The elliptical orbit of thesis and anti-thesis is haunting democracies across the world. Rising uncertainty has aggravated individual and institutional distress. The calls for change are stranded as deep discount barter of principles for power has unveiled the spectre of choice as a dead-end.
This week Americans will elect a person to what is arguably the most powerful post in the world. Conventional wisdom suggests that choice in elections is less about good and mostly about who must not be rather than who should be elected. In 2016, Americans are confronted by a new construct of conventional wisdom—they must choose who is worse of the worst.
French historian and political scientist Alexis Tocqueville had famously observed that “there are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle”. Left to choose between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J Trump, Americans must wonder if at all there were “men of principle”.
Seriously, the choice is between a felony exposed and a felony recorded, between the callous and the careless, between incoherent superlatives and superlative insolence. The idea of Yes We Can is being replaced by I can versus I can. One newspaper even suggested “none of the above” to readers.
It is apparent that irony died a thousand deaths as scandals overtook shame. Following the ‘tapes expose’, Republicans groped with their realities—they denounced Trump only to stay with him. Democrats found Hillary’s conduct on the email inexcusable but not their support for her.
Incredibly, in this election, where the economy occupies centre stage, denouncements rather than endorsements are making news. In September, 305 economists asserted “Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda is wrong for America”. This week 370 economists, declared, “Donald Trump is a dangerous, destructive choice for the country.” And 19 Nobel laureates in economics decried Trump’s “reckless threats to start trade wars with several of our largest trading partners”.
Disgusted, many want the polls to end “already”. The end, however, threatens to be the beginning of vapid aggression. His first tasks, Trump has said, will be to label China “a currency manipulator” and impose 45 per cent tariff, to withdraw from North American Free Trade Agreement and impose 35 per cent tariffs on Mexican imports, to abolish Obamacare, initiate mass deportations of immigrants etc. Regardless of victory or defeat, Republicans promise to go after Hillary using federal agencies.
It could be said that the citizens of the oldest democracy are getting a sense of what subjects of the oldest constitutional monarchy went through this summer. Brexit introduced the British to the idea of choice as a dead-end. This week a court ordered that Brexit needed parliamentary ratification. No matter which side wins, most Brits know they will be on the losing side. And on November 8, no matter who wins, democracy in America and Americans will be poorer.
The crux is the economy and prima facie the US economy isn’t doing badly. Data points to “record low unemployment”, higher incomes even if below expectations, increased consumer spending, growth and even an interest rate hike round the corner. The alternate picture: many Americans cannot find jobs. In real terms, the median household earns less money now than 17 years ago. Over half of Americans worry that they cannot raise $400 if they needed it for an emergency.
The rant about globalisation—against off-shoring, trade-treaties and inward migration—stems from the changed context of global growth. The thesis of corporate productivity that delivered dividends also led to capture of state policy and export of technology, jobs, savings and growth and taxes. Corporations in the US alone have saved taxes worth over a trillion dollars —that is half of India’s GDP.
There is much mirth—and even schadenfreude—in India and elsewhere. The amused may want to review the emoticon. The seeming theatre of the absurd running in Britain and the US of A is but the premiere of what promises to be a global release. India’s slowdown in exports, the struggle to create jobs in manufacturing is unsurprising given the forces at play.
Make no mistake. The world is grappling with unprecedented multiplicity of disruptions—demographic, technological and of business models. On Friday, while data on jobs was being released, Elon Musk of Tesla was elaborating on his new businesses—electric cars that would impact auto giants, solar plans that threaten grids and auto-pilot cars.
It bears note that this year, it is estimated, growth in global trade will be lower. If multinational companies the world over are sitting on cash of over $6 trillion, it is because there is uncertainty about demand and supply—about who will buy and what will they buy. Fact is, there is no repeat telecast model for economic growth. Newer business models and technologies are re-casting the value chain—there cannot be another China as premature de-industrialisation is a reality.
There is no denying that human interface will be replaced by technology. There is the immediate and ongoing evolution in banking that is shrinking employability. In Singapore the government is working to replace vendors with vending machines in food courts. There is also the induction of artificial intelligence—IBMs Ross, the robot and legal assistant, 3D printed drugs for Parkinson’s Disease, buildings constructed in weeks rather than years thanks to 3D technology.
Finally there is also no escaping the implications of disruption on democracies. The idea of democracy balances on the tripod of liberty, justice and equality. Incontrovertibly the right to liberty and the entitlement of equality are in conflict. The need for reengineering the platter of gain and pain can be obfuscated by politics only so long—with or without the normalisation of notions of nationalism. Failure to resolve will engender tyranny of the kind Plato had warned about.
Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change