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Cultural divide a growing threat to governance beyond Trumpism

Though not out in the streets, many Canadians were as happy about Joe Biden’s win as those Americans celebrating en masse Saturday afternoon and into the night.

As commentators noted, the spontaneous reaction to the news Donald Trump would no longer be president were reminiscent of scenes from countries that had just overthrown dictators. To the majority of Americans who wanted Trump gone, it must have felt like being delivered from a four-year nightmare.

After days of holding their breath following the November 3 vote, they finally got to exhale.

By the same token, almost half of U.S. voters opted for Trump, a number that seems unfathomable to those who see him as a divisive, mean-spirited font of misinformation and lies. Trump was an outsider running against a much-disliked Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he was certainly a known quantity this time around. That some 70 million people opted to vote for him despite his deficiencies tells us something, even if that something isn’t particularly uplifting.

Undoubtedly, there were those who voted for him precisely because of his divisiveness – racism, misogyny, intolerance – but that’s too simple an explanation for why the race was so much closer than rationality said it should have been. But many voted for Trump for the same reason they did in 2016: they feel left out and even looked down upon by those they label elites. In 2016, Trump was perhaps a protest against the status quo. In 2020, he was also a middle-finger salute from the deplorables.

The vast majority of Americans have felt the negatives of globalization, outsourcing, loss of blue-collar jobs, declining union rates and a host of other ills related to shifts in trade and regulation that began some four decades ago. Those changes came in the wake of societal upheavals that altered the status quo where race, gender and sexuality were concerned, making the ground unsteady for some, particularly those who benefitted from the status quo.

Steady urbanization in which the cities grew, usually through immigration patterns that were also changing, only enhanced the divide between those areas hit hardest by economic shifts, rural locations in the so-called red states, most notably. That set the stage for the divide between predominantly White, Christian, conservative residents and multiracial, non-religious, liberal residents of the cities, the latter a growing demographic while the former shrinks.

On top of power sliding to the urban centres, those already feeling left behind were also subject to derision – some real, some imagined – from those who saw them as an anachronism. They would become Trump supporters, in part as a way to poke “coastal elites and liberals” in the eye.

That anger is understandable. Change is always difficult. More so when the pace is ever-increasing. And especially so when they feel like changes are being made without their consent – nobody ever asked them if it was OK to make so many economic and societal changes.

Western democracy is predicated on the consent of the governed – governments have only as much legitimacy and power as we grant them, at least in theory, though we’ve certainly strayed from that path over the years.

Groups everywhere on the spectrum have reason to see government has less legitimate as those in power curry to narrow corporate interests and self-dealing. But in the case of Trump supporters, there’s a sense of grievance that their very way of life is threatened by government policy.

That the economic decline of manufacturing and extractive regions of the country was orchestrated under Republican and Democratic administrations gets lost in the mix. Moreover, cultural issues related to the likes of demographic changes and religion play an oversized role, one Trump supporters see represented by Republicans. The party has swung decidedly that way in attempting to retain power rather than erecting a larger tent to be more inclusive. The result is the hyper-partisanship that’s become the norm today.

Those kind of splits are becoming a larger political concern on the international stage. The red state/blue state divide in the U.S. is a very obvious case in point in the age of Trump, but it’s also at play in the Brexit debate in the UK and the “yellow vest” protests in France, for instance.

Canada is not immune, of course, as we can clearly see in the debate over carbon taxes, pipelines and gun controls, which pit the concerns of the Prairie provinces against the diktats from Ottawa.  And the situation here is unlikely to improve as the country becomes more urban.

Already, more than 80 per cent of us live in urban areas. Some 35.5 per cent of all Canadians live in just three cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – up from 29.9 per cent three decades earlier, according to information from the 2016 census. That trend continues. And it could lead to the kind of issues we see in other countries – think of the London vs. the countryside split in the Brexit vote, for example.

In federal and provincial politics, there is already an established divide between rural and urban areas when it comes to electing Conservative, Liberal and NDP candidates – this country, too, is a patchwork quilt of red and blue. Political scientists and other academics have already noted the growing fault line, though it’s nothing like the chasm to the south.

Still, Canada has a dilemma of its own. The American divide has been widely discussed since Trump’s unlikely rise to the presidency, which caught many pundits off guard simply because those in the urban areas were unaware and/or dismissive of the concerns and problems found in the rural and even suburban areas of the country.

The anger that arose in the so-called flyover parts of the country, particularly in the rustbelt states, had much to do with poorer economic prospects and feelings of neglect. As the urban areas grow and the economic shifts – many of them the result of poor and corrupt polices – continue to alter the landscape, bridging the gap appears ever-more difficult.

That’s the reality that Biden faces when he’s sworn in as president on January 20. He’s talked of healing, which is a much better message than what’s been on offer for the past four years, but a recognition of the grievances and action on those that are legitimate will be needed to gain the consent of more of the governed.

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