America’s Political Conundrum: Can There be a Solution?
The crisis in American politics continues unabated. In fact, it has just gotten worse, perhaps even much worse. After brief conciliatory exchanges that alluded to a possibility of reaching across the aisle, both the Democrats and the White House have resumed their war of words. Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions has provoked protests in several American cities and angry responses from the Democratic leaders. There are more threats of impeachment and subpoenas. Trump has added fuel to the fire by revoking the White House accreditation for CNN correspondent Jim Acosta.
The midterm elections did nothing to assuage the two sides. There are no changes in the attitudes and not a hint of a possibility of reconciliation. The Democrats and their followers continue to view the supporters of President Trump as white nationalists, racists, and even fascists, while the latter see their opponents as elitists who despise and hate them. How long will the crisis continue? How and if is it ever going to be resolved? More and more Americans ask these and similar questions as they watch the escalation of instability.
The political elites do little to solve this conundrum. They use strong inflammatory language that foments rivalries and increases tensions. The newly elected House, now controlled by the Democrats, promises to create more problems for Trump and the Republicans. In the meantime, President Trump continues to struggle with the personnel problems in his administration, which impedes his ability to stabilize the situation, and has few reliable means for pursuing his agenda.
Exclusion is at the heart of the current crisis. Millions of Americans feel that they have been left out, abandoned by politicians, and that their interests have been sacrificed in the name of a putative progress. One way to solve the crisis caused by exclusion—and by far a more desirable way—is through inclusion. Yet the political leaders do little to pursue this approach.
Rather than address the problem of exclusion, the Democrats and their followers have constructed a false narrative that demonizes millions of Americans. They see those who supported Trump in the last presidential election as losers who have failed to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of the modern world and who, in their frustration, have turned to white nationalism, racism, and even fascism. In the language of the left, they are nothing but a bunch of “deplorables,” “wing nuts,” and “kooks.”
Their analysis does not reflect some important realities–for example, the fact that a significant number of Trump’s supporters are non-white and not males. In fact, the support among African Americans for Trump is higher than for any previous Republican president. Trump also has many supporters among women. But there are even more serious distortions in the narrative created by the left. This narrative completely overlooks a very important, perhaps even the most important aspect of the movement that has brought Donald Trump to power—its anti-elitist character.
Anti-elitism is not a creation of Donald Trump. It is a distinct feature of American culture. Anti-elitist attitudes have periodically surfaced on the American political arena in various guises—populism is perhaps the most familiar. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both used a strong anti-elitist appeal.
The current resurgence of anti-elitism is not fortuitous. It is a complex phenomenon that is due to several structural factors that include dramatic technological innovations of the last several decades, particularly in communication technology. These changes have had a powerful impact on our society. They have democratized access to knowledge and information and created a new sense of empowerment among the broad segments of the population. This sense of empowerment has morphed into several recent major movements around the world that had a strong anti-elitist character; for example, the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in this country. One can also see clear signs of anti-elitist mood among the supporters of Bernie Sanders in the last presidential campaign.
The fact that the Democrats overlook the anti-elitist aspect is hardly accidental. They do not know what to do about anti-elitism since their own political practice is very much elitist and top-down. Despite its appearance, their politics of diversity and difference is very selective. It is largely about privileges for some select groups, rather than about universal rights. As a result, it is not inclusive and empowering. For example, Democratic politics is hardly reflective of the views and attitudes widely held in the community of African-Americans in this country. American blacks are very religious and generally are not in favor of excluding religion from public and political discourse, while the Democrats strongly oppose such inclusion. American blacks are generally pro-lifers, while the Democratic agenda is aggressively pro-choice. These examples are a clear indication of exclusion; and where there is exclusion, there is also domination.
Trump’s political practice is, on close analysis, also problematic. For one thing, it requires a high level of emotional mobilization among his followers, which will be hard to maintain over time; and so far, Trump has done little to translate this support into stable organizational and institutional forms. As an entrepreneur par excelence, Trump relies heavily on improvisation; organizational and institutional approaches are not in his comfort zone.
More importantly, there is also a fundamental contradiction in Trump’s practice. Trump has largely built his political career on an anti-elitist appeal. Trump never fails to draw the line between himself and Washington insiders. He carefully cultivates close relations with his base, widely using such forms of direct contact as tweets, mass rallies, and e-mails that seek the feedback from his supporters. Yet these forms of direct contact hardly represent a systematic anti-elitist approach. In the last analysis, this practice may disguise but cannot conceal the fact that it is top-down and ultimately is no more inclusive than the approach used by the Democrats. With time this contradiction between anti-elitist rhetoric and elitist practice will be more visible and may hurt Trump in the future.
As the above discussion shows, neither side offers a solution for the current conundrum. On the contrary, their policies deepen divisions and exacerbate rivalries. They contribute to growing tensions and instability in this country.
Americans are by and large reasonable and law abiding people. They have no taste for radicalism of any kind and have little sympathy for authoritarianism. They exercise their rational judgment and remain calm under very stressful conditions. At this point, political rivalries and instabilities have little effect. Ordinary Americans are busy making a living, raising families, and trying to get ahead in life. Their tolerance toward instability is still very high. But this tolerance has its limits. A very long period of chaos and instability may eventually take its toll. There is no guarantee that at some point the patience may run out and an authoritarian solution may appear attractive. Whatever one can say about Russia or China, one cannot deny the fact that their authoritarian systems ensure stability—at least for the time being.
The growing number of people in this country and around the world demands inclusion and empowerment. Our political leaders can either embrace these demands, or suppress them; but we cannot ignore them. If they suppress these demands, they open the path to either right-wing or left-wing authoritarianism in America. The only way to avoid this outcome is to create a new social and political practice that would be open, democratic, and universally inclusive and empowering.