As would be expected, commentators have been busy analyzing this year’s election results, with writers and talking heads attributing Donald Trump’s surprising victory to an array of different factors: a flawed Electoral College system, the shortcomings and tactical errors of the Clinton campaign, the impact of third parties, racism and misogyny, and others. While there is much truth in many of these observations, another important and relevant phenomenon looms that has been largely overlooked: the role of powerlessness in making Trump's election possible.
For all the hype that we as Americans give to the idea of personal empowerment—to the notion that anyone can succeed if they work hard and play by the rules—such mantras have become largely mythological. Social mobility lags here compared to many other developed countries, and realistic opportunities—educational and economic—are painfully elusive for much of the population. Many Americans feel that they have no power to substantially improve their lives or to meaningfully impact politics and public policy. This insecurity and powerlessness opened the door for a Trump victory in several ways.
First, powerlessness played a role as a de-motivator, as is evidenced in voter turnout numbers. Turnout has been unimpressive in the United States for several generations, reflecting a non-participating population that sees politics as a spectator sport at most, but this year the numbers appear dismal even by those usual low standards. Even with a woman atop a major-party ticket for the first time—a fact that might have been expected to inspire big turnout—about half of eligible voters opted to stay home.
It wasn’t always this way. At its peak, turnout for presidential elections routinely approached or even exceeded 80 percent. Now, however, the United States ranks 31st among 35 developed nations for voter turnout. Science News reports that apathy is a chief reason voters stay home, adding that “people might not be able to find someone who represents their views.” No sense in voting if it seems meaningless.
But de-motivation is only part of the story. Powerlessness—and the insecurity, frustration, and anger that flow from it—can be a motivator as well, as we saw in this year’s election. The mysterious white working class demographic, now a stereotype discussed widely in op-ed pieces and opinion journals, became the mouse that roared in this election cycle, expressing pent up emotions that have bewildered both pundits and politicians. Echoing one of their cultural icons, Roger Daltrey, they expressed their discontent via the ballot box: We’re not gonna take it.
Some will argue that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist and misogynist, but it’s more complicated than that, as Kirk Noden explained in a bluntly headlined piece in The Nation, “Why Do White Working Class People Vote Against Their Interests? They Don’t.” For many blue-collar voters, support for Trump was first and foremost a punch in the nose to the Establishment, not an expression of animosity to the numerous groups that Trump has disparaged. Tired of feeling powerless, seeing even Democrats support globalization treaties and policies that throw them under the bus for the benefit of multinational corporations, they’ve had enough. As Joan C. Williams pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, liberals should avoid the “intellectual comfort food” of simply writing off blue-collar resentment as racism. It’s not that racism isn’t a factor—surely it is—but she argues that we should consider its roots. “Economic resentment has fueled racial anxiety,” she writes. This doesn’t justify racism in any way, but it seeks to understand it better.
Demagogues thrive on a powerless population that is desperate for answers. If Trump’s opposition to NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership was accompanied by brashness and a willingness to demonize immigrants and minorities, many among the powerless were listening and nodding as he validated emotions that other politicians ignored. Finally, they sighed, we have someone who understands—a real swashbuckler who will shake thing up. Suddenly the powerless feel motivated.
The problem here, of course, is not that the powerless were motivated, but that they were motivated by Trump. But if there is a key to an eventual turnaround, it stems from an important fact that both Trump’s followers and opponents too often overlooked: We are all powerless. Powerlessness is not unique to the white working class. Sure, some of us are in a better position than others economically, and certainly some enjoy privileges that others don’t, but we are all united in the reality that our government caters not to human interests, but to the interests of a powerful corporate sector that commands its attention.
While most Americans are somewhat aware that corporations have resources far beyond those of individuals, it’s remarkable that the issue of corporate power—the actual extent to which corporations control the system and dictate public policy—is not itself an important item on the public agenda to be discussed and debated. If America is a country divided, there is one profound truth that can unite us all, whether black or white, male or female, straight or gay, believer or nonbeliever: If corporations are people—and under the law they are—real humans have become second-class citizens.
It’s helpful to bear in mind that Washington, D.C., is a city filled with lawyers and lobbyists, and the sad reality is that almost all of them are working for the interests of major corporations and industries. No other power center—not organized labor, not the nonprofit sector, and certainly not average voters—comes remotely close to having the resources to challenge the ability of corporate institutions to dictate what happens in the nation’s legislatures, bureaucracies, and courts.
Because of this, government has become a tool of corporate power, with massive military budgets that funnel billions of dollars to corporate coffers; regulatory agencies that are run by corporate insiders who eventually leave their agencies to work for the corporations they once regulated; and lawmakers who are beholden to immensely powerful groups, such as ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce, that advance corporate interests. Even outside of government, corporate power controls the major media, acting as gatekeeper for the flow of information and largely defining society’s values and the range of acceptable opinion.
I’ve written elsewhere about how corporations as we know them today were non-existent in the early days of the nation and how, if we were to truly consider them people, they would be accurately described as sociopathic. Beyond having immense resources, corporations are also extremely vigilant in pursuing their objectives—unlike real humans, they have 24/7 focus and no distractions such as families or other human concerns. By understanding this, we can see that the problem is systemic, not the result of any evil villains having seized control. We can point to the cast of characters who have led America’s rightward march—from Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney to Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz—but in truth these individuals are the predictable result of a system geared to produce them.
This means the problem won’t be solved through one or two successful election cycles, but only through fundamental changes, such as those sought through the agenda of Move to Amend and similar efforts to redefine corporate power. Only systemic change, reaching the constitutional level, can effectively restrain corporations and put policymaking on a track that prioritizes human interests. To achieve this, the powerless—and that means just about all flesh-and-blood humans—must unite.
The defenders of corporate power will insist, falsely, that rethinking the role of corporations is dangerous, that seriously challenging corporate dominance threatens our way of life. This is nonsense, and in fact the reverse is true: effective democracy has already been thwarted by corporate power, and allowing corporate dominance to continue presents dangers that are even more grave.
We can acknowledge the value of corporations, that they are the vehicle through which the public receives the products and services of modern life, while still objecting to their supremacy. As I’ve written elsewhere, by their nature corporations are wired to ruthlessly pursue power and wealth, and it is the duty of real humans and their elected representatives to restrain that ambition. The breach of that duty explains the rise of Trump and the failure of American democracy.