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Democracy After Trump

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Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump cheer during as they watch election returns during an election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York.
Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump cheer during as they watch election returns during an election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

Donald Trump’s great success in the U.S. presidential election did not contribute to the prestige of the world’s most liberal democracy, nor add much to its self-confidence. But the most interesting fact is that an event that sent shock waves through the entire world occurred at a time of peace, quiet and relative stability.

The United States may have difficult economic and social problems, but these problems are not catastrophic. The unemployment rate in the United States is very comfortable compared to that of the European Union, economic growth is slow but ongoing and inflation is under control. The rich may be getting even richer and the poor are suffering no less. But there’s no similarity to the situation in Europe after WWI, which ended 98 years ago today, when the liberal democracy collapsed, it was said, due to the unprecedented crisis at the time.

The reason for Trump’s election may stem from the fact that a liberal democracy is first and foremost a rational political culture, based on the agreement that no social stratum or group will break the rules and everyone will strive for a reasonable common denominator.

Trump proved that this political culture can be breached not only in a situation in which millions of people don’t return from the battlefield or lose their source of livelihood, but in pretty ordinary times. All it takes is an instinctive understanding of the forces that drive people.

Democracy can thrive when citizens weigh their options seriously and make their decisions on the basis of utilitarian considerations. But as Trump has proved, rational politics doesn’t have the power to galvanize people in the way that triggering instincts, feelings, fears and hatreds does.

The politics of myth will for the most part be stronger than politics based on the voter’s intelligence. The cultural, tribal identity has greater power to rouse than does an appeal to our panhuman identity.

However, Trump’s election must not constitute a sort of proof that liberal democracy is futile. On the contrary – precisely because of the doubts and fears, we must keep fighting for liberal democratic values and protect them fastidiously.

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