In his book At Home, bestselling author Bill Bryson tells of walking through Norfolk, England, with an archeologist friend. Every church they looked at was depressed three feet into the ground – like “a weight sitting on a cushion,” he writes. Bryson assumed it was because of the weight of the structures over the centuries. His friend answered instead that it was because the graveyards around the churches had built up the earth around the structures over many years.
I thought of that observation in considering the fate of democracy in recent years. It was once a vaunted and vaulted political institution that for 400 years had enlightened and empowered the world in most places where it was practiced. Two world wars had convinced most Western nations that more violence was on the way unless power and wealth were spread about more equitably. Global institutions were quickly established as the architecture for international progress.
For a time it worked, until money grew more concentrated in fewer hands and the environment took a pounding. Citizens morphed into consumers and their political representatives transitioned from astute managers to pandering salespersons.
With a global financial system bent on the bottom line and a rapid rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it was inevitable that, despite all the affluence, American family wealth was in short supply. Even though more money was being generated than at any other time in history, large swaths of it didn’t make it to those billions of people who had bought into the democratic dream. Soon enough, infrastructure began to deteriorate, meaningful employment flattened out or disappeared altogether, the natural environment was increasingly on life support, and citizens embraced the troubling response of doubting their leaders for not delivering on their promises.
Now, like those old Norfolk buildings, the great structure of democracy seems to be sinking, not through its weight, but due to the build up of corpses of all those who had once believed in its possibilities. It still looks quaint, grand even, but many of its adherents now stand in doubt.
Regardless of the outcome of the American election, both Republican and Democratic parties had maintained an international system that benefited elite individuals and financial institutions. The parties had become so vengeful towards each other that any real assistance to the average family became a casualty of war. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have maintained that declining political system, and Donald Trump, enriched by avoiding his accountability to his fellow taxpayers, could hardly be expected to adopt the role of a modern-day Robin Hood. Democracy is eroding.
It’s hardly an American phenomenon. What we are witnessing around the world isn’t so much a rise of the Right, but the resurgence of the Wrong. Extremists, racists, ideologues, bigots, anarchists, neo-Nazis – all these and more have surged through the abiding cracks and broken windows of our democracies, and rather than being repelled by voters, are in the process of being embraced in increasing numbers.
Our advance as democracies has been in doubt for some time. Too many people have been left behind. Too many families feel their wealth has flatlined. Too many men and women can’t locate good jobs. Too many people haven’t so much fallen into poverty as remain mired in it. Social justice is a term easily thrown into election campaigns and just as quickly dropped in the years following. Too many feel they are losing control of their country, and that is a serious sentiment, destined to affect any election.
As Canadians, many of us supported Hillary Clinton in the belief that it was time that an obstinate glass barrier was shattered, but we were under no illusion that besides breaking through the ceiling she wouldn’t raise the floor for all Americans. For that to occur, the entire political and financial structures throughout the West will have to be hauled into dry dock and refitted for a more equitable world. It is beyond foolish to believe that Donald Trump will undertake that overhaul.
It is easy for those concerned over the Trump victory to assume that his followers are extremists and racist bigots. They are among his supporters to be sure, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for him were decent, hard working citizens who just felt it was time for a change. Many confessed to holding their collective nose while voting for the billionaire, but they were united in believing that decades of Republican-Democratic leadership had left America out of touch with average people. They have a point, as did the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters who innately understood that Clinton would more than likely support the status quo. A month ago pundits were saying the Republican Party leadership had to change; now they say it’s the Democratic leadership that must transform. The reality is that they both must be reconstructed from the giant fundraising machines they have become.
There are lessons from the American election that have nothing to do with bigots or billionaire gropers. Millions who once worshipped at the altar of democracy no longer believe in its efficacy. The only way to restore its effectiveness is for average citizens to defend historic progress at the same time as they speak out against the inequalities that have resulted from a democratic institution that for too long tolerated a growing world of winners and losers.