2016 U.S. Elections: Populism vs Technocracy

The outcome of the 2016 US elections shocked the world. All eyes on this election were surprised when Donald Trump emerged victorious, beating Hillary Clinton, although it was Clinton who got more votes overall. To understand how this happened, we need to take a look at the US Electoral College which determines how many votes in an election a presidential candidate gets. Each state must have a minimum of one representative in the Electoral College. However, a particular number of votes for a candidate are determined by the population of the state. Some states have fewer representatives per person than other states. This makes Electoral College vote different from the national popular vote.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21, 2015/ (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Trump had an advantage in states with smaller populations, thus an advantage in the Electoral College. This system was put in place by the Founding Fathers in the US Constitution so as to prevent a ‘demagogue’ from coming to power. However, with President Trump in power, it seems like the Electoral College ended up electing the very type of leader that it was supposed to prevent from coming to power. Populism is a multiclass movement which includes contrasting components such as a claim for equality of political rights and universal participation of common people but fused with authoritarianism under some charismatic leadership.

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For Ernesto Laclau, politics is the development of the relationship between a group that wants to be a univocal totality and certain heterogeneous elements that also want to establish a univocal totality. When an established order is faced with internal demands, it will deploy against these demands what Laclau calls ‘differential logic’. It will take these demands and differentiate them, satisfy some, negotiate with others and condemn the rest to the ‘outside’. The problem is then giving an account of how is it that a set of heterogeneous demands constitutes itself into a political identity. The perfect articulation of all demands is impossible. The lack of unity needs to be supplanted by what Laclau calls an ‘equivalence chain’. It is a relationship between heterogeneous demands that unifies them under a set of significant. This unifying significant is necessarily ‘empty’, and that is the driving force behind them. This emptiness is precisely what allows them to be a vehicle for the articulation of demands that would otherwise impossible under a rational articulation. Trump was an outsider and a non-technocrat. The citizens of US were confused with Democratic candidate Clinton, who seemed to have the tendencies of a technocrat.

There has been decay in the political institutions as seen in the organizational decline of both the Democratic and the Republic party. A rise in economic inequality has been constant. This has led to an imbalance in power, wherein when the affluent support a policy; it is more likely to get adopted than when it’s a policy that is supported by the middle class. If the wealthy strongly oppose a policy, it is adopted only 4% of the time. Thus, when it comes to policymaking, there is a lack of democratic norms in the US. It is the multinational corporations and rich business class that have the influence here. The people were aware of it and this is where the emptiness of Trump capitalized.

If we apply Laclau’s concept to Trump’s win, we see the importance of emptiness of context. During the 2016 election campaigns, Trump was unwilling to play the game of program-presenting and policy-discussing. Instead, he sank to superficial rhetoric which allowed him to constitute equivalence between heterogeneous demands. Trump is a textbook populist leader who seized the opportunity to attract the masses who were confused with Hillary Clinton. Trump was an outsider and a non-technocrat which momentarily worked in his favour.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The significance of political slogans during campaigns cannot be overlooked. Trump’s 2016 election campaign had an edge over Hillary’s in this regard as well. Slogans like ‘Lock her up’ (after Hillary’s controversial email leaks), ‘Build a wall’ (on immigration) and ‘Make America Great Again’, as empty they might be, attracted supporters due to its chant-able nature. Trump promised he would build a wall if elected along the US-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it. Trump, who has known to have racist tendencies, thus on one had managed to satisfy his racist nature and on the other hand, manipulate the minds of the poor who had no jobs and blamed immigration for the loss of jobs. Before elections, Trump had claimed climate change to be a hoax, and the regulations due to climate change only hindered America’s growth. For many, climate change is still a false reality, especially to those who are uneducated and unaware. By promising to back out of the Paris deal, Trump manipulated the emotions of the commons by making it known that America will not bow down to supranational deals.

Trump’s anti-immigrant and racially coded campaign had led to the reemergence of White nationalism. His ideas had found the most acceptance and support in the rural White communities. During the 2016 election campaigns, Trump enjoyed a lead in small-towns of America. This makes more sense when we take into account Trump’s broader rejection of technocracy.  Many Americans associate the technocratic approach with political elites that run campaigns and the politicians that win them.

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In today’s modernized world, technocracy does make sense. A technocratic system means that the state relies upon the technical expertise while approaching a social problem. Even though policies might be directed towards an ideological end, a dependence on the management style of governance helps devise expert solutions to socio-economic problems. Trump wholeheartedly rejected such a technocratic approach. By doing away with reliance on technical knowledge, Trump had broken the link education and expertise and political leadership. Precisely, we see American politics taking a similar route like India, where technical knowledge is least bothered about.

Trump had provided easy solutions to the socio-economic problems of the people, instead of backing it up with facts and logic. However, his racist explanations for the decline of the White had attracted rural America. Trump’s empty approach had worked on those in rural America who depended more on manual labour than on intellect driven labour. The problems of the urban centres were unknown to these people. On the other hand, there were voters who were tired of the technocratic government favouring the policies of capitalists while the working class suffered. They relied on journalism to provide them with the right information, but as we know, each newspaper is inclined towards some party. These sources of information were biased and contradictory, which further failed to make the public properly informed.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton/ Image source: Reuters

The US Presidential elections of 2016 were a war between populism and technocracy. Where Clinton failed to make dents, Trump capitalized hugely.  Clinton failed to relate emotionally to the electorate, whereas all Trump did was win over the emotions of the people. It became an election that had to choose the lesser of two evils, where the choice came down to between technical expertise and charisma. Trump kept referring Clinton as an insider who was responsible for the mess that America was in and asked the people to trust in his unconventional approach. This scenario is not just seen in the US, this seems to be a trend all around the world which makes us wonder is democracy is on a decline.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Prantik Basak

Prantik Basak is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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