Yet again, the polls are blamed for getting it wrong. Just as with Brexit and the Spanish general election last June, polls seriously misled us on expected outcomes. So the time has come to move beyond a focus on the polls to the phenomenon they are missing. And what a phenomenon!
It is hard to grasp the extent of the shifts taking place as a sector of the electorate whose frustrations and anger previously seemed to be very poorly represented within the political system suddenly finds a voice that galvanises them. And they erupt on to the political stage.
This is a classic definition of revolution, and to an extent this is what happened in the US on November 8th. But, of course, we normally think of revolutions in a positive sense, as the eruption of the disaffected in ways that are going to change the system radically for the better. Clearly the xenophobic, racist and misogynist rhetoric that has dominated the Trump campaign, contrasted with the almost complete absence of any policy platform other than vague sloganeering, offers little hope of a presidency that will do anything except further deepen and poison the US body politic.
But amid the shock of the Trump victory we need to remember that we have also had more progressive and disciplined versions of the eruption of the disaffected, manifestations that are much more hopeful. The emergence of Sanders and Corbyn as figures that have catalyzed a strong base of support, and the breakthrough of Podemos, do offer the prospect of more positive revolutionary change.
Labelling all this as populism, as has become quite commonplace, is very unhelpful to gaining an understanding of what is going on. Firstly, it is used in a dismissive way that seems devoid of any precise meaning except that certain leaders seem to have popular appeal. That this is then dismissed as somehow not serious politics has the effect of presuming that the mainstream parties of centre right and centre left are the only reliable and effective vehicles for political change.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and this is the lesson that these seismic shifts hold for us. As was correctly identified by Ireland’s two centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the last budget, the centre ground is under threat from the emergence of anti-systemic politics, either of the right or of the left. Where they are wrong is to believe that the only way forward is to try to shore up the centre ground. This only further delays the inevitable.
And the inevitable is that we now fast entering an era when more extreme positions on right and left are going to reshape political discourse, political parties and political systems. As has happened this week in the US, it can erupt with surprising speed, once the disaffected find a leader figure that seems to give them a voice. To this extent, one of the few certainties that can be affirmed in this time of rapid systemic change, is that the political systems that provided stability and solidity to western societies in the post World War II world are imploding before our eyes.
It is far too early to know what might replace them, but their essential failure has been their inability in recent times to respond effectively to the basic needs of a large sector of the population for some security of economic and social belonging. As neoliberal politics systematically eroded the economic and social model that underpinned some expectation of security and progress, most starkly exposed in the obscene levels of inequality that have come to characterise so many of our societies, many people lost faith in the system. This has been happening quietly over decades, certainly since the Thatcher and Reagan era, but it has now become the tidal wave that hit the US system this week.
So, dismissing this phenomenon, as somehow a populist gesture that is bound to fail, is to miss the point entirely. Yes, of course, the sloganeering that passes for policy in Trump’s rhetoric, offers no basis for satisfying the frustrations that it gives vent to. But once galvanized, this new ‘movement’ as Trump calls it, is never going to go silent again. And his oppositional rhetoric, like so much rhetoric of the right over the ages, will find many enemies to blame for his lack of effective policies.
The important think to realise is that a space is opening up here challenging those who want a more progressive transformation of our society towards greater equality, justice and sustainability. Indeed, everything is now to play for as our systems erode and open new spaces, sometimes with surprising speed. How can we sow the seeds of a new disciplined politics, a radical politics of equality and respect that mobilises people around a project of true transformation, and indeed education. As Sanders and Corbyn are trying to do, we need to fashion progressive movements that occupy the political spaces now opening up.
This is the lesson of Trump. We have no idea how toxic and divisive it is going to get as he realises that he cannot run the US government like he runs his companies. But this is the context in which the battle for ideas and for a progressive project becomes all the more urgent and immediate. Instead of lamenting, we need to begin some radical utopian planning and thinking.