In the wake of a nationalist moment sweeping the world, a demagogue has swept to victory in the most powerful country on earth, playing on public fears of insecurity, misleading them in his aim to pursue his own interests, and with an agenda which would accomplish precisely the opposite of that which was intended.
Sound familiar? The election of Donald Trump as president has sparked the growth of two contrasting narratives, with are perpetuated within our online filter bubbles (which are themselves responsible for the growth of the phenomenon of ‘fake news’) about how we ended up where we are today.
The charitable, of all stripes, will present an account of the downtrodden rising up, defying the will of the self-serving, monolithic, political elite and bringing to light the hardships of the everyday man and woman – a much needed reality check.
The cynical will highlight a growing isolationist tendency, lamenting the less-than-satisfactory mental capacity of the common man, and blame either the populists and nationalists for leading the voting public astray, or the public themselves for being so stupid for not being able to see through the hollow promises and blatant lies of demagogues and wannabe tyrants.
Whilst there is obviously a grain of truth to both these narratives, they ultimately address the symptoms, not the underlying causes of the problem. Ultimately, the politics we see, both on the part of the elite and the masses, is a response to the institutional setup of the country in question. There is no conspiracy; merely the rules of the game.
The Democrats, whilst we might think of them today as the party of social progress, are the historical party of slavery. That changed following Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, but it goes to show how we change, just as much as the times. Fundamentally, the Democratic party doesn’t exist to uphold any given principle (and neither does the Republican party); they exist to pursue their own electoral interests by finding a winning coalition of voters, and pursuing an agenda to fit those voters. Unsavoury though this behaviour may be, a righteous party that doesn’t engage in electioneering will ultimately lose to a cynical party that does – there is no escape.
Under American electoral law, plurality rules, and the natural equilibrium to those rules, in a population where people tend towards the centre, is a two-party system wherein both occupy either side of the centre ground. This has long been the case, but due to a combination of institutional factors, notably the use of primary elections in conjunction with the gerrymandering of congressional districts (the former, an extension of internal party democracy, the latter, a way of rigging elections in one’s favour by changing district boundaries), the American public is ideologically polarised, and the voting system forces the politicians to follow suit.
Polarisation then begets polarisation as moderate voters disengage, and electioneering becomes a contest of rallying the base in the right places, which is just what Trump did – he pulled together a winning coalition of voters in the places where it mattered and energised them to get out to vote.
President Trump is nobody’s fault, but rather the result of political parties acting to pursue their own interests (as any rational party would) and the natural response of moderate voters to be disenchanted with its results, giving power to the political extremes. If you want to see this change, raging against the politicians or the voters will do nothing – you have to change the structure of American democracy if there is to be any hope of preventing another President Trump.