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Trump victory signals US decay, not a popular revolt

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10 November 2016 09:08

After the Global Financial Crisis, as China continued its growth but the US fell into its biggest economic crisis since the Depression, one group of pundits warned that America was being eclipsed on the world stage. The US, they said, was in economic decline.

But for another group, there was always a ready come-back: America has been through recessions before and it will again, but its fundamentals are strong and it will come back. So it proved, with the US recovering slowly during the Obama years to the point where it now enjoys a steady, if uneven growth and sub-5% unemployment.

With the US having now elected Donald Trump as its next president, it seems much of this debate might have missed the point. America may not be in economic decline, but it could be in political decline. Which is to say, Trump's victory signals a crisis in America's political institutions, and above all in its two major parties.

The most popular explanation - that this was a revolt of the American people against globalisation, multiculturalism, feminism and liberalism - is hard to square with the result. For one thing, the actual shift in votes from Democrat to Republican is too small to back up that claim. Hillary Clinton may yet win the popular vote, or at least she will come very close to it. Moreover, voter turnout was substantially down this year. And lastly, the US is not that much more liberal or globalised or multicultural today than it was four years ago or eight years ago, when it elected a black liberal Democrat to the presidency who embodied those very values.

In fact none of these big-picture explanations can account for timing. If this was a revolt by whites against their drift into minority status, why now, when this trend has been apparent for decades? The same is true for feminism and other things we might group as 'cultural liberalism' (multiculturalism, LGBTI rights, abortion rights) - they're all long-term trends. Similarly, de-industrialisation can be dated back to the 1970s, and globalisation well before.

So as with this year's election in Australia, the real shift may not be among the people but in the two-party system. Back in July I wrote a post (2016 Election: The Only Chart that Matters) pointing out that support for the two major parties among Australian voters was in long-term decline. This is evident in primary voting trends and party membership statistics.

Is it possible that Trump's rise signals a similar trend in US politics? Yes, Trump ran as a Republican and neither he nor Clinton faced significant opposition from minor party candidates. But Trump is the ultimate RINO (Republican in Name Only). He is an insurgent; a foreign body in the Republican Party who has taken over the host. He holds positions that are deeply unorthodox in today's GOP, and earlier in life he was a Democrat. But as in Australia, it is almost impossible for a third-party candidate to win national office, so rather than run as an independent, Trump joined the Republican Party and is now in the process of consuming it.

On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders attempted much the same thing. Sanders has long had a complicated history with the Democratic Party; it's not clear that he ever was really a Democrat, and his appeal was as an outsider. Sanders was only stopped by the fact that senior Democrats were united around Hillary Clinton, whereas Trump's opposition within the GOP was split 16 ways.

In Australia, too, it is difficult for smaller parties to make headway against the majors, although as Kim Beazley warned in July, that may change in the next couple of elections. In the meantime, it might be argued that the insurgent model which Trump adopted was used here by Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, both relative outsiders to their parties.

In both countries, it seems that the result will be the slow unraveling of bipartisan orthodoxies, including around foreign policy. In the US, the idea that America must always play a dominant role in upholding the 'global rules-based international order' is under serious threat. The consensus around that mission among US foreign policy elites has never had deep popular roots, and Trump certainly shows no evidence of sharing it. As conservative stalwart Charles Krauthammer put it, 'On major issues — such as the central question of retaining America’s global pre-eminence as leader of the free world, sustainer of Western alliances, and protector of the post–World War II order — the GOP candidate stands decidedly to the left of (Clinton)'.

In Australia, the central bipartisan foreign-policy orthodoxy is the US alliance. In fact in recent years it has calcified into a bipartisan ideology, an article of faith permitting of little deviance among political leaders. But with the US seemingly ready to retreat from its global mission, the rug may have just been pulled out from under us.

Photo by Flickr user Beverly & Pack.

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