By DAVID BOLLIER
making sense of the US elections from a commoner’s perspective
A Moment That Illuminates Our Structural Challenges
At least we have some clarity. The mystifications and rationalizations are evaporating. If nothing else, the election of Donald Trump illuminates many of the deep structural problems that we need to face squarely.
While most post-election commentary is focused on Trump and the political realignment in Washington, I think the bigger stories are the tectonic shifts in the neoliberal political economy and representative democracy itself. Both are imploding. Both are losing credibility as vehicles for human governance and betterment. And yet the lineaments of a new order – a robust realm of social innovation relatively unknown to mainstream politics – remains out of focus.
The election of a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot with no experience in politics and no serious ideas about how to solve the country’s problems, reveals the dysfunctions of the US constitutional system and its two major political parties. The rollicking, vituperative campaigns made for blockbuster TV ratings, but they were a farce in terms of democratic deliberation and governance.
And how could it be otherwise? The venerable system devised by powdered-wig elites in the late 18th century has been eclipsed by the realities of the 21st century. Politics is now a self-referential bubble of mass-media spectacle and social media. As a branch of the entertainment world, it is a highly confected virtual space that caters more to emotional hot buttons and prejudices than rational deliberation or meaningful human dialogue.
Parties can’t help but regard this bizarre, modernist fun house as the real venue for getting and retaining power; solving real problems or fostering real democratic participation is a nostalgic fantasy. In hindsight, it now seems utterly logical that an outrageous former reality-show star could prevail in this arena – much as Ronald Reagan’s long experience in Hollywood was essential to his success in politics. Let’s not pretend that this is „democracy.“ It’s a Roman circus.
Besides her own limitations, Hillary Clinton had the misfortune of trying to be a successor to Barack Obama, who famously rode to office by promising change you can believe in. Once elected, Obama quickly reverted to the same old neoliberal catechisms of his predecessor, George W. Bush, along with his vile military and anti-terrorism policies.
To be sure, Obama was stymied by obstructionist and racist Republicans who sought to delegitimize his very presidency and limited his leadership. Still, Obama did not show much leadership in fighting income inequality, climate change, financial industry abuses and socially and environmentally harmful trade treaties. Once he had accepted the neoliberal economic paradigm, the cake was mostly baked and he had few effective, practical solutions to offer.
Eight years later, Clinton in effect promised more of the same – incremental reforms. She rejected the Bernie Sanders insurgency as too unrealistic and naïve. Meanwhile the Democratic National Committee, working closely with Clinton, quietly sought to stymie Bernie’s amazing campaign through all sorts of offstage interventions. Clinton refused to recognize the need for system-change that had lifted Sanders’ campaign from out of nowhere. With Sanders gone, Trump skillfully exploited the populist void in the presidential campaign despite his singular lack of details for “making America great again.”
Even though Republicans now dominate Washington politics, both parties are now shattered. Trump is a party of one with no coherent political philosophy or reliable allegiances beyond himself. The Republicans still have many deep and unresolved divisions among its factions (business, evangelicals, working class). And the Democratic Party is still in thrall to an Old Guard that still refuses to entertain more progressive or populist ideas, let alone explore post-neoliberal politics, post-growth possibilities.
Clinton’s defeat is more than a defeat for a battle-scarred political figure with too much baggage. It is a rejection of the neoliberal vision of humane capitalism (sic) that a long line of Democrats has unsuccessfully peddled (Carter, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Clinton).
To be sure, Trump offers no serious ideas for ameliorating the problems of laid-off workers and Midwestern towns abandoned by industry. But even his simplistic blather sounds more committed than the glittering empty promises that Obama and Clinton made for economic growth, trade treaties, high technology, education and job retraining as ways to restore prosperity.
They won’t and they haven’t. That’s because the structural demands of capital have overwhelmed the capacity of economic and social policy to give people decent, stable lives. We’ve already experienced the failures of trickle-down economics. Yet this has remained the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s economic vision.
And how credible can these tired traditional promises be in any case? Both Trump and Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren on the sidelines) were borne aloft by their cries that the system is rigged. Obama confirmed this fact by failing to prosecute Wall Street from its colossal crimes. He secured only modest legislative reforms of the financial sector and resisted calls for a consumer financial watchdog. Clinton, who made dozens of speeches to Wall Street firms for $250,000 apiece, was hardly a credible champion of change.
So now we enter uncharted territory. The two US parties are fractured and in disarray. The electoral process is incapable of speaking seriously to urgent needs, from inequality and race to climate change and the environment. The governance process is beset by ideological gridlock, distrust and scorched-earth partisanship. The news media loves ratings-boosting spectacle more than serious journalism or a defense of democratic institutions. And the neoliberal political agenda as a consensus framework for human betterment is no longer credible, not just in the US but in Europe and beyond.
I think we stand on the threshold of a much larger discussion about new socio-economic frameworks for meeting needs and new political systems for governing ourselves. I see great promise in commons providing new modes of democratic governance and self-organization – at scales allowing for genuine participation, authority and responsibility. Orchestrating a state/commons rapprochement may be the hard part, at least initially, but this is a fruitful line of innovation, especially at the city level.
This discussion is inescapable because 1) all sorts of self-organized commons are growing in scale and sophistication around the world, if only because they meet many needs more effectively than either markets or government; and 2) existing political structures – the major parties, the nation-state and its bureaucracies, many conventional markets, and the financial industry allied with the state – are incapable of meeting the structural challenges we face. They are too invested in the old, dysfunctional ways of doing things.
The tension between the old and the new will only intensify as the Internet empowers people to self-organize themselves outside of conventional institutions. When will traditional government start to partner with and support commons as vehicles for the common good, rather than blindly shoveling taxpayer money and legal privileges to support a broken economic/political system? We need to discuss how to move beyond a political economy that is structurally predisposed to be extractive, predatory, ecologically destructive and inequitable in allocating benefits.
If Trump’s campaign rhetoric is any indication, we will likely have to endure four years of monstrous, divisive social upheaval. We may also suffer from unprecedented attacks on cherished democratic institutions and traditions. Already, two days after the election, white supremacist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic acts of intimidation that invoke Trump are surging. Immigrants fearful of deportation and ethnic minorities are taking to the streets in protest.
I can only hope that the tumultuous times ahead may spur commoners to accelerate their many projects – one by one, region by region, and through a web of federated relationships. We will need courage, ingenuity, resolve and mutual support to develop the structural transformations that we so desperately need.