In the wake of the American election and Trump’s victory, I have heard a full range of reactions expressed – everything from vindication for the average guy to people made physically ill by the thought of Trump as President of the United States. I have strong political convictions and beliefs; however, as a political scientist, and as I watched the results coming in on election night, I quickly switched on my more analytical side. For someone who studies politics, this result is fascinating and raises some important questions for us as citizens (and not just citizens of the US).
First, once again, the opinion polls had it all wrong. Nobody, including me, thought that Trump was going to win. The attempt to treat human behaviour as something that can be predicted through scientific study and mathematical formulas again failed to predict the outcome. I think this tendency is interesting because of the faith we as a society continue to place in numbers and easy interpretations of both those numbers and complex political information. Over 60 million Americans voted for Trump to become president: only slightly less than those who voted for Clinton (but the reasons behind that are another column). What we saw was a massive push from mostly working-class, average Joes against what they perceive (perhaps accurately) as an increasingly elite and corrupt political system. In this context, Clinton was probably one of the worst choices to run against Trump because she epitomized in many ways the economic and political elite of the United States that he challenged.
Second, although Trump’s election is perhaps the most extreme success story for populist leaders, the rise of populism – particularly populism that is grounded in anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-‘socialist’ sentiments – is something that we are witnessing throughout the Western world. We can see this in the (again wrongly-predicted) UK referendum on leaving the EU, and in the fact that radical right wing parties are sitting in more European parliaments in greater numbers (including in the European Union itself). Even in reasonable, equality-oriented Sweden, the extreme far right party, the Sweden Democrats, won 13% of the seats in the 2014 election and currently has almost 25% of popular support in the country. France’s National Front Party is experiencing a similar rise in popularity. Dare I even suggest that we see a similar trend in Canada with politicians such as Jason Kenney or the Wild Rose Party? As much as some may want to just dismiss these groups, and Trump, as backward, ridiculous, ignorant, etc., what they are saying is obviously resonating with a whole lot of people and, as such, we all need to take it seriously. To be clear, I am not saying that the populist ranks are correct in their message or beliefs, but we need to take on the challenge of dealing with these issues in society. We need to enter into a broad dialogue about the economy and immigration and equality and – as I am always saying to my students – it isn’t a dialogue if neither side is listening or willing to change its position. The American election campaign is an excellent example of this principle.
Finally, as frightening as the idea of Trump as President is to many, there have been many bad Presidents and Prime Ministers throughout history. The U.S. political system is built on a foundation of mistrust in authority. As such, there are serious checks on the power of the President. Yes, in a worst-case scenario, Trump could theoretically abandon the U.S. constitution and the principle of separation of powers, but I don’t think this will be his first move. As we saw with Obama and health care, it can be incredibly difficult for a President to get Congress to do his bidding. Not only can a President not introduce his own legislation, he also cannot force his party to vote for it.
Both the best thing and the worst thing about democracy is that it is the rule of the people. We are bound by what the people decide (or who they vote for), even when we think it was a really bad decision, which is why it is so important to have checks and balances built into a political system so that one individual cannot have too much power. These reasons are also why we need to ensure that the political representatives accurately reflect the inputs of citizens and remain responsive to the will of the people.
Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on November 22nd, 2016.