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Why Trump Won - how tribalism will dominate the future of democracy: and why President Trump will struggle to deliver

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Reasons for the US election victory of Donald Trump will be debated for decades. Here are major long-term factors at work across America and in every other democratic nation, which I described in The Future of Almost Everything - my latest book, see below, (with additions in italics today).  These set the backdrop for dramatic events over the last few hours (9 November 2016), and also influenced the Brexit vote.  

When faith in ideology and parties dies, trust in the person is all that’s left

Leaders rather than policies will tend to dominate the future of politics in democracies. So we may see some surprises, where a party or group with a really odd set of policies is elected, because people trust the leader to make the right things happen.  

The US election was fundamentally about a massive angry rejection of professional politicians and that whole scene, coupled with a rise of national fervour, protectionism and anti-migrant feelings. The Brexit victory likewise was fundamentally about a massive angry rejection of European systems and controls, as well as a rise in British pride linked to strongly held fears of over-migration.

It is often said that a week is a long time in politics – a reflection of how government leaders can be overtaken by events – and terrorist attacks are just one example.

One thing is certain: we should continue to expect political volatility, radical changes and instabilities

Tribalism is the most powerful force in the world today

...more powerful than the entire military might of America, China, Russia and the EU combined. Tribalism is the basis of all relationships, brands, families, communities and nations, but is also responsible for the darkest moments in human history, and for many political "revolutions".  

Nationalism, protectionism, localism, racism, sectarianism - all of these things drive human passion and shape radical political campaigns.  President Trump swept to victory on a series of single issue campaigns - whether protecting US factories from cheap Chinese labour, or America's future safety and well-being from waves of illegal migrants, or fiery anti-Muslim threats.

Why President Trump will struggle to deliver

Across the world, most democratically elected governments are likely to find their power reducing for ten reasons. As a result, it will be even harder for them to deliver on their promises. We can expect many national parliaments to weaken, and confidence in democracy itself will be undermined further. President Trump will also be afflicted by many of these same issues, to varying degrees.

1. Privatisation

In the past, national governments owned and controlled electricity, gas and water companies, national airlines, post offices, railways, health services, telecommunications, and so on. In every part of the world, state-owned companies are being sold off. In the old days, politicians could make bold promises with reasonable confidence; today, however, in many areas they have to defer to corporate power and the markets.

2. Regionalisation

Federal powers are widely decentralised to individual states across America.  In other parts of the world, regional trading blocs take freedom from member nations, who agree to be bound by agreements. The European Union, in particular, will take even more power from member governments, and will impose many thousands of new regulations over future decades.

3. Decentralisation

A total of 160 national governments, including America, have now made their own central banks independent of government control – up from just 20 in 1980. At a stroke, all these governments gave away control of interest rates and other aspects of monetary policy. Elected governments across the world have also given added powers to local government and city mayors. This process will be accelerated by separatist groups, immigrant communities, independence movements and religious activists (some of whom want to impose their own laws e.g. Sharia law based on the Koran).

4. Unelected civil servants

One of the greatest causes of inertia and paralysis in governments over the next two decades will be the civil service, and this will also be a challenge for President Trump sitting in the White House. Governments come and go, but almost all publicly paid employees remain. They often have natural resistance to radical policy shifts. To make matters worse, the civil service no longer attracts large numbers of top-calibre graduates in the way it used to several decades ago.

We can expect many governments, including the US government, to try to politicise and shake up the civil service by controlling more of the most senior appointments. However, this means that senior civil servants will increasingly find their promotion blocked, making lifetime civil service careers even less attractive.

5. Globalisation – big firms gain powers

President Trump was elected on promises to make US corporations more nationally-minded and accountable to the American people.  But, as we have seen, in a globalised world governments are unable to impose higher rates of tax, or stricter labour laws, or tougher environmental controls without the risk that global corporations will just move elsewhere. The same will apply to entrepreneurs. There is intense global competition to attract investment and talent. Internet companies find it particularly easy to shift profits to low-tax nations. For example, Google cut its tax by $2bn by routing earnings through Ireland, Bermuda and the Netherlands.

Many super-corporations are larger in economic weight than some entire nations. They can dictate terms to governments, set agendas for commerce, and form global monopolies, dominating local markets. This is a major reason why nations like India, China and America have been so reluctant to allow foreign multinationals to own majority stakes in key national companies.

6. Lack of strong leaders

And while remuneration packages for CEOs in industrialised nations remain so much higher than for prime ministers or presidents, many governments will also find themselves crippled by serious lack of brain-power and leadership talent.  President Trump cannot deliver his agenda alone.  He will need some of the smartest leadership talent in the government, from across the nation.

Surveys show that very few of the brightest and most talented leaders would dream of wasting their lives in ‘democratic politics’. Why enter a profession that is (almost) universally despised, has no real power, no job security and is badly paid compared to what could be earned elsewhere?  It's one of the reasons why the 2016 US Presidential election was dominated by candidates that were so widely criticised for their unsuitability - leading to a choice for many between "the lesser of the two evils."

Many choose instead to run corporations rather than pretend to run countries. As a result, many democratic governments will continue to be led by slow, feeble-minded and incompetent teams. Lack of talent in politicians is perhaps the greatest threat of all to healthy democracy, which then feeds public contempt of the entire system, leading to further decline.

In contrast, government posts can be extremely attractive in an autocratic state, where leaders enjoy far greater powers to get things done, are subject to less scrutiny, have greater privileges and higher salary, and greater job security (if you keep in favour). But even autocratic states are increasingly undermined by global market forces.

7. Activism and social media

Non-government organisations are becoming more numerous, better funded, and better at campaigning, using tools like social media. Their lobbying can upset law-making, overturn budget decisions and block government action. Expect many more campaigning websites like change.org, which allow people to create instant petitions – some of which attract hundreds of thousands of supporters in weeks.

8. Crisis of trust in politicians - and media

A primary issue in the US election was trust, or rather lack of it.  It is hard to recall any election were the country as a whole has had so little "faith" in either candidate.  

Trust is the only thing that any politician has to offer. But what is the point of voting when you cannot believe the words of a manifesto? In the UK 62% of voters say that politicians ‘tell lies all the time’, a view shared across the European Union. Who cares about well-used phrases such as ‘big society’ or ‘public service’? Only 1% of the UK population still belongs to any political party, down from 20% in 1950, while 27% of EU voters in 7 nations say that they have ‘no trust in government’.

In 49 democracies around the world, voter turnout in elections has fallen 10% in the last 25 years. As I described in my book The Truth about Westminster, despite the constant political fights in the news, the fact is that most politicians agree broadly on most things. That is why it is so rare for a new government to reverse legislation that they bitterly opposed before they got into power. So there is lack of integrity in most political debates.

And in the US election, a further issue was collapse in trust in the media to report truthfully and accurately.  This is a widespread issue across many nations - even those where there is officially a completely "free press", with growing fears that the business owners of media companies are exercising hidden editorial control, or that journalists themselves in that company are strongly biased in a similar direction.  

The trouble is, when trust dies in what politicians are saying, and also in media reporting, the stage is set for fluid, chaotic, rumour-fed, social media influences which may be themselves very unreliable and easily manipulated.  This is a toxic mix for any healthy democratic process, and gives huge advantages to any "outside" candidate who is brilliant at social media manipulation, and who campaigns that media often tells lies, while most established politicians are corrupt.

9. Small majorities or unstable coalitions

In many democracies we see instability and weakness, where no single party has a large enough majority to lead strongly. Even worse, sometimes it is only possible to govern at all by cobbling together two or more political groups with very different agendas. For example, coalition governments in Italy have often collapsed in the space of just 2-3 years.  A key issue in America before President Trump's win was paralysis of government with President Obama unable even to get his own budget signed off, causing chaos.  This contributed to a deep feeling of anger against the political establishment games being played in Washington DC.

10. Individual politicians elected by minority of voters

When there are many different candidates, a member of parliament can be elected by only a small minority of voters. Yet such an individual may end up making all the difference between a coalition government continuing or collapsing.

These ten factors also raise questions about what government is for? What is the purpose of government and of national leaders in a world where so little of their previous powers remain?

We can expect a great debate about this in many nations over the next decades: big government, small government, virtually no government, centralised or decentralised.  And President Trump rode on the back of such questions with comments such as "Drain the cesspit".

So in summary, expect loud rhetoric to be tempered by political realities over the next year, as President Trump comes to grips with massive inertia in every area, with some successes and many frustrations.  

Watch our for major foreign policy shifts - which is one area that a US President can drive with relatively little constraints.  In particular, expect rapid decisions and decision reversals, in relation to unfolding events, whether in regard to nations like Syria or Russia or as strong reactions to terror attacks on US interests.

The possibility of provoking a US President into making massive (over-)reactions may well become a very attractive strategy for terrorist groups with few resources compared to the US, who dream of wearing down America with very costly military / security campaigns, following very provocative attacks by tiny numbers of people on very low budgets.


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