To find ways to help America heal after a divisive election, we talk with political players and observers in six countries around the world that have faced similar divisions. René Alston, USA TODAY
How is America ever going to begin to heal after this divisive election?
Every presidential contest leaves scars, especially as the margin of victory has become ever thinner in recent years. The 2000 election, after all, took weeks to decide.
Still, the wounds seem deeper this year. If Donald Trump loses, what happens to his supporters, many of them angry white men who already believe they have been left behind? And if Hillary Clinton loses, what happens to her supporters, including many frustrated minorities who feel under assault and women who had hoped to break a huge glass ceiling?
Elections don’t cause divisions so much as they focus attention on them and prompt the question: Where as a nation do we go from here?
To start probing that question, USA TODAY asked reporters on four continents to write about elections that have deeply split their countries, and then to speak to a participant in the political events to offer some suggestions on how a nation heals — or why it doesn’t.
In some cases, they suggested what the U.S. should do, starting the morning after. In others, they suggested what we should not do. Sure, dialogue is great, but action — sometimes painful, such as conceding an election or facing an ugly past — is needed, too. Here is their advice, along with some cautionary tales. One overarching theme: If we don’t do something about the chasm, it will get worse, challenging institutions and eating at the basic core of what makes us a nation. The comments have been edited for brevity.
The United Kingdom’s 52%-to-48% vote on June 23 to exit the European Union ripped the nation apart. It pitted regions, communities and even family members against one another. It also created a sharp generational divide between young adults who strongly favored remaining in the EU and seniors who voted overwhelmingly to leave.
Those who voted against Brexit believed the alliance would ensure stability and growth for the U.K.’s economy, protect decades of social justice and welfare reform, and promote British interests on a range of issues from security to trade to influence on the world stage.
Many of those who supported Brexit were motivated by frustration with a partnership that they did not believe understands their concerns about immigration, security and self-determination. They see the EU as a labyrinthine, elitist and remote institution in Brussels that gives ordinary Britons little say on how to regulate their country. “Take back control” became the rallying cry of the Brexit campaign and its supporters’ growing hostility to the central tenet of the EU: the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services within the 28-nation bloc.
The vote forced Prime Minister David Cameron, a Brexit opponent, to resign. His successor, Theresa May, appears to be in no hurry to begin the divorce proceedings. And the country remains sharply divided over prospects for its future
Here are two views from prominent Brexit activists on how the nation can reunite following such a divisive vote.
Iain Duncan Smith was leader of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003. He served in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010 to 2016. Smith is still a Member of Parliament.
“The vote to leave the European Union was a great exercise in democracy. It doesn’t do any harm to those who got used to running things to be kicked in the pants and told ‘not this time.’ Those who voted to remain in the EU have been appalled by the idea that the decision was taken by people that they don’t ever see or speak to, in places they don’t ever go to, and they universally refer to them as too old, too poor, too stupid.
“What the referendum exposed is that post-2008 — after the financial crisis — there were many issues that got swept under the carpet and still had not been dealt with: People in lower-income groups whose wages have not risen and in some cases have fallen. Migration from countries in Eastern Europe driving wages down and damaging lives and communities. There’s whole groups in society who feel that the people who got them into the mess never really faced up to it or paid a penance. The referendum exposed the perception that we’re all in this together. Some people got away with it.
“I think what you’re seeing in the United States with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a similar process. Because the referendum was such an important vote, people got very attached to the outcome. They’ll move on. Things will settle. They already have. There are some still determined to put a stop to things but amid the general public there is recognition that a decision was made and now we need to get on with it.
“There is a more important issue that has come out of this, and that was not so apparent before: We need to do something about the level of inequality in this country. This is not about socialism or communism but about making a kind of capitalism that also works for people at the bottom end of society.”
Iain Duncan Smith, a member of Parliament, compared the 2016 U.S. election to the historic British referendum in June when the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. René Alston, USA TODAY
Nigel Farage is the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, an anti-immigration political group that backed Brexit.
“After every election, whether it’s a general election or a referendum, there is always going to potentially be a bit of a schism in society. What we’re finding is that a lot of the ‘Remain’ voters now accept the result and want the government to make the best job of it. I think the healing process has begun.
“In some ways the election in the United Sates is more divisive then our referendum, and the differences are more stark. But the ‘project fear’ that we saw used against Brexit is now exactly the same tool that is being used against Donald Trump. If Trump were to win, it would be for him to disprove the doubters by showing that he’s not the kind of guy that would lead the U.S. into ridiculous foreign wars and that he has a genuine agenda that will put the interests of the American people first. He will have to do that in the first 100 days and if he does that then there will be a consensus behind the fact that he won a democratic election.
“In the U.K., we were told that Brexit would mean the economy would fall off a cliff, that every single sector would crash and burn. Instead, what we’ve seen this past summer is the best season for British hotels and restaurants for 20 years. I would suggest that’s pretty good data to show that ordinary people are not panicking about this. Of course there’s things to sort, the relationship with the European Union and the rest of the world. There will be ups and downs. But the key issue is this: Is there anything to be scared of? No, not really.
“As Abraham Lincoln said: ‘You can’t please all the people all the time.’ And there are some people who would have been irreconcilable to the result whichever way it went. But now a very significant chunk of ‘Remain’ voters are accepting the situation, are saying it was a democratic vote, are not asking for a second referendum and are encouraged by the early signs of the economic benefits.”
South Africa’s long racially divided political history made a historic breakthrough when Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black and democratically elected president in 1994, following the dissolution of the white minority-led apartheid state.
Today, the country remains torn by a deep economic gulf between rich and poor. Many residents say the government’s promise of better homes and jobs has not materialized amid high unemployment and corruption scandals. Meanwhile, the elite, made up of all races, are flaunting their wealth. And racial divides continue to exist, as was recently seen in headlines around the world after black pupils in the capital Pretoria accused their school of discrimination because they were forced to chemically straighten their hair.
Mandela’s party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), dominated the country’s politics for two decades, buoyed by its vital role in securing majority rule. But the tide turned in August, when it lost control of power for the first time in Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, where the opposition Democratic Alliance prevailed in local elections. It was the worst loss ever for Mandela’s party.
One reason for the ANC’s setback is public anger that has mounted over President Jacob Zuma’s involvement in various scandals since he came to power in 2009. One of the biggest controversies involves more than $ 20 million of taxpayers’ money spent to remodel his private home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province. Zuma’s office said he recently paid back more than $ 500,000 of the cost.
As dissatisfaction with the ANC grows among previous supporters, the country could face another period of bitter political discord leading up to the presidential election in 2019.
Kumi Naidoo is a former director at Greenpeace and the launch director of Africans Rising, a pan-African governance, advisory and leadership platform.
“The U.S. election draws up some unique things that are quite different from some of the challenges others have faced. There are similarities — nativism and narrow nationalism. If Trump is elected, I think that it will be seismic. It’s partly a guess that Hillary’s going to be president and how will she heal all the damage that’s been done by Trump? … The U.S. is a very divided society.
“The most important healing is when very many people feel they are being disenfranchised. How do you address that? Of course, this is not easy work but essential to do if the levels of fragmentation in the U.S. are not to continue further.
“South Africa had to come out of a legacy of institutionalized racism which was enshrined in the governance of our country for many decades. The way we tried to deal with it was we set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the first democratic election which was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who brought the nation together in a very painful conversation.
“It was not a perfect process, it did not do the full job but it did actually lay the basis for a very open conversation about how do you place blame, how do you move beyond blame and how do you move toward healing?
“Having lived (in the United States) I do not believe it has done nearly enough to deal with its legacies of injustice.
“America must deal with its past in the way that South Africa tried to deal with the legacies of injustice via the Trust and Reconciliation process. The two historical legacies that the U.S. must deal with are its dispossession and genocide of the original peoples of North America. … The other legacy is that of slavery. Dealing with past injustices with honesty, dignity and compassion is the basis for moving forward.
“Dealing with historical injustices is a key part of healing and moving forward. Of course, this is not easy work but essential to do if the level of fragmentation in the U.S. is not to continue further.”
Kumi Naidoo, a former director at Greenpeace, says the U.S. must deal with its past in the way that South Africa tried to deal with the legacies of injustice. René Alston, USA TODAY
Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost Mexico’s 2006 presidential election by less than 1 percentage point. He alleged electoral fraud, paralyzed central Mexico City with protests and later proclaimed himself the legitimate president. Partisans tried to physically prevent election winner Felipe Calderón from taking the oath of office in Congress.
A decade later, Mexico is still suffering the consequences of an election the left-wing politician never conceded. He often talks of the system being rigged against him, and supporters contend that their opponents — people the two-time presidential candidate calls “the Mafia in power” — poisoned the well by branding him in attack ads “a danger for Mexico.”
Analysts say López Obrador, who argued Mexico was in need of radical change, was unwilling to put aside personal ambition for the good of the nation, as U.S. presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Al Gore did after losing close elections in 1960 and 2000.
“That was the key to maintaining civility in the U.S. and not maintaining it in Mexico,” said Jorge Castañeda, Mexican foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. “This has always been the main issue in Mexico, not the ideological or political or even personal animosity.”
The immediate political fallout was Mexico’s war on drugs, Castañeda said. Calderón sought to increase his incoming government’s legitimacy by cracking down on drug cartels, a rising threat as he took office that dominated his presidency. Today, soldiers are still in the streets and more than 100,000 lives have been lost.
Mexico also rewrote its election laws in 2007 to give political parties more power and to avoid another divisive political climate by banning negative ads and limiting the political speech of non-politicians.
Castañeda says candidates should promise to accept any outcome, even an unfavorable one, to avoid a rerun of Mexico’s problems. López Obrador “didn’t accept the rules after the fact,” he says. “This is what led to the division and bitterness.”
Gerardo Priego Tapía was a coordinator for the Calderón campaign in 2006 and subsequently served in Congress from 2006 and 2009.
“There wasn’t much to celebrate (during President Calderón’s inauguration.) The political parties did nothing to show the citizenry that we had to unite. Celebrating did nothing to help or close wounds. To the contrary, it exacerbated the conflict.
“We had six years of permanent conflict in this country. We saw it in Congress. It’s something that got into Mexicans’ heart and it’s still there. The problem is that in the healing process, society, like the political parties, hasn’t been able to agree or find a way to heal.
“The profile of these two candidates caused the tension to continue. They were both stubborn and their close people were the same.
“The U.S. has advantages. There’s a deeply rooted idea of solidarity. It’s an important part of U.S society, but not ours. The United States has strong institutions, while in Mexico, civil society is weak. It’s something that they are going to have to take advantage of now.
“The main conflict is between politicians, but what is said between ‘professional’ politicians isn’t translated the same way down below by ordinary people.
“This strong discourse from Donald Trump, how is it interpreted? The interpretation of this message at the grass roots is different from how it’s discussed among politicians on the national level. The strong statements are taken more seriously down below. This discourse of resentment is much more grave. This is what we have seen in Mexico after the (2006) election and so many years of division.”
Gerardo Priego, a former senator who was coordinator of President Felipe Calderon’s 2006 campaign, says the United States has advantages because there is a deeply rooted idea of solidarity. René Alston, USA TODAY
The defining moment in post-World War II Italian politics came in the early 1990s, when hundreds of political leaders were indicted in the mani pulite (clean hands) corruption scandal that overturned the existing political structure. The upheaval opened the door for Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire real estate and media tycoon, to rise to power.
Berlusconi became Italy’s dominant politician, serving as prime minister for nine of 17 years and serving as a vocal opposition figure when he was out of office. But his governments were increasingly dogged by personal legal problems, scandal, cronyism and inefficiencies. And Italy became increasingly polarized by those who loved and hated him.
By the time, Berlusconi resigned in 2011, he had become highly unpopular. Italy’s credit rating had been downgraded multiple times, the economy was contracting, the political system had stalled and the country was on the verge of defaulting on its public debt.
The man Italians finally chose to end the political divisiveness and fix things was Mario Monti, a well-regarded economist and former European commissioner who had until then rejected overtures to get involved in politics. But, he said, “I really didn’t think I could say ‘no’ because the crisis had grown so dire. If would have said ‘no’ I would have had to leave Italy for the rest of my life because I would have been so ashamed.”
In an interview, Monti said he was able to leverage the country’s financial crisis to get the various sides talking. He doled out what he called an “even degree of unhappiness, well measured” for everyone. “The political parties, the social partners and trade unions were ready to accept temporary sacrifices that would have been otherwise unthinkable.”
The plan mostly worked. Monti, more a technocrat than a politician, served for nearly 18 months. By the time he left, the economy had stabilized, interest rates were low and the risk of default had been avoided.
Former prime minister Mario Monti is president of Bocconi University and an Italian senator for life.
“When I took control of the government there were three emergencies, really. One was the financial situation and the risk of default. Another one was the growing gap between public opinion on the one hand and the politicians on the other. And the third — within the political class, within the parties in the parliament — was that there was no compromise.
“The center-right, headed by Mr. Berlusconi, and the center-left, headed by Mr. (Pier Luigi) Bersani wouldn’t even speak to each other. The situation was such that people, from the man on the street to the international financial press, the other capitals, were all worried that the Italian state might not be able to pay salaries and pay pensions. And we had in front of us the devastating example of Greece.
“What helped was this financial emergency, the sense of acute emergency, made all the politicians feel powerless. But on the other hand, it made the political parties, the social partners and trade unions ready to accept temporary sacrifices that would have been otherwise unthinkable. And I was leveraging on this basis.
“I am sure I would not have been the one called to do the job (if there were only a political crisis). The country needed somebody who because of past experience — and I hope some accumulated credibility — whose mere appointment would help calm the markets and collect a high degree of (international) support.
“It would have been unimaginable for me to be asked to be only a political healer of the country.”
Mario Monte, former Italian prime minister, says it is important for different groups to unite around a shared pain. For Italy, he was able to leverage the country’s financial crisis. René Alston, USA TODAY
In 2003, Turkish voters elected Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the new leadership began moving the country gradually away from its past, one marked by the rule of the secularist Kemalists. Since the 1920s, they tried to homogenize Turkey’s multicultural society by suppressing religious and cultural expression to erase the influence of the country’s Ottoman legacy.
Over the following decade under the AKP, religious conservatism became stamped on Turkey’s political and social landscape. Minorities, such as the Kurds, as well as leftists and those leading a secular and liberal lifestyle, were left chafing under increasing restrictions on civil freedoms. By 2013, that group expanded to include activists, journalists, artists — anyone who openly opposed the government’s policies. The climax came that year, when protests over the government’s construction project at Istanbul’s Gezi Park led to a crackdown in which 11 were killed and 8,000 injured.
Many Turks, including conservatives, were shocked. As a result, Turkish voters punished the AKP in 2015 by denying it a majority in parliament. It was a serious blow to the party. Besides concern over the crackdown and earlier edicts restricting basic freedoms, voters were worried about slowing economic growth and the civil war in neighboring Syria that sent a flood of refugees into Turkey. The final straw was Erdoğan’s heavy-handed attempt to make himself president for life by amending the constitution.
Just months after the elections, however, a cease-fire with Kurdish separatists fell apart, reigniting fighting in the decades-old conflict. Also, the Islamic State set off bombs in Ankara, the capital, killing 90 young people during a protest. It was the country’s worst terror attack.
On Nov. 1, voters, concerned about the situation, voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan’s party based on its vow to restore peace and stability. Yet, right after that victory Erdoğan and his party resumed their policies that have divided Turks along religious and ethnic lines and pitted urban against rural interests.
Today, the fault lines have only increased in the wake of more than a dozen terror attacks and the summer’s attempted coup, which the government blames on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Tens of thousands of civil servants, military personnel and educators have been arrested, and there has been a crackdown on the media.
London-based Elif Shafak is one of the country’s most renowned novelists. An advocate for women’s rights and free speech, she was prosecuted by the government in 2006 for insulting “Turkishness” in one of her novels.
“In a world where there’s so much happening, so fast, where there’s the fear that the next terror attack could happen any time, in a world where you see lots of displacement (of refugees), many people fear that the future is going to be very ambivalent.
“Where they make a mistake is to think that if they close the doors, if they live in smaller tribal communities, they’ll feel safer. That, I think, is an illusion. But the fear itself is real, and we have to understand that.
“We are mostly divided into invisible ghettos, islands of people that do not break bread together. In such an environment it’s much more difficult to cultivate a culture of coexistence and remind people of our shared values. For me, those shared values have to revolve around democratic values.
“Because the number of people who are saying ‘maybe democracy is not the only way’ and ‘maybe it’s not suitable for our culture’ is increasing, those alternative models could be authoritarian models. So we have to renew people’s faith in democracy. I think we need to revive a radical humanism that shows people what they have in common and not focus only on the differences.
“What I’m worried about today is the rise of populism, the rise of tribalism, the rise of a new way of doing politics that is very much based on emotions and people’s fear. We need to understand what people are afraid of and why are they so anxious about the future. We should never belittle fear or anxiety.
“But also all around the world, I think we see more and more angry white male politicians speaking very loudly, making general statements and appealing to the feelings of the masses. This is a very dangerous trend. Because we are living in a globalized world, the madness happening in one country has repercussions beyond the borders. That’s why we need to promote cosmopolitanism. If we learn anything, we learn it from people who are different from us.
“For extremism to work, (populists) need to dehumanize ‘the other.’ Fiction rehumanizes. Fiction tells us that the person you saw as ‘the other’ has a story. If you know that person’s story, you can connect with that person’s sorrow or hopes. In a world of so much conflict, we need the art of story telling like never before.”
Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer, says it is important that shared values revolve around democratic values. René Alston, USA TODAY
The Philippine presidential election in May didn’t create sharp divisions as much as it uncovered them in a population that is fractured along class, cultural and geographic lines.
In some ways, the political landscape mirrored the United States. Former Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas offered continuity with the policies of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, whose six-year term saw the Philippines emerge as one of the best-performing economies in Asia.
By contrast, a desire for radical upheaval was embodied in Rodrigo Duterte, the brash mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao far from the power corridors of the capital, Manila. Duterte, whose nicknames include “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry,” ran on a platform of law and order, vowing to tackle crime and drugs and clean up a corrupt and elitist government.
Duterte made headlines around the world with crude comments and campaign promises to kill tens of thousands of criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay. When it came time to vote, the anti-establishment mood carried the day, as Duterte won nearly 40% of the votes, a landslide in a four-candidate race.
Despite a divided electorate, most have been willing to give Duterte a chance to make good on his campaign promises. In a poll taken in July, he received a trust rating of over 80%, the highest in history.
However, Duterte’s signature accomplishment so far, his war on drugs, is ratcheting up tensions, as more than 3,500 accused pushers and users already have been killed by police and vigilantes. The new president also has repeatedly ruffled feathers on the international stage with vulgar outbursts aimed at other world leaders, including President Obama.
Rather than build bridges, Duterte and his allies in Congress, where he enjoys a super-majority, have marginalized vocal critics. Foreign investors have begun showing signs of skittishness, selling off stocks and causing the Philippine peso to slide recently to its lowest mark in seven years.
Duterte’s grip on power and popular support remain solid. But in a country with a history of volatile, personality-driven politics dating back to the Ferdinand Marcos era, whether this will be a lasting period of political peace remains to be seen.
Tony La Viña, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, was a campaign adviser to candidate Grace Poe in the presidential election. He previously served as undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“A country is able to move on when the winners are able to reach out to everyone, to bring everyone back together, and if those who lost concede, support the winner. Initially in the Philippines that happened.
“I think the divisions in the Philippines now are not really because of the elections. They are post-election, because the president is doing some very controversial things, very tough things, very radical things, which includes a disregard of human rights for many people. And so that’s creating a divide. And it’s very difficult to see how we can unify if there’s a fundamental difference on views.
“So going back to the question: Can a country unify after a divisive election? The answer is actually no, if there is a real division. Because elections don’t matter. The division will persist. And so the way forward is dialogue, beyond politics, beyond elections. How do we get nearer to each other? At the very least, do we understand each other’s positions? And that’s not yet happening in the Philippines.
“The effective way of reconciliation after a divisive election is for the winner to deliver an effective government — delivery of services, accomplishing the promises that he or she made. We had that in Fidel V. Ramos in 1992. A very divisive election, there were even allegations of cheating, but in one year’s time he was able to unify the people around his presidency because he was able to deliver government services to the poor, to the people, and able to put up an enabling environment for business, for investments. So having done that, the bitterness in the campaign disappeared.
“I think if Hillary delivers on health, especially delivers on jobs, delivers on climate change, the big things in the U.S., I think Trump will be forgotten, honestly.
“It’ll be quite challenging for [Trump]. He’ll have to really pivot to suddenly be a unifier-in-chief, which he doesn’t pretend to be now. But for the good of the country, he might have to do it.”
Tony La Viña, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, says a country is able to move on when the winners are able to reach out to everyone. René Alston, USA TODAY