The real political trump card: revitalized democracy
According to the dictionary, “to trump” means to get the better of, outdo, defeat or beat someone or something, often in a highly public way. Thus the objective of the Republican establishment in trying to derail Donald Trump’s effort to become their party’s presidential candidate can be succinctly described as an effort to “trump Trump.”
So far, the focus of these efforts, aided and abetted by the media, has been to deride and dismiss everything the man says or does. But this approach has been less than successful as Mr. Trump’s popularity, including with the voters of New York State, remains amazingly high.
A wiser response would be for the U.S. political and media establishments to face up squarely and honestly to the root causes of his appeal. That is, to recognize that a growing segment of the American electorate has lost faith in, or connection to, the traditional parties and those who represent them, support them or communicate their views. This segment feels increasingly disenfranchised by the political system and the elites that control its commanding heights. They resent having their opinions labelled as politically incorrect, their interests ignored or dismissed as illegitimate, and their political actions demeaned as misguided populism.
It is becoming more relevant to categorize American voters today as “pro-establishment” or “anti-establishment” than to categorize them as left or right, or Democrats or Republicans. While Hillary Clinton continues to represent the establishment cause, both Bernie Sanders and Mr. Trump represent the anti-establishment faction that is growing too large and significant to be disparaged and dismissed.
So what can be done? A first step might be for the main U.S. parties to rediscover and recommit themselves to what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book, Democracy in America, referred to as “the democratic passion” – a passion to expand rather than restrict the involvement of rank-and-file citizens in their public affairs.
Although these words of de Tocqueville were written in 1840, they are amazingly descriptive of the current U.S. situation: “[T]he secret propensities that govern the factions of America … [are] those two great divisions which have always existed in free communities … the object of the one is to limit and that of the other to extend the authority of the people … I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States.”
Canadians should take note, and be forewarned, as this same phenomenon of growing anti-establishment politics is manifesting itself in our country as well. The late Rob Ford was our earlier version of Donald Trump – a populist reaction in Toronto to the politically correct, left-of-centre stance of former mayor David Miller.
Consider also the results of last year’s election in Alberta. While the combined right-of-centre vote (roughly defined) for the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties was 52 per cent, the combined anti-establishment vote of the Wildrose and New Democratic parties was 65 per cent; anti-establishment sentiment being a far more prominent feature of that election than any left-right division.
Is there an antidote to the arrogance of pro-establishment politics and the reactionary recklessness of anti-establishment politics in Canada? Yes, there is – the same one that de Tocqueville’s analysis of political factions in the United States suggests. And that is for parties to decide whether they intend to be governed by the aristocratic passion that seeks to restrict the political authority of the people, or to be governed by the democratic passion that seeks to responsibly expand it.
In future, the most important part our parties’ platforms may well be the portion that deals with democratic reforms – reforms necessary to regain public trust in politics, parties and governments. Without a regaining of such trust, the implementation of essential fiscal, economic and social policies becomes virtually impossible.
In the game of bridge, the “trump card” is the most powerful card in a particular round and defeats all others. In the game of politics, “revitalized democracy” is the trump card that, properly played, trumps all competitors, including both pro- and anti-establishment politics.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on April 21, 2016