There is a German expression describing the continuous competition in the soccer world: nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel. The last game is right before the next. The rules, the desire for competition, and respect for the rules all don’t change, and the outcome is always the same: win or lose.
In democracies, there is always a next election. The winners rejoice and go about the business of governing while the losers prepare for the next race. In healthy democracies, there is recognition that there is a certain honor in the competition for office and in the chance to govern, and trust in the institutions that make it possible. In other words: trust in the rules. Losers congratulate winners and the debates and arguments continue until the next election. Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel.
But today there is a serious malady afflicting many democracies: a decline in trust in the very institutions of government and in the people who run them. There is a spreading cynicism toward the so-called elite, a trend toward rising animosity among those who engage in politics both professionally and personally. There is a deficit of respect and comity in the political arena—it’s not new, but it’s getting worse. In short, the atmosphere is ugly.
The battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is the center ring of this development. As the presidential campaign enters its final days, the frictions between these two competitors have become increasingly bitter, with accusations flying in both directions. Clinton supporters decry Trump’s lack of respect for democratic institutions, women, minorities, and other groups in society. Trump and his supporters allege conspiracy, including that the election is being “rigged.” No personal attacks seem to be out of bounds. An increasing share of voters believes that insulting political opponents is “sometimes fair game.”
As a result, the actual agenda facing the next president and Congress has become secondary to this mudslinging match.
And this is not just an American story. Increased acrimony marks the political discourse in many other democracies, particularly in Europe. Political party movements on the left and the right have entered the political environment and are now found across the continent. They are riding waves of anger and anxiety among people who are afraid of economic uncertainty, immigration trends, cultural changes, and alienation from political organizations and institutions that have lost their appeal. Voters are attracted to slogans of simple solutions to complex problems.
The challenges of what is being labeled as a populist backlash are seen primarily in the arena of domestic issues such as economic inequality or changing demography. They are also impacting the framework of foreign policy with siren calls of protectionist responses to trade, or hyperbolic nationalism. In Europe these perceptions are now policy in some coalition governments. The Brexit decision in the United Kingdom was heavily influenced by these trends. And the rhetoric emerging out of the Trump campaign is accented with similar references.
The American presidential election will capture all this on November 8. Whatever the choice turns out to be, the next president will face an enormous challenge of healing a nation beset by divisiveness and rancor. Whether a bridge can be built over these divisions—starting between the White House and Congress—remains unclear. President Obama was not successful. It remains to be seen whether new leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can act as an antidote to the poison that has infected the presidential and congressional campaigns over the past year.
Yet there is more at stake beyond the U.S. election, and the coming year will see important elections in Europe. In France there is a strong populist surge led by the National Front, which supports Donald Trump, calls for an exit from the EU, and sees globalization as a war against the many for the few. Germany will be confronted with its populist wave in the form of the Alternative for Germany, which will likely be represented in the federal parliament. Similar trends are seen in Hungary, Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland. The political, economic, and social ties holding Europe together seem to be loosening in spots, heated up by economic disparities, the continuing ripple of the global financial crisis, the spillover of conflicts from the Middle East, and unease with both national and European Union politics.
Democratic elections can be opportunities to debate these challenges and seek better solutions to them. Elections—like sports competition—can be a constant challenge to find the better strategy. Yet when the voices that wish to disparage that process become louder, when debates turn into disruption, opponents turn into enemies, or rules and norms are undermined with doubts about their legitimacy, those opportunities can be lost. We saw what happened in the first half of the twentieth century when that happened in Europe.
The American elections on November 8 are another opportunity to affirm respect not only for a democracy electing its 45th president, but also respect for the goals and values for which the United States stands on the global stage. The debates will continue over how to pursue them, and this election will be followed by another. But the elections all ultimately depend on the country finding a consensus: that we believe in the values of our democracy and our consistent ability to improve on realizing them.
There will also be a need to sustain a consensus across the Atlantic with those democracies that share American goals and values.
Both challenges are enormous. But both are vital. This is about more than winning or losing—it is about sustaining the framework of liberal democracies in the face of centrifugal forces pulling at their core foundations.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.