Monday, May 2, 2016

Trump, the unavoidable: is political polarization destroying democracy?

Image from Pew Research Center. The increasing polarization of the US electorate has destroyed all the previous certitudes in politics, generating the unavoidable rise of Donald Trump.

The hurricane named Donald Trump has taken everyone by surprise by going against all the established rules in politics. So far, candidates were always trying hard to avoid taking extreme positions; aiming for the center of the political spectrum was seen as the way to win, and it worked. But Trump has taken exactly the opposite strategy, always aiming to positions that not long ago would have been seen as extreme and even unspeakable. But he is having success. How can that be?

For everything that exists, there must be reasons for it to exist, and this universal rule must be valid also for Donald Trump. And, indeed, the rise of Trump should be seen not only as having reasons to exist, but even as unavoidable. Let me try to explain why.

In 1929, Harold Hotelling developed a model of spatial competition among firms that today is still well known and takes his name. The idea is sometimes described in terms of what the best location for selling ice cream on a beach. Assuming that customers are distributed evenly along a linear beach, it turns out that the best position for all of them is to cluster exactly at the center. Something similar holds in politics: it is called the Hotelling-Downs model. It says that, in a political competition, the most advantageous position is at the center. This is a well known and traditional political strategy; those who are at the center win elections.

So, did Donald Trump disprove the Hotelling-Downs model with his strategy based on taking extreme position? No, but all models work only within the limits of the assumptions that produced them. If the assumptions change, then the models change as well. The Hotelling-Downs model, as it is commonly described, works on the assumption that voters' preferences tend to cluster in the middle of the spectrum of political views, something like this

Image source

Imagine that the horizontal axis describes the voters' preferences about, say, war and peace. At the two extremes of the diagram there are absolute warmongers and absolute pacifists, At the center, there is a majority that takes an intermediate position; preferring peace but not ruling out war.

This was the situation up to not long ago for most issues. But the recent data indicate a remarkable ongoing transformation, something more like this:

(image from Pew research center)

You see how the preferences among American voters are splitting into two halves. Liberals and conservatives are becoming more and more different, a split that may increase in the future.

In a previous post of mine, I interpreted this trend as the result of the growing impoverishment of society, a phenomenon that increases the competition for the remaining resources. The increased polarization derives from the fact that some categories or social classes tend to find it easier to gather resources by stealing them from those who have them rather than creating them out of natural resources (e.g. banks vs. citizens or the elites vs. the middle class). If this interpretation is correct, political polarization is here to stay with us for a long time.

The problem is that polarization has deep political consequences. If society is split into two ideologically incompatible halves then the mechanism of the "primaries" enhances the split even more. The Hotelling-Downs model still holds, but separately for the two halves. At this point, in order to win votes, a candidate may be better off by aiming for one of the two peaks, either at the left or at the right; a position that's in practice obligatory with the primaries, where voters are split into two halves as well.

Indeed, Donald Trump has been playing king of the hill in the republican hump while pushing most of the other candidates in the Republican desert of the center. The only Republican rivals that survived Trump's onslaught are those, like Ted Cruz, who are competing with him for the same rightmost peak. Something similar has generated the relative success of Bernie Sanders on the opposite side of the political spectrum; even though that may not lead him to the nomination. So, Donald Trump was really an unavoidable phenomenon.

And now? It seems increasingly likely that Trump will obtain the Republican nomination by means of his successful polarizing tactics. But, in order to win the presidency, Trump should abandon the safe but limited hill on the right and try to conquer the center. But can he really do that after such an aggressive and divisive nomination campaign? Trump has nearly supernatural communication skills, but this may be too much even for him. The problem is that the President of the United States is supposed to be the president of everyone, not just of those who voted for him. But, we already saw a dangerous crack in this arrangement with President Obama, when a considerable number of people seemed unable to accept the idea of having a black president. As president, Donald Trump would be likely to generate similar reactions from a different section of the public. That could produce a split in society that, euphemistically, we could define as a little difficult to manage.

But, again, Trump is not the cause of anything, he is just the unavoidable result of the rising internecine competition within an increasingly poorer society. He may fail in his bid for the presidency, but the social and political factors that created him will remain. And these factors might easily lead to something much worse than Trump if the economic situation deteriorates further, as it probably will.

So, where is the institution we call "democracy" going? It is difficult to say, but, in order for democracy to exist, there must exist certain conditions, in particular a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth in society. And this is something that we are rapidly losing. As we slide down the Seneca Cliff, democracy may be rapidly lost as well.


  1. Democracy has existed in the form we know it, because energy fuelled prosperity has allowed it to. In other words, as long as we all had “more” of everything, and could believe that would be to case into any foreseeable future, it was not possible for any dictator to gain sufficient foothold on the political psyche of any major industrial nation to drive them into ideological forms of collective insanity.

    Thus in the latter half of the 20th c, the world entered an unusually calm period of non aggression, because the nations had nothing to fight over. Everyone was relatively well off and comfortable. Now the industrial world is breaking down, prosperity is beginning to crumble, and the mass of people don’t know why. There is a universal certainty that prosperity can be voted into office, and an absolute denial that input of hydrocarbon energy has been in any way relevant. There is an awareness that we face a future of poverty and uncertainty.

    Dictators feed on poverty and perceived injustice. This is where Donald Trump is gaining traction for his political machine. All aspiring dictators need the grievances of the mob.
    Watch this youtube video:

    It is your future. Perhaps not with Trump directly, but what will come by following the lead of Trump's political views, into an unknown future
    It does not make easy viewing, and if you are able to think with any depth, it will move you deeply, even to tears. But watch it, watch it, watch it. It will scare you---it is meant to do just that.
    Digest what it means. Circulate it to others. It is a stark warning of what we face right now.

    Trump is offering to "make America great again" without the slightest awareness of what made America great in the first place.
    Or why that era is now at an end.

    In the Trump mobs, you witness the willingness of people to fall into line behind this insanity, and “do what the leader tells them to do”. You also see the potential recruits willing and eager to do that work, no matter how dirty.

    The danger lies not with Trump, but whoever follows him, by 2020 when the economy will have really tanked, and the majority of people are looking at the breadline. Despite Trump's rantings, the world economy will continue its downward spiral, driven by climate change, resource shortage and overpopulation. (all three compounded by increasing warfare) Trump followers will never be able to accept those causes of their imminent catastrophe, and will continue with the certainty that prosperity can be voted into office.

    There has been a century of growing prosperity, at least in the developed industrial part of the world, and everyone is demanding that it should continue, and sees no reason why not. Trump is merely giving voice to those demands, and his followers are just screaming in unison---because they have nothing else to scream about.

    This is why they turn on dissenters (his audience do that as well as hired thugs). They are seen as heretics and deniers of Trump's offers of infinite wealth and prosperity. (bear in mind that he is the ultimate ponzi salesman). He has no choice but to promise “more”, and his baying mob have no choice but to believe him. When they realize in a few years that there is no more for anybody, all hell is going to break loose, irrespective of which president is in office. By then Trump will have been exposed for his empty promises and been long gone.
    The global economy cannot provide any more, we’ve milked the Earth dry.

    My book :The End of More:
    tries to explain why there is no more despite Trumps promises.
    Don’t read it in expectation of a solution to the mess we’re in. Frankly I don’’t think there is one. Welcome to the Disunited States of America, (and Europe)

    1. How very true.

      Mussolini,Hitler,Petain and Franco all offered a 'return to greatness' to distressed populations.

      Stalinist propaganda promised that greatness and comfort were increasingly within reach- 'Things Are Getting Better, Comrades!'

      The changes we are experiencing are certainly fertile ground (the only such left?:)) for demagogues who know -and who learn as they go along -how to push the right buttons.

      Political discourse has become so false, and the professional political class has come to be held in such contempt, that a demagogue who actually voices some home truths is bound to be greeted with enthusiasm and delight.

      In Europe, people just want to get back to the party time before 2008, above all in places like Spain. This is conceived of as maintaining past 'social conquests', ie welfare state, cosy state jobs, etc.

      I don't believe anyone much would listen if the fact that modern society came out of a barrel of oil, not a revolutionaries gun. Which is not to denigrate those who did fight so nobly for better working conditions, etc.

      You are correct, there is much unease, increasingly anger, and no one actually understands the process and causes.

      It is this ignorance which is most disquieting.


  2. I can remember back in the 90s when many people spoke of disillusion in both the Republican and Democratic parties, and that independents within the citizenry were actually on the increase. These things, along with Ross Perot running as an independent and getting around 20% of the vote( I can't remember right now ) made me think that there would be a move towards non-partisanship within the citizenry.

    Didn't happen.

    Instead, this country, in spite of it having a large percentage of Americans being independent( around 40% ) became even more partisan than I can ever remember. The third party movement started by Ross Perot was effectively shut down, the left became more corporate and abandoned its base, the right moved even further to the extreme, and the discourse became more immature and downright ugly.

    And now, we have Clinton and Trump to look forward to as a possible president. Talk about going retrograde.

    I must say the mind reels.

    I don't know where the third party momentum would have taken the US ultimately, but for that short period of time the dialogues on the issues that Perot was bringing up, along with the dialogues about the need for third parties in general was pretty positive and hopeful. I'm not saying that Perot was the second coming, but he was a step in the right direction I think.

    I am very disappointed in the direction of the country, but considering what transpired after Perot's run, along with the continued brazen servicing of the rich by the leaders at the people's expense ( literally our tax dollars ) I probably shouldn't be surprised.


  3. Ugo, I am not convinced that the Hotelling-Downs model does apply to political choice, a vote by a person to select a leadership candidate and then for that person to form and lead a government has too many concomittant parts for a decision to made on the basis of convieniance and closeness (The models simplistic ice-cream or single product may explain how duopolies develop in markets but that is all). I am not also convinced that what is being described as polarisation has those characteristics either. The view that a political agenda and hence policy as being posited by Trump is anti-democratic is also a causal outcome is not convincing either. I would agree that there are elements of Michels Iron Law evident but that is not an entirely convincing explanation either unless a view is taken that Trumpism equates to Facisim and that is a view touted, I believe incorrectly.

    Trump is a true conservative and his campaign is being waged within the conservative constituency of the American political system. It is a mistake to view the value statements of opinion as implying otherwise. Let us see what his views are:

    He is in support of ceasing American military adventurism in the middle east and elsewhere such as the Ukraine. He is of the view that American involvement with NATO as it stands and its costs and outcomes is not warranted and should be curtailed and reigned in . He does hold the view that America should have a strong and effective military but not one that is wasteful and incompetent. He would argue that there is significant waste and misuse of funds in the defence - foreign policy area.

    He is a strong supporter of the police services.

    He is not a supporter of government programs to build wealth or business but he does support the redirection of funds from defence and foreign policy activities into building and rebuilding American basic economic and social infrastructure.

    He is of the view that to rebuild America requires that it bring back work done overseas for American corporations by way of manufacturing or services to the United States by reducing corporate tax rates and simplifying corporate tax structures. The places him firmly against off-shoring business practices. He does not believe that very rich people should not pay appropriate taxation or that Banks should be allowed to profit from the misuse of taxpayer funds and capital market access.

    He is not in favour of continued Immigration to the United States in its current form with its current results. He is old fashioned is some respects in his views on women and quite liberal on others in other words a typical male of his age and background.

    He believes and is of the view that policies that help individuals develop financial self reliance and not state system dependencies. He supports education and excellence but is of the view that non centralised schools with local input and control are a more affective used of educational resources. He is also of the view that no profit should accrue to governments or others on loans made to students for the purposes of education.

    Thus when you strip out the value and emotion in much of the analysis of Trump (which is by any standards quite venal and centered on his use of language, which is blunt direct and understandable), you actually have just another Conservative. He may by recent American republican standards appear to be a reformist in his approach but that is a measure of how far to the right that sections of the republican and conservatives of the United States had shifted to accommodate the oligoplisation of American wealth and political process. Trumps view is a signifant departure from that approach. Some of his views are simplistic but that is the method of his approach.

    Trump has more in common with Ronald Reagans, than Mussolini, a conservative than most give him credit for. If there is a point of debate it would be can this return to neoliberal policies produce the same outcomes they did for Reagan, Bush and Clinton? unlikely we are in the age of limits.

  4. Ugo, the issue of polarisation you raise, is correct but I think if you live in a different culture with true multi party parliamentary systems (Europe and elsewhere) we ignore the essentially oligopolistic character of American politics, Democrat or Republican they are Conservative parties, and that is the American character politically. The undemocratic nature of modern American politics and the gaping flaws that could easily convert the American republic into a tyrannical state are built into the original charter of the United States and its electoral system. Trump is no facist but his me too populist views are resonating very strongly with Americans. Now I should say at the outset I am neither a citizen of the country or live there, so I am a foreigner commenting from the outside. The late Gore Vidal actually details these flaws which are now apparent in the current American elections very well in the 'Last Empire' essays and his 'The American Presidency'.

    It is difficult to find previous instants in history where what we see in America has occurred but this period does remind me of the period from the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Caesars or Imperial Rome. Rome has effectively taken over the known world (China and the Asian Continent excepted) but even oligarchical governance dissolved under the struggle between the oligarchs and the sway of populism to the elite and exclusive citizens of Rome. The Americans have already had one civil war there is nothing to say they cannot have another they have the propensity to violence as a means of solving problems.

    Finally I see no evidence that Trump is a true facist but think as John Lukacs has already argued (The Hitler of History, 1997) there is no true facism but rather but what become facist in the commonly understood sense are but manifestations of populism and Trump is front and centre in that approach. The hard line conservatives of the US, family or business or both who represent the one percenters are throwing everything they can at Trump because they recognise that although is his óne of them' he is not 'one of them'. Either way James (Jim Kunstler) opined that it seemed that American politics had become so bereft of genuine discourse that we would be left with male versus female as a choice point, i.e Trump or Clinton. It is going to be interesting, not everyday you get a ringside seat at the dissolution of an Empire and its political system. We need a Tacitus to keep track.

    1. Michael, in the past we used to have multi-party systems in Europe. Then, slowly, everybody started to say that the two-party system in the US is so much better that we should move to that system. And we did.

      Apart from that, I completely agree with you. Trump is a populist, but not really a fascist. Fascism is a completely different story; it might return in some form or another, but it will never be again what it used to be in the 1930s

  5. I thinking of spray painting my ballot black in protest.

  6. To: U.B.

    I don't agree at all with your analysis in the post which I believe is misleading in several ways but is certainly "well constructed". (But there are too many statements and ideas to respond to without writing an entire new post)

    But I tend to agree more (though not entirely) with what Michael Hart says above in his long comment, , which you say you "completely" agree with. Though it is a bit difficult to reconcile what you say with what he says. But taking the system which exists right now in the U.S. as a given since it will not change before November, if you were American who would you vote for? Trump, or Hillary Clinton? She is conspicuously missing from your analysis.

    But unless the FBI does not indict her and the FBI agents working on her case do not leak the findings of their investigation as they have said they would do, she is going to be the democratic nominee. (I exclude the possibility that the Democratic establishment will at the last minute tell their "super delegates" to vote for Bernie Sanders even if they smell clear defeat) . (And Bernie Sanders too is another personality worth analyzing a bit more closely and deeply. ).

    Hillary Clinton's views on climate change and "environmentalism" correspond more to your own than Trump's. (If either of them is to be believed). Would you ignore her distinguished criminal record which is being more and more exposed by the day and vote for her anyway? Or would you vote for Trump or perhaps not vote at all? Or do you think the mounting evidence of her crimes (both the old ones and the many much more recent ones) is all being invented by "right wing republicans" at Fox News and etc.?

  7. P.S.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)