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The University of Southampton
Centre for Democratic Futures

Democratic Futures after the US presidential inauguration in 2021

Panel Discussion “Democratic Futures after the US presidential inauguration in 2021”

20 January 2021, 14:00 – 15:30 via Zoom

Only a few hours before the US presidential inauguration, the Centre for Democratic Futures (CDF) held a roundtable event to discuss the implications of change in presidency for democratic futures – in the US and elsewhere.

Dr Celeste Montoya, Associate Professor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, discussed democratic futures through an intersectional lens. She pointed out that historically, US democracy has always been partial and incomplete by excluding women and people of colour. Montoya highlighted the relationship between social movements and voting rights – movements such as the civil rights and women’s movements fought to extend voting rights. At the same time, she emphasized the importance of distinguishing between social movements: not all of them seek to extend democratic rights to marginalized and excluded groups. Historically right-wing movements have  distinguished voting as a privilege rather than a right, supported voter suppression, upheld heteronormativity, and institutions that limit inclusion. Whereas ‘The Resistance’ – the movements that emerged in response to Trump’s Presidency is a multiracial coalition, groups supporting Trump are white male dominated reflecting earlier movements such as the Tea Party. Montoya’s presentation highlighted that restrictive movements in the US are not new and that power and inclusion remain unequally distributed.

Dr Aaron Winter, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London also took a historical perspective and emphasized the systemic racism in the United States which is reflected in the mob violence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th and 20th centuries and attacks like the Oklahoma bombing. He noted that, when coups and fascism are discussed, US history and involvement tend to be overlooked. He highlighted that the displacement of far-right fascism as a European phenomenon and focus on a small number of extremists seen in discourses of American exceptionalism is problematic. Instead we should note that racist and fascist views are supported and enabled at times by the Republican Party, the liberal media, and academia. Winter argued that for many, the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 crossed the line, in contrast to earlier actions such as the Muslim ban and family separations which did not elicit the same level of horror and condemnation. For Winter, the desire for salvation in centrism is predicated on, and has resulted in, the delegitimization of illiberal fascist positions, but not mainstream and liberal racism, while suppressing the activists who have been resisting racism and fascism at street-level. He also highlighted the different responses of law enforcement to the Capitol invasion and Black Lives Matter protests, noting not only the racist double standard, but alignment of the police and far right in both cases.

Professor Will Jennings, based in the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Southampton, discussed patterns of trust in a comparative perspective. Jennings also took a long-term perspective highlighting long-term trends in the US and UK towards lower trust in institutions in rural and small-town areas, though he cautioned that these trends are not reflected worldwide. In line with his colleagues, he was also doubtful that the departure of Trump will mean that trust is rebuilt. He noted the asymmetric polarization in the United States, where both sides are often playing politics by different rules. Jennings also highlighted the growing problems in regulation of information distribution for democratic futures. Conspiratorial thinking – disseminated via new technologies – results in citizens living in different realities and knowledge ecosystems, creating problems for coordinating governance. Jennings asked the audience to remember that elite cues matter, reflecting that Trump had shown that elites could influence the uptake of illiberal populism. He concluded by noting that the vaccine and lockdown scepticism of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reflects this slow poison growing at the roots of democracies. He concluded that democratic futures would require the success of an effective global pandemic response coordinated by advanced democracies.

The well-attended panel-discussion was followed by a lively discussion which focused on the hypocrisy of not accepting election results (and how that differs from accepting the results of referendums), governance through executive order, and the legitimation and mainstreaming of extremism in the media.


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