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Donald Trump’s inauguration as president will deepen the concern he has already caused among vulnerable communities in the US and globally. The commitments he made during his campaign for the White House – rolling back state health and social care, undermining the human rights of refugees and immigrants, and escalating global tensions – pose an immense danger to all the communities social workers engage with.
The vote propelling Trump to the presidency illustrates how basic and flawed our democratic systems are. It demands a new urgency to strengthen community solidarity and expand the social work profession’s key role in supporting the systems of social protection that are required for people’s participation in democratic systems.
The real winner in the election was clearly the culture of abstention among voters and their alienation from the systems that control their day-to-day lives and futures.
While Hillary Clinton received a fractionally higher proportion of votes than Donald Trump, 42.2% of eligible voters did not engage in the electoral process. A further 7.8% of people were prevented from voting – meaning that in total 50% of people did not participate in the democratic process. This outcome represents a massive failure in people’s engagement in the political systems that dominate their lives.
Social workers are acutely aware that voting every four years in the secrecy of a private booth, without further involvement in the political process, is the weakest form of democracy. It does not secure the kind of democracy and political structures needed to engage people’s involvement in the environments that dictate their health, security, rights and future wellbeing. Such limited democratic processes lack the interest and ability to foster interaction and engagement between people.
This simple concept of democracy only asks people to say “yes” or “no” to a political future in which they are not engaged. Instead of interaction, people are subjected to manipulative political arguments that blame other races or nations for their disadvantage and discomfort. The consequence is disengagement, disillusion and alienation from the structures that people need to be involved with.
Such alienation is compounded by inequality between the establishment and people seeking justice because of flawed social policies. The underlying motive of politics is to protect the status quo rather than working together to find solutions to problems.
Social workers have consistently advocated the active involvement of people and communities in shaping our environment. This is a part of the profession’s belief that oppression and difficulties must be addressed at their root cause and not just at the level of symptoms. The role of social workers is enabling solidarity in families and between groups to develop inclusive systems and structures that respect the dignity of all people. It is therefore natural for us to advocate the development of active and engaging democratic structures, which support people’s participation in decision-making.
The International Federation of Social Workers promotes the development in all countries of legislation that recognises the importance of community involvement in building real democratic structures. From a social work perspective, social services and welfare systems should be key platforms in building community cohesion and solidarity. Focusing on prevention rather than symptom relief, social services should bring communities together to actively participate and shape societies for the benefit of everyone. The social work contribution is to use our skills to bring people together into self-reliant, confident families and communities.
That a minority of US citizens voted for Trump reflects that this is not a healthy democracy, but nor is this an isolated situation. Brexit, the growth of polarised political parties, the intensification of racism, blaming refugees, discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity are all consequences of political actions based on fear – not on the real engagement with people based on listening, understanding and working together for better solutions.
The challenges generated by such limited versions of democracy have implications for the social work profession. In response, we continue to reinforce our focus on fostering community support systems. We champion the building of solidarity between people and efforts to support the voices of communities. We work with governments, presenting evidence on the benefits of building social capital to achieve economic and social sustainability. We join the demonstrations and movements linking people together in the call for real democracy and the recognition of all people’s rights. We speak together saying “no” to governance of the people and “yes” to governance by the people.
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