Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump may be increasing. But it is an open question whether the prospect of her victory will be enough to reassure the world about the crisis of American democracy. This election is straight out of the nightmare degeneration of democracy described in Plato’s Republic. American democracy has given unprecedented space to a man with deep tyrannical instincts. There is a fascination with evil that seems almost to give a thrill. It is dulling the power of discrimination and judgment. The line between truth and opinion seems to be blurred. Sexual misogyny has breached all restraints of decorum. Institutions like parties, and the media, abetted this onslaught rather than checking it. The Republicans, the party that sermonised about character, rolled over. And all in the name of the poor. The mask of civility that gives the soul a semblance of outward order and restraint has crumbled.
It is disconcerting that these tendencies have been unleashed despite, arguably, one of the most accomplished, and in many ways, exemplary presidents of modern times, Barack Obama, being at the helm for eight years. How could his presidency sow the seeds of moral confusion? There is much to be discussed and debated about the Obama presidency. But on even the meanest interpretations, there is nothing in his record that presages this degree of polarisation, resentment and sheer refusal to truth. How could this come to pass?
The first interpretation is simply that we are seeing the politics of resentment pure and simple. Hitherto privileged groups, particularly white males, have not reconciled to two of the largest social phenomena of our times: Racial emancipation and ethnic diversity on the one hand and gender equality on the other. The psychological burdens of adjusting to the fact that groups that you hitherto exercised impunity over are no longer subordinate are greater than we thought; Tocqueville’s pessimism about the difficulties of this adjustment were more right than Enlightenment hopes about a post- identity politics.
This undercurrent was there all along. The Republicans did their best to attack Obama, not because of ideological differences, but because his success would represent something far more unsettling. The ease with which Hillary is subject to double standards, an alchemy that converts even her possible virtues into vices (her patience into cravenness, her centrism into mere opportunism, her stamina and endurance into a hunger for power), speaks of the same phenomenon. What Trump was saying is rooted in the logic of what a lot of people wanted to say. He just made the mistake of demonstrating how misogyny and racism, once unleashed, devour everyone, not one group at a time. If this sentiment is indeed widespread, it is hard to imagine it being easily bottled. If, despite great structural progress, misogyny and racism have shown themselves to be mercurially adaptive, American democracy will have stormy days ahead. In a gendered election, will her win settle the matter, or unleash more dark forces? It is likely Hillary will remain a target.
The second interpretation, not incompatible with the first, is this: This election is not largely driven by misogyny and racism, but by a critique of globalisation and plutocracy. There are deep structural forces at work in the relation between state and capital that even a talented president like Obama could not resolve. Even if it could be argued that the state of the American economy is far from being apocalyptic, rising income inequality and the perception of stagnant middle class incomes have given a fillip to a politics of fear. There were progressive possibilities in this moment, but those have largely been displaced. America is at a point where the fundamentals of the social contract seem at stake.
And here Hillary Clinton will have a double challenge. On the one hand, in ideological terms as reflected in her programme, she remains much a centrist. The big question is: Is the centrism she stands for enough to assuage the concerns of those revolting against globalisation and plutocracy? And here it has to be said that there has been a neat inversion, where the Left has unwittingly prepared the ground that the Right ran away with. “Crooked Hillary,” is not that far off from the Left’s position that sees Hillary as nothing but irremediably a representative of Wall Street. But there are ideological challenges as well.
Negotiating globalisation is not going to be politically easy. The Left is right that globalisation has to take into account those who are unable to participate. But one thing the Left has consistently underestimated is that it is very difficult to run an anti-globalisation argument without unleashing the forces of xenophobia and resentment. The Left thinks anti-globalisation is about taming capital; in politics it turns out that anti-globalisation is mostly about taming other labour and immigrants. We are seeing that in Brexit. A nation whose identity was that of a nation of immigrants, and that was at the forefront of trade openness, is now sceptical of both. Rewriting a new economic compact will not be easy.
Finally, there is America’s place in the world. Obama, in some ways, had a sophisticated understanding of the broader changes underway, and he was adjusting American engagement accordingly. There were tactical mistakes on the way. But there is no doubt that in the short run, those adjustments have left an impression of a vacuum, a sense that America was being weak in relation to its adversaries. Trump, in response, offered an incoherent combination of isolationism, muscularity and servility to assorted dictators like Putin. But this did tap into an odd incoherence you sense in the relationship between American democracy and foreign policy. America wants hegemony without paying the price for engagement. Hillary is at least consistent in wanting hegemony and being willing to pay the price of engagement. But whether the Left will stand for her interventionism, and whether the world has changed far too much for a Nineties’ world view to succeed, is an open question.
All three themes, the social question of race and misogyny, the economic question of globalisation and labour, and the hard power question of America’s role in the world, are up for grabs in a foundational way. Will Hillary have the mandate, and the power to script a new answer for them? The anarchic unleashing of dark forces in this election suggests it’s not going to be easy. The authority of American democracy has taken a beating. It will take more than the mere fact of a Hillary victory to restore faith.