This is the first of two posts about very different, but linked stories which both point to big, grinding shifts in the institutional tectonic plates on which democracy and systems of successful public governance rely.
The first piece is from Paul Kelly (the journalist, not the singer, although I suspect Paul Kelly the singer might agree with much of this analysis!).
These are some extracts from Paul’s piece in today’s Australian newspaper, reflecting on the institutional significance of the US presidential election campaign.
I have been a fan of Paul’s “first draft of history” analysis on politics and government for a long time. He is one of the few journalists, especially in the Australian context, capable of and interested in putting an intellectual and historical lens over the daily ‘chop’ of governance and politics.
These are his pungent and confronting reflections on where this scrappy and nasty presidential campaign has left us. There is a clear implication in Paul’s analysis and taut scripting that, no matter the result (and I am typing this as I watch the coverage of early results now that the east coast polls have closed in the US), the deep and damaging cleavages that have opened up in the conception and conduct of American democracy will not be resolved.
Here are some of the key segments. The whole piece is well worth reading:
The US system of democratic government is at risk. Democracy works only when both sides put limits on their rivalry, respect the people’s decision and recognise this model serves their long-run mutual interest, since human nature delivers regular changes in incumbency. But Trump is different. Devoid of respect for rules and principles, he has brought political gangsterism, long lurking in the subculture, into the sunlight.
Nobody at this point can assess the true extent of the ruin. A Clinton victory will bring mixed sentiments — sheer relief at the vandal’s defeat, apprehension about her presidency, concern at the fracturing of America and how deep and long it goes.
The “curtain of discretion” is key to successfully managing the tensions of any democratic system. Here is Paul’s contrast between Trump and Obama:
Trump is an agent of violation. He destroys norms and values. He rips away the curtain of discretion so vital in political life. Politics is about truth but also about image. The task of the US president is to project the better angels of American society but Trump in the guise of authenticity parades the worse.
You can like or dislike Barack Obama but he conducts himself with dignity and grace, aware of his obligation to project the moral heritage of the American project. Trump is the reverse. He is shocking because he elevates almost every debased feature of our flawed culture and asks us to endorse our own debasement by our acceptance of him.
The point of the analysis, though, is not that either Trump or Clinton loses (whoever it turns out to be), but that in a very deep and visceral sense, we are the losers:
His victory would be our defeat, our humiliation, our condemnation of ourselves. It would be an admission of how far we have sunk, the ultimate concession that the US, the great democratic lodestar, had passed into eclipse, extinguishing the hopes not just of Americans but of people around the world who see themselves as heirs of the American Revolution, as its founding fathers intended that they should.
The reflections conclude with some typically punchy insights about the considerable sins of both sides. The Democrats harnessed the “politics of identity” which, ironically, unleashed the “white working class angry middle aged men” whose support has been so important to Trump.
The Republicans have essentially perpetrated a fraud on the US public by “preaching a doctrine of social conservatism and railing against progressive values they pitched to the white working and middle class while advocating a policy tantamount to “growth without equity” based on spending cuts, more tax cuts for the better-off, no progress on real wage growth plus a bunch of foreign military adventures that rich Harvard boys could avoid.”
And all this against the backdrop of the disappointments of gobalisation which, for all its evidence successes, has driven huge wedges of inequality and deeply unfulfilled promise into many fractured communities around the world.
The conclusions are baleful. Actually, they are worse than that. The impression from this line of inquiry, shared by others who have been writing about the election, is whether the underlying institutional architecture on which successful democratic governance can regenerate.
The shape-shifting is wrenching. Much is being destroyed. We’ll have to wait and see what’s left to work with when we decide it’s time to turn to the task of rebuilding.