The electoral earthquake that resulted in the election of President Trump is not limited to the United States. And it’s far from running its course.
The Brexit referendum of June 2016 was an early indicator. Against general expectation, the British people overrode elite opinion, voting to exit the European Union.
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron seized the presidency of France. He established a new political party of the center-left, muscling aside the longstanding, dominant political coalitions.
In Germany and Austria, right-wing insurgencies are disrupting the traditional, post-World War II centrist project.
These elections are taking place in different nations, each with its own history and circumstances. Discerning unified narratives and trends can be challenging if not hazardous.
Nonetheless, there are commonalities running through these otherwise disparate results. One of the greatest is an overarching, largely unspoken question: Who Governs?
A recurring theme in history is the adaptation of government to changing circumstances.
For example, in the early twentieth century the United States grappled with the transition of an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. The progressive movement prompted the extension of the franchise to more citizens, and expanded the voters’ direct participation in politics and government.
Finance, manufacturing, infrastructure, agriculture, energy and transportation were increasingly subject to public intervention, reflecting a reset in citizen sovereignty.
In Great Britain, following the Second World War through the 1970s, labor unions accreted ever-greater power. Governments of the left and right were increasingly viewed as overly compliant with the demands of the miners and other industrial unions.
In the 1974 election, Prime Minister Edward Heath sought voter endorsement of an explicit recalibration of power. He campaigned on the slogan: Who Governs? Heath lost the election, but helped frame the larger issue toward subsequent resolution.
Candidate Trump recognized the parallels of Brexit with his long-shot bid to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Trump was not only challenging his Republican and Democratic opponents. He gave voice to rising objections to the longstanding political establishment more generally.
The unofficial, unspoken boundaries of acceptable debate had closed off serious discussion or action on issues of great import in many voters’ lives. Illegal immigration and trade policy were at the top of this list.
Some have sought to explain the Brexit and Trump insurgencies as merely a variant of traditional right-wing populism. In this view, a great part of their political energy arises from isolationism, racism, nativism, and class resentment. Some critics view such voters as not comprehending their own interest, defined as primarily material.
Such a status quo perspective is likely buttressed by confirmation bias. There are many voters who’ve sought change in whatever form is on offer. A significant number in America pulled the lever for Obama in 2008 and turned to Trump in 2016.
As the Bernie Sanders insurgency demonstrated, there is great reformist energy on the left, parallel to Trump’s on the right.
It’s not mere happenstance that the Trump and Sanders insurgencies focused on one-sided trade deals and illegal immigration. These are two areas where overwhelming public sentiment has long been ignored by Democrats and Republicans in office.
Instead, the legacy parties responded to overwhelming special interest influence.
As a result, these issues pointed to the larger question: Who governs?
Certain themes are emerging, in the USA as well as in Europe:
- Should citizens withdraw our consent from distant, centralized governmental institutions? Brexit focused English public attention to the movement of power from their elected Parliament to the relatively unaccountable mandarins of the European Union in Brussels. So, too, in America there is rising sentiment that too much power is reposed in Washington, D.C.
- Can we govern ourselves more effectively, closer to home? In the decentralized world of the digital age, should we move authority toward lower levels of government, and into non-governmental arrangements?
- As in the larger economy, should we create value by removing or reforming intermediaries? In the political realm, such intermediaries include special interest groups and political parties. Their value is to be measured solely in how they enable citizens to be better served by government. For a start, transparency, competition, and accountability should be imposed.
- Have our public institutions been corrupted? This goes beyond universally recognized self-dealing such as money furtively slipped into envelopes, stuffed into refrigerators and shoe boxes, or sweetheart deals on property. As reprehensible as such misdeeds are, they can be exceptional misfires of an otherwise smooth- running enterprise.
- The greater problem is systemic corruption. Our political institutions continue with their formal traditions, yet are serving interests other than the citizenry from whom they derive authority.
This is what people sense when they deride Washington, D.C. as a “swamp.” Politicians and bureaucrats and the ecosystem in which they work have been commandeered, transformed into a Special Interest State. The Special Interest State operates in the name of the people, but in practice has its own, distinct goals.
- Is the upper middle class asserting its interests at the expense of other Americans? We don’t tend to think of ourselves primarily in terms of socio-economic class. Nonetheless, our current politics is suffused in it.
As noted by Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution
This segment reflects many virtues and much accomplishment. It holds disproportionate influence in our politics and government and culture. The uses of that influence are open to legitimate questions.
This segment benefits from the trade and immigration policies that are experienced as damaging by other, less advantaged citizens. So, too, they’re open to the criticism of enabling a foreign policy based on “rich men’s wars, poor men’s blood.”
As illuminated in the Trump-Clinton election, many among them display a snobbery toward the cultural choices of those outside their own conformist communities.
It’s this group that is tagged for appearing to feel greater kinship with its coequals in other nations than with the many of their fellow Americans.
If you doubt the raw power of this group, consider two major issues of any federal tax reform: the mortgage-interest deduction, and the state and local tax deduction.
These two items constitute a reduction of well over $100 billion annually from the applicable tax rates. The benefits accrue overwhelmingly to the top quintile of taxpayers.
The political potency of the upper middle class renders these deductions a new “third rail” of politics, sequestered from meaningful public debate. Regnant special interests—the real estate industry, state and local government—are thereby shielded from overdue accountability.
Until now, the question of who governs has been somewhat shrouded. It’s often implicit in the debate surrounding various issues.
The Special Interest State, operating through the partisan duopoly, benefits from the resulting absence of clarity. Its practitioners create conflict and sow division, diverting attention from the fundamental question: Who Governs?
The Trump and Sanders insurgencies moved the ball forward. Now it’s up to us to take it further.
A first step is to further expose the realities of who governs today’s America. Our nation didn’t happen upon its position by accident. Like our ancestors, we won’t achieve fundamental change by indirection and inadvertence.
A second step is to debate, going forward, who should govern. We the People have the capacity to exert greater influence—and demand greater accountability—than ever before.
Once our national goals are decided, alternative approaches to policy may repose power in various ways. To what extent should we rely upon government bureaucracies or financial and corporate interests? How can we update institutions to achieve deeper levels of citizen participation?
The fundamental, clarifying question—Who Governs?—demands our highest attention at this hinge moment. Until it’s resolved, our electoral earthquakes will continue.
Photo Source: AP