Post-Election Reflections on Democracy

Rink Dickinson
November 23, 2016
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I want to start by sharing about my personal politics.

I am a democratic socialist, an electoral aficionado, and someone who thinks a lot about U.S. and world history. My voting history is varied; at times I have voted for the Democratic Party, as well as third parties. And not that long ago I voted for a Republican for Senate in my state of Rhode Island. I have voted with and without excitement. 

Eugene Debs ran for president in 1912 and got six percent of the vote nationally as a Socialist. A few years after defeat, Debs spoke out loudly against the U.S. going into World War I. He was put in prison for exercising his rights and opposing that bloody conflict. I honor Debs’ actions as an example of the America that has been, and the America that many of us are still fighting for.

As shocked as I was by the election of Trump, I find my thoughts turning to democracy, both in the U.S. and abroad. How is democracy faring? What should we learn from this democratic election result?

THE EQUAL EXCHANGE DEMOCRACY

Since its origin in 1986, Equal Exchange has been organized as a democratic organization. We formally took on a worker co-op structure in 1990. With over 100 worker-owner members, we are one of the largest experiments in the country in the area of workplace democracy. Our worker-owners elect the board, control the voting stock of the organization, and sometimes make high-level decisions. We ourselves are a network between tens of thousands of democratically organized small farmers and hundreds of thousands of not-yet organized U.S. consumers

At Equal Exchange, democracy is not under external threat. We support and believe in this model: our managers, our board, our outside shareholders, our members. That’s not to say we aren’t without challenges; it’s often difficult for us to build participation, engagement, energy and direction. We are separated by occupation, language, geography, culture, race, gender, age, education and power among other things. We’re learning as we grow, and we know more about what it means to live democracy than 99.9% of the businesses out there. Thirty years in, and we know we are still young in our development as a democratic workplace. The path is challenging.

Democracy work is humbling, often not knowable, and by definition requires experimentation, failure, and trust to work on a functional level. It is very easy for fear to undermine progress, and permanently poison the well of trust and experimentation. If this is true for us on a micro level of one medium-sized organization … what about on the national level?

EUROPEAN CONTEXT

Some look to Europe as a more advanced, developed model of democracy. And yet, my view is that Europe is likely in worse shape than the U.S. How is political democracy actually faring in the U.K., or Spain, or Germany? The U.K. is reeling with big political and economical issues: which countries make up the U.K.? What does the U.K. want from its relations with Europe? Similar to the election of Trump with 47 percent of the popular vote, the rejection of Brexit by 52 percent of the voters will have profound impacts for a divided nation. But is any outcome likely to lead to a stronger, healthier democracy?

In Spain, the national government selection process has been semi-frozen for almost a year. There are competing parties on the left who will not cooperate with each other or with the parties on the right. And likewise on the right side of the spectrum. Further complicating the situation is the desire of certain states to not even be part of Spain. The democratic system exists but has no trust and is barely functioning.

The German situation is different internally, but what jumps out to me is the external situation. Germany is a country with a resume unfortunately. We cannot forget that Hitler was voted into power before plunging the world into the depths of fascism, the bloodiest war in history, and the holocaust. Today’s Germany is the economic beneficiary of a less than democratic European economic-political union. Germany keeps her national government and does not share the economic or political pain of structural recession with the junior partner states of Spain, Greece, or Ireland, who live under German/European system domain. Hardly the conditions in which democracy can flourish.

OUR ELECTION

So, what is the state of U.S. democracy? What does it mean for democracy that we have elected a president who led the campaign to challenge the citizenship of our first black president? What role did the media -- right, center, and left -- play in building the conditions for Trump to win the Republican nomination and then the presidency? My sense is that during the primaries the media created Trump at a huge and completely unfair disadvantage to the other Republican candidates. In the general election there was a fair amount of information on both candidates available (if you could wade through the lies, spin, and hype) for voters to choose their preference.

What do we make of the rigged system argument and what does it mean for the health of our democracy? Trump declared the system (economical and political) to be rigged and promoted the view that only he could “un-rig” the system. He openly questioned the election system itself, depending on the outcome. Clinton borrowed some Sanders language to indicate that, in some ways, the system was rigged and she had the right plan to make it less rigged. She obviously accepted the integrity of the election system.

Trump is a populist pirate. He allows citizens to vote to blow up the system of bad economics, ineffective politics, and failed pro-corporate trade deals in quest of “greatness” and jobs. Along with this recipe comes variable doses of skullduggery, xenophobia, misogyny, and acceptance of the head pirate as a great leader to be admired and idolized. 

The Trump phenomenon is a symptom of our weakened democratic muscles. But the Trump and Obama “movements” share some characteristics. Each was successful in turning their story into a brand and a cult of personality. Each benefitted from massive media exposure. Each appealed to marginal voters on an emotional level and secured the nomination and the presidency on that appeal. Each of their victories demonstrated the hollowness of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Real democracy work is needed more than ever. This work will be challenging. It requires looking at things that we don’t want to. It requires seeing things more as they are than as we wish them to be. It requires long-term engagement, inclusion, and building a culture of listening and respect. This work must happen in both political parties, but more importantly, in society at large. 

Keep the faith.