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Elites, elections, and the politics of alienation

The victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election is further dramatic evidence that politics across the Western world has become increasingly characterized by an anti-establishment, anti-elite, anti-"talking heads" sentiment.

That sentiment is rooted in the growing alienation of huge segments of the electorate from traditional political parties, candidates, and democratic discourse. The Brexit vote, the growth of anti-establishment parties in Europe, the Rob Ford phenomenon in Toronto and the anti-establishment sentiment that contributed to the defeat of the Stephen Harper and Jim Prentice governments in Canada, and now Mr. Trump's victory – all are evidence of this.

Nothing makes the gap between the political establishment and rank and file Americans more evident than the fact that Washington – the national capital and the seat of the federal government – voted 93 per cent for Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, while 50 per cent of Americans rejected her in favour of Mr. Trump, the outsider.

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One cause of this alienation is the current communication style of so many political leaders, academic and scientific experts, and media commentators. That style has become increasingly "source-oriented" rather than "receiver-oriented." The focus of the source-oriented communicator is to communicate "what I want to say in the manner I want to say it" regardless of what the audience is feeling, thinking, or prepared to understand and accept. It is essentially an authoritarian style of communication.

Receiver-oriented communicators, on the other hand, also have something they want to say. But their starting point is not with themselves, their own viewpoint and their message – it is with the audience. Who are these people? What are their views, hopes, and fears? What is the context in which they find themselves? What are the competing messages with which they are being bombarded? Then in the light of that knowledge and appreciation of the audience, what message communicated in what way into those minds and hearts in that context will produce the understanding and response I am seeking to achieve?

Receiver-oriented communications is essentially a democratic style of communication. Its rediscovery and adoption by political and business leaders, scientific and academic experts, and public commentators is an essential step toward restoring respectful relations between such communicators and an increasingly alienated populace.

A second cause of the alienation of electorates from the political establishment is that the promotion and implementation of macro policies by governments – such as global free trade and climate-change initiatives – largely ignores or contemptuously dismisses the concerns of those who fear and may well be injured by such policies, regardless of the scope and size of the long-run benefits.

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To illustrate, I am a strong believer in freedom of trade and believe that the long-range benefits of freer trade for the majority of people will outweigh any harms which trade liberalization may cause, especially in the short run. But one of the mistakes those of us advocating free trade have made was to fail to adequately recognize and address the fears and situations of those suffering those harms and to provide transition measures to alleviate them.

This was brought home to me recently by a business friend. He and some associates owned a factory in North Dakota which produced machinery parts, primarily for one large customer. One day, the customer strongly suggested that the plant should be moved to China and that doing so could substantially reduce the price of the product and increase the returns to the investors. So the plant, where the workers were paid $9.50 (U.S.) an hour, was closed and a plant similar plant was opened in China, where the workers started at 43 cents an hour. Within a year that plant was producing as good a product as the American one had – at a lower price to the U.S. consumer and with higher returns to the investors. But as my friend observed: "We split the increased benefit 50/50 between ourselves and the customers. What we should have done is split it three ways and used a third of it, in conjunction with government retraining and relocation policies, to assist those workers in North Dakota to cope with the transition. If we'd done that, perhaps they wouldn't be supporting Trump and his anti-free-trade position today."

At present, the advocates and implementers of various environmental protection policies may well be successful in imposing such policies in the name of the long-range good. But in doing so they are in danger of making exactly the same mistake as the free-trade advocates: largely ignoring the concerns of those who fear and may well be injured by such policies. Unless such advocacy includes much more genuine efforts to acknowledge and address those fears, the result will be further alienation of millions of rank and file people from leaders, spokespersons, experts and governments.

What is the point in winning a policy or even an election battle if in the process you lose the war to win the respect, understanding, and support of an ever-increasing portion of the population that your policy purports to benefit?

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