying. But this should not blind us to the fact that many others voted for Trump for very different motivations – because he seems to be the only one that speaks to their grievances and expresses their frustrations and pure rage with mainstream politics and the elites.

However, engaging with the concerns of Trump voters does not equal pandering to their prejudices or embracing anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

On the contrary, the vile ideas of Trump and his acolytes have to be unapologetically refuted.

 No one is arguing for abandoning liberal principles, but mindlessly calling Trump voters racist, ignorant, white trash and nothing else is counterproductive and achieves nothing because you forbid yourself the chance of potentially changing at least some of their minds.

Secondly, we need to revitalise popular and socially progressive movements through which to resist the poisonous and corrupting effect of money in American politics, to make the system more democratically accountable and through which to link liberal ideas on individual liberty, progressive economic arguments, accepting immigrants and a belief in social solidarity that will ultimately challenge the status quo and will make America, in the words of Martin Luther King, live up to true meaning of its creed. 

In other words, an alternative has to be offered that challenges the status quo but is not the reactionary authoritarianism of Trump.

It has to be an alternative that also challenges Trumpism but is not the restrictive elitism of Sullivan and co.

It has to be rooted in radical, progressive and democratic values. It must be able to capture the imagination of the American people and show them that a better, more positive vision of American society is possible and they have the power to realise it.

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