Make democracy great again

Boston, USA. 20 October 2016


8 November 2016. Brookline (MA). A line of American flags leads the voters towards the entrance of the polling station located in the Town Hall. Silvia Mazzocchin/BU News Service

Within just a few weeks from the presidential elections, the United States seem to stand in front of one of the most controversial elections ever for their country. The Republican candidate Donald Trump claims to be the voice of the citizens, leading them towards a new future full of more opportunities for everybody, while the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton appeals to the voters with her motto of standing together and be stronger together. The two candidates represent two extreme positions for many different aspects. On one side there is a political agenda centered on recalling the past, and bringing back the golden ages of the American dream. On the other side we can find the call for a different future, embodied by the could-be first woman serving as president, and the promise of a change based on equality, human rights, families care and environmental protection. We can find one side a neophyte to politics, a man that spent his previous years in the world of business and TV shows, on the other side a woman, a life-long figure committed to politics, as secretary of state, senator from New York, first lady of the United States, first lady of Arkansas, and previously as a practicing lawyer and activist. Nonetheless, there is something that unites them. On both sides, the main feature that has united the presidential candidates seems to be the continuous allegations and unlawful cases pouring out from leaks and investigation. Resulting from this, an increased distrust of the citizens for both the candidates.

In order to shed some light on how we have arrived to this point, and how this campaign has differed from the previous ones, on October 20th Boston University organized the annual Gitner Lecture panel discussion under the title “Trump v. Clinton: How Does 2016 Compare?”. The panelists invited to lead the discussion were Bruce Schulman—BU’s William E. Huntington Professor of History, Neta Crawford, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, and Katherine Levine Einstein, a CAS assistant professor of political science.

Shulman provided an historical perspective, explaining which factors enabled the Donald Trump to arrive so close to the presidency, and to result in this “bizarre campaign that seems out of the politics”. The 2016 campaign highlights a series of shifts in the nature of the campaigns, and represents the apotheosis of an opening process that started 50 year ago. In 1972 the McGovern-Fraser Commission launched some changes that boosted the modern outsider campaign strategy, giving nomination choices to the voters through the primaries. Thanks to this Trump, even if not supported by the Republican party, managed to win the primaries.

In the opinion of Schulman, another aspect of the Trump’s strategy that reflects the past is his communication strategy. Trump has done a wise use of the traditional and social media, managing to become a worldwide star and favoring a spectularisation of the campaign. His forerunner could be considered President Richard Nixon, who appeared in 1968 on the TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

8 November 2016. Boston, MA. Citizens vote at the polling station in the State House during Election Day. Silvia Mazzocchin/BU News Service

During the discussion, Katherine Levine Einstein highlighted two other critical issues that have characterized the 2016 campaign – misinformation and violation of democracy norms. In her opinion, misinformation is particularly dangerous, especially if it takes into account identity issues, as for example the doubts that Trump casted on Obama’s birth. If a false information is consistent with some previous views of the individuals, it is then extremely difficult to persuade people of the wrongness of the presented information. People are unlikely to change their mind, says Katherine Levine Einstein, and the “misinformed stay misinformed”.

The Trump’s phenomenon is something never seen in the politics of the United states. He has overturned not just the typical process, norms and traditions of the presidential elections, but also to a certain extent the basic foundation of the country – democracy. In the words of Katherine Levine Einstein, the absurdity of this run for the presidency is the presence of a candidate that does not really believe in democracy, as shown with his continuous claims that the elections will be rigged. He has encouraged the voters to go the polling stations and check the process. Not only that, but even more alarming, is his position towards the results of the election. After the results of the voting, usually the defeated candidate would give a concession speech, calling for unity of the country, referring to the new president as “our new president”, and explaining why losing the campaign was noble. Trump does not see willing to do this, and in last speeches he seems determined to cast doubts on the results of the elections.

What is wrong and different with this election could be however just the tip of the iceberg, hiding some deeper and more difficult issues underneath. Neta Crawford reminded the audience about the core principle of democracy: the participation of citizens. But what if the citizens do not trust anymore the democratic process? In her opinion, this is what has happened in the USA. The feeling of wrongness about the process of politics and the deeds of the political class has lead to a legitimation crisis. “We watch more and participate less” says Neta Crawford, explaining that also the role of public education in fostering critical thinking has declined. Therefore, we find unprepared to deal with some of the major global challenges, such as climate change and the war on terror. People are afraid, and look skeptical at the mistrusted leadership of the country.

Despite depicting a dark image of the present, and even a more alarming one for the future, Neta Crawford thinks that there are ways to change direction. There is a need to revitalize democracy, that, as she says, is a process that goes far beyond having the right to vote for the elections. In order to create a more robust democracy, there should be a richer understanding of the concept, and a move towards deliberate democracy. This process however requires “more of us”, namely competent citizens trained to show empathy, to accept different mindsets and to be able to have their views being challenged. Education, since even the kindergarten, plays a crucial role. The strength of civil society should be also restored, through the different spaces of meeting and discussion, such as religious centers, coffee houses, organizations, in order to learn by doing and to boost the necessary skills for living in a community. Finally, press and private institutions should be the the other vital actors involved in the process.

To make democracy great again we could follow the suggestion of Neta Crawford: starting in the early ages, joining organizations and have conversations about our beliefs, hopes for the future and politics in natural settings. Through people more active in small groups, it would be possible to make effective changes and make a better world, creating congregate opinions and beliefs that then politicians would have to pay attention to, because, as Neta Crawford says, “we have changed the wind, that they are busy gauging”.

8 November 2016. Boston University. Tatiana Da Rosa (CAS ’20, Biology and Veterinary) follows the Election Viewing Party at George Sherman Union. Silvia Mazzocchin/BU New Service