Populism, Discontent, and the Failure of Global Elite Imaginations

Here we sit, the day after Pres. Obama’s farewell address and a little more than a week before the inauguration of a new President (I’ll admit…I still have a hard time saying his name) whose victory was considered inconceivable by many.  There’s been a lot of ink spilled trying to explain and understand the election.  Many of these articles claim to have the answer.  In reality, of course, there is no single answer.  Like anything else, this particular event (with all of its consequences) is the product of multiple, overlapping and sometimes contradictory processes.  Among those many explanations, I am sympathetic to the perspective of people like historian Timothy Burke, who has written quite persuasively about the need to move beyond dismissal and mockery and indignation toward Trump supporters.  If, he argues, we were surprised that this many people would vote for Trump given what seems like obvious deficits and detractions, we clearly don’t understand the population of the United States as well as we thought we did.  Our circles are drawn too closely.  Our perspectives are too narrow.  What is needed is the same sort of analytical, ethnographic lens that we bring to other parts of the world.  That lens encourages us to understand people on their own terms, to take their concerns seriously in order to understand the choices they make and the values they hold.  Burke calls, in a way, for a new methodology, used by scholars, politicians, and the general public alike, to think about our present concerns and visions for the future.  That methodology calls for us to look simultaneously at the intimately local realities of practice and value as well as the national and global processes of which they are apart; it calls us to think about the specificities of place and the systems and structures that bring together communities of difference in conversations of shared experience.

I’ve felt most like a participant observer in at least two different places.  One is my hometown in rural western Kentucky.  The other is Accra, the capital of the West African country of Ghana.  These places are profoundly different, and I have very different relationships with and in them.  Their comparison, then, isn’t strategic.  It’s coincidental.  But, as I interacted with the realities of populist politics and discontent in these two places over the last year, I was struck by their difference but also by their similarities – similarities born out of shared experiences of marginalization (perceived or real) and inequality (local, national, and/or global).  It’s in those similarities that some important issues may lie – issues that force us to look both at the intimacy of the local and the challenges of the global.

I’m from the part of the country that voted for Trump in large numbers.  Many of the people I grew up with are skeptical of government intervention, in part because they (or their families) were forcibly moved by the federal government in the huge electrification initiatives throughout the Tennessee Valley that provided hydroelectric power by damming the region’s many rivers.  They feel like their taxes are reinvested more often in rural areas than in their own towns.  And they feel increasingly ostracized by a larger national community who have, for generations, looked down on them as rednecks and hillbillies, living backward lives far away from cosmopolitan urban centers.  Whereas young men and women of my grandparents’ generation lived the American dream, young men and women today face increasingly constricted economic opportunities as factories close and ship jobs overseas and local stores are pushed out by big-box stores like Walmart.  Today, people imagine the 1930s-1960s as an idyllic time where all things were possible – one could stay in your community, close to your family, and still move up in the world.  That nostalgic vision was inevitably more complicated in reality.  My grandparents, who died recently, left behind a house they built themselves in a community that they essentially founded as well as a relatively large estate that ensured they lived without care or concern through their final days.  My grandfather, the son of a man who always seemed to be losing whatever he had, was the first in his family to graduate from high school.  As a child, he had malaria.  His grandmother was Cherokee and collected herbs to make poultices and teas.  His Christmas gifts sounded like they were straight out of Little House on the Prairie.  He started his rise through the local telephone company climbing telephone poles as an installation and repairman.  He took advantage of company programs to train future leaders, taking college courses during the summer in Kansas, away from his family, living in a fraternity-like circumstance with other young men overseen by a house mother who cooked their meals and washed their clothes because he had classes from sunrise to sunset every day of the week. He spent the early years of his career moving around (sometimes by himself and sometimes with his family) through the region and around the country, laying telephone lines and establishing branch offices.  He ended his career as the president of the local branch of the telephone company, refusing further advancement (even after the company offered significant promotions) that would require him to move his family again.  My grandmother often said that he saved her when he married her.  Her early life was harder.  Her father was illiterate, did not possess a driver’s license, and was unable to hold a job long-term, even if he was a highly skilled builder with an intuitive understanding of mathematics and geometry.  He worked on farms and in coal mines throughout the region, moving his family frequently, making and selling moonshine on the side to supplement the family income.  Every time they moved, my grandmother got a little farther behind in school.  She was ultimately so far behind – and so embarrassed by their poverty – that she dropped out, barely past middle school but possessing a natural intelligence that was envious but not always obvious (i.e. “book smarts”).  Her mother sent her off to help her older sisters.  At one point, she traveled across the country by train to help her sister in Denver.  Upon arrival, she found that her brother-in-law had run off, leaving her sister and children with nothing, living in half of a chicken coop.  At one point, she admitted that one of the lowest points in her life was having to steal canned food from the cellar of the house next door to have something to eat.  She begged her father to allow her to marry my grandfather before she turned 18.  He agreed.  But even then her early life was far from easy.  They lived in tiny apartments and frequently relied on friends and neighbors for gifts of food to supplement my grandfather’s meager income.  His income also continued to support his parents, who continued to struggle on the farm, and her parents, after my great-grandfather became ill and was no longer able to work.  Their life didn’t get easier until much later, well after my mother and her sisters were born.  It wasn’t an easy ride.  And it took a little more than working hard.  His ability to change the circumstances of himself and his family over the course of their lifetimes required a political and economic context that created opportunities, supported the right to a fair wage, and encouraged local business.  His ability to accumulate wealth required an early investment in local companies that were progressively swallowed up in ever-larger corporations – now monopolies – which meant good things for the value of his stock but made it harder and harder for most people to enter the market or accumulate wealth on the same scale.  I say all of that because I think sometimes we don’t hear (or know) those kinds of stories – the stories of their lives and the lives of many people in the rural parts of this country.


I’ve thought a lot about my grandparents’ experiences over the last year.  In part, because this year was marked by a series of illnesses and ultimately their deaths – within 6 weeks of each other.  But also because their stories are precisely the kinds of stories that people point to when they bemoan the present and look to the past with nostalgia.  On the one hand, it does often feel like the experiences of people like my grandparents have been ignored in the grand American narrative.  But neither of them would recognize the vitriol and hatefulness and bitterness they see today.  The “better days” that people point to weren’t easy.  And they weren’t available to everyone – many of their family members’ experiences testify to that.  Opportunities are, in many ways, much more expansive today than they were when my grandparents were young.

When people point to the “good ol’ days” and seek to insulate their communities from difference and change, they often miss an opportunity to think more systematically about a set of issues (practices, processes, values, laws, etc,etc) that connect them to other people in this country and around the world – people they would never have an occasion to meet and who in many cases might be profoundly different from them.  When they demonize people of difference, they ignore the lessons that people like my grandparents learned early on.  The hardships my grandparents faced taught them that hard work was not a guarantee of wealth and that poverty was no indication of a person’s goodness and morality.  My grandfather frequently told me that the best people and the hardest workers he knew were also the poorest.  They both made it clear that we were not better than anyone by virtue of our relative privilege or education, and that we should always be kind to others even if they were unkind to us because you never knew what someone else was going through.  Implicit in that was an understanding that the relative social standing our family held in our small community came with expectations and responsibilities.  People were always watching us.  That was not an excuse to be snotty or uppity.  Instead, it was a command to expand our circle of care ever wider to include as many as we could, most particularly the most vulnerable among us.  Doing that didn’t require being condescending.  It meant recognizing the humanity and goodness of others.  That attitude was always best encapsulated in my grandmother’s admonition not to “be ugly”.  For me that meant more than a set of behaviors; it was a way of being that came from the inside and radiated out into the world, shaping the way that you were perceived just as much as who you were.  Kindness came through being polite and respectful. But much more than that, it came from the tone you used, the assumptions you made, the respect you had for a person’s abilities and intelligence, the offer to help anyone in need. Nana was certainly humble, and it was clear to us that we were no better than anyone else. But part of being good and kind also meant being willing to stand up and speak out when something or someone was wrong, even (or especially) if they were wrong about you.  When you could help, you should, and that help should be given without conditions or expectations or assumptions or judgement.  Help came in all sorts of forms – financial certainly, but also through encouragement, education, and support.  Helping others often meant giving them a chance – the kind of chance my grandparents were given but which they realized so many others never had.

As I’ve reflected on my grandparents’ lives over the last year, I have a keen sense that they were exceptional – the kinds of saints that walk among us, as they were described by the pastor presiding over my grandmother’s funeral.  But that doesn’t mean that their lives – or rather the values according to which they chose to live their lives – should be unattainable or exceptional.  Loving with unflinching depth and openness requires us to be vulnerable and sometimes – as was certainly the case in their lives – means that we get hurt.  But it also makes us less likely to fall victim to hate and fear.  When we privilege goodness and care for others, that means more than our own pocketbook or any ideology.  That’s the thing about the current political climate – and the various forms of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia that I witnessed as a child – that I find so perplexing.  Because the struggle that I heard about, saw, experienced didn’t lead to fear.  It led to an open embrace.

I’ve also thought a lot about my grandparents’ experiences over the last year because I’ve been struck by the kinds of parallels between their experiences and the experiences of men and women in Ghana whose stories I have collected over the last 10 years.  As I wrote to my grandmother right before she died, those people might seem inconceivably different to her.  They were from West Africa, and they were entrepreneurs who came of age in the context of British colonial rule.  But I thought that their stories and values and concerns would sound very familiar to her.  The older men I interviewed loved telling stories of their lives.  Their work was their life – a source of pride and a symbol of skill and professionalism, but also status.  They worked long hours to provide for themselves and their immediate families, but also for a large extended family and in many cases, strangers who came to them as apprentices wanting to learn their skill.  The drivers at what is arguably the oldest union in La, live in a place that people throughout Ghana condemn as dangerous.  I was told not to go there.  And yet, they are regularly called by union leaders, government officials, and police to adjudicate disputes and consult on difficult cases.  The integrity of the most prominent union leaders, their warm embrace, and their constant encouragement always felt familiar.  They came of age at a time when a different sort of social and economic mobility was possible for people of modest means.  I thought my grandmother would like them.  But more importantly, I thought that she would find something in common with them.

I experienced the unfolding of the US election against the backdrop of this research as well as Ghanaian conversations about their own impending presidential election.  Life in Ghana isn’t easy these days either.  As I’ve explored before, electricity shortages (aka dumsor) and profound income inequality mean that the kinds of opportunities available to older men and women who came of age in the 1930s-1960s are no longer respectable paths to respectability and wealth, even as the daily costs of living continue to rise.  The experience of precarity, which has caused increased anxiety in the US, is both an old reality and a new experience in contemporary Ghana.  Over the last year or more in Ghana, I have heard increasing discontent from a wide array of Ghanaian citizens – from the city’s poorest residents who have long had sporadic access to electricity, to highly educated youth who are frustrated with the lack of economic opportunities in the country (and the need to charge technological devices like cellphones and computers to run their entrepreneurial ventures), and the country’s business elite who have been forced to shut down businesses or fire workers as the result of the increased costs and strain on machinery associated with electricity outages and reliance on generators.  Over and over again in July 2016, people told me that they were fed up with government of all sorts.  Many people were disgusted by the current government under the leadership of John Dramani Mahama and the National Democratic Congress.  For some – many, clearly, given the recent victory of Nana Akuffo Addo of the National Patriotic Party in the recent December elections – that inspired them to cast their vote for the opposing party.  These realities were evident to many in the lead-up to the Ghanaian election, which was thought to hinge on popular perceptions of the economy.  For others, discontent was translated in various forms of “dropping out”–of the economy by abandoning the quest for formal sector employment and turning instead to entrepreneurial ventures focused on digital and social services or leaving urban areas altogether to return to farming (running their own farms or collaborating with farmers to establish artisanal chocolate production, for example.  This discontent is echoed in conversations in Ghana and across the continent about whether “informal” workers’ lives matter.

accra picture 5
A young girl sells purified water (“pure water”) to a passenger in a taxi, waiting in Accra traffic

To be fair, life isn’t harder for everyone in Ghana these days.  If a person hadn’t been to cities like Accra, Kumasi, or Takoradi for 10 years and returned today, the persistent familiarity of the city’s open-air markets and street vendors would operate alongside the increasing prevalence of luxury apartment complexes, imported cars, shopping malls, boutique hotels, art galleries, movie theaters, wine bars, coffee shops, cupcake stores, and bistros.  Some people in Ghana are doing well.  An Afropolitan class of young Africans, with connections to the US and Europe, are increasingly defining the image of these cities, through popular culture – like the YouTube series An African City and literature like Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go (see also her TED talk about identity and belonging here) and Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing – and through media narratives of “Africa Rising” (most closely associated with writing in The Economist beginning in 2011 and recently questioned once again).  Many of these “Afropolitans” are returnees – children of Ghanaian immigrants, who grew up in the US and Europe, and have now returned to the birthplace of their parents to take advantage of the seemingly endless opportunities in “underdeveloped” markets or to escape the racial violence and discrimination of the West in favor of a new community of belonging where difference appears to be based less on skin color and more on achievement.  The affluence that is often associated with Afropolitanism, however, is part of a broader conversation about income inequality in countries like Ghana – inequality that is both real (a weak Ghanaian cedi coupled with inflation means that goods cost more than ever before; people making little find it harder to subsist much less save small amounts of capital to invest in new businesses or education) and perceived (as the cities poorest now live alongside a growing class of wealthy urban residents whose lives they can see but not directly experience).  All of that might sound familiar.  While the realities of economic struggle in urban Ghana and rural America might not be directly comparable in absolute terms, the perception of inequality, the sense of stagnated mobility, and its connection to political discontent resonates across national boundaries.

The cast of An African City

Many people of all stripes participated actively and enthusiastically in this Ghanaian election – much like those elections that preceded it.  But the world-weariness of so many – the belief that the election was unlikely to change much, a desperation born out of a lack of opportunity, and a perception that the system is rigged against them – signals something much broader.  In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, Thomas Piketty has called for a rethinking of globalization, necessary in order to stem the growth of “Trumpism”.  Piketty argues that “the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this” set the stage for Trump’s victory. While Trump’s policies are unlikely to actually address or reverse this growing inequality (and, Piketty and many others argue, are more likely to exacerbate it), the anti-establishment and anti-intellectual streams of his campaign seemed to be the more convincing narrative for a group of voters who seem convinced that the global elite are not listening and do not understand (or care about) the realities of their stagnating or increasingly difficult lives (*we must keep in mind of course that, while much of the analysis in journalistic venues as cast “Trump voters” as a homogenous bunch, the characterization by Piketty and others reflects only a portion of Trump supporters.  The diverse motivations that explain the outcome of this election are likely much more complex than any single theory or argument could pretend to encapsulate).

Many people in Ghana – and across the continent – might concur.  There were a shocking number of people pulling for Trump when we visited Ghana in October.  And, beyond that, there is increasingly public discontent over the actions and ethics of national government leaders – voiced, for example, in protests over dumsor – and international development, aid, and governmental agencies.  For some like Piketty, this discontent requires a re-orientation of globalization, rewriting trade agreements in a way that would enable governments to address rising national and global inequalities rather than exacerbating them.  For others, like Cornel West, the election of Trump signals that “the neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neofascist bang.”  On the international stage, the recent recognition by the IMF and 200+ economists acknowledged that decades of policies based on economic theories that emphasize austerity as an economic strategy to drive growth were wrong (too little too late for many parts of the world, including Africa, where these policies have been shown to fail for decades), gives some hope for a shift in strategy.  In other corners, however, little seems to have changed, as the United Nations voted to replace the Millennium Development Goals with Sustainable Development Goals, which continue to fail to acknowledge the historical and structural roots of contemporary poverty and global inequality.

The complaints in Ghana are part of these larger national and international narratives.  Neoliberalism, austerity, development – these all have indelibly shaped the Ghanaian economy and defined the possibilities (or lack thereof) for Ghanaian citizens in an immediate way for decades.  And while structural and systemic analysis of the processes of globalization are important, it is equally important to think through the ways these processes are instantiated.  For Ghanaians, neoliberalism, austerity, and development are manifested in the frustrations over dumsor or the wasteful inefficiencies of ill-suited road building projects or the priorities given to “new urbanist” visions over local solutions for the urban majority.  For people in the parts of this country who have embraced anti-establishment and anti-intellectual politics, these processes might manifest slightly differently.  But they share many concerns – the lack of economic opportunity, a declining investment in infrastructure, anxiety over whether the “new” trends in policy will actually help them or whether they will continue to enshrine and enrich elite interests.  It’s important to understand these frustrations (even if we do not understand the way they choose to express it) not only because it helps us better understand and attack inequality on the ground but also because it forces us to interrogate our own practices and assumptions as academics, practitioners, and global citizens.  And it provokes a reimagining of what infrastructure or development or urban planning might look like if it embraced the realities of the majority rather than ignoring them.  We absolutely cannot accept or tolerate hatred or violence in any form, and we should work to protect our most vulnerable citizens.  But perhaps we can simultaneously work to address some of the structural violence and systemic inequalities that have led citizens on both sides of the political spectrum to express a disenchantment with the establishment that claims to best lead them.

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