US elections: is democracy down and out?

With populist parties spouting anti-political sentiment on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, is Trump’s success merely part of a wider crisis of democracy?

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
31 October 2016

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. BU Rob13/Gage. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reservedThe White House race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is arguably the lowest-level US presidential competition since World War Two, or perhaps ever. Coarseness, gossip, blackmail, and personal attacks have completely replaced any debate on substantive issues, especially on foreign affairs.

Democratic politics now seems clouded in a kind of darkness. Political parties, which once were the link between voters and ‘high politics’, have long been declining in popularity. Yet on this occasion the crisis is clear to the naked eye. ‘The Donald’ has defeated all the more ‘official’ Republican candidates and has failed to obtain even the endorsement of some prominent party members, including the Bush family. The Republican Party had fielded a list of reasonably good candidates – Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush among others – but voters consistently preferred the unconventional Mr Trump.

‘The Donald’ is a reality-show transformed into politics; a performance, a fiction, which has become politics itself. His ‘postmodern’ traits have been often underlined, but after all Trump is not an entirely new ‘phenomenon’. Not so long ago we had Reagan and Schwarzenegger. The big difference is that this time ‘The Donald’ is not playing a role (the ‘cold warrior’, for example); he is simply playing himself, speaking whatever he wants, including lies, abusive statements, racial slurs, and so on. The tragedy – yes, we can call it a tragedy, for democracy – is that millions of Americans are inclined to choose Trump and even gloss over his lies mainly because they see Hillary Clinton as the embodiment of an establishment they deeply hate.

Frankly, Hillary’s political record is far from controversial. After being first lady for eight years, she entered politics in 2000 to serve as a Senator. However, she failed her bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and performed poorly as a Secretary of State; her arrogance in the Libyan campaign has not been lost on many observers. All of this without referring to the famous email controversy and the doubts related to Clinton Foundation’s donors. But even leaving aside specific issues, does it make sense (in democratic terms) to have in the same presidential role first ‘the husband’, then ‘the wife’? Isn’t the mix between private and public interests too evident and contrary to a sound idea of public affairs?

‘The Donald’ is a reality-show transformed into politics; a performance, a fiction, which has become politics itself. 

Focusing on controversial candidates has left public opinion in the dark with regard to policies’ contents. The TV debates have not clarified crucial domestic issues such as that of healthcare and what will become of Obama’s much-discussed reform. A debate on foreign policy is then almost non-existent, despite the tremendous changes taking place in the international system, from the constant rise of China to the challenge of fundamentalism and the economic decline of key US allies such as Japan and the EU.

In the last few years Washington has somewhat alienated its historical partners such as the governments of Egypt, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, and even Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East as a whole, Russia has gained credibility. Experts and diplomats will not be enough to restore US ‘soft power’ in the world. Indeed, tackling the complex and subtle challenges of globalisation requires both strong guidance and democratic control. Secrecy and technocrats are usually the problem and not the solution, as the recent Eurozone experience has demonstrated.

Unfortunately, over the last decade democratic politics has undergone a profound crisis and has often slipped into populism and ‘antipolitics’. When an ambitious, rampant, brash billionaire called Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s prime minister in 1994, many commentators pointed to Italy’s perennial oddity. 22 years later the USA seems to be facing a similar problem. Both Silvio and ‘The Donald’ have attacked traditional politics and its parties. The former’s rants against the laziness of ‘professional politicians’ are paralleled by the latter’s systematic attacks on his own party, which he has eventually overhauled. Berlusconi’s popularity among small and medium size companies battered by globalisation is paralleled by Trump’s promises of protectionism and anti-establishment rhetoric; gaffes, often racist, sexist, crass, and generally directed against an imaginary ‘elite’ are common to both tycoons.

That said, there are also important differences. Berlusconi created his own party and in this sense became a truly ‘professional’ politician, with an ideology, firm control over the media, and a team of ambitious, sometimes greedy fellows, who never managed to outfox their master. Trump is for now mainly a one-man show. We might even wonder if he really wants to become president. Isn’t this presidential bid mainly a giant advert which Trump can later use in his world of luxury real estate, beauty contests, and reality shows?

Over the last decade democratic politics has undergone a profound crisis and has often slipped into populism and ‘antipolitics’.

Together with Trump and Berlusconi, western democracies have seen the rise of other ‘populist’ parties, usually led by a dominant personality (Nigel Farage, the Le Pen family, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini) who mobilise voters against migrants, foreign goods, minorities, and the establishment. All of them have made attentive use of the media and exploited fears, concerns, and divisions among the people. Borders between celebrity, reality show, and politics have become increasingly blurred.

However, beyond the show real life goes on: there are millions of American citizens facing poverty, especially because of misguided neoliberal policies; exploitation of workers who increasingly feel alienated in roles which do not correspond to their aspirations – human and professional – continues. Eight years ago Barack Obama won on slogans of hope, but we have seen little of that in this election. Right now, ‘democracy’ begs for a redefinition – in schools, universities, the media, parties, and movements. However, becoming more supranational, or local, or electronic is not enough. Third ways are not enough. Finding better democratic politics is really the twenty-first century’s greatest challenge.

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