Apathy not populism will be the West’s downfall: Thoughts on the US election

The aftermath of every election or plebiscite in recent times has been met with an all too familiar wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on the part of the defeated party.

Plus ça change.

The subsequent knee-jerk reaction tends to always focus on a forensic analysis of the black box data. What went wrong? What were the causes? How can we convince the electorate that our way of thinking is to their greater advantage the next time they are polled?

Already, not one week since the US elections, the standard bearer of the progressives in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders has called for a hostile takeover of the party machinery. We’ve seen in this country following Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election how problematic such a sudden shift in direction can prove (depending on which side of the pro/anti-Corbyn fence you stand).

Unfortunately for the United States, this particular presidential election campaign has caused such a crash that the flight data recorder could take months or even years to find let alone fully interpret. Already a slew of pundits and media commentators – the same folk discredited as being out of touch liberal elitists who ignored or misinterpreted just how large the groundswell of Trumpist support was going to be – have tried to pick through the wreckage of a particularly rancorous presidential campaign in an eagerness to atone.

And yet, the elephant in the room is something I have seen relatively few commentators fully acknowledge as of yet – the deafening roar of an apathetic American electorate.

Nearly half of eligible voters chose not to vote. 43.1 per cent of Americans of voting age – over 100 million people – didn’t cast a ballot, marking a 20-year low. To put it plainly, just over a quarter of the electorate handed Donald Trump the keys to the most powerful office in the world. A president-elect who lost the popular vote, no less.

Such a low turnout is not unheard of. On the contrary, it is characteristic of US elections, which are noted for their below-average voter turnout compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The UK fares slightly better, with 72.2 per cent turning out for the EU referendum in June while 84.6 per cent of Scots voted in the independence referendum in 2014.

That said, Hillary Clinton is still on course to win more votes than any other presidential candidate in history bar Barack Obama which makes this loss one of the most staggering and consequential.


© Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The reasons for wider voter disaffection in the post-industrial era are manifest and hardly unique to any one country. Electorates around the world are chronically disaffected with the political establishment. In the US, as was the case in austerity-ridden Britain prior to the Brexit vote, the pinch of higher living costs versus the stagnation of wages have reached the point where life for those trying to make ends meet could hardly get any worse by taking a risk on change of any kind.

It should be noted, however, that Trump performed no better or worse than Mitt Romney, Obama’s challenger in 2012. Furthermore, if you drill down to the bedrock of his support, the vast majority of earners above $50,000 a year plumbed for Trump (as they did with Romney) while the majority of those on the lowest incomes cast their lot in with Hillary Clinton. So, surely it’s false to perpetuate the claim that this vote was solely a populist working class revolt against elites?

It is this narrative that has helped preserve the sometimes uneasy primacy of the post-war liberal consensus.

There was of course a racist element geared towards recalibrating the US after eight years of Obama – the so-called “whitelash” of the educated and non-educated white majority who backed Trump. It is not hard to perceive the dog whistle racism in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, no more so than Nigel Farage broadly grimacing in front of a deliberately misleading image of fleeing refugees during the Brexit referendum campaign.

But a deep-seated apathy is arguably far more dangerous and destructive than populism. Indeed, when mixed together they make a lethal cocktail, one that brought mankind to its knees only within the lifetime of my grandparents.

When little was done to challenge the sexist, misogynistic and racist campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump, the US electorate at large simply assented with their blithe dismissal of it. In doing so, they ignored history at their peril.

With each passing Armistice Day, the number of servicemen dwindles ever more. With them, the potency of their histories, long disseminated from their own mouths to the wider public, diminishes. Instead, it resorts back to fading black and white photographs without a compelling narrative to keep the warnings alive.

It is this narrative that has helped preserve the sometimes uneasy primacy of the post-war liberal consensus. It has shaped the lives we lead today. In some cases, these stories tell of how liberties and freedoms long since repressed or removed were restored.

A similar complacency and unwillingness to challenge the ideas of the day helped, albeit inadvertently, pave the way for the horrors of Auschwitz in the last century. It shouldn’t take seeing the trails of nail marks etched onto gas chamber walls to make you truly appreciate the cataclysm now facing a liberal world order that – while imperfect – has broadly delivered peace and prosperity for the last 70 years. Admitted I’m reverting to sensationalist hyperbole here but I won’t belabour the point further.

In the post-truth political landscape, we’re losing sight of what we know to be true and moreover, what we are inclined to believe when we give credence to incendiary content on social media or editorials in the partisan press.

For many who thought a Trump presidency was unthinkable, I ask you now where do we go from here? Where does the rot stop?

The cradles of 1930s fascism are next to face down their demons to avoid a repeat of history. Brexit and the advent of a posturing ultra-nationalist in the White House have emboldened far right nationalists across Europe with Italy, Austria, France and Germany all facing electoral tests in the coming months.

So what is the remedy? Well, I’m afraid that all depends on what we – and the Americans – decide to do now. Protesting against the President-elect in the streets of American cities is one thing, but we are only really beginning to glean what a Trump presidency will actually look like, although the selection of an alternative right winger to the post of chief strategist and advisor at the White House rings several alarm bells already.

We now face a stark choice – the limp acceptance of the fate history signals will surely befall us through disinterest or collective action to prod the indifferent off their fences to avoid future calamities. Which is it?


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