Why the real US election campaign is just starting
The race for the White House is promising to become a circus that threatens to appeal to the lowest common denominator
The good news is that the American presidential primaries are almost settled, the bad news is that this was only the prelude to the main Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential race show. For the next five months we will be subjected to one of the most venomous election campaigns in US history.
Thanks to the Republican nominee Donald Trump, this race for the White House is promising to become a circus that threatens to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Last week Trump acquired the necessary majority of delegates to win the GOP presidential nomination and Clinton is about to reach a similar milestone in the Democratic Party very soon. Therefore, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on one of the most incredible, improbable and challenging of US primaries.
History will look at the 2016 primaries as one of the most significant in the US post Second World history. First and foremost it represents a strong anti-establishment sentiment, an almost unabated resentment, against the political, economic and social elites. Not unrelated and equally important is the widening of the ideological debate that questions the foundations of the country’s social and economic system.
Sadly, these primaries also exposed an ugly side of political rivalry, bringing the most primordial features of human biases and prejudices against “the other”, accompanied by scenes of violence, to the surface.
Donald Trump has stolen most of the headlines through a combination of his celebrity status and grotesque personality, however, there was much more to these primaries than his antics. The race in the Democratic Party was as fascinating, though it certainly had more substance to it than that among the Republican candidates.
These primaries confirmed what has been widely argued for a long time, that increasingly more segments within American society feel alienated and disenfranchised. There is growing frustration and consequently anger among those in the margins of society and the middle classes, directed at the politicians in Washington for serving the big corporations and multinationals at the expense of the rest of the country.
What we witness right now, is a reaction to long standing disparities, prejudices and discrimination within the American society, combined with a delayed reaction to the 2008 financial crisis. There is evidence of similar phenomenon in other free market economies who elected leaders against the odds from the Right and from the Left.
Syriza’s success in Greece, led by Alexis Tsipras; Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the Labour Party in the UK; or the near victory of Norbert Heffer, of the anti-immigrant Eurosceptic Freedom party, all represent protest politics.
What we witness right now is a reaction to long standing disparities prejudices and discrimination within the American society, combined with a delayed reaction to the 2008 financial crisisYossi Mekelberg
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in the same manner, represent two sides of the same coin. Both entered the campaign for very different reasons, starting the campaign as complete outsiders. Nevertheless, their success in this year’s primaries could be attributed to a lack of appealing solutions offered by those who were elected to run the country.
The clown-like megalomaniac behavior of Trump, and the contemptibility of his messages, should not deflect from what the support for him represents. Similarly it would be a gross error of judgement to ignore the clear message sent by the millions who supported Sanders, when Mrs. Clinton eventually receives the Democratic nomination.
In a country which has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world, at 32 percent, and the wealthiest 10 percent of US households possessing 76 percent of all the wealth in America, general malaise is inevitable. Moreover, the concentration of wealth also reflects ethnic divisions.
According to Forbes magazine, the 400 richest Americans currently, “…have as much wealth as all African-American households, plus one-third of America’s Latino population, combined.” There is a deep sense by those who suffered most from the financial debacle of the last decade, and are still paying for it, that those who caused it have gone unpunished, or worse yet, became even richer.
Furthermore, young people are burdened by a hidden tax on higher education in the form of extortionist interest rates on student loans. In conjunction with broken communities, police violence, especially against minorities, and large pockets of long term unemployment, the search for those identified with these failures is only natural.
Quality of debate
Yet, there is a profound difference between the races in the Democratic and Republican parties. Generally the battle between Clinton and Sanders has been conducted in good spirit with the odd outbursts of animosity. Sander’s energy and unexpected gains, encouraged a genuine debate regarding the place of social-democratic ideas and values in American society.
It forced Clinton to move further to the Left, in the context US politics, than she would have preferred to at the beginning of her campaign. She was wrong footed on her relations with Wall Street, but still came out, assuming that she can survive her e-mail indiscretions, a credible candidate of great competence and experience.
The race within the GOP, on the other hand, left no candidate with much integrity or trust in their ability; the winner himself casts doubt on the credibility of the entire nation. It was a case of opting for repulsive mudslinging and name calling over substance, which has always been Donald Trump’s comfort zone.
He won the nomination on the back of inciting violence against those who protested against him, inflaming racial hatred and expressing misogynistic views, which many of us hoped were dead and buried a long time ago. He exposed his ignorance on almost every aspect of policies, domestic and international, that a future president is expected to deal with, and still won the nomination despite last ditch attempts by the party’s establishment to avert it.
There is little doubt that the primaries were only the precursor of what one can expect until November when the elections take place. One can only hope that for the sake of the United States and the world, the best woman for the job will win the presidential elections.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.