Let’s be honest with ourselves. The old political order deserved to die. The moneyed interests that manipulate both political parties and finance the elaborate electoral machinery that shapes so-called “public opinion” effectively suffocated American democracy a long while back. In our modern high-tech society, the notion that we are self-governing citizens has been turned into a cynical joke.
People knew this, sort of. As long as things were going good in their lives, most people learned to live with it. Both parties made pretty promises during campaigns, but average folks understood that these were mostly garbage. Whatever it took to win the election. Voting became a marginal option, since most people had learned to expect that not much would be changed.
The actual facts of governing—the real meat of power politics—were reserved for privileged circles who needed to know what was going down, the lobbyists and do-gooders and agents of heavyweight influence. The news media made sure that the real struggles of governing were dumbed down for average readers so as not to disturb their innocent ignorance.
This is the system that Donald Trump and his army of mobilized citizens blew up on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. I predict that this date will live forever in the annals of small-d democracy. The governing system was overthrown by the plain people, who are mostly ignored by systems of power and influence. These folks literally didn’t count with the bean counters who organize campaign strategies or with the economists who measure something called “GDP” or the reporters who explain to the untutored public what the economists said.
Yet these popular grievances were not secret. People have been expressing their pain and anger for a generation or longer, but neither political party paid much attention—not the party of business and capital, and not the party of working people and organized labor.
I have been writing about this story for roughly 30 years—several books and numerous articles (some friends might say I am obsessed). I have described the deep politics of how corporate interests captured politics and manipulated both political parties, to the deep injury of ordinary working people. I lamely predicted that one party or another would eventually take up their cause and speak for fundamental reforms. If they didn’t, I warned, the popular anger would someday explode.
I would say I was half right. Democrats and Republicans remained clueless and indifferent to the social reality. Tuesday’s election was the explosion, but it was spectacularly nonviolent. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I voted for Hillary myself. And I realize that many Americans (including my own kinfolk) are profoundly alarmed about the potential violence expressed by Trump and his legions. His racist remarks are a frightening foreshadowing of what his presidency could become. Trump and his political allies will be held responsible if that occurs.
But I emphasize that Tuesday’s ballot-box rebellion was a profound act of small-d democracy. I know that will offend many who are genuinely fearful of the violent talk and bigoted slurs that Trump has employed and encouraged. But so far, the Trump campaign has operated within the nonviolent democratic tradition.
In fact, Trump and his mischievous followers have been extraordinarily inventive. They turned the usual elements of political campaigns upside down. They demonstrated that a candidate doesn’t need a sponsoring billionaire to excite and mobilize voters. And he made a mockery of the pseudo-scientific systems that statistical wise guys have developed to estimate the odds of election results.
Most shocking of all, Trump ignored the inflated policy talk that other politicians employ to sound like they are well-informed. That double-talk impresses nitwit reporters who are easily seduced by a few big words from nitwit economists. Trump, on the other hand, spoke crudely and often with ugly insinuations, but he sounded authentic to his intended audience—all those ordinary citizens who didn’t take Economics 101.
The media have tossed around the “populist” label this year to identify these small-d democratic intruders. But the reporters (and many scholars) are quite stupid about the true meaning of populism. They should read Lawrence Goodwyn’s enthralling history of the original agrarian movement in the 1880s, The Populist Moment.
Goodwyn explained that ordinary folks typically develop their knowledge from everyday experience, not from schoolbooks or learned professors. The original populists were farmers and self-taught thinkers on economics—critical of banks and railroads and private enterprise, but also of government. So they had to develop their own commonsense ideas for how the economy should function. Many of their original concepts were forerunners to the great reform legislation of the 20th century, including the New Deal.
As Goodwyn taught, plain people sometimes get to the truth about things ahead of the experts but are typically ignored by the authorities. On Tuesday, these self-taught citizens spoke thunderously to the nation. They found their democratic power. We should listen respectfully to what they said.