In one of the main take-home messages of his campaign, Donald Trump has spent a year blasting Barack Obama’s healthcare bill as a ‘disaster’.
Once elected, it took him approximately an hour and a half in conversation with President Obama to change his mind and decide that there were, in fact, several elements of Obamacare worth retaining. The idea that a mere hour and a half of actual conversation regarding the issue was absent from an entire year of conversation with the public is an entirely deflating one. In reality, Trump probably had familiarised himself with what was raised in the meeting prior to his victory – though it’s not implausible to wonder otherwise – but the symbolic value of the U-turn is profoundly depressing. There is no better example of the failure of the electoral system to expose the public or even the candidate to salient facts and informed debate. Post-truth has even been selected as the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word-of-the-Year.
In 2016, it’s an all too familiar story.
During the EU referendum campaign in this country, campaign buses infamously claimed in a single sentence that £350m would be redirected into the NHS should Britain vote to leave. Again, within 24 hours after the referendum result was announced, leading Leave campaigners distanced themselves from the claim. Nigel Farage even appeared on Good Morning to say that clearly, there was no guarantee that this could happen. Well here’s the thing Nigel Farage – it isn’t clear for us, the voters. The structure of electoral representation is such that the people consider what the politicians propose and decide upon which proposals they prefer: it is simply not good enough in this model to promise something and then claim it is clearly unrealistic once you have won.
Donald Trump and Vote Leave’s succession of U-turns a posteriori clearly demonstrate that elections, particularly binary referendums such as the EU vote and the Presidential race, are increasingly undemocratic. We are at a point where politicians are able to make repeated pledges to the public, win on the back of them, and then rescind or reform them almost immediately. We have to recognise that this is deeply flawed.
Some may argue that this is part and parcel of our system. They may say that this is an unavoidable problem of electoral representation. Well, this is too easy an assessment and not actually true. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and 2016 is highlighting it in explicit terms. 40 years ago in Europe, governments who went into coalition lost 2% of their votes at the next election. Now, with a far more fickle and unforgiving voter base, the figure is approximately 25%. Is it any wonder that campaigns have to be framed in increasingly polarised terms? Donald Trump would not have been elected on the back of his moderate opinion about Obamacare, which has come to light in the last few days, so what choice did he have? He misled, he lied and he won – and not just about healthcare.
Exactly why voting patterns have changed so drastically is much discussed and the subject of many other articles. A huge reason, though, is the modern media. When elections were invented, wealthy, financially self-sufficient editors were far more autonomous; they were also writing for an educated, bourgeois audience as these were the people who could vote. Promotion of ‘rational-critical’ debate, as it has come to be known by historians, was the focus of political publications in the public sphere across Europe.
Neoliberalism, enfranchisement and universal free education have clearly changed that. Now, everyone can purchase, consume and engage with the media – and rightly so. But with the advent of neoliberalism, it is often speculated that publishers have come to select editors in the expectation that they do as directed in the private interest of a profit-driven enterprise. Rupert Murdoch for example, privately owns multiple ‘independent’ publications. Murdoch – a vocal climate change skeptic – caused uproar in the media and scientific research industries when his company, 21st Century Fox, became the majority shareholder of the iconic National Geographic, prompting fears that the institution would have to take a different editorial tack, in line with Murdoch’s beliefs. Furthermore, the mainstream print media industry increasingly struggles to sell in the face of a radically different public sphere: the media must focus on ever-more ephemeral and exaggerated points of conflict. In these conditions, the voice of moderation is quickly drowned out. The structure and role of the media has shifted to a position that forces the modern campaigner’s hand.
Donald Trump was, of course, elected in part due to the large anti-establishment sentiment that we are also seeing across Europe. But we need to remember that this anti-establishment feeling stems from a distrust born from something that Trump and Farage are complicit in themselves. Democracy is never going to perfect, and perhaps we still do have the best system for the most amount of people, but when we are at a point where such titanic deception is so easily executed and so readily disseminated, we perhaps need to start asking whether our system is still the best fit for the world we now live in.