Originally posted on Social Science Space, 17 November 2016
The win for Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election raises many questions about democracy and the ways in which populist movements and protest against the state are emerging in the 21st century. His success reflects a trend for mass protests against existing regimes that have been endemic in both democratic and non-democratic states over the last 20 years. The review of these matters in the recently published issue of Contemporary Social Science, guest edited by Thomas O’Brien from the Centre for Intelligence Security and Resilience at Cranfield University, is therefore very timely.
A central point that O’Brien makes in his introduction is that democracy can take many forms and operate in many different ways. Consequently it does not always contribute to the wellbeing of all citizens. There is thus a tendency for conventional political processes to be undermined and protest against the established political order to emerge, when there are perceived to be great inequalities that the existing government does not address. In Western democracies, populist movements and politicians capitalize on this natural expression of discontent, but the results are not always good for democracy. They can undermine the possibility of the state providing effective governance to deal with the concerns that underpin the protests.
The consideration of protests in a number of different countries throws into high relief the many different agencies that need to be considered if these protests are to be understood. One interesting example is provided in this special issue by Keenan Wilder. He examines the 2011 Tunisian revolution in relation to the waxing and waning powers of Tunisia’s national trade union. He shows that the strength or weakness of labor organisation was an integral part of the political process in Tunisia. The disruptive role of labor unrest both before and after 2011 influenced the nature of the revolution and its resultant politics. But although organized labor is less influential in most countries these days it was once very important. Perhaps the resurgence of right-wing politicians will reawaken the labor movement?
In the end the pragmatism of democratic politics tends to override simple-minded belief systems, suggests David Jones, even though that may take some time
In contrast to the role of the trade union movement in Tunisia, Alba Ruibal from Argentina draws attention to the significance of the judiciary in Brazil for bringing about social change. In particular she shows how feminist organizations framed the abortion issue as a rights matter in the constitutional courts. This example is likely to be very relevant to President Trump’s attempts to constrain the US abortion laws. The Brazilian supreme Federal Tribunal, as Ruibal points out, was gaining constitutional powers in the early part of the 21st century. These were harnessed by campaigners to liberalize the abortion law. This, then, is a powerful illustration of the role of an independent judiciary as a bulwark of democracy, a role that is all too often undervalued.
The redirection of political action to the courts in Brazil is one illustration of what Iban Diaz-Parra and his colleagues from the University of Seville call the “post-political situation.” This is when there is such a mistrust of the possibility of large scale political change that formal participation in politics and state institutions is regarded as pointless. Diaz-Parra argues that both in the social protests in Argentina in 2001 and the mobilization of the indignados in Spain in 2011, one primary motivating narrative was that “professional politicians are burglars” — a rhetorical device used directly by Donald Trump. One important consequence of this endemic distrust in earlier forms of politics is an acceptance of existing economic structures and a focus on short-term, pragmatic issues rather than grand ideological movements.
An extreme example of the open rejection of political democracy as the foundation of a protest movement is explored by Elisa Orofino from the University of Melbourne. She describes the rhetoric of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic protest movement that has a presence in 45 countries. It’s most fundamental argument is that nation states have no legitimacy and that a cross-national Caliphate is more reliable, accountable and effective. This radical movement can therefore be recognized as drawing on similar disgust with existing political processes to many other protest movements. It may be taken as a warning of how extremists can hijack public concerns if conventional politics does not address them.
Besides these pragmatic influences on the nature of the political process, as seen in Tunisia and Brazil, attention also needs to be paid to symbolic issues. Sanchari De from Lund University explores the role of symbolic images in the formation and support of protest movements. She takes as her example the image of Kader Molla flashing a V for victory sign after being sentenced to life imprisonment. This photograph of an accused war criminal became a dominant memory that supported the Shahbag movement in Bangladesh. It became what she calls “a material codification of the tension and struggle” that the movement enshrined. This is one of many possible examples of how populist leaders create and manipulate symbols to great effect. Trump’s campaign was a prime example of turning reality into simplified images, such as a “wall” and “banning Muslims” that were very influential.
A more optimistic note is struck by David Jones from the University of Queensland. Although he reviews the widespread growth of anti-democratic right-wing parties and leaderless networks right across Western Europe, the Middle-East, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, he comes to the conclusion that “democracies have a way of stumbling through crises.” He sees the various populist protests as being energized by a fervor that is analogous to religious belief systems, promulgating aspirations for a “harmonious new order,” with or without an all-powerful God to encourage it happening. In the end the pragmatism of democratic politics tends to override simple-minded belief systems, even though that may take some time.
The contributions to this special issue from around the world show that Trump’s success can be seen as part of a global antagonism towards conventional governance. The limitations of the predominant neoliberal democracies, which have increased inequalities, have led many to despair of influencing political outcomes. That has encouraged the growth of alternative movements seeking different routes for social change. As Trump himself indicated in his acceptance speech, he did not lead a political party but a protest movement. That blurring of the boundaries between social movements and political parties can possibly be seen as a return to the routes of radical politics, while taking it in an unpredictable direction.