In the study of democratic politics, transition in democratic form of government and democratic transition are two distinctive concepts; the former relates to a change in style of democratic governance, while the latter signifies complete structural change in the form of rule of governance.
Democratic transition relates to regime change, and occurs only when democratically elected government succeeds an authoritarian or dictatorial rule. Arab Spring taking over Tunisia and Egypt exemplified democratic transitions.
On the other hand, transition in democratic politics alludes to period of an interchange in a polity that already is functioning in a democratic environment; this type of transition is synonymous for succession in style of democratic deliberation over governance policies.
However, transition in democratic form of government might not denote progressive advancement in democratic style or character; in fact, the phase of transition might even trigger regressive decline, signaling reversal trend in deliberating for policies to govern democratic societies.
The contemporary examples of democratic societies provide substantial evidence to the hypothesis that democratic evolution is regressing towards parochialism, thereby exposing deep and embedded prejudices that lay hidden behind façade of democratic governance.
In the wake of the recently concluded US Presidential election, political pundits have expended substantive energy in deciphering the meaning of Donald Trump’s victory for the world. By focusing on a pivotal question: what would happen if electioneering rhetoric of the President-elect transitions to institutional practices by enactment of Law(s) that nullify liberal policies?
But one could argue, why should we deliberate on answers that prophesise demise of liberal left in the US. Rather to deliberate on doomsday scenario we should be better off if we sought answers through the political history of the United States of America.
However, in doing so we will have to critically review the history of liberal America; and, must remind ourselves that the current surge of nativism in America is not a new phenomenon; for it had always prevailed, and endured the pressures of liberalism; and likewise in this election year, nativism overcame the resistance masqueraded by liberalism.
The revived wave of nativism connotes the supremacy of White race in the United States. After all, how can one forget that Trump’s support among White nationalist tipped electoral support in his favour. Trump’s voters include that silent majority of White Americans who stand opposed to an idealised vision of American society where racial prejudice and misogyny was believed to be the issues of the past.
Against this backdrop, the onlookers and critics of Trump’s rhetoric must be reminded that citizens of the US not only acquiesced to, but also have fiercely supported the election slogan of Donald Trump. Furthermore, his voters’ bloc wants him to be anti-establishment — that is to say, undertake actions at domestic and foreign levels that break from legacies of the immediate past; whilst retaining and holding onto the nativist aspirations.
German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche was one thinker who believed that so-called Western liberal values merely reflect the deep bias and prejudice to the actions that these societies had committed in their past. In essence, according to him, Western democratic values have never transcended basic human instinct of initiating violence. He therefore believed society’s morality must be viewed critically; for actions committed in the past reveal how individuals of a society had behaved when society was emerging; and what ramifications those actions have on society’s present and future.
He argued legacies of the past could never be denied; in spite of our efforts to escape our past, actions committed in past resurface and remerge. An investigative journey through our past unravels those facts that lay hidden from us. Thus by undertaking ‘genealogical’ research of the past, human societies generate evidence enabling them to endure their present whilst providing them the insights into their future.
Let us see how does the US fare on the genealogical test of its formation.
The US society, as we know now, is not the society that it was in the past. The US Constitution that starts with the words “We the People” for a long time did not classify Blacks, Women and other minorities as ‘the People’. For a long period of time, discrimination and prejudice against these groups was stronger than the democratic ideals of liberty and freedom.
The contemporary modern and idealised American society, in fact, evolved into a more humane society by passing through countless historical events of regressive and progressive waves. The version of American society that we are made familiar with through its popular culture is no less than utopian ideal.
We tend to forget the historical baggage that the so-called magnanimous United State of America hides away discreetly. Not long ago, Blacks were denied citizenship in the US, and finally when they were granted that venerable status by benevolent Whites, the full enjoyment of civil liberties by Blacks was conspicuously restrictive as it was scorned upon by the former malevolent White masters. The infamous Jim Crow segregationist laws enabled racial caste system favouring Whites over Blacks; these draconian laws were repealed only in the 1960s.
Furthermore, during the period of WWII, we are constantly reminded of ‘pogroms’ in Europe and the concentration camps where Jews were kept by the Nazis. However, the popular culture portrayed in American media shies away from mentioning the fact that during the interwar period Japanese-Americans were actually placed in internment camps on the US soil.
The other most incriminating fact about America’s recent political history is the purging of dissident voices under the McCarthy era of the 1960s. The time period when Joseph McCarthy, the Republican Senator from the State of Wisconsin led witch-hunt against the “Red Scare” (i.e., a presumed Communist threat) on the US soil; he initiated a movement to exorcise ‘commies’ from the US establishment, academia, art and popular culture. According to some estimates, more than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy’s interrogation.
It seems the US culture, society and politics have always been under threat from internal and external pressures that seem to erode the so-called American exceptionalism in the enjoyment of democratic values of freedom, liberty and independence.
Furthermore, the US has also been draconian towards those citizens who questioned its motives and agendas not only at home but also abroad. The revoking of Muhammad Ali’s boxing license is one such example showcasing a citizen’s questioning of America’s interventionist agendas. Whilst the plight of Edward Snowden (which happened during Obama’s presidency) signifies that when a citizen of free world questions the State’s motives of violating citizens’ freedom and independence, the plaintiff faces the wrath of State.
One can argue, the results of 2016’s elections (Presidential, Congress and Senate) is indicative of deep polarisation in America. Results from election shows that a huge number of people living mainly in rural areas still believes in traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. For them the so-called liberal agenda of democratic plurality has eliminated the nativist appeal of the US.
This election has revealed one fact of American life and politics that from slavery through to segregation and beyond, race has always been the main fault-line that liberal democratic principles have not been able to eliminate. Though, in 2008 and 2012, Obama’s victory signaled a refreshing change, with Donald Trump’s victory it seems American democracy might have to relive through the nativist actions of its past.
The state of current democratic transition in the US signifies the fact that human societies are always in a transitory state — the transition may not be towards progressive advancement; the process of transition may also be a regressive reversal to the very origins of a political society. It seems tranquility of American dream could not sustain the din of nativism.