The US election & the systematic failure of modern politics

by | 10 Nov 2016

clown_2_gina-810x841Should we be surprised by Donald Trump’s new position as President Elect?  According to exit polls, and the weight of media and expert opinion, we should be.  Yet the highly unlikely, if not absolutely impossible, has happened, and with Hillary Clinton’s phone call to the Trump campaign conceding the election, Trump has secured the Presidency of the United States.  This has caused understandable outrage, and indeed fear, particularly amongst minorities.  Internationally, the markets that had strongly bet on a Clinton win panicked, then rallied, and now sit in fragile stability, waiting for the next shock.  Yet should we be surprised?

Really, we shouldn’t.  In his apparently unexpected win, Trump follows a number of unexpected results, another example of those things that weren’t supposed to happen, if you spoke to reasonable, rational people.  Whether the election of Syriza, the Oxi Referendum and the Eurogroup response, or the Conservatives wining an working majority, in 2015, or the EU referendum result in June this year, the ‘unexpected’ of politics has become the normal of politics.  What should surprise us is that we keep getting surprised.  We appear to be witnessing a systematic failure of contemporary Western liberal democracy, which is the result of a number of interrelated and mutually reinforcing factors that are resulting in political contestations being won by hard-line demagogues.  While it is easy to blame Trump’s win, or Brexit, on reactionary attitudes, on racism, sexism or generalised xenophobia, to do so would be a mistake.  While there are, no doubt, people with such attitudes supporting Trump, to focus on this exclusively misses a larger, systemic problem.

Globalisation’s Discontents are finding their voices

When discussing globalisation, these issues are often rightly discussed in terms of Global North and Global South, or developed and developing economies.  But it is equally important to consider how globalisation has led to increased inequalities and tensions within countries.  When talking about Globalisation’s ‘discontents’, Stiglitz[1] focused upon the role of the IMF in promoting neoliberal policies in developing countries, arguably on a faulty premise.  These measures, based on the work of economic thinkers such as Friedman and Hayek, included austerity, market liberalisation and privatisation, and all served to weaken the role of the government as supplier of public goods and social welfare, allowing the market to fulfil this role on a for-profit basis.  This was all pursued in the belief that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ – difficult, then, when it appeared that many of the boats were leaking.  Outsourcing of industrial labour as a means of reducing operating costs for businesses, and the deindustrialisation of the ‘Rust Belt’ of the US, those northern states such as Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, negatively impacted by labour automation, and the decline in the fortunes of the steel and automobile industries, have become directly associated with globalisation and free trade by disillusioned voters in those regions.[2]  The perception of the public that free trade served to make everyone’s lives better began to shift, and the view that ‘globalisation’ was a negative rather than positive trait became more than the fringe belief of anti-globalisation protestors at G20 summits to a dominant discourse concerning international affairs.  From the European Parliament’s rejection of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in 2012 on the back of unparalleled protest and petitioning by EU citizens, to the online and offline mobilisation against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, levels of trust concerning the purported benefits of free trade have not been so low in the past several decades.  As was seen in the US election, if you believe that free trade has a negative impact on national jobs, you were more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton.  Of those that did believe that free trade cost jobs, 65% voted for Trump[3] – including voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and (while yet to be formally declared) Michigan.  If Michigan does declare for the Republicans, it will be the first time that it does so since 1988.

The Hollowing Out of Politics

The late Peter Mair wrote shortly before his death of the hollowing out of politics.[4]  With the publication of the report ‘The Crisis of Democracy’, in which the Trilateral Commission declared the economic problems of the 1970s was a problem of ‘too much democracy’,[5] the West saw a turn to a style of governance that could be phrased as managerial, technocratic, or regulatory.  Majone has described it as the regulatory state,[6] and Habermas has warned of its ‘lure of technocracy’.[7]  In essence, ‘politics’ became depoliticised, with governments largely concerning themselves with technical adjustments to regulatory structures as a means of facilitating market growth and prosperity.  In both the EU and US, it was the perceived role of law-making institutions to sweep away barriers to trade in light of the globalisation consensus, privatising public services and making ‘efficiency’ the watchword of effective governance.  But by doing so, as Peter Mair argued, political parties became disconnected from their members.  By depoliticising, political parties also became unable to understand or empathise with their voter base, and their voter base became both apathetic and alienated.  With the role of political parties and governments being to oversee the running of the state as engineers and experts, rather than as representatives of their constituencies, members or supporters, vital links were broken.  Politicians became perceived as a separate class, unable to engage with the public, speaking in soundbites and insulated from the consequences of their policies.  As a result, politicians, particularly in the UK and US in which First Past The Post voting systems dramatically increase the importance of marginal or swing voters and decreases that of centres of power, politics became pragmatic, focused on what would appeal to this ‘middle ground’.  This can be seen in the New Labour movement’s chasing of the elusive vote of the Sun reader or ‘Mondeo Man’, and current appeals by Labour party insiders for an ‘electable’ candidate.  The Labour Party is currently at odds with its membership, unable to understand their overwhelming and renewed support for a leader they view as unelectable to that middle ground.  New members have been accused of being ‘entryists’, trying to change the party.  In some ways, the Owen Smith campaign could remind us of a scene in The Simpsons, in which Principal Skinner asks ‘could it be that I am out of touch?  No, it’s the children who are wrong!’  In the US, Hillary Clinton appears to have made a somewhat similar mistake, misunderstanding or ignoring the calls from long-time Democrat supporters to focus on potential wins in swing states like Arizona, spending less time and money in states like Michigan, which for the previous five elections had supported the Democrats.

Business as usual when everyone wants change

The economic shock of 2008 appeared to break the consensus that the classic liberal economic model promoted by thinkers such as Friedman and Hayek was the only game in town.  Economists appeared stunned by the apparent failure of their economic models, and some commentators even began to ask whether this was ‘the death of neoliberalism’.  While such calls were perhaps premature, they nevertheless pointed to a shift in dominant understandings concerning the current economic model.  Free trade, unregulated (or self-regulating) markets and competition became questioned.  Far from the end of boom and bust, as Gordon Brown declared, things had bust in a way that was both unexpected and unparalleled by any financial crash since the 1930s.  However, the political response, particularly in the US and the EU, was ‘more of the same’.  Despite being elected on the slogan of ‘Hope and Change’ and criticism of NAFTA, President Obama instead presided over the bailing out of banks while the homes of the most vulnerable were being repossessed.  While providing more in the way of stimulus than the EU, Obama was nevertheless perceived by some voters as representing the ‘establishment’, a close relationship between politics, media and the markets as represented by Wall Street.  In the EU, the approach was similar – the bailing out of private institutions while pushing the pain (and debts) onto the public, promoting austerity as a means to counter ‘reckless’ public spending. Both in the US and the EU, trade policies remained unchanged by world events – while the US promoted ACTA, TPP and TTIP, the EU declared the problems of the EU economy were down to ‘not enough’ internal market, rather than the way the internal market had been developed, doubling down on existing policies internally and externally, eagerly pushing ahead with ACTA, TTIP and CETA.  Through these policies, the EU has seen a drop in its public support, with Greece in particular moving from being one of the most pro-EU Member States to one of the least.  In the UK, the Remain camp was arguably complacent about the EU referendum, assuming people would prefer stability and the promise of economic prosperity, betting on the status quo.  Instead, it appears that the Remain campaign misjudged the public mood.  The same can be said for the European Commission, if the views of the Vice President of the Commission are widely held.  Decrying the rise of populist politics at an event organised by Politico, Vice President Kaitanen is quoted as saying:

I’m offering difficult solutions knowing that you hate me but I do so because I believe it’s responsible…We underestimate the Europeans…We are kind of hinting that Europeans are so dumb that only irresponsible fiscal policy is accepted. I don’t buy this argument at all.

In this statement, Kaitanen appears to try to reinforce that his solutions are the correct ones, but in so doing, demonstrates the disconnect between voters and politicians discussed earlier.  Voters, if rational and reasonable, would understand that the policies proposed are the correct ones.  By mixing ‘populism’ and talk of ‘fiscal irresponsibility’, Kaitanen indicates that proposals that fall outside of what is determined to be fiscally responsible are outside of the accepted political mainstream.  In this, it is a reinforcement of the status quo, of business, and politics, as usual.  Yet such comments are fodder to more populist actors, who can make the claims that these politicians claim to suffer by making unpopular decisions that they are hated for, yet are insulated from.  In the EU referendum, similar appeals to rationality and reasonableness were made by the Remain campaign, with limited effect.  In the US, Clinton was very much an ‘establishment’ and ‘status quo’ candidate – perceived by many as a continuation of business as usual, the close links between the political, the media and the market, with questionable ties to Wall Street.  She was perceived as the continuity candidate, whereas Trump was the ‘change’ candidate – of all voters polled who stated that the quality of their candidate that mattered most was their ability to bring change, 83% voted for Trump.[8]  Furthermore, while reliable data is still yet to be released, there are strong indications that Clinton as a continuity candidate impacted upon traditional Democrat voters – they stayed home.  Trump supporters, in particular, appeared to be much more galvanised to vote, despite Clinton’s high-visibility ‘get out the vote’ machinery.

If you’re not with me, you’re an idiot

Assuming that individuals are rational, reasonable individuals that only have their own self-interest at heart has become a mainstream approach to policy-making, as well as academic analysis.  The Clinton campaign, and indeed the EU referendum’s Remain camp, based their entire approach upon it.  By painting themselves as the rational and reasonable, they discursively framed their opponents, and by extension, their supporters, as the unreasonable, the irrational.  Clinton’s campaign in particular became largely about why you shouldn’t vote for Trump, rather than why you should vote for her.  The media, or that part of it that could be categorised as a socially progressive, liberal, and ultimately North-East American media, fully supported such a view.  From Saturday Night Live’s lambasting of Trump, portrayed by Alec Baldwin, as an orange buffoon, to the New York Times’ deconstruction of his character, his business model and his policies,[9] Trump was presented very much as the ridiculous candidate.  Routinely mocked, dismissed and derided, Trump supporters were routinely criticised as racists, sexists, xenophobes and uneducated.  Few journalists sought to talk to these voters, and explore their support for the candidate.  Those that did presented a more nuanced story – rural and deindustrialised towns and cities, with high unemployment, drug use and drug-related crime.  As one journalist described it, the reason that Trump’s message of Making America Great Again played so well in these areas was because ‘it is a message that resonates, because viewed from these places, America no longer seems a great country.’[10]  Yet, should this have been raised as a reason that Trump’s support should not be underestimated, it did not receive much coverage in ‘mainstream’ news sources in the US, nor amongst political pollsters, who declared that a Trump election was, based on their models and polling, highly highly unlikely.  Such statements were made about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015, and are still made about his unelectability, and the irrationality of his supports in the Labour Party.

Indeed, this election, like the UK referendum and other events occurring throughout the world become understood in echo chambers.  Due to the increased polarisation of the political debates, not so much between left and right, but between establishment and outsider, the fact that our models could be wrong, that the polls may not reflect outcomes, that politics cannot be boiled down to ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ decision-making, we do not hear the alternative narratives, or consider that we could be wrong.  The combination of failed economic models, an increased disconnect between mainstream politics and the communities it ostensibly represents, a continuation of business as usual policies proposed by business as usual politicians when people demand change, and a complacent and complicit media that locks out competing voices only serves to reinforce the systemic failures that our current political system suffers.

Should we have been surprised by this outcome?  We shouldn’t have been.  And yet, we were.

[1] Joseph E Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (Allen Lane 2002).

[2] James Tanoos, ‘Rust Belt Politics: The National NAFTA Debate during Recent US Presidential Election Cycles’ (2012) 3 Review of Applied Socio-Economic Research 184.

[3] CNN Election2016, ‘2016 Election Results: National Exit Polls’ (CNN, 9 November 2016) <> accessed 9 November 2016.

[4] Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (Verso 2013).

[5] Michel J Crozier, Samuel P Huntington and Joji Watanuki, ‘The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission’ (1975).

[6] Giandomenico Majone, ‘The Rise of the Regulatory State in Europe’ (1994) 17 West European Politics 77.

[7] Jürgen Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy (Polity Press 2015).

[8] CNN Election2016 (n 3).

[9] The Editorial Board, ‘Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President’ The New York Times (25 September 2016) <> accessed 9 November 2016.

[10] Chris Arnade, ‘What I Learned after 100,000 Miles on the Road Talking to Trump Supporters’ The Guardian (3 November 2016) <> accessed 9 November 2016.


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