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'Donald Trump's White House bid raises major questions about the future of democracy'

It’s likely the forces of reaction unleashed by the Trump campaign will move from the margins to the mainstream, writes Dr Laurence Davis of UCC.

Dr Laurence Davis

ALMOST ONE YEAR ago, the students in my Politics of the United States of America class responded to a lecture I delivered on campaigns and elections by asking me to speculate about the likely Presidential nominations of the Democratic and Republican parties. My predictions were as follows: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Donald Trump for the Republicans.

While the first prediction hardly surprised the students, the second provoked shocked gasps and a flurry of follow-up questions. How could Trump possibly win the nomination contest, they asked?

Fast forward to the present day and Donald Trump is not only the Republican nominee for President of the United States, but also running neck and neck with Clinton in the polls. In spite of this, the mainstream Irish media continue to ask bewilderedly how this could be in the Land of the Free, and tend to focus on the more sensational aspects of the campaign (Trump’s latest ‘outrageous’ comments and partisan responses to them) rather than explore the complex political, economic, and sociological reasons for his success.

In contrast, I want to analyse in some depth one such reason, one moreover which has enormous implications not only for the current US Presidential election, but for the very future of global democracy.

When Trump supporters are asked why they support him, a common refrain is something like the following: he may say outrageous things, but at least he speaks his mind, is not dependent on vested interests, and poses a radical challenge to the political establishment. While each of these claims may be disputed, the important point to emphasise here is that many Americans believe them to be true. And this, in turn, raises much larger questions about the meaning and future of democracy.

Campaign 2016 Trump Infidelity Source: John Locher

Active participation 

Although democracy is by no means a product or exclusive property of Western civilisation, the term itself was coined in ancient Greece to signify a form of popular power. Today we tend to think of democracy as a system of government in which we elect representatives to rule on our behalf. However, this conception of democracy is a relatively recent one. Democracy originally meant, and was, government and society as one, with the citizen body governing itself directly by means of active participation in the political process.

Contemporary democracy is a far cry from this participatory ideal. While it is true that hard-fought popular struggles have overcome centuries-old exclusions from citizenship based on property ownership, gender, and ethnic and racial affiliation, this dominant triumphalist narrative of democracy obscures the ever-growing gap between ideals of popular sovereignty and the reality of contemporary democratic societies. Perhaps most notably, it obscures the hollowing out of democracy by the market-driven concentration of power in the hands of interconnected economic and political elites, carried to extreme lengths in recent years under the banners of neoliberalism and austerity.

Campaign 2016 Trump Source: John Locher

Today, political scientists across the ideological spectrum frequently lament what they refer to as a ‘crisis of democracy’. What they mean by this is widespread public disenchantment with the politics of representative democracy, reflected in declining voter turnout, membership of political parties, trust in politicians, and interest in mainstream electoral politics. To focus on one illustrative example, current research indicates that politicians are amongst the least trusted groups in society, and that large numbers of people are deeply mistrustful of both political parties and government itself.

The Trump campaign has tapped into this disaffection, and portrayed its candidate as the ‘anti-political’ solution to the failings of liberal democracy. In the first Presidential debate, Trump disparaged politicians no less than ten times and repeatedly held ‘Secretary Clinton and other politicians’ responsible for all of the nation’s problems.

Similarly, in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech in July Trump maintained that ‘the problems we face now … will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them in the first place’. He added that he would be the ‘voice’ for frustrated Americans let down by governments and the ‘elites’ who run it, and in a widely quoted line remarked pointedly that ‘nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it’.

Source: TODAY/YouTube

In response, the Clinton campaign noted the irony of a billionaire insider portraying himself as a populist outsider and critic of elites. They also highlighted the authoritarianism of Trump’s claim that only he could fix America’s problems. However, they struggled to portray Clinton, the consummate political insider, as a plausible champion of a participatory democratic alternative. And their continued efforts to do so only rub salt in the wounds of disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters, who perceived their candidate for the Democratic nomination as a true people’s champion in stark contrast to Clinton’s faux populism.

Stepping back again from the thrust and parry of the election campaign to reflect on its significance for the future of democracy, I contend that the Trump and Sanders campaigns represent ideologically opposed responses to the perceived failures of contemporary liberal democracy. The Trump campaign represents the ‘ugly’ authoritarian and reactionary face of opposition to mainstream representative democracy. It castigates the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasises its ineffectuality in the face of extreme threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintains that Trump and Trump alone can ‘make American great again’.

By contrast, the Sanders campaign spoke to millions of Americans who want to see a progressive alternative to politics as usual. For many Sanders supporters, democratic politics is about much more than simply elections. It also entails people getting organised and mobilised in grassroots social movements to contest power and forge participatory alternatives to elite democracy outside as well as inside the framework of elections. Inspired by participatory democratic social movements from Occupy to Zapatismo in Mexico to the Indignados uprising in Spain to the Arab Spring and street protests in Brazil and Turkey and Greece and Hong Kong, they called for a reawakening of democracy from its liberal, elite-induced slumber.

Hatred and fear

Ironically, the success or failure of the Trump campaign may well turn on its ability to persuade disaffected Sanders supporters to either vote for Trump (unlikely) or stay home on election day. Win or lose, however, the Trump campaign has already transformed the democratic debate, both in the United States and globally. It has tapped into, and stoked, an ‘anti-politics’ of fear and hatred rooted in popular mistrust of and anger with the political classes. Furious at those whom they blame for a politics of austerity which has undermined living standards and fed obscene levels of social inequality, people are demanding a radical alternative.

This in itself is not a cause for concern, and may even be a source of hope, as it leaves open the possibility of a ‘post-representative’, progressive and participatory democratic alternative to elite-led liberal democracy. However, what is or should be deeply worrying for all those who care about democracy is the now more likely possibility that the forces of reaction unleashed by the Trump campaign will move from the margins to the mainstream, and that liberal democracy might well give way not to an egalitarian alternative but to an authoritarian politics of hatred and fear.

Dr. Laurence Davis is College Lecturer in Government at UCC, and teaches in the areas of political theory and US politics. He will speak at an open forum in UCC on the US Presidential election, to be held from 5-7 pm on Monday, October 3, in the Cavanagh Pharmacy Building LG51. All are welcome. For more information, click here.

Related: Hillary won because Trump was either not prepared or he grew tired and bored >

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Dr Laurence Davis

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