I don’t think the world was really expecting it to happen. But now that it has, we need to take it extremely seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean we should take Donald Trump any more seriously now than when he stood at the podium being racist, misogynistic, bigoted and defamatory. However, thinking about what it says of the way we enact our limited powers in democracy is something that we should consider carefully.
Polar Opposites Don’t Attract Good Debate
Just as with Brexit, when you give people a simple “in or out,” “yes or no,” or “blue or orange” choice in political decisions they tend to polarise all the other connecting issues. For example, if healthcare is discussed it becomes contested as an “either/or” option, with no room between. The complexities in its delivery, funding, longevity of policies, and so on, get lost beneath the mudslinging.
This happens because politicians enter into public debates that are incredibly poor quality. Real debating requires both parties to listen carefully to the arguments made by the other side. It requires the exploration of the grey area; the uncertainty, the recognition that on some terms both sides actually agree. There is a push and pull, a tug of war of ideas in debating. In politics is just ends up as a shin-kicking match.
As issues go, immigration is a great example of why polarisation is so destructive. If it was truly a polar issue we would have one side believing that no immigration is acceptable, where the other side argues that total open and free immigration should be allowed. Both polar political opposites are absurd and unhealthy; perhaps even impossible to achieve.
Voting for people or issues?
But elections are so polarised by politicians wanting you to support them as people that they become back-biting competitions, void of any real discussion of issues. The public end up making decisions based on who is able to most successfully debase the other candidate. They even stoop low enough to worry about what they wear or how they do their hair.
That is exactly how Farage gets so much attention: not with informed or intelligent argument, but with simplistic idealism or scaremongering specifically designed to inflame voters in scapegoating fashion.
The casualty is knowledge and understanding. The consequence is a false choice made. After all, if you took your car to two mechanics and both of them told you how bad the other mechanic was, but didn’t tell you what was wrong with your car, who do you choose? You end up choosing the mechanic you like the most – and that might not be the one who is able to diagnose the fault or fix the problem with your car. In fact, you might well have two faults on your car: one that the first mechanic is the best to fix, and the other the second mechanic is best to fix. But because you have been given the polar opposites tirade you end up with a job only 50% done properly.
So you lose.
This isn’t a “democracy”. We don’t have true democratic systems which are, by definition, when the power is in the hands of the people. Instead we are given one single, ill-informed choice that ends in a decision based on the lesser of two evils and nothing can be done about it for years. Even worse, we end up with split nations.
Think of what happened in the UK post Brexit: divisive, racist attacks increased; unsettled communities turned in on themselves; suspicion, blame and segregation increased. And to make it worse, promises that had been made to secure the vote had to be revealed as lies and false – mere propaganda to win the single choice.
The US election worked in the same way, and from what Trump and Clinton did, communities will be split over the issues for a long time. In the meantime policy could be made that affects people’s lives quite profoundly. After all, the refusal of a visa could have wider effect on the life of the applicant and their family and future.
And now the USA faces at least one term of a president who got into power by knowing that enough people were shallow enough to be carried away by his deliberately offensive speeches designed to stir more hatred than celebrate good.