When power shifts and the presumptions which have underpinned our way of engaging the world no longer hold, what then? For the past quarter century, many of us engaged in policy analysis and implementation have worked in the spirit of ‘possibilism’ – seeking entry points for change that, though initially small, have the potential to set in motion far-reaching, positive consequences. But more than we perhaps had realized, our work has presupposed that the center broadly holds.
We have presumed that there is a reasonably stable ‘outer’ concentric circle within which experimentation plays out, facilitating an evolution-like process — momentum for initiatives that add value, and dead-ends for bad ideas. But with the election of Donald Trump (henceforth DT) in the USA (and similar elsewhere, though in this piece I will write principally from a US perspective) we find ourselves in a world where the stability of the outer circle, the container, has itself been put into question. How, now, are we to engage?
In an earlier effort to explore possible pathways of development for messy democracies, I distinguished between long-run vision, medium-run strategy, and short run process. The vision as to what comprises the core elements of a flourishing democracy remains intact. However, when confronting a risk of reversal of the magnitude which is possible under a DT presidency, strategy and tactics need to shift profoundly. But how?
Checks and balances institutions, for societies endowed with them, comprise the first, and crucial, line of defense against the erosion of freedom and democracy. In the US context, one of my responses to DTs victories has been to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League. Looking beyond America, South Africa’s experience over the past eighteen months (on which I will write separately) offers a hopeful (though still unfolding) example of how a combination of courts, activism and elections can contain predatory political leadership. However, playing defense is not enough.
The air is filled with talk of resistance, of the necessity of not normalizing a DT administration. The urgency of the moment is clear, and I do not want to lessen it. So what follows might perhaps usefully be viewed as a complement rather than an alternative to this sense of urgency. How can we act in ways that not only respond to the short-term imperatives, but also help incubate a platform for a reinvigorated politics and society? Here (adapting some with the grain approaches for the current moment) are some potential entry points.
First, cultivate alliances. Checks and balances institutions are a first line of defense, but ultimately the sustainability of democracy rests on a broad societal consensus in favor of democracy and the rule-of-law. This consensus has been America’s ‘civil religion’, one reason why it is so startling that so many voted for DT. But it is wildly premature to conclude that a short-term expression of discontent reflects a broader abandonment of America’s core principles. Defense of democracy requires a coalition that reaches across the traditional left-right ideological spectrum. Thus, rather than responding in kind to anger and polarization, opposition to DT needs to capture the higher ground of America’s political center.
Second, embrace a democracy-friendly discourse — one which, as per Albert Hirschman, “moves beyond extreme, intransigent postures, with the hope that participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information”. DT’s discourse has, of course, been the exact opposite – an embrace of whatever might help to arouse supporters, with zero regard for its truth value. But the breakdown in discourse goes beyond DT.
Openness to evidence comprises the bedrock foundation, the necessary condition, for civilization to thrive; yet we find ourselves in a world where the arbiters of the truth value of claims are losing their legitimacy. This can be explained, in our era of rapid change, by the power of cognitive dissonance to override inconvenient evidence. But explaining is not enough. We urgently need to rebuild mutual confidence, a consensus across society as to the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of fact-based discourse – else (if it is not already too late) all will be lost.
The news media confront an urgent, immediate challenge – and the article linked here from the Brookings institution offers an intriguing road map for how it can be addressed. There also are more personal challenges, especially for those of us who work with policy, evidence and ideas. I have taken pride (an interesting word….) in being open to persuasion when the data are inconsistent with my preferences – but this often isn’t obvious to others. The reasons surely have as much to do with me as those with whom I engage. Nurturing a democracy-friendly discourse will require work at many levels.
Third, focus on the consequences for inclusion and equity of the coming tsunami of policy initiatives from the DT administration. DT’s success is a (perverse) consequence of the accelerating dualism of American society – major gains at the top, stagnation for everyone else. In his campaign, DT promised to make things ‘great again’ for the struggling (predominantly white) middle. But the reality is likely to be the opposite. Here are a few examples:
- A rising burden of health care costs. Obamacare’s Affordable Care Act resulted in a decline of 18 million in the number of Americans without health insurance. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of families reporting problems paying their medical bills fell from 57 million to 44 million. Republican ‘repeal and replace’ (whatever that means in practice) is almost certain to reverse this.
- Increasing costs of basic consumer goods as a result of higher protectionism. Trump’s economic team is stacked with people who seem eager to start a trade war, especially with China. The campaign promise was that this would brings jobs back to America. But the reality is that technology, not trade, has eaten over 80 percent of lost manufacturing jobs. The Walmart-shopping Trump supporters, who will face higher prices, will be immediate losers of protectionism.
- Regressive tax policies. As Fortune magazine details, current proposals would result in an increase in after-tax income of 13.5% for the top 1 percent, less than 2% for the bottom 60 percent of the distribution – and an addition of $6 trillion to the national debt.
[Added January 1, 2017: Climate change also offers a compelling immediate focal point for activism, as detailed in the comment/discussion below.]
Proposals such as these will provoke a powerful reaction. Sustained, systematic and widely communicated documentation of their likely consequences has the potential to reinvigorate an inclusive, democracy-friendly discourse on policy choices and their consequences. The Scholars Strategy Network offers a powerful platform for this kind of work, as illustrated by its Director, Theda Skocpol’s, recent piece in the New York Times on health care reform. The think tank New America offers a further, intriguing model for bridging the gap between analysis and civic discourse. Sustained work along these lines can both renew confidence in the value of evidence-based analysis and, as important, lay the foundation for development of a new generation of inclusive responses to the dauntingly difficult structural economic realities of the early 21st century.
Fourth, cultivate islands of effectiveness. Developmental forces continue to be present throughout society – within civil society, at state and local level, within public bureaucracies. As I explored in depth in my earlier work, in politically contested environments developmental actors can achieve valuable victories by focusing on specific initiatives, acting collectively, and building coalitions capable of fending off destructive, predatory influences. Not all space has closed. In a generally dispiriting time, showing what is possible continues to matter — both as antidote to despair and as inspiration, pointing the way towards a more hopeful future.
To some, the entry points I have highlighted above might seem inadequate to the moment. But it seems to me crucial that we look beyond a politics that offers nothing beyond deepening polarization. German politics in the interwar Weimar years of 1918-1933 provides a cautionary tale. As a white South African inspired by the fall of apartheid, as a Jew who has refused to be defined by history and the stereotypes of others, as a parent with two American children, I continue to believe that the life worth living is one fueled by our hopes and dreams, not our nightmares. The dream that all humans are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The dream of equal dignity. The American dream. The human dream.