In Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech given in New Hampshire against the rising tide of hatred and misogyny unleashed during the American election campaign she did not refer to Donald J. Trump by name but merely as Hillary Clinton’s opponent. Now we will have to get used to reading and saying his name more often but politics is never just a matter of a single individual, even under the extreme reactionary swerve of US politics, that has taken everyone, not only Americans, into a dangerously uncertain and perhaps even irreversible situation. The Paris climate change treaty may be in jeopardy. Key domestic achievements of the Obama years could be ripped up including wider access to health care. New appointments to the US Supreme Court will have lasting significance for American society.
The Democrats had foolishly assumed that Wisconsin was safely in their camp but the primaries had already given signs of deep disenchantment with the dynastic Clinton party machine. However effectively Hillary Clinton managed to present her own agenda she was nonetheless unable to completely emerge from the shadows of the last Clinton administration (as may also have been the case with Al Gore in 2000). Both Gore and Clinton were ultimately ahead in the popular vote but cursed by the final outcome of the electoral college system (and also in Gore’s case by the infamous Florida count and its legal aftermath). It turned out that Barack Obama’s broad-based coalition of progressive voters simply could not be mobilized in sufficient numbers to hold Wisconsin along with other crucial electoral college votes spread across the so-called “rust belt” of the Mid West. Would a Sanders-Warren ticket have done better? Maybe, but we shall never know. Furthermore, with over forty per cent of American adults not participating in the election, let alone a further seven per cent disqualified as former felons or for missing papers, the actual outcome of this debacle was decided by less than a quarter of the adult population, and far fewer if we look at the wafer thin margins in five or six bell weather states.
The rise of right-wing populism now endangers liberal democracy at a global scale. A toxic brew of pervasive inequalities, manipulated grievances, and historical amnesia threatens to overwhelm attempts to articulate a progressive alternative. The social democratic tradition in particular finds itself in deep crisis, its sources of mobilization splintered and scattered, and its previous achievements steadily eroded.