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Opinion Piece: Making Sense of the US Presidential Elections

Context matters. It is the current context of deep structural inequalities that have ushered in a new type of populism in the West. Donald J. Trump’s surprise ascendance to power as the 45th President of the United States of America can also be explained within this same backdrop. While I believe that societies are complex and no single factor has led to present-day inequalities, it is, nevertheless, important to examine the impact of a more recent phase of globalization because it has had a major influence on American socio-economic and political discourse.

Just a few decades ago, United States was at the forefront of innovation and development. Globalization was presented as the panacea to world’s growing inequalities between developed and emerging countries. There was hope that it would lift millions of people out of poverty and improve standards of living globally. Although many individuals did become richer much faster globally, less skilled workers in developed countries, including the United States, lost their jobs to millions of workers in emerging economies. Due to rapid technological advancements and increased global mobility, these workers also found themselves in an intensely competitive labor market. While the rich have become richer and the highly skilled workers have flourished in this global economy, the lower skilled workers have stagnated. Consequently, income inequality withinUnited States has grown. Branko Milanovic’s Elephant Curve, based upon surveys of household incomes from around the world, indicates that globalization has depressed income of the working middle class in the West. In view of this economic erosion, the recent political rhetoric related to putting ‘America First”, building a wall, and “Making America Great Again” resonates with many steelworkers, coal miners and ranchers.

Globalization, by reducing boundaries and increasing global mobility, has also brought about major cultural shifts. In recent years, cross-cultural scholars have observed rising levels of value differences withincountries. In United States, predominantly a younger, affluent and more educated population in cosmopolitan cities has transitioned towards progressive values, which emphasize social responsibility, human rights, inclusion, and gender egalitarianism. We have seen these people find emotional appeal in Bernie Sanders’ socialist ideas. However, this cultural shift has also prompted a backlash, especially from the white, uneducated, low skilled and the older generation in depressed and homogenously white cities, who strongly reject progressive values. It is important to note a racial divide here. For white nationalists (whether they live in declining towns or prosperous cities) who resist cultural displacement, seeing, what you consider to be, your own world change before your very eyes can be unnerving. The fear of becoming a minority (from a majority), or what has been referred to as the white identity crisis, can also be aggravating. Within this context, Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, anti-establishment, anti-abortion, and anti-Muslim policies appear appropriate in mobilizing this crowd, and effective in emboldening racists who previously existed in the shadows.

It is this context of economic erosion, and cultural shifts that led to polarization seen on the campaign trail and presidential debates. In some ways, I feel that we have witnessed the American society grow further apart before our own eyes. The alienation of those who feel marginalized, backlash of those undergoing a white identity crisis and ambivalence of those who refused to vote (for either candidate) are of our own making- in that we have tolerated growing levels of divisiveness amongst us. This argument may sound overly simplistic, but I believe there is advantage to taking responsibility because it allows us to own the problem, thus commit to solving it.

No society is homogenous. Rather, it is the very essence of a society to be complex and paradoxical. However, what makes a society strong is its collective ability to achieve integration within differentiation. This is a defining period in American history. I believe it is important to begin by first recognizing structural inequalities and owning this enormous problem. We need extreme courage in peeling back multiple layers of socio-economic inequalities to address its root causes. The overwhelming Women’s March and unified protests in various airports to fight the Muslim ban demonstrate people’s resiliency to uphold fundamental American values. At a time when Gallup Poll reports that 43% of the Americans approve of the job President Trump is doing, we need to remind each other that plurality strengthens and not weakens societies. Divisiveness cannot be addressed by adopting approaches that further divide the society. This agenda requires reaching out to those on other side of the aisle and talking to them about their fears and desires. Inclusion requires including all- even those who don’t see eye to eye with us.

We are in for a rough ride. However, I am hopeful that we will continue to write this episode as a story of resilience and innovative thinking. This has always been the source of the great American strength.

This opinion piece was published in Spring 2017 in The Bridge (Queens’ College, Cambridge University)

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.