Waiting for the Next Trump?


The election of Donald Trump is both a symptom and an accelerator of the deterioration of American democracy. Trump’s racism has been rightly criticized by mainstream Republicans, but many of those same elites were complicit in a “Southern Strategy” that tacitly evoked and relied on fear and hostility toward people of color. Most recently the Southern strategy has morphed into a muted replay of the post Reconstruction South, with voter suppression efforts targeted at minorities as its central theme. Instead of the poll tax, several states have imposed burdensome voter identification requirements, reduced the number of polling places, and limited early voting opportunities.

Trump’s election is owed to the complex intersection and acceleration of short and long term factors. Never in recent memory have two candidates been so widely disliked and distrusted. Though this fact is not news, commentators have said little about the contribution our long-standing electoral arrangements have made to this outcome. The first past the post electoral system, with the winner needing only a plurality of the votes, favors the emergence of a two party system and a convergence toward the political middle. Though media speak of perpetual stalemate, in the last decade this supposedly hamstrung body has authorized trillions in bank bailouts while leaving working and middle class homeowners to cope with mortgage foreclosures. It has reaffirmed the president’s fast track trade authority and has reauthorized the repressive Patriot Act. Action in these three areas has fundamentally shaped our political economy. Yes Republicans would like to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but majorities in neither Party will offer the sort of Medicare for all proposals that are popular with wide segments of the population.

The two-party duopoly is reinforced not only by electoral rules but also by the media monopoly. Trump’s success was owed in large part to immense amounts of free media exposure. That advantage was reinforced through standards imposed by the privately funded and sponsored Commission on Presidential Debates. The poor showing of both alternative candidates in an era when mainstream politicians are despised and distrusted is a reflection less of their character or charisma than their lack of exposure.

Corporate trade agreements and financial deregulation and crisis have set the tone for the politics of the last two decades. Both policy areas are dominated by undemocratic procedures and policy outcomes that further limit democratic input. Under the terms of fast track authority, negotiations are carried out in secret and any resulting agreement must be voted up or down with no amendments. Not only does this requirement restrict labor and environmentalist input into the process, it excludes a broader range of ideas from the political process. As the trade negotiations under fast track authority now stand, it is easy to see not only why Trump had some appeal to working class whites but also why opposition to such deals was framed on such nationalistic terms. Depriving working class citizens of any real voice is bound to evoke anger. Some of that anger could find a target thanks to supposedly responsible corporate Republicans who had long made scapegoating foreigners or other minorities the drug of choice in their effort to secure their agenda.

As I suggested in an earlier column, one heartening recent development was the collaboration of call workers in the Philippines with Verizon workers during the strike against that company. Perhaps the day is not far off when critics of these corporate agreements will emphasize the damage they inflict on workers everywhere and will engage in strikes and other actions to underline that point.

American political life has increasingly become a waiting game. Waiting for Janet Yekllin to decide on when she will raise interest rates and choke off any substantial wage gains for working and middle class employees, waiting for trade agreements to be handed down, waiting for administrative agencies like the FCC to rule on subsequent mergers like the proposed ATT/Time Warner deal, waiting for another Supreme Court justice to decide future campaign finance, voter suppression, civil liberties, and reproductive choice issues. In a nation that is nominally democratic, waiting, especially for institutions and processes that increasingly marginalize citizens, is embittering. Many of Trump’s supporters are mobilizing for the long haul, some in ways that represent a threat to our democracy. Without an alternative grass roots reform movement that embraces campaign finance, fiscal and monetary policy, anti-trust and trade agreements the damage that Donald Trump will do has only just begun.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email Jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2016


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