New leadership needed to tackle voters' alienation

US President Donald Trump gesturing during a meeting in Jerusalem, on May 22, 2017.
US President Donald Trump gesturing during a meeting in Jerusalem, on May 22, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last year's US presidential election campaign was an education in the deep problems facing the country.

Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college-educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upwards to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

As Mr Robert W. Merry put it recently in The American Conservative: "When a man as uncouth and reckless as (Donald) Trump becomes president by running against the nation's elites, it's a strong signal that the elites are the problem."

The past four months, on the other hand, have been an education in the shortcomings in populism.

It is not only that Mr Trump is a bad president. It is that movements fuelled by alienation are bound to fail.

Alienation, sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote, is a "state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom or even hostility".

The alienated long for something that will smash the system or change their situation, but they have no actual plan or any means to deliver it. The alienated are a hodgepodge of disparate groups.

They have no positive agenda beyond the sort of fake shiny objects Mr Trump ran on (Build a Wall!). They offer up no governing class competent enough to get things done.

As political analyst Yuval Levin argues in Modern Age: "Alienation can sometimes make for a powerful organising principle for an electoral coalition… But it does not make for a natural organising principle for a governing coalition." Alienation breeds a distrust that corrodes any collective effort. To be "woke" in the alienated culture is to embrace the most cynical interpretation of every situation, to assume bad intent in every actor, to imagine the conspiratorial malevolence of your foes.

Alienation breeds a hysterical public conversation. Its public intellectuals are addicted to overstatement, sloppiness, pessimism and despair.

They speak of every problem as if it were the apocalypse.

Alienation also breeds a zero-sum mindset - it is us or them - and with it a tribal clannishness and desire for exclusion.

As Mr Levin notes, on the right, alienation can foster a desire for purity - to exclude the foreign - and on the left, it can foster a desire for conformity - to squelch differing speakers and faiths.

The events of the past four months have demonstrated that Mr Trump is not going to solve the problem he was elected to address; neither the underlying economic and social ruptures nor the alienation that emerges from them.

The events illustrate that we do need a political establishment in this country, or maybe a few competing establishments.

We need people who have been educated to actually know something about public policy problems. We need people who have had gradual, upward careers in government and understand the craft of wielding power.

We need people who know how to live up to certain standards of integrity and public service.

We need a better establishment, one attuned to Trump voters, those whose alienation grows out of genuine suffering.

The first task for this better establishment is to not make the political chasm worse. If an impeachment investigation proceeds, it will be important for us Trump critics to not set our hair on fire every day, to evaluate the evidence as if it were against a president we ourselves voted for.

Would we really throw our own candidate out of office for this?

Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take on an active role in their own self-government.

It will be necessary to revive a living elite patriotism. That means conducting oneself in office as if nation is more important than party; not using executive orders, filibusters and the nuclear option to grab what you can while you happen to be in the majority. It means setting up weekly encounters to help you respect and understand the fellow Americans who reside across the social chasms.

Finally, it will be necessary to fight alienation with moral realism, with a mature mindset that says that, yes, people are always flawed, the country always faces problems, but that is no reason for lazy cynicism or self-righteous despair.

If you start with an awareness of human foibles, then you can proceed with what Mr Levin calls pessimistic hopefulness - grateful for the institutions our ancestors left us, and filled with cheerful confidence that they can be reformed to solve present needs.

Impeached or not, it is hard to see how Mr Trump recovers as an effective governing force. Now is the moment for a new establishment to organise, to address the spirit of alienation that gave rise to Mr Trump, but which transcends him.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'New leadership needed to tackle voters' alienation'. Print Edition | Subscribe