Please note that I had written the bulk of this post a few weeks ago, after which I’ve been really busy and I’ve only had a few minutes to finish this off just now. This means that some parts of this post may be outdated.
We’re around a year away from the election of America’s new chief executive, and I thought that it would be interesting to express some thoughts about it. After all, the 2016 election, although a long way away, has already been garnering plenty of press attention, simply for the fact that it has so far been quite unique and, frankly, crazy.
I don’t think that I’ve ever talked about American politics exclusively in one post before. I’ve mentioned parts of it before, such as when talking about Barack Obama’s foreign policy incompetence, especially in my Into the Era of Multipolarity series. Since this is the first time, please do excuse any factual inaccuracies; American politics simply is not my main area of expertise.
And without further ado, let us talk about the 2016 election.
The Battle That May Never Happen
In a sense, if elections had already been scripted beforehand, then the 2016 election is going badly off-script. After all, just a year ago any analyst would have predicted a re-run of the 1992 election, where Bill Clinton faced off against George Bush the elder.
On the Democratic side, it seemed that the party was ready to coronate Hillary Clinton and that she would win the nomination without any serious opposition. Hillary may have lost the 2008 nomination after a close contest, but this time around, surely there would be no more charismatic, rising young senators who would be able to steal all the primary votes and become the nominee? This was what many felt earlier this year: that Hillary was the presumptive nominee and she would easily waltz her way onto the general election ballot.
On the Republican side, there was less certainty. It was a large field of candidates that popped up, with many sitting or former governors and senators. But there was one man who commanded more attention than any: Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, one president’s brother and another’s son. His fundraising efforts had ended up giving him the largest war chest of any candidate, and his last name gave him huge name recognition- whether the sort of name recognition that came with being a Bush would be a good thing or not remained to be seen. He didn’t have as easy a path to the GOP nomination as Hillary looked to have, but as a staff member to another Republican candidate said at the time, he could possibly enter and suck all the air out of the room.
And so it seemed truly like America was gearing up for a re-run of the 1992 election: a battle between two heavyweight members of two political dynasties, except perhaps without a Ross Perot to spoil it for anyone. Many journalists groaned at the thought of having to cover another Bush campaign or another Clinton campaign, but who would be able to steal the nomination from a Clinton (or a Bush, for that matter)? One thing seemed clear: if the two nominees would be candidates so closely tied with the establishment of most parties, it would be politics as usual.
What people didn’t seem to anticipate was that Americans were not prepared to accept politics as usual.
I still remember reading the news one day and seeing that a senator named Bernie Sanders had declared his candidacy. I didn’t think much of it, because I just dismissed him as an old man who would be running a hopeless campaign- one of those long-shots, so to speak.
I also remember reading the news one day and saw that Donald Trump had declared his candidacy. Now that was more interesting, but he started spouting a load of nonsense right from the announcement of his candidacy so I dismissed him as unelectable and that he would never gain traction. He was, most likely, simply in it to boost his brand and make himself more popular.
In the end, like almost everyone else who read about the 2016 election, I was wrong. Very wrong.
Trumping the Establishment
Donald Trump is now the Republican frontrunner, unseating Jeb Bush and burying him in the single digits in the polls. (Quite a turn of events for someone who was expected to suck all the air out of the room). Trump has been center-stage in the past three Republican debates, and barring an extremely unlikely catastrophic implosion, he will remain close to that position for the fourth debate, and possibly still in that position unless Ben Carson clearly overtakes him. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Trump at 32%, ahead of neurosurgeon Ben Carson, senator Marco Rubio and good old Jeb Bush.
The fact that Trump has risen so far has been mystifying. His campaign defies the laws of politics. Things has been said that would have immediately doom any other candidate: Mexicans are rapists, global warming is a hoax, vaccination is a lie, Megyn Kelly has blood coming out of her ‘wherever’, George Bush is to blame for 9/11, and who knows whether Obama was born in the USA? Instead of leading to his downfall, however, the fact that he has an apparent inability to control what comes out of his mouth has been fuelling his rise.
In a way, Donald Trump has become the anti-establishment candidate, the outsider that voters are running towards to demonstrate their unwillingness to accept politics as usual. Trump the billionaire has no need to ask for donations, and so will not be beholden to the business interests that have in the past gripped the White House so tightly. Trump the straight-talker is courageous and will be able to shake up the dysfunction in Washington. And, in a way, perhaps only Trump could come up with the sort of outrageous policy proposals that would resonate so much with Republican voters, whether it be building a wall across the southern border to stop illegal immigration (and making Mexico pay for it) or to go into Iraq and drill out the oil in order to stop ISIS. Crazy, to be sure, but it resonates with the right-wing voters.
Donald Trump, however, is far from the only outsider who is on top of the polls. Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon, may be softer and nicer, but what he says is no less crazy (and perhaps it is why he, like Trump, is also at the top of the Republican field). Carly Fiorina, the HP CEO and only female running for the Republican nomination, also gained traction (but appeared to have lost it as well). Carson is nipping at the heels of Trump in terms of poll numbers, and some polls find him ahead in Iowa, but on average he is still behind. But between them, they command ver half othe affection of the Republican base.
The ‘insiders’, on the other hand, are lagging very far in the polls. In a way, this is a very talented field, full of governors and senators with very respectable CVs. And they are lagging because of it. Jeb Bush, who in any other year may have swept the field due to his name recognition, is now having to re-boot his campaign after it started going on a death spiral; John Kasich, governor of the GOP’s must-win state of Ohio is barely at 3% in the polls; Chris Christie, who at one point was considered a good bet for next President is not finding much traction; Rand Paul, the inheritor of his father’s libertarian supporters is finding himself positioned on the far sides of the debate stage; Rick Santorum, who was a frontrunner for a while in the 2012 race, is barely even registering in the polls.
And so it was that the GOP found itself unable to walk away from the Summer of Trump.
Feeling the Bern
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is not yet a frontrunner. He has surged to the front of some polls in New Hampshire, but nationally he still loses to Hillary with double digit differences. However, Bernie Sanders has done something that no one had expected he would be able to do: mount a credible challenge to the Clinton machine.
He is not a person who you would expect would be able to catch much of a spark. After all, Bernie Sanders is a self-described ‘democratic socialist’– and this in a country where many are still unable to understand the difference between socialism and outright communism, and that spent many years in a rivalry with the Soviet Union. He is unusually elderly for a presidential candidate (73) and has eccentric looking white hair. His resume, on the other hand, is not something that would make you catch attention: he has spent most of his life in Vermont politics, first as the mayor of Burlington, representative and then senator; representing the tiny liberal state was not something that makes you well-suited to national politics.
It is Bernie Sanders, however surprisingly, that seems to be inspiring the most intense enthusiasm across the entire field. His rallies and campaign stops have become overflow events, and the old senator is now the darling of teenagers, young Redditors, college students and leftists alike. And, unlike Trump or Carson whose campaigns have been almost devoid of real policy and substance, Sanders has done this without the need to make inflammatory remarks every week.
A big reason for his appeal is, in a way, similar to Trump’s or Carson’s; he is less of an establishment candidate than Clinton or Bush. Although not particularly a Washington outsider- he has served in his capacity as senator for many years- he certainly does not represent the Wall Street interests that Americans seem to be professing to hate with greater volume than ever before. After all, it is Sanders who is running without a super-PAC, and has raised a huge amount of money all from individual voters, for he is extremely against what he terms the ‘casino capitalist system’ that robs the poor and enriches the wealthy.
Another reason that he is so appealing is his open, unwatered populism. Sticking to his guns that he supports democratic socialism, despite coming under constant fire for that label, he is all for turning America into a mega-Scandinavia, complete with more social security, healthcare and educational subsidies. At a time where the USA is becoming a more and more unequal society, this is a message that resonates with voters. They are, indeed, “feeling the Bern”. He has come from being a long-shot candidate to an opponent who is able to given Hillary a run for her money.
And so we have it: on the Republican side, a billionaire frontrunner who has built a campaign almost out of bluster and crazy remarks, and on the Democratic side, a fiery insurgent who is campaigning on a platform based on, of all things, socialist ideals.
The election certainly has veered badly off script.
Why the Election Matters
For all the Trumpiness of the election and everything that serves to make it look like a joke, one thing emerges that is clear: Americans seem to be mad as hell. Clearly, large swathes of the electorate is tired of politics as usual, and this is particularly important in an election as important as the 2016 election.
Why is the election so important? Firstly, Americans do have legitimate reasons to be incredibly mad this election cycle. America faces some very pressing issues: income inequality, too much money in politics, immigration, and the ever-recurring problems of gun control and abortion. The partisan divide is very wide, and the establishments of both parties are not providing the answers that voters want. As Donald Trump says, there is a real feeling within voters that there is a need to “make America great again”.
Secondly, there are important issues with the environment. Neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson takes climate change seriously, while both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders view the environment (quite rightly) as one of the globe’s most pressing concerns. The President elected in 2016 may be the last one who can make any credible efforts to stop climate change before it’s too late:
“This will be a make-or-break presidency as far as our ability to avert a climate change catastrophe,” says Michael Mann, meteorology professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, whose “hockey-stick” shaped graph warned of sharply rising emissions and temperatures. (The 2016 Election is Crucial for Stopping Climate Change)
Thirdly, there is the issue of international relations. As I noted in this post, China is on the rise and this rise will not end anytime soon. The next President will have to continue to manage and deal with China’s rise, through a mixture of accommodation and pressure. Being able to do this well is crucial towards avoiding war. It’s important to note that historians have been able to conclude that most times a transition happens between one great power overtaking another, the result has often been war.
And so we have it- two important reasons why the American election matters for everyone else, even for those not living in the United States.
It is a funny election, yes. It has certainly provided endless comedy for the rest of the world (I do pity Americans who have to realise that this is the state of their own politics). But despite all the Trump we get, we have to remember there is so much at stake with this election. At that point, it does all seem a little scary.
There is no guarantee, however, that the election will return to being the serious discourse between mature candidates that it was supposed to be. The Trump bonanza has not faded despite the frequent political obituaries written by columnists. And for as long as the media continues to focus only on the bluster of the candidates, it would be difficult for the election to return to talking about the real issues, as Sanders is trying so hard to focus on. And Americans are still mad as hell with the establishment; it is hard envisioning that politics will return to the status quo now that the ‘political outsiders’ have carried so much of the electorate with their visions.
The race for the White House has begun, and a clear end is not yet in sight. It will be an exciting year in America indeed.