Sunday 20 January 2019

US vote shows unequal society built on strange bedfellows

Supporters cheer at a rally for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida. Photo: Getty
Supporters cheer at a rally for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida. Photo: Getty

David McWilliams

I have never experienced America so divided. Even in liberal New York, there's a palpable sense that Hillary is losing it and the horror of a Trump presidency is being entertained by almost everyone.

Last night, in Douglas's Bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, most people thought he wouldn't even have got out of the first few Republican primaries, but he won it and in the process destroyed one of the most powerful institutions in America - the Grand Old Party.

At the bar, these cops and firemen regard Trump as a ridiculous fraud, a scam-artist, an unhinged self-promoter with the maturity of a spoilt child. They know him; they are New Yorkers after all and so is he. They find his lying, particularly about his role around 9/11, despicable. But despite all the lies, the cheating, the insults and the appeal to the most base racist urges in American society, he is ahead in the polls.

Trump, the celebrity demagogue, is on a roll and no one is quite sure how stop him.

Some here in Brooklyn - albeit a small minority - believe he will be a great president, just like Reagan was for millions of ordinary Americans. Wiser heads make the point that the checks and balances in the American system prevent it from voting for a dictator. The Congress, the Senate and, of course, the Supreme Court all keep the president in check. This was the case with Obama, every time he tried to do something, he was stymied. The same will be the case with Trump. He won't build his wall, he won't deport millions and he won't nuke some country he doesn't particularly like.

This may well be the case, but the US election has thrown up a central dilemma in our Western system which I believe is worth exploring.

We live in what are termed liberal capitalist democracies.

The political system is democratic and the economic system is capitalist. Most of us accept that democracy is pretty good, or at least as good as any other political system we have seen. Capitalism, likewise, isn't perfect but it broadly works and the system we know as capitalism has greatly enriched the majority of us. Other economic systems, such as communism, haven't such a great track record.

So we are left with two, not perfect but not too bad bedfellows - democracy and capitalism.

Now, at its core, democracy is founded on the very noble notion of one man, one vote. The implication being that we are all equal. This is the promise of democracy. It is a promise that many people have felt is worth dying for. The central notion that all men have equal say, and an equal right to have that say registered at election time, appeals to all. So the rich and powerful man and the poor and impotent man, once in the ballot box, are equal. The votes carry the same weight and their mandate is equal. That is enlightened democracy - one man, one vote. It is also a quasi-socialist concept, with fairness at its core.

Now think about democracy's economic bedfellow, capitalism.

Is capitalism based on the notion of fairness? Is it based on the idea that all men are equal?

No, it is based on the polar opposite idea that the man who accumulates more money is the most powerful. In capitalism, the more chips you have at the table, the longer you get to play. When you have money you have better stuff, better toys, better status, better sex, who knows?

Capitalism is good at expanding the pie, democracy is all about dividing up that growing pie. That's the conflict.

So capitalism and democracy are unusual bedfellows. One aspires to fairness and the other is driven by unfairness. They can't be anything other than constantly in conflict with each other. This is the inherent and recurring conflict between capitalism, which is based on the rich guy getting all the goodies and, in contrast, democracy prides itself on equality.

Therefore, democracy is there to try to police the limits of capitalism.

If a country gets too unequal, if all the goodies are limited to the very top and if the people in the middle feel they are falling back badly, they respond by going to the ballot box and voting for the other guy!

The other guy in this case is Trump, a comic-book racist who has managed to turn the election into a reality TV show. But deep down, there are real reasons for the Trump phenomenon (and, before him, Bernie Sanders).

In the US, inequality has profoundly worsened in the past three decades. The top 1pc has become ridiculously wealthy, while those at the bottom don't get a look-in. The people in the middle, referred to constantly by the political class as 'ordinary working families', are being left behind. They are the ones who are competing with the immigrants in the schools system, in the health system, in the housing market and above all in the jobs market.

For years, the Democratic party represented these blue-collar Americans, while the Republicans looked after the boss classes with a bit of religion thrown in, and they tended, in a very patriotic country, to be a bit heavier on the flag waving on the 4th of July.

However, now there is a sense that the Democrats have abandoned blue-collar America and are now a coalition of the very wealthy, with liberal values, and an amalgamation of minorities who will soon make up the majority.

By 2042, white Americans will be, for the first time ever, a minority in the USA.

When you strip back a lot of the Trump story, it is about White America's fear of the coming brown nation. Income inequality exacerbates these fears.

But at its core, the American election is about the perennial fight between capitalism and democracy - which we see in every liberal country but with the added spice of race which make this election so fascinating and so hard to call.

Irish Independent

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