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

President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Press Association. All rights reserved.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?  It will surely go down as among the greatest political
miscalculations in American political history. 

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 women. Andrew 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. There are many flashing lights ahead, on both the
domestic and international front.

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 Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the 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. 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".

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.

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