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America’s Failures of Representation and Prospects for Democracy

NEW YORK – As the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump approaches, the best way to assess the incoming administration may be to focus on the ultimate factors that led to his victory. Trump was not elected in a vacuum, and, as his agenda takes shape, we can start to gauge its impact on the political economy whence his candidacy emerged.

Trump won by challenging the credibility of both the political and academic establishments, relentlessly highlighting discrepancies between their depiction of the United States’ political economy and the reality that many voters experienced. Like Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, he started drawing large crowds by breaking ranks with his party’s mainstream. While Hillary Clinton and Republican rivals such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio tried to build coalitions based on cultural issues and partisan traditions, Trump and Sanders set their sights squarely on what mattered most to voters: a political economy in which elected officials strongly promoted a broad-based prosperity that included them.

How did the other candidates miss this central theme? My sense is that they didn’t; rather, their efforts to attract a broad spectrum of voters were constrained by a system that makes it extremely difficult to fund a credible political campaign without catering slavishly to the wealthiest sliver of American society. That system invited rebellion, and Trump and Sanders – by self-financing and grassroots fundraising, respectively – were ideally positioned to lead one.

The other candidates were also constrained by party orthodoxy, which has long kept Democrats and Republicans alike from willingly addressing the structural inequities in the American economy head-on. Doing so would require candor about such hard issues as technological disruption and globalization. It would also require confronting the legacy of decades of lobbyist-written free-trade agreements, regulations, bailouts, and tax policies that have been funneling economic gains up the income ladder, while imposing budget austerity in response to the needs of most Americans. The story Trump told of a “rigged” system resonated with voters more than anything they had heard from their political leaders in quite some time.