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Rebellion in the ranks: Sunity looks at conditions that give rise to political outsiders

The US reality TV show now playing on screens everywhere as The Republican Primaries, brings to a head some very large questions about the nature of the democratic political system and its capacity for delivering the promises of democracy.

This American Spring of Republican rebellion has caught the US political elite flat-footed, prompting a mad dash to bolt the gates. Who let the dogs out?

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Copyright AFP 2016/Joe Raedle)
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.
(Copyright AFP 2016/Joe Raedle)

Well, the dogs were roaming long before election compulsions turned them into a pack.

Donald Trump is not an American problem but an American symptom of the problem of democracy unrealised.

We who languish under the mimicry of the West Indian variant of Britain’s own Westminster variant could teach the Americans a thing or two about political accidents like Trump that are really no accidents at all but inherent to the condition of alienation.

Trump may be attracting some loathsome types. But, at their core, they share with Team Bernie Sanders the feeling of being outsiders in a system in which their power is limited to the single act of voting.

Both sides want to turn the power equation on its head, even if for diametrically opposite reasons.

If, as some say, 2016 is the year of the US outsider, here in the Caribbean every year is the year of the outsider.

Photo: An ILP supporter declares his allegiance to local political wildcard, Jack Warner, before the 2015 general elections. (Courtesy ILP)
Photo: An ILP supporter declares his allegiance to local political wildcard, Jack Warner, before the 2015 general elections.
(Courtesy ILP)

Governments routinely confuse an electoral victory with a five-year mandate to run the country by fiat. That politics is a process of ongoing negotiation of interests remains a hard-sell to governments which, 16 years into the 21st century, still cannot escape the autocratic culture planted here by the British Crown Colony system.

Inevitably, the consequence has been electoral punishment on a regular basis, delivered every five years, more or less.

In their union under one flag, the Americans designed their democracy for “the people”, blind to its fundamental contradiction with their subjugation of native peoples and subscription to African slavery.

Two hundred and forty years later, this is the original sin for which the republic is paying as the historic forces of exclusion square off against the rising demand for inclusion.

Even if it makes it onto the agenda, this battle cannot be settled by any simple election. There is a reckoning with history that will not be glossed over in the rhetoric of a campaign or corralled into the votes of a triumphant majority.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (Copyright Techinsider)
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
(Copyright Techinsider)

Its demand is nothing less than justice.

In the New World created out of Europe’s 15th century encounter with the Americas, history is a long-memoried woman waiting for justice, prepared to grab at almost any opportunity passing by.

This longing for justice and the squaring of historic wrong is the seed of the seething rebellion running deep inside the social fabric with explosive potential when conditions present themselves as favourable.

With the genie of people power fighting to break the bottle, holding America together—as could be with Tobago and Trinidad—is shaping up to be the challenge of the 21st century.

As one point along the vein of injustice running through the Americas, Trinidad and Tobago has experienced enough to be suspicious of what passes for democratic order. We have seen its ephemeral nature up close and personal and know that it can disappear in a flash.

Photo: PNM supporters celebrate the September 7 election results at Balisier House. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: PNM supporters celebrate the September 7 election results at Balisier House.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

There is nothing sturdy about our democracy which is why protest and subversion survive as strategies of people power. Inside the same parliament, we know that our power can be hijacked as easily by a gun as by a constitutional majority.

This inability to find a place inside the power system underpins the widespread phenomenon of the leaking of sensitive information. Relegated to a position far from the centre of power, how else would we know what the powerful are up to, both with our resources and in our name?

To support this political system that looks like democracy but does not behave like democracy, we have introduced an array of institutions that do little more than implement the lie.

We pose with our Integrity Commission while climbing up the global corruption charts. We have an Equal Opportunity Commission existing comfortably alongside rampant discrimination and a Freedom of Information Act that leaves us more dependent than ever on leaked information.

Photo: The Integrity Commission continued to operate despite the resignations of Dr Shelly Anne Lalchan (front row, right) and Justice Sebastian Ventour (back row, second from right), after questionable public pronouncements. (Courtesy Integrity Commission)
Photo: The Integrity Commission continued to operate despite the resignations of Dr Shelly Anne Lalchan (front row, right) and Justice Sebastian Ventour (back row, second from right), after questionable public pronouncements.
(Courtesy Integrity Commission)

Here, where the mask that was once a medium of spiritual power has been demystified and turned into a prop, we have settled for the mask of democracy, making as if we have a say while working the contact system of privileged power to get things done.

When so-called democratic systems deny themselves the capacity for involving people in the processes of power so that they become knowledgeable, informed and engaged, they stunt themselves and put their societies at risk of rebellion and subversion.

The consequences is a logjam in with both people and government are caught, unable to move backward or forward, locked in a dangerous stasis. This is the zero sum situation into which our political failures have thrown us.

Under such conditions, no government will be able to solve the pressing problems of our time. They simply cannot do it without all us.

In such circumstances, the wildcard can be very easily brought into play with the promise to shake things up.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

AboutSunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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32 comments

  1. Ms. Maharaj is on point here again with a well researched and thoughtful article.

    But there are a couple of things worth adding.

    The angry electorate propelling the non-establishment candidacies of Mr. Sanders, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz to such popularity now increasingly get their news from alternative sources: Blogs, twitter, chat rooms, Facebook, online forums which the establishment has yet to dominate.

    People are turning away from traditional mass media to alternate forms of information. We can see reflected in the declining readership and advertising revenue of several top tier newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. Voters in Ohio can interact with people from Seattle and Miami and theyre learning that their frustrations with the current political and economic systems are not unique to their region of the country.

    On tje topic of the corruption in sweet T&T note that large cities in developed countries have also experienced bouts with severe corruption: Chicago in the 1930s, New York in the 1970s and Miami in the 1980s all struggled with corruption. And the root cause was illegal drugs.

    So too does Trinidad suffer. The tonnes of drugs moving through the Caribbean is an almost unstoppable corrupting influence. Its not realistic to expect judges, protective services and politicians to resist the huge sums of money and coercion behind the illicit drug trade in the short term.

    And then there is the garden variety corruption by large entities and the minority elite unduly influencing legislators.

    Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, in the developed world big business corruption is legal. This system is called lobbying. In developed world lobbying, unless the public is extremely vigilant, the highest bidder wins.

    Why do you think the top lobbyists in Washington DC are paid six and seven figures?

  2. My point exactly!! Too many politicians in bed with “those who stand to lose the most”, as you say!

  3. I firmly believe our legislators refusal to adequately enable these state institutions with the powers required to fulfill their mandates because those legislators enjoy too close a relationship with those who stand to lose the most if the state institutions we’re discussing were actually able to function adequately.

  4. Ok I agree with what you are saying, however, your leaving a very important reason out…Cabinet makes laws…Cabinet is responsible for setting rhe limits, jurisdictions of our institutions…we hv issues here such as Party Funding and Contracts being given out to persons related to Ministers or friends of Ministers….who investigates who?,somebody is always related to somebody…further, we hv loopholes in out Constitution…. Because we are a society or a country always quick to adopt laws that are within the int’l domain.. That is, the issues are global we run quick.and grab them up and make them local laws without understanding that making and passing laws are not sufficient to the rule of law but enforcing the laws are even more important in order to deter law breakers…so they wouldknow the State is serious about maintaining law and order…and no one should be above the law!!! When that happens we can then believe in our institutions that they work for us and are not White Sepulche!!

  5. One of the reasons I believe is that they lack the legislative authority to fulfill their mandates adequately. For instance the Integrity Commission and the FIU really ought to have not just the authority to investigate but also to arrest and lay charges like the IRS and Attorney General’s office do in the States.
    These instructions in Trinidad seem designed to placate the populous rather than fight corruption.

  6. We need to examine why are they weak?,what makes them weak???,is it because they are not as independent as we think?,..” After a matter is investigated what happems after than?.. Who gets charged and brought before the Courts, gets convicted, serves time, pays back the State???

  7. Exactly Ju.
    In fact so weak are these institutions of our’s that facebook is actually far more effective in bringing about a measure of justice than they are.

  8. Usually I would agree with Sunity but she did miss somethngs in this article…our political systems are completely different..that is the US and T&T’s….what she should hv address was the issue of power that is the reason why people get into politics… Because politics is about power in any country…. Our toothless bulldogs which she mentioned, such as the IC and the EOC have no real powers to do anything in ensuring the rule of law is enforced and equaliy for all is done despite them given “powers” from El Presidente de la Republica de TnT …in reality they are 2 additional institutions which like so many others have failed to serve this country in any meaningful way because the culture that exist here has been well accepted as a way of life….it is only when a scandal breaks and it gets into the public domain ..and through political and public pressure it is only then we see these institutuons getting involved because they are called upon to do .so….without a scandal these institutions are useless to the ideology of good governance…they are suppose to serve as a mechanism to ensure that people abide by the laws within the constiturion of our Republic… Also, since when was JW an outsider??,

    • Jack passes himself off as an outsider. The man who makes things happen, the hardest working minister, the man who doesn’t need a state salary, the man who always has time for the people…
      I’m not saying any of that stuff is true. But he passes himself off successfully as an outsider.
      You think Trump believes half that nonsense he says? Lol. Same thing.

    • He could hv passed himself off as anything far as I’m concerned…Jack like many others hv their own agendas and their own judgements to face..Fire Truck and all!!!!,i dont know if we hv any “outsiders” in our political system…what we hv are those who toe the line and satisfy themselves with the country’s purse…Trump is one piece ah shit that is a contemporary Hitler, and unofficial member of the Klu Klux Klan… He just saying what those white skin heads are afraid to say, racism is there in the US, he like Hitler did in his time just brought out hidden feelings of the German people who believed that Jews and other groups who were killed by Hitler and his regime were responsible for the economic changes being faced by the German people…same message Trump and Palin has about “making America great again” and blaming African Americans, Latinos and other minorities, attacking muslims for every atrocity committed by islamic extremists and blaming on innocent muslims who themselves are victims caught up in a religious war called the “West v East… In other words Democracy v Islam or rather Islamic Extremism…

    • Ju Li stop being diplomatic and tell us what you really think! ???

  9. Thing is Kala, it is hard to see a Bernie or Corbyn winning in all but one scenario… When the entire system implodes like Greece and the country is bankrupt.
    Otherwise, the puppeteers are just too good at rigging the system and you can escape with a just-left-of-center candidate every once in a while.

    • You never know. But it looks like the mould might be broken either by the fascist Trump or the democratic socialist Bernie. I think though, the safe money might be on Hillary. Then again…

    • In T&T, there is a real political stalemate between the two main ethnic blocs and then the occasional crazies and hapless odd bods on the fringe. The third party/disaffected young middle class vote that COP so bewilderingly copped out of/disappointed is still there for the taking. If only we had some real charismatic youths coalescing around issues and transforming themselves into multi ethnic issues based political entities, there could be some real change. But it has to be from the under 40s who are committed to the place and see their futures being frittered away by the established status quo and willing to take them on.

    • I’m 39… Just saying! ???

    • Seriously, I wonder how large a demographic is the “independents.” It really doesn’t feel like a lot.

    • Lasana Liburd, I think when 100,000 youth can mobilise as they did for COP at their highest point, that’s pretty sizeable for our population. I do believe there are enough disaffected under 40s who really do not buy into the same old same old stuff as presented by the two main parties. They need to be courted though. The disaffection with the COP seems pretty overwhelming, but I’m pretty sure some well organised youthful entity can make inroads. People are just bored and fed up. That inertia plays into the hands of the main parties.

  10. I agree with Vernal re the difficulty in comparing T&T with US politics. Our issues are different, not to mention scale, as well as the level of development/underdevelopment. I suppose the similarity is that in both, the main parties can and have been coopted by big business in one form or another. In small countries this is relatively hard to conceal. But equally in the US, they almost tke this for granted as part of the system. Industry and issue lobbyists are part of the system, paid to bribe and cajole and wring the hands of senators and representatives in the House on issues that matter to the corporations that pay them. This is where Bernie stands out from the rest and is quite a radical/extremist by US standards. He’s not really an extremist. But is it really extreme to be fighting for the poor and underclass, the undemployed, the low income earners, the lower middleclasses? The game is rigged in favour of both parties in the states. Third parites barely get a look-in. So that’s why Bernie is seen as a real potential gamechanger, since very few realised he would trend among young people and all those people who have lost out in various ways.

    • Also we should be weary of labels given to politicians by their political rivals. The term “liberal” was a derogatory term coined by Republicans to demonize democrats, today it is perceived as less menacing. The new scare word is “radical”, but you’ll notice it is never applied to the far right.

  11. Think Jeremy is the Bernie of the UK, or vice versa. They come from a democratic socialist ideological outlook. In both the US and the UK, the rise of neo-liberal conservatism has made the rich richer, and the poor poorer. In the case of Corbyn, he derives a lot of his support from the people who are squeezed out, the underpaid, the young unemployed, the disaffected, the unions. How far he will go, who knows? Many have written him off as a serious contender already, but he speaks, like Sanders, of a return to basics: standing up for the poor and disadvantaged against big corporations, the folks who run things and grease the palms of the established party poltiicians.

  12. Kala could give us some insight into why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular

  13. Yes we’ve had our share of outsiders and outsider parties, our problem is we really haven’t acknowledged the real problem. We don’t have a political problem as much as we have a problem with institutions of state not functioning, we know something is wrong but we are incapable of correctly diagnosing what ails us.

    We can change change drivers as much as we like, but if the vehicle’s engine is in a state of disrepair we aren’t going anywhere even with an outsider in the driver’s seat.

  14. But you don’t think the search to the left or the right is down to dissatisfaction with the establishment in the centre?
    How many outsiders have we had in local politics though? I’d say Jack Warner and Basdeo Panday both spoke of overturning the political oligarchy.
    I’d say PNM leaders usually speak about the “good old days” essentially. Was ANR Robinson considered an “outsider” back in the One Love days?
    It is hard to see Robbie as an outsider although he did run a no vote campaign once.

  15. As always Sunity’s column is very well written, but I’m afraid she’s missed certain subtle differences in the conditions that give rise to political outsiders in the United States as opposed to Trinidad and Tobago. Both are caused by widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment, but whereas in T&T that dissatisfaction is actually a result of the impotence of our institutions such as the Integrity Commission, the Equal Opportunity Commission, the Freedom of Information Act and the Justice system in general which can simply be ignored by those with enough power an connections combined with the complacency of those who run them, what makes political outsiders so appealing in the U.S. is entirely different.
    There is a saying that goes “When you’re accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression”, this is the case in the U.S. regarding would be leaders like Sarah Palin and now Donald Trump. American politics has long been dominated by the interests of it’s traditional majority, but with the rapidly growing size of it’s minority communities, white Americans naturally feel threatened and long for things to remain as they have for centuries with with their interests and privilege taking importance over others. This is the appeal of Trump and the Republican party’s increasing pandering to Trump-esque demographics …. it promises to maintain the status quo. In T&T however the appeal of the political outsider is a response to the failure of our institutions and us not understanding that.