Reasons to be fearful

Andrew Fagan

Liberal democracy and scapegoating minorities

The stupefying election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States offers the most spectacular example of the vulnerability of the values which liberal democracy is based upon. Forgive the alarmism, but 2016 risks marking the point at which liberal democracy began a slow (or rapid) descent into obsolescence as electoral majorities embrace a politics of identity-based hate.

Liberal democracy should be understood as an historically and socially contingent answer to the enduring political question of how diverse populations may peacefully co-exist. The most disturbing feature of the wider trend which Trump exemplifies is the extent to which the objective of diverse peoples living peacefully together is dismissed by electorally significant sections of populations who appear to be turning their backs on liberal-democracy. Trump successfully garnered the support of voters who, for different and complex reasons, reject, if not, despise, the values epitomised by the Rainbow Alliance. In a manner reminiscent of certain British “comedians” of the 1960s and 1970s, Trump’s campaign performances were noteworthy only because of the often deeply offensive comments he made about a variety of different minority groups within the US and beyond. Trump provided a rough-edged amplifier for the prejudices and resentments of a large and broad cross-section of American society. Many who voted for Trump are not deplorably racist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, or misogynistic. However, like the success of the campaign for Brexit with which Trump compared his own cause, this electoral victory was made possible by tapping into a rising tide of essentially anti-democratic forces.

I use the term “anti-democratic” intentionally and unequivocally. Liberal democracy is more than a procedural mechanism for ensuring that the will of the majority prevails, irrespective of what the object of their deliberation is. Foremost amongst the ideals which liberal democracy depends upon is the equality ideal. All citizens (and others whom any particular state has a recognised legal duty to protect) are afforded a body of equal and fundamental rights. Rights cannot be denied on the grounds that others merely disapprove of the lifestyles and commitments of some of their fellow citizens. Within any recognisably liberal democracy, this body of rights extends beyond a formally equal entitlement to vote and aims to ensure that any one’s possession and exercise of their fundamental rights is not dependent upon maintaining the subjective approval of electorally significant sections of the wider population. To coin a phrase first deployed by the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, the protection of rights trumps majoritarian interests and preferences. Liberal democracy historically developed, in no small part, in recognition of the self-destructive potential of tyrannous majorities and, in placing constraints upon what the objects of legitimate democratic deliberation can be, seeks to protect the equal rights of all from each other. Within a liberal democracy, an election outcome can never provide an alibi for those who seek to perpetrate identity-based hate and discrimination.

The underlying causes of the threat which confronts liberal democracy are deeply complex and yet to be adequately understood. What is clear is that identity has become a corner-stone political issue. The disaffected and disenfranchised are encouraged to seek the reasons for their plight in the allegedly unfair and disproportionate privileges accorded to a variety of minority groups. Trump successfully set an electorally significant cross-section of the US electorate against those who, wrongly, are blamed for the many problems which affect the US. In so doing, he draws upon an established heritage of so-called identity politics by which many subaltern communities have sought to overcome systematic discrimination. Ironically perhaps, Trump thereby lends weight to the arguments of those who feared that identity politics would fragment the body politic and public sphere into fractious and mutually disrespectful constituencies. Identity has resurfaced as the basis upon which rights may be restricted or denied. It is likely to remain so for many years ahead.

Some of the initial comments of president-elect Trump suggest to some that fears of impending Armageddon were over-played. Any signs of moderation are to be welcomed. However, Trump’s triumph was marked by a spike in verbal and physical assaults on Latinos and Muslims in parts of the US. Far-right nationalist parties in Europe and beyond have heralded Trump’s election as ushering in a new world. One doesn’t need to identify as a member of a minority in order to feel deeply disturbed by all of this. The challenge which now confronts all of us who care deeply about human rights is to form a politically sophisticated response to a politics which thrives on division and difference. The specific challenge for those who advocate minority rights is to develop a political platform which stresses the shared humanity of all who are suffering in these troubled times.

Image: Celso FLORES

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