John Lotherington is an FDSD Trustee. He’s the Program Director with Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS).
The election of Donald Trump as President of the Unites States, and his early actions as President – so reminiscent of his reality TV performances, but now with real and potentially destructive impact – have significance for the whole world, but they are of course the latest iteration of a populist trend which has been growing across the developed world. While there have been many local variations and complexities in all this, and no doubt more to come, the root cause is to be found in the arc of neo-liberalism: 20 years of growth up to 2008, but growth which was inequitable and unsustainable, and which inflated expectations bound to be disappointed, as the crash ensued.
Growth up to 2008 – remember the ‘third way’? – had in effect become a substitute for politics. The response to the 2008 crash was then business as usual but in austerity mode. That has created a revolutionary mood, which the political class across the developed world by and large failed to recognise or just hoped could be managed. It’s a commonplace of political science that revolutions are not necessarily the product of uniform, continuing misery or oppression. Revolutionary impulses can gather among the vulnerable middle classes, just as much as among those lower down the income ladder, when rising expectations are sharply cut back – represented by the J-curve, the rise and fall shown in an upside down J on a graph. This pattern was repeated before and after 2008 because of a failure before the crash to negotiate sustainable goals with different constituencies and interest groups, instead substituting unsustainable growth. For a time that seemed to work like palliative care – it took away the pain of regular politics with promises of all things to all people. Then, after the crash, there was a corresponding failure to engage with the frustration which emerged but which had been simmering for much longer, those feelings of being stuck and neglected.
Liberal democracy has flourished as a system because of its resilience, its ability to absorb shocks and negotiate tensions within a polity. But it is currently failing, at least so far. The emergence of Trump and right-wing populists across Europe offers immediate relief from frustration, by junking negotiation and offering divisive, hostile solutions to shared, common problems. And it may appear to bring some short term success – protectionism could succeed in temporarily restoring some rust-belt jobs, for instance. But this will not bring lasting economic success nor will it moderate social injustice, with the costs of Trump’s policies likely to be borne from massive debt rather than progressive taxation. And there will be lasting environmental damage both direct, with a likely surge in the re-development of fossil fuels, and indirect, with the erosion of regulatory institutions, which for many voters have appeared to be technocratic and remote from real life problems.
The danger now for liberal democracy is that the established political classes may hope that Trump and his ilk will self-destruct and go away, or that they need to be accommodated and imitated, say, in boosting nativist rhetoric, as evidence that politicians are listening. But this will not answer the underlying problem. If ‘listening’ is going to be more than a further palliative exercise or a mirroring of anger, it needs to be focused on engagement – the long, hard slog of bringing citizens directly into the debate about the essentials of sustainable and equitable economies , identifying goals, working on local issues, recreating a narrative about the future, about what will make a good life for us now and for our successors. Any such narratives about the future will of course be contested, but they must lie at the heart of an inclusive democratic debate.
Sustainable development has often been mocked as a fluffy add-on for the metropolitan liberal elite. It’s not, it’s the only route to enduring peace and prosperity. We don’t know how exactly the present political bind will play out. It could be very grim, with anxieties heightening, yearnings unabated for the ‘strong man’ to save us, and the right-wing populists searching ever more desperately for scapegoats. Or maybe unsustainable growth will tick up again and crucially benefit people through rising incomes, and the political situation will calm down. But, if it does, there shouldn’t be any complacency – or we’ll go through the cycle all over again. We need an enhanced liberal democracy, with voting coming at the end of closer, creative engagement with citizens, not voting as a howl in the night when things have gone wrong.