The politics of de-legitimacy


Prof John Rennie Short 

Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Recent books include Urban Theory (2014, 2nd ed) and Stress Testing The USA (2013). His essays have appeared in The Conversation, Newsweek, Salon, Slate, Time, US News and World Report and The Washington Post.



US2016 - Section 8

Section 8: Result and Beyond

It’s a shock. He beat the polls, overturned established political knowledge about how to run a modern campaign and suspended the laws of political gravity that always pull down deeply-flawed and gaffe-prone politicians.

But Trump’s victory is a symbol of a lack of confidence in government, a legitimation crisis in the USA. The ending of the long post-war boom and the declining confidence in the economic globalization project has raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence. 

His success in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was based on the discontent of white blue-collar workers whose wages have been declining since at least 1970 and accelerating since 2000. Many factors are at work but one of the most visible is deindustrialization. Manufacturing jobs provided the platform into the middle class for non-college educated workers. But manufacturing jobs have declined dramatically. There were more than 18 million manufacturing jobs in the USA in 1984. By 2012 it was little over 12 million. A dramatic decline in good paying jobs that depressed regional and urban economies outside of the two coasts.

In the global shift in manufacturing from the developed world to the developing world, a new middle class was created in South Korea and China while a middle class was undermined in the USA with low wage growth for non-college educated workers and a decline in industrial cities and regions across the country. 

This discontent was not given political articulation by the two mainstream parties. The Republic Party used its working class base as electoral cannon fodder to promote an agenda that aided its big donors. The base was fed rhetoric while the business wing received all the benefits from free trade and the disciplining unions. Meanwhile, the Democratic Administrations of Clinton and Obama pursued an economic agenda that promoted globalization. If the Republicans had a trickle down theory that believed, despite evidence to the contrary, making the rich richer benefits everyone, the Democratic equivalent was that the benefits of globalization would eventually raise all boats. Many of the blue-collar workers felt ignored by Democrats who promoted economic globalization that undercut their jobs and a cultural relativism that undermined their values. Hilary Clinton’s 2016 strategy was built on getting out the vote of blacks, Latinos and the millennials. She rarely addressed the concerns of white workers in rural and small town USA. White working class workers were ignored. Her Presidency promised a rerun of Obama but without the charisma and the sense of profound social optimism. The palpable animus against her was visceral, a mixture of Clinton-Obama fatigue, distrust of insider government-economic elites, resistance to social progressive policies and outright misogyny.

Shamelessly used by the Republicans and shabbily treated by the Democrats, many turned to Trump. His outsider status and maverick campaign resonated with a substantial mass of Americans harboring a sense of alienation from the mainstream political parties. 

The cozy relationship between the main parties and the money of Wall Street was also a matter of public scorn. Both Democrats and Republicans worked to undercut the regulations in place since the New Deal that limited power of finance. And as the shackles were loosened the concentration of power continued and even more money flowed from the bankers to the politicians. There was a revolving door between Wall Street and the political establishment. It was a totally non-partisan affair as Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers moved from key government posts to a lucrative gig with banks and hedge funds and sometimes back into politics again. Later, in an act of political deafness or perhaps donor demand, the Obama Administration appointed Geithner, directly involved in the deal, to become Treasury Secretary. The 2008 bailout to a corrupt financial system signaled the extent of the Wall Street hijacking of government. Public discontent, exemplified in the rise of the Tea Party, soon hardened to a cynicism that is now baked into the present legitimation crisis. The Clinton candidacy was undermined by her Wall Street connections, 

Trump’s stunning electoral win demonstrates not so much the strength of his candidacy but the depth of despair felt by about the country’s direction. His win is the equivalent of a scream of resentment, an articulation of alienation and a symbol of a deep crisis of legitimation.