Amer­ica’s fail­ures of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and prospects for democ­racy

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - ROB JOHN­SON

As the in­au­gu­ra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump ap­proaches, the best way to as­sess the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion may be to fo­cus on the ul­ti­mate fac­tors that led to his vic­tory. Trump was not elected in a vac­uum and, as his agenda takes shape, we can start to gauge its im­pact on the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy whence his can­di­dacy emerged.

Trump won by chal­leng­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of both the po­lit­i­cal and aca­demic es­tab­lish­ments, re­lent­lessly high­light­ing dis­crep­an­cies be­tween their de­pic­tion of the United States’ po­lit­i­cal econ­omy and the re­al­ity that many vot­ers ex­pe­ri­enced. Like Bernie San­ders in the Demo­cratic pri­mary, he started draw­ing large crowds by break­ing ranks with his party’s main­stream. While Hil­lary Clin­ton and Re­pub­li­can ri­vals such as Jeb Bush and Marco Ru­bio tried to build coali­tions based on cul­tural is­sues and par­ti­san tra­di­tions, Trump and San­ders set their sights squarely on what mat­tered most to vot­ers: a po­lit­i­cal econ­omy in which elected of­fi­cials strongly pro­moted a broad-based pros­per­ity that in­cluded them.

How did the other can­di­dates miss this cen­tral theme? My sense is that they didn’t; rather, their ef­forts to at­tract a broad spec­trum of vot­ers were con­strained by a sys­tem that makes it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to fund a cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal cam­paign with­out ca­ter­ing slav­ishly to the wealth­i­est sliver of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. That sys­tem in­vited re­bel­lion, and Trump and San­ders – by self-fi­nanc­ing and grass­roots fundrais­ing, re­spec­tively – were ide­ally po­si­tioned to lead one.

The other can­di­dates were also con­strained by party or­tho­doxy, which has long kept Democrats and Re­pub­li­cans alike from will­ingly ad­dress­ing the struc­tural in­equities in the Amer­i­can econ­omy head-on. Do­ing so would re­quire can­dor about such hard is­sues as tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion and glob­al­iza­tion. It would also re­quire con­fronting the legacy of decades of lob­by­ist-writ­ten free­trade agree­ments, reg­u­la­tions, bailouts and tax poli­cies that have been fun­nel­ing eco­nomic gains up the in­come lad­der, while im­pos­ing bud­get aus­ter­ity in re­sponse to the needs of most Amer­i­cans. The story Trump told of a “rigged” sys­tem res­onated with vot­ers more than any­thing they had heard from their po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in quite some time.

This points to a sec­ond, closely re­lated mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion: For many vot­ers, the “ex­pert” con­sen­sus about glob­al­iza­tion does not ring true. Econ­o­mists, in par­tic­u­lar, have touted free trade and global mar­kets as an un­al­loyed good. With few ex­cep­tions, such as Har­vard’s Dani Ro­drik and the No­bel lau­re­ate Michael Spence, none pointed out that many work­ers would be dis­placed and re­ceive lit­tle or no com­pen­sa­tion, and that rapid glob­al­iza­tion can thus stretch a coun­try’s so­cial fab­ric be­yond its elas­tic limit. But any real ex­pert on Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal econ­omy could see plain as day that the U.S. would pro­vide in­ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion to those dis­rupted by for­eign com­pe­ti­tion.

Much of that dis­rup­tion has come from Amer­ica’s free-trade re­la­tion­ship with China, a very large coun­try which has a far lower per capita in­come. In fact, a re­cent pa­per by MIT’s David Au­tor and oth­ers shows that the so­cial dis­tress caused by U.S.-China trade has po­lar­ized Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and prob­a­bly in­creased cer­tain vot­ing co­horts’ sup­port for “na­tivist politi­cians” such as Trump.

In his 1922 es­say “The Dis­mal Sci­ence,” H.L. Mencken sug­gested why econ­o­mists would ig­nore the neg­a­tive so­cial ef­fects that glob­al­iza­tion can have on an ad­vanced econ­omy such as the U.S. Such mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions, Mencken ar­gued, re­in­force the power of those who al­ready hold it. Wit­tingly or not, ex­perts know that they can curry fa­vor and stay out of trou­ble by ei­ther keep­ing silent or af­firm­ing the poli­cies that make the pow­er­ful bet­ter off.

But even­tu­ally, some­thing has to give. As wealth be­comes ever more con­cen­trated, a body politic suf­fer­ing from wide­spread eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity will be­gin to search for scape­goats – and the ex­perts and pun­dits them­selves were an ideal tar­get this time around.

This dual cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion – po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual – has be­come a toxic brew. Cri­tiques of Trump’s poli­cies gain no pur­chase with his sup­port­ers, be­cause they come from ex­perts who have lost their trust. This cred­i­bil­ity deficit gives Trump lat­i­tude, but it also poses a chal­lenge for him as he moves from cam­paign­ing to gov­ern­ing.

As pres­i­dent, Trump will need to de­vise reme­dies to the so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal prob­lems that he has de­scribed. But to do that, he will have to work within the same “rigged” sys­tem that he ran against, and he will have to craft poli­cies that are ac­tu­ally fea­si­ble and will have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on Amer­i­cans’ lives.

To be sure, the Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Congress might work with Trump to im­ple­ment a mini vari­ant of Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. But, with­out re­form of the “rigged” sys­tem, it is likely that Trump’s pro­posed fis­cal ex­pan­sion will again dis­pro­por­tion­ately ben­e­fit the wealthy, with­out “trick­ling down” to the rest of Amer­i­cans. “Pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships” have been cham­pi­oned as a means to di­rect cap­i­tal to­ward a na­tional re­build­ing ef­fort; but such mea­sures can be ma­nip­u­lated, and of­ten lead to “heads, I win; tails, the tax­payer loses” out­comes of the type that have ben­e­fited Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley in re­cent years. Surely this is not what Trump sup­port­ers were at­tracted to when Trump de­clared he would “Make Amer­ica great again.”

Twenty-three Demo­cratic U.S. sen­a­tors (plus two in­de­pen­dents who cau­cus with the Democrats), and only eight Re­pub­li­can sen­a­tors, are up for re-elec­tion in 2018. If the Re­pub­li­cans pass a Key­ne­sian growth pack­age in the next two years that tight­ens la­bor mar­kets and raises wages, they could se­cure their grip on power for many years to come. This, in turn, would en­able them to ap­point new Supreme Court jus­tices will­ing to ig­nore or un­der­cut women’s and work­ers’ rights, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. Such an out­come, given Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric, would be far­ci­cal, if it were not so tragic.

Trump, a child of in­her­ited wealth, now has a chance to de­fine his place in his­tory. Let us hope that he can rise to the chal­lenge, imag­ine his role as one of re­pair­ing the flaws of Amer­i­can democ­racy, and not set­tle for pre­sid­ing over a set of “deals” with, and for, the pow­er­ful. An Amer­ica that broad­ens eco­nomic pros­per­ity and makes its po­lit­i­cal sys­tem more demo­cratic will re­quire re­forms that re­duce the power of money and in­crease re­spon­sive­ness to cit­i­zens.

Any­thing less would con­sti­tute a fail­ure by Trump to honor those who brought him to power. A fail­ure to live up to Amer­ica’s found­ing prin­ci­ples has long cre­ated a ten­sion that pro­vides im­pe­tus for the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial progress. If Trump re­futes those prin­ci­ples – and if, in the de­spon­dency that fol­lows, in­vok­ing them comes to be seen as a sen­ti­men­tal, ro­man­tic act – the price of the fail­ures of rep­re­sen­ta­tion that led to his elec­tion will be high in­deed.

For many vot­ers, the ‘ex­pert’ con­sen­sus about glob­al­iza­tion does not ring true

Rob John­son is pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for New Eco­nomic Think­ing and a se­nior fel­low and di­rec­tor of the Global Fi­nance Project for the Franklin and Eleanor Roo­sevelt In­sti­tute. THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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