Is Democracy in Crisis? The Trump phenomenon

The Hon Lindsay Tanner MP says it is not the democratic constitutional structure that is in crisis, but the ideas that govern it.

Donald Trump

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mr Tanner, a graduate of arts and law from the University of Melbourne, was speaking of the widespread disillusionment with democracy in Australia and other western countries at the first Melbourne Law School Alumni Seminar for 2016 earlier this week.

The current special advisor at Lazard and President of Essendon Football Club said if you need an example of the crisis facing contemporary liberal democracies, US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump “is game, set, match evidence that something is profoundly wrong.”

Trump has managed to attract a major following because of the profound structural change occurring in western economies, driven by globalisation and technology.

“Western society is undergoing a profound restructuring. The structural shift we are living through is as significant as the industrial revolution.

“Routine jobs are disappearing due to globalisation and the result is a stagnation of income for working class people – particularly for older, less educated and male members of the population.”

What concerns voters supportive of politicians like Trump, he says, is the health of the economy and their place in it.

“The guy who was quoted as saying people in America are voting with their middle finger was right. Trump is targeting people whose incomes have stagnated due to globalisation and technological changes and whose points of view have been shafted in the political debate.

“When you end up with a political system that excludes significant groups in society and gives them no real voice, that is when you have a problem. It has been a wake up call to mainstream political parties,” he said.

What Trump offers is the opportunity to “blow up the existing political landscape – and he has already succeeded in doing that.”

A key way to overcome this divide is to change the labour supply, which requires a major structural change of education – of what is taught, how it is taught and when it is taught – to create a productive and adaptable workforce that is victorious over the “endless race between technology and education.”

Looking closer to home, Mr Tanner said Australian democracy is in pretty good shape, even if the world of politics when he first got involved in the 1980s was a “simpler landscape”.

Political debate in the current climate requires politicians to talk in bumper stickers. This, he said, presents Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with an interesting challenge: he will need to surf the wave of public opinion while politicians focus on short-term image manipulation, opinion polling and announcements at the expense of sound policy making.

By Liz Banks-Anderson