Tomorrow, millions of Americans across the country will head to the polls to determine who will be the next president. That person should be Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. She has shown herself to be the only capable, experienced and sane candidate in this election. While the election results are in flux, we have the certainty of an equally worrying situation. Democracy itself is being discredited across the board. Donald Trump’s populism has struck at the heart of our political order. Clinton supporters have lost faith in the electorate while Trump supporters abhor the mainstream media, national politicians and the “establishment” at large. His creation of these “elites” as separate from “the normal people” is textbook populism, and it’s rending our country asunder. We should now ask ourselves how to restore faith in our democracy.
Before looking to a solution, I want to stress just how deep the frustration with democracy runs. The left, usually considered the champion of social equality and human rights, is now calling for a controlled democracy. Just the other day The New Yorker, that bastion of high liberal culture, had an article arguing for the merits of an exclusive, educated “democracy.” This elitist belief that only an education can vote recall the literacy “poll taxes” of the racist conservative establishment; a frightening idea more fit in Plato-worshipping Conservative Party debates than a modern liberal democracy. This notion is not only offensive, suggesting that certain people cannot make decisions about their life because they did not attend an elite university, but deeply flawed. Everyone has a legitimate stake in our nation to preserve their self-interest.
On the other side, Trump supporters have lost faith in representative democracy and believe certain elites are subverting the popular will. When people believe that government no longer represents them, they will seek more radical alternatives. Trump’s populism speaks to people who have given up on our “elite” legislators entirely. The same impulse drove many people, including myself, to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Yet the difference is that Trump undermines basic tenets of democracy. Trump has threatened Clinton with imprisonment and insinuations of violence. He has refused to concede defeat if he loses, casting doubt over the validity of the elections and stoking the flames of potential political violence. Although some bigots are naturally attracted to Trump, most of his supporters are normal Americans who will accept his rhetoric because they feel the government has betrayed them. Trump provides a personalized answer divorced from an institutional framework.
The defense of democracy comes from its strongest attribute: the ability to provide just outcomes through progressive legislation. The only way to incorporate populist discontents is to address the underlying reasons why people are drifting from the mainstream contemporary politics.
The starkest problem today is inequality, plain and simple. For Trump supporters, this inequality manifests in the loss of manufacturing jobs due to companies outsourcing their factory jobs, immigration and import competition. This paradigm makes it very easy for Trump to declare the “winners” of the economy elites and the “losers” the real people. It is highly unlikely that Trump would have achieved such success without widening inequality and economic exclusion experienced in America’s heartland. The task then is to mitigate those differences. America needs a more equitable distribution of both income and wealth: higher, more progressive taxation and more funding for job retraining to offset the effects of globalization.
Addressing inequality is, admittedly, not a perfect solution. It is long term and can only impact voters indirectly. At the same time, much of the perceptional damage to democracy has already happened. As inequality shrinks, the average American will renew his or her faith in mainstream political parties. We do not need to change people’s political opinions. We do need to provide circumstances conducive for seeking compromise and identification with other citizens. The resulting shift should bring the reasonable Trump supporters back to the center and satisfy liberals’ concerns with uninformed voters. So long as material and political conditions for vilification exist, there will be the specter of a Trumpian campaign.
The road ahead does not look bright. Trump has exposed the fault lines at the core of democracy, revealing the inherent tension between direct and representative government. Will liberals ever trust the “uninformed” voter again? Will Trump supporters ever trust their representatives? Our hope must lie with the ability of democratic government to minimize inequality and provide general prosperity to entice voters back to the mainstream. One heartening precedent might make everyone feel a little bit more optimistic: Ross Perot ran an almost identical platform in 1992. By bashing Mexico, North American Free Trade Agreement and globalization, he won 18.2 percent of the national vote: the largest third-party win ever in America. And no one remembers Perot today.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .