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Atlantic currents

  • Published at 07:59 pm June 26th, 2016
Atlantic currents

I had no sooner arrived in the city that New York magazine blasted me between the eyes with a major piece by Andrew Sullivan titled “Our democracy has never been so ripe for tyranny.”

For me, and for many political observers, its grim analysis subsequently reverberated through every second of the wall-to-wall election campaign coverage.

Sullivan opens by showing in uncanny detail how Plato’s otherwise curious reservations about democracy in The Republic could have been written with the Donald Trump phenomenon in mind.

Plato postulated that a democratic system would tend to achieve levels of such total equality and freedom that it would end up eroding systems of authority -- which inherently depend on an unfairness gradient.

This paradoxical result would generate societal anxieties and a backlash which, he predicted, could then be exploited by an unscrupulous leader.

The ploy is for the proto-tyrant to offer “the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities.”

He blamed the dysfunctional politics practiced by today’s US elites for providing the demagogue an opportunity to strike.

From then, on one could not watch Trump’s endless TV appearances, blonde hair flailing and face busy posturing, without the sinking feeling that the wave he was riding was not only larger than we had all first thought but also rooted in real social pathologies.

In national poll after poll Bernie Sanders handily beat Trump while Hilary Clinton usually lost. There was said to be a large proportion of undecided people angry with establishment politicians who were eddying this way and that, many of whom had not bothered to vote in earlier elections

At the same time, there are also real economic pathologies at work in the US today.

Nothing could have illustrated this better than a report in The New York Times (published May 20) that two-thirds of Americans would find it difficult to come up with $1,000, if needed, to tide them over an emergency.

This was true even of the wealthiest 20% of the population (defined as households making over $100,000 a year), of whom, no less than 38% said that they would face “at least some difficulty coming up with $1,000.”

For purposes of comparison, $1,000 is equivalent to only Tk80,000, which even my chauffeur could manage to raise if really needed -- if for no other reason than because I would give it to him.

The point here is that large numbers of low-income people in Bangladesh have access to informal systems of support, especially at the relatively low level of funding represented in this example.

It seems, however, that Americans have no financial cushion whatsoever in their daily lives and this must be a major source of worry for them.

As a result, they are forced to rely on credit to stay solvent, which exposes them to even more exploitation.

The interest rate on bank deposits having been set at zero for the last five years or so, US banks have no cost of funds and yet charge lending rates of over 24% on credit card transactions, generating huge operating profits.

This double whammy of psychological and economic stress goes a long way to explain the appeal to Americans today of outsider candidates like Donald Trump and, even more powerfully, Bernie Sanders.

There is no other way to understand the large-scale popularity of the senator from Vermont, who, by all past indications, should have been a political non-entity.

Instead, all the time I was in the US, a delicate game of numbers was going on. In national poll after poll Bernie Sanders handily beat Trump while Hilary Clinton usually lost.

There was said to be a large proportion of undecided people angry with establishment politicians who were eddying this way and that, many of whom had not bothered to vote in earlier elections.

Sanders seemed to be having greater success among these so-called non-traditional voters, getting support even from otherwise Trump-leaning independents.

The concluding part of this long form will be published tomorrow.