In an age of disruptive politics

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Volumes have been written these past few days on the success of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. Less has, however, been said about the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s eclipse. Democracies, perhaps, need to take somewhat greater note of what actually caused the Clinton ‘meltdown’, which was contrary to all optimistic forecasts.

This is the age of uncertainty, the era of disruption. British physicist Stephen Hawking has called the 21st century “the century of complexity”. This decade began with the Arab Spring and its traumatic aftermath. The message of the upheaval was, however, conveniently ignored, and it was viewed as a mere West Asian phenomenon. The implications of the rise of dangerous ideologies such as the Islamic State were again ignored, and treated as a mere terrorist interregnum. The massive refugee influx into Europe in the wake of Syria-Iraq quagmire was similarly underestimated, including how it was altering people’s attitudes and perceptions, and provoking deep-seated feelings of both xenophobia and anti-establishmentarianism. It should have been evident that the world was changing, and was becoming more disruptive.

 

Not the worst of times

These may not be the ‘best’ of times. Nor, however, are they the ‘worst’ of times. Technology and the economy have outstripped policies in recognising the value of disruptive ideas, and how if properly channelised, they could lead to spectacular results. Politics continued to lag behind, though in certain countries political parties had begun to discern the ‘winds of change’. The Indian elections of 2014 are a case in point. Older democracies in the West, nevertheless, continued to remain inured to ‘new age politics’.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign was a victim of this adherence to erstwhile ‘marketable’ labels. Middle America, meantime, had become convinced that more of the same would only consign them to an uncertain future, even worse perhaps than their situation under the present dispensation. This hardly means that the Trump campaign had ‘real’ answers for all the problems that the U.S. confronts, but that compared with Ms. Clinton’s campaign, which promised little by way of solutions, Mr. Trump at least offered hope.

There are important lessons in this for all democracies. If in a mature democracy like the U.S., an ‘Outsider’ (Donald Trump) could upstage an ‘Insider’ (Hillary Clinton) in this fashion, then it could be open season for similar upsets elsewhere as well. Consequently, it may be important to not ignore events and developments, even if they take place far from a nation’s borders. The Clinton campaign failed to recognise that Brexit (in the U.K.) reflected a tectonic shift in people’s and the electorate’s attitudes, and that this could impact the electorate in the U.S. as well. The failure to correctly ‘read the tea leaves’ thus proved to be a costly mistake.

 

There are important lessons in this for all democracies. If in a mature democracy like the U.S., an ‘Outsider’ (Donald Trump) could upstage an ‘Insider’ (Hillary Clinton) in this fashion, then it could be open season for similar upsets elsewhere as well. Consequently, it may be important to not ignore events and developments, even if they take place far from a nation’s borders. The Clinton campaign failed to recognise that Brexit (in the U.K.) reflected a tectonic shift in people’s and the electorate’s attitudes

 

All democracies are being buffeted today by the rapid advances made by technology. ‘Network groups’ are dominating the intellectual, political, and economic space. Large segments of the electorate — made up of ordinary people — tend to feel threatened by this. Faced with ‘the reality of indeterminate complexity’, their answer has been to revolt against the system. Populism and nationalism have become more important. The determination to reverse policies of recent decades, viz., that of benefits accruing from an open economy and an open society, has become all-embracing, since jobs were at risk and outsiders were disrupting their way of life.

 

Right candidate, wrong time

Ms. Clinton was the right candidate at the wrong time. The U.S. currently confronts a ‘confidence deficit’ about its place in the world of the 21st century — possibly due to the determination of President Barack Obama and his administration to step back from being the gendarme of the world. In some of the interviews given while still in office, Mr. Obama had made this clear, stipulating that his priorities were to strengthen the U.S. economy. He, however, seemed to overlook the fact that for most Americans the image the U.S. presented to the world was of considerable significance.

Consequently, in answer to the blistering attack on Mr. Obama’s foreign legacy (its failures in West Asia, limited progress in the U.S. pivot to Asia, Russia’s incursions into Eastern Europe, and the inability to counter Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea), Ms. Clinton had few answers. It only seemed to confirm that the U.S. had, indeed, ceded position as the world’s leading power. It would have required someone in the Lider Maximo mould to have countered this, and Ms. Clinton certainly did not fit the bill. On the other hand, Mr. Trump with his exaggerated claims and bombast seemed to signal hope with his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’.

Defending Mr. Obama’s domestic legacy might have been easier (Obamacare notwithstanding), but Ms. Clinton was greatly hobbled by the surfeit of charges levelled against her regarding her role in Benghazi (Libya) during her term as Secretary of State and the e-mails controversy. Matching vitriol was clearly beyond Ms. Clinton and her campaign team.

In reality, the battle turned out to be a contest between a ‘status quoist’ (Ms. Clinton) and the ‘new unknown’ (Mr. Trump), who demonstrated considerable chutzpah. In U.S. Politics 2.0, the status quo hardly finds many takers, given the highly restive and unhappy electorate. A successful presidential candidate necessarily needed to carry conviction that he/she would be in a position to assist the white majority overcome their primordial fears of being ‘ghettoed’ in their own country, and elbowed out of opportunities and jobs, most of which at present seemed to go to outsiders. Arguments about open borders and immigrant flows leading to growth tend to fall on deaf ears when the perception is that the bulk of the benefits from growth go to the new elite, viz., the outsider.

The politics of identity (essentially symbolised by the white under-class) thus gained prominence. Changes in policies of the past were equated with a change in leadership. The pressure was on ‘shaking things up’, and not allowing matters to continue as in the past. A complete break was considered necessary and, hence, every negative fact or incident concerning Ms. Clinton was dredged up — and often times exaggerated (the e-mail issue and the FBI’s investigation into the matter) — to strengthen the case for a change.

Mr. Trump might have been the wrong man, but he was at the right place and at the right time. The mood in the U.S. among the ordinary electorate was to reject much of what had transpired during the past decade, and reach out to a new future, even though the future may be difficult to discern as of now. Mr. Trump’s success derived from the fact that he was the man of the moment. He had a message to give and the ability to sell the message. He skilfully discerned the angry mood of an economically threatened majority. He positioned himself as someone who could reverse the trend of recent years, in marked contrast to a Democratic President who could be expected to persist with the same policies that had let America down.

 

India in a changed world

If, indeed, this is the age of disruptive politics, anything is possible. The likelihood of a Russia-U.S. understanding, though not an entente, is now within the realm of possibility. Despite his election rhetoric, Mr. Trump is unlikely to distance himself from NATO, but he is likely to refashion and circumscribe its role. This should assuage Europe’s fears that the U.S. would abandon it in order to placate Russia. In turn, this would reduce much of the present tensions that are affecting the European region.

Since his election, Mr. Trump has been enigmatic in his references to China. Both the U.S. and China now have messianic leaders — Mr. Trump and Xi Jinping. The spectre of G-2 could well return, but in the context of a new framework, viz., in return for U.S. overtures to China, the latter would at least for the time being refrain from aggravating existing disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Speculation about the U.S. backing China’s One Belt One Road initiative appear farfetched, but the U.S. may not interfere with the programme, as long as the ‘status quo’ in East Asia is not disturbed.

India may well find itself in a kind of no man’s land, given these permutations and combinations. India’s current ‘Obama-mania’ could well prove to be a hindrance to better U.S.-India relations. Mr. Trump is unlikely to pursue many of the policies initiated by the Obama Administration, including a possible joint India-U.S. initiative to contain

China in East Asia.

On the economic front, given that under Mr. Trump U.S. priorities are to ensure that American jobs are not at risk and lost to China or India, India might again find itself at a greater disadvantage than China. In the triangular relationship between the U.S., China and India, India may hence find itself as the ‘outlier’. India would do well to hedge its bets, for it is unlikely that under Mr. Trump the U.S.-India relationship will remain the defining partnership of the 21st century.

The Article First Appeared In The Hindu

 

 

 


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