President Trump and the new face of democracy in America

“Political pundits shocked and alarmed by Trump’s victory have suggested it spells the beginning of the end of Western democracy. I believe, instead, that it marks the opening of a new chapter characterised by both enormous risk and possibility,” according to Dr. Laurence Davis, College Lecturer in Government, UCC, in his op-ed below.

Dr. Laurence Davis, College Lecturer in Government at UCC. Photo: Emmet Curtin.

Dr. Laurence Davis, College Lecturer in Government at UCC. Photo: Emmet Curtin.


First Brexit, and now President Trump. In years to come, 2016 will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of democracy. Political pundits shocked and alarmed by Trump’s victory have suggested that it spells the beginning of the end of Western democracy. I believe, instead, that it marks the opening of a new chapter characterised by both enormous risk and possibility.


Although democracy is by no means a product or exclusive property of Western civilisation, the term itself was coined in ancient Greece to signify a form of popular power. It combined the Greek words demos – meaning either the whole citizen body living within a particular city-state, or the ‘lower orders’ – with kratos, meaning power or rule. Today we tend to think of democracy as a system of government in which the people elect representatives to rule on their behalf. However, this conception of democracy is a relatively recent one. Democracy originally meant, and was, government and society as one, with the citizen body governing itself directly by means of active participation in the political process.


More than that, it referred to a way of life. This was the message of Pericles’ famous funeral oration in ancient Athens, and it was the way in which ordinary Americans used the term in the early American republic to refer to an egalitarian way of life in which the people didn’t have to bow and scrape before their so-called ‘betters’. Even as late as the 1780s and 1790s, democracy never meant competitive political parties and rarely referred to representative institutions, which were widely regarded as elitist rather than democratic devices. Rather, it was more likely to suggest direct popular decision-making in an as yet unspecified institutional form and a way of life with vast implications for society more generally.


Contemporary democracy is a far cry from this participatory ideal. While it is true that hard-fought popular struggles have overcome centuries-old exclusions from citizenship based on property-ownership, gender, and ethnic and racial affiliation, this dominant triumphalist narrative of democracy obscures the ever-growing gap between ideals of popular sovereignty and the reality of contemporary democratic societies. Perhaps most notably, it obscures the hollowing out of democracy by the market-driven concentration of power in the hands of interconnected economic and political elites, carried to extreme lengths in recent years under the banners of neoliberalism and austerity. And this, in turn, raises the deeper question of whether the confinement of the democratic principle to the government of the state is tenable in the context of modern techno-industrial capitalist societies in which so much power lies outside the domain or control of elected governments.


Responding to some of these developments, political scientists across the ideological spectrum now frequently lament what they refer to as a ‘crisis of democracy’. What they mean by this is widespread public disenchantment with the politics of representative democracy, reflected in declining voter turnout, membership of political parties, trust in politicians, and interest in mainstream electoral politics. To focus on one illustrative example, current research indicates that politicians are amongst the least trusted groups in society, and that large numbers of people are deeply mistrustful of both political parties and government itself.


The Trump campaign successfully tapped into this disaffection, and portrayed its candidate as the ‘anti-political’ solution to the failings of liberal democracy. As exit polls are now confirming, Trump’s supporters believed him, and they turned out in record numbers to make their views known.


In response, liberal critics have already begun decrying the ‘stupidity’ of the American electorate. Some even have questioned the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. Like the elite democratic framers of the American Constitution, who drafted its elaborate system of checks and balances precisely in order to avoid what John Adams once referred to as ‘the horrors of democracy’, contemporary liberal democrats are once again blaming the people for the horrors of democracy and have failed to engage in any but the most condescending of ways with the deep populist anger which propelled Trump to the Presidency.


By way of an alternative response to Trump’s victory and the politics of fear and division it is likely to unleash, I suggest the following. The most effective antidote to the demagoguery Trump represents is not less democracy, but more. This was precisely the message of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which spoke to millions of Americans who wanted to see a progressive alternative to politics as usual. For many of those who supported Sanders in the Democratic primary election campaign, democratic politics is about much more than simply elections. It also entails people getting organised and mobilised in grassroots social movements to contest power and forge participatory alternatives to elite democracy outside as well as inside the framework of elections. Inspired by participatory democratic social movements from Occupy to Zapatismo in Mexico to the Indignados uprising in Spain to the Arab Spring and street protests in Brazil and Turkey and Greece and Hong Kong, they called for a reawakening of democracy from its liberal, elite-induced slumber and an extension of democratic and egalitarian principles into the sphere of the economy. And in stark contrast to Trump’s elitist claim that he and he alone could fix America’s problem, the Sanders campaign maintained that only popular power in the form of a democratic revolution could transform American politics and society and make its institutions once again responsive to the people.


Voters opted instead for the ‘safe’ choice of Hilary Clinton. Perhaps now it is time to for all those in the United States and elsewhere who care about the future of democracy to consider less safe options, including the possibility of a ‘post-representative’, progressive and participatory democratic alternative to elite-led liberal democracy.

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