“It was like that when I got here..” – Democracy, Populism, President-Elect Donald Trump, and the Aftermath of the Election

After spending 36 hours reading from my social media about how Trump is ‘not our president’ and how could the Americans can be so stupid as to elect such a candidate, I’ve done some reflection on the elections and this piece of writing is the product of that thinking. Before I go into this probably unpopular diatribe: just so you know, I haven’t supported Donald Trump at any point, and I haven’t approved of much of what he’s said or the way he said it. But, you know, it’s in the nature of democracy that people are  allowed to express also annoying opinions (See note below).

Trumpees not welcome here. (Photo: S. Tuokko)

Trumpees not welcome here. (Photo: S. Tuokko)

To start with, every person I know either directly or through social media and think of as a ‘Liberal,’ however you define it, seems to be a well-educated lower-upper-middle-class knowledge worker, who have done very well for themselves despite or because of globalization, and shy away from the idea that if people are not doing well, it’s their own fault for not trying hard enough. Rather the liberals I know tend to think that if it seems people aren’t trying, it’s the surrounding inequity and social mobility barriers that are discouraging them. Yet, they also seem to think that the people who are feeling left behind must be voting for Trump not as a legitimate protest or political view, but because they’re stupid and racist, bigoted otherwise, or at least there’s something plain wrong with them. In fact I remember wondering out loud just days ago that how do people consider a candidate who so nakedly says anything and everything that in the moment seems to bring the most votes, by the way of insinuating that the supporters aren’t seeing something everyone else seems to catch.

However, I think that that’s exactly the attitude that is in the heart of the Trump campaign momentum; the failure to recognize the grievances of a major slice of the population as legitimate, and brush them away as silly, uneducated, and/or bigoted. However way you slice it, the popular attitude towards Trump supporters in the abstract is incredibly condescending and that can only serve to increase whatever divides there are in society. People aren’t voting for protest candidates because they’re bad people or otherwise sub-human, despite what you might think from following political discussion online, but because none of the established candidates address the issues they face with due seriousness. Besides, there’s enough data to debunk that red herring democratic blowhards comforted themselves during the race that Trump voters are stupid losers.

It’s inescapably true that in his campaign Trump pandered to some of the basest impulses of human nature, but putting that away for a while, there’s a major slice of Americans and other Western people too who are feeling cheated by the worsening economic prospects and global competition. Previous generations up until the Boomers have enjoyed pretty much an automatic increase in the standard of living, education, health, and wealth bought by the spectacular productivity increase during the last century or so, or that’s the perception at least. Now, everyone after the boomers seems to be worse off than the benchmark generation, which likely has contributed to the rise of nationalist parties in Northern Europe, to Brexit and now Trump.  Sure, people might have been naive in expecting the sort of growth in welfare that came with post-WWII industrialization and later addition of IT, but that’s what they have been promised by politicians Left and Right, only to find out that neither Republicans or Democrats, Left or Right have a magic recipe to make it all better despite what they have been telling people all along. And now the chickens have come home to roost. That doesn’t mean I think that the establishment, whatever it means, needs to bow down and make it a race to the moral bottom – rather the opposite – politicians across the board need to start exhibiting some integrity and leadership, stop telling people only what they want to hear and have an open dialogue to explain what is happening and how it can be addressed. Considering the numbers, Trump had a fair number of minorities’ votes as well, surely they didn’t vote because he’s let out some real doozies during the campaign? The possibly even more uncomfortable interpretation is that people voted for Trump despite the bigotry because they’re so desperate for a change.

It was like that when I got here..

It was like that when I got here..

Which brings me to the wider point. I’ve been saying for years based on everyday observation that the institutions of democratic representation have become a corporation in and of itself across party lines. The career starts in student unions, and you progress in the party hierarchy and/or politics through city councils to the parliament, maybe even become a minister at the height of your career, or you get dealt into a public or semi-public service with your connections. It’s a self serving and perpetuating cycle where the door revolves for good soldiers of the parties from politics to public service as well as the private sector and back. All this while not really being in touch with what’s going on with the wider electorate outside NGOs and other special interest lobby groups between election cycles, and during the election season the message is almost exclusively sound bites the parties think the electorate wants to hear to grab the major share, not because it’s necessarily true nor because it would be good for the nation, but because of votes. To be fair though, the protest parties aren’t better by default in that regard. I’m in serious doubt whether Mr. Trump has the magic recipe to make America Great, and to whom it will be Great if anyone by the end of it. But that’s beside the point, which is that it seems that for better or for worse there is a large group of people in Western countries who feel that the established parties and politicians have had their chance to do what they have promised, and since they haven’t really been delivering, now it’s time for someone else to have a stab at it.

Further, going back to riding one’s high horse in on people and judging their behavior: remember how worried everyone and their favorite news media was that the Trumpees will not accept the election result and will start rioting? Well, now it’s the other way around as witnessed by today’s news. If the liberals or the Left ever had any moral high ground, this is the year they lost the last of it, at least in my eyes. There’s enough reports in the mainstream, otherwise known by it’s dogwhistle name ‘Liberal Media,’ by ‘Liberal’ journalists, which is to say they probably aren’t making things up to make Trump or his supporters look good, on self-professed liberals spitting on, hitting, and chucking stones at Trump supporters during the campaign , and now people rioting against the election result. Not to even mention the sanctimonious name-calling online. This forces me to conclude the liberals aren’t any better or more moral, nor are they worse, people than Trump supporters. Clearly there are bigoted Trumpees, but equally clearly there are liberals who are as rigid and unable to grant other people their opinions while complaining that they’re being marginalized.

In closing, it’s not Trump, Le Pen, Farage, or whoever is the Bogeyman du jour who’s ruining democracy, it’s been well ruined by the incumbent parties and the electorate who hasn’t demanded more of their candidates, and now various protest candidates are seeping in through the cracks. The success of these new kids on the block is just a logical progression from the established political culture; the system of late and as long as I have been voting age has been focused on the game of charming the popular vote at least as much as any serious policy making, and now the established parties have been out-charmed left and right. The issue bigger than any one unpleasant election surprise is to address the underlying problems of representative democracy, among them is the institutionalization of politics and sound bites politics and promises of quick wins. And if any politician happens to be reading this, let these elections be a wake-up call to stop telling people comforting lies and start taking them seriously as independent agents.

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