The election of Trump—and the populist upsurge he helped encourage—has confirmed that politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the improbable. If Trump can win the highest office in the land, then why can’t the rest of us run for something, too? Why shouldn’t a 33-year old Egyptian-American named Abdul run for Michigan governor? Why shouldn’t a 28-year old, who was only a bartender a year ago, defeat a Democratic establishment stalwart? And why shouldn’t that person say, without shame or apology, that she’s a socialist?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary-election victory, coming on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, has thrust “socialism” into the center of the American political conversation. Ideas once dismissed as radical are now gaining a hearing. Fights are raging within the Democratic Party, and on the political left. And that reinvigorated debate—and the other political conflicts Trump has inflamed—may be one of Trump’s more unlikely and ultimately positive contributions to American democracy.
Few people would say that conflict is a thing to be embraced. The usual assumption is that conflict and polarization undermine democracy. We hear paeans to civility, unity, and coming together as a nation. But conflict, or at least the threat of it, can be a powerful motivator.
If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does. [Continue reading…]