A colleague who studies Russian politics tells the anecdote about the Russian economics minister, holding a press conference after the 2008 financial crash. In answer to a question about what this meant for the Russian people, he replied; “the situation is hopeless - but not serious”. It took the stunned audience a few moments to realize the translator's error: the situation was of course serious, but not without hope.
The Alec Baldwin character from Saturday Night Live, the satirical comedy show in the U.S, has been elected president of the U.S. This political situation is about as serious as it gets and I am struggling to find the hope in this blackest of black comedy. Many with an interest in climate change, race relations, women’s rights, minorities’ rights - or "just" the preservation of international law and basic human rights are struggling like me.
Trump's election highlights fragility of stable and inclusive democracies
There have already been a few people asking the inevitable 'what does this mean for Ireland question?' and the answers supplied have mostly talked about trade and taxes. But there is so much more at stake. Trump’s election means that we need to understand the fragility of stable and inclusive democracies.
We need to be fully aware that peaceful, healthy democracies are the great and glorious exceptions in a world ravaged by conflicts. We must remember that the rights and entitlements that we’ve come to expect were hard won. And when we realise all that we have, we need to be prepared to fight to keep it.
Much of the analysis so far is attempting to explain how this happened. And there is a distinctive strand of opinion that remains 'surprised'. Combined with the 'I really didn't think it would happen' set of opinions, is a quick comparison with Brexit, then a short hop to the conclusion that the world is turning, populism and extremism are rising and there is a real danger that these waves of ignorance will tear down the fabric of society. And then it's all just hand wringing and back to the start of this infinite loop: how did it happen? I really didn't expect it; it's just like Brexit; and so it goes on.
Greek chorus of tragedy
I'm not going to join the Greek chorus of tragedy. I just don't have the stomach for it. I see no silver lining and I'm in desperate need of something positive to latch on to. Optimism is too high a bar at the moment, so I'm going for the 'what can we learn from this and how can we grow angle'.
The good news is that the polarization that has occurred amongst US voters is not likely to happen in Ireland because the structures of our electoral system preclude it. In our single transferable vote system of proportional representation, politicians are just as much in need of voters’ second and third preference votes as their first, and this means Irish electoral bases are typically always more mainstream than extreme.
Still, large numbers of Irish citizens are unaware of their potential electoral influence and need reminding of the influence that they hold. And now, more than ever, we all need to acknowledge the political influence that each of us holds between general elections in the every day.
Trump’s election was an exceptional example of ‘people power’. Despite uniform disapproval from the political establishment, all mainstream print media, and a host of celebrities, comedians and commentators – Trump’s message largely by-passed the mainstream and worked its way into thousands of private conversations between individuals and through social media. Just like the Brexit debate in the UK, the Trump campaign’s greatest legacy is to bring out into the open opinions, ideas and attitudes that had been forbidden for decades.
Until the last great wave of popular rising in the 1960s, Africans could be called wogs, homosexuals could be called queer, intellectually disabled could be called spas and cabbages. In the UK, Irish was a synonym for stupid.
The protest movements that spread across Europe and North America throughout the '60s changed that by introducing a new vocabulary of tolerance and inclusivity. Gender equality crept in as firemen were replaced by firefighters, postmen by postal workers and homemakers took the place of wives. Of course, when we changed the language, we didn't remove the prejudices. Discrimination did not go away, but it did get harder to discriminate. By removing the words of oppression, we took away the tools used to discriminate.
People power can put a lid on the tool box of hate
After long years being locked away, these tools are now back in circulation. And it seems that the disapproval of the political establishment, mainstream print media, and a host of celebrities, comedians and commentators is not enough to prevent their use. Donald Trump’s election, however, has shown us that ‘people power’ can.
Through thousands of private conversations at work, at home, between individuals and groups and via social media, the ‘people power’ engine of influence is the one thing that put can put a lid on the tool box of hate.
So away with the dismay. Enough of the hand-wringing and viral Trump bashing: do something positive and push back! It’s time to mobilize positive people power – against climate change deniers, in support of minority rights, womens’ rights and equality.
In Greek mythology, the story goes that Pandora’s curiosity led her to open the forbidden box, thus releasing all the evils of the world. Though she tried to close the lid – all of the contents were released except for one thing at the bottom – hope remained.
Remember, the situation is serious, but not without hope!
Maura Adshead is Associate Professor in Politics and Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick. She is currently chair of the national Campus Engage Working Group on Engaged Research and responsible for drafting its Engaged Research Ireland Report. Whilst her research interests focus on Irish and European politics and public policy, she has been involved in a number of community oriented research projects at local, regional and international levels. She is author of Developing European Regions? Ashgate, 2002, co-author (with Jonathon Tonge) of Politics in Ireland, Palgrave, 2009; and co-editor (with Michelle Millar) of Public Administration and Public Policy in Ireland: theory and methods, Routledge 2003 and (with Peadar Kirby and Michelle Millar) Contesting the State: lessons from the Irish case, Manchester University Press, 2008; and (with Tom Felle) Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act, 2015, Manchester University Press, 2016. She has published a variety of articles on aspects of Irish politics and public policy and has carried out commissioned research for Combat Poverty, the Health Service Executive and the National Economic and Social Forum.