By E. Fuat Keyman
The United States will elect its new president next November. Obama’s two successive terms in office will ultimately come to a close, and the new president will step into his shoes.
The U.S. Presidential Elections arrest the attention of not only the American public, but that of spectators across the globe. While questions like “Have we entered a post-American era?”, or “Is American hegemony on the decline?” have been subject to heated debates for the last couple of years, the U.S. is still acknowledged as a superpower and the world leader. Therefore, by whom and how will America be governed is still a question of utmost concern for all governments across the globe. No doubt that Ankara constitutes no exception to that rule…
Let’s first have a brief discussion on the period during which Barack Obama was at the helm of the U.S. government. The first African-American president in the country’s history promoted the slogan “No fear but change!” in fostering a climate of hope. Serving in office between 2008 and 2016, Obama assumed the presidential post in the midst of the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis, an era reminiscent of the Great Depression of 1929. And he is now leaving office at the height of a multidimensional global crisis emanating from the complex three-way interaction between worldwide economic stagnation, the refugee crisis, and ISIS.
Gargantuan global challenges and deeply-engrained domestic troubles await the new president who will assume the post, regardless of whether he/she is a Democrat or a Republican. If they emerge from the elections victorious, the Democrats will have won the presidential elections three times in a row for the first time in many years. And if the Republicans win the elections, they will have recaptured the presidency eight years after the administration of George W. Bush, the last Republican president who took a series of controversial steps that eventually dragged the entire globe into disaster between 2000 and 2008, thus triggering the chain reaction behind today’s international economic and security crisis.
For now, both parties are busy with the nomination process. The Democratic nominee will be either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton; while the presumptive nominee of the “Good Old Party”, Donald Trump, is yet to claim formal victory. Within the Democratic front, Clinton and Sanders are engaged in a cutthroat competition whose ultimate result will most likely favor the former. On the other hand, while Trump seems to be way ahead of his rival for the time being, Cruz may still get the upper hand should there be a second ballot.
Even if they lose the elections, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump shine out as the two most popular figures among all the listed candidates. That is true not only at the national level but on a global scale as well. Their political strategies, political and social rhetoric, attitudes, and styles boost overall public interest in the American presidential elections, rendering the vote important and “authentic”.
Bernie Sanders and “political revolution”
Among the democratic candidates, both Clinton and Sanders come to the forefront as strong and reassuring personas who are able to convince their audiences and are credited as being intellectually well-equipped in certain fields. Sanders is immensely popular with the public, particularly among the educated youth and low-middle classes. His fans call him by his nickname, “Bernie”. Although he is 74, he seems extremely energetic, articulate, and persuasive – traits that make themselves all the more evident in his invigorated elaborations on “the problem of economic inequality.”
Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.” Not surprisingly, he comes under a lot of fire. Being regarded as a socialist is not something that helps a candidate collect votes in the U.S. presidential elections. However, the time is ripe for Sanders as an ever-broader segment of the American society has been grappling with widespread inequality, unemployment, and poverty for some time. He has apparently devoted his life to such issues. He never pulls back, but instead stands firmly behind his assertive declaration that, “Yes, I am a democratic socialist, and such a stance is necessary for us to address accurately the multitude of problems associated with inequality, thus allowing everyone to get a fair slice of the cake.”
In this respect, Sanders promises a “political revolution” that will ensure equality and capitalize on the dynamism of the middle classes by reviving and expanding their ranks. He describes himself as the “President of all Americans”, not just of the wealthy and powerful few who belong to the upper class. From this perspective, closely following Sanders’ campaign allows us to realize the great extent to which America has changed in recent years. His emphasis on “the problem of income inequality” fits well within a larger picture characterized by popular demands for equality in every field for people from all walks of life, which is reflected in his slogan “splitting the cake evenly”. Indeed, similar demands have gained considerable public appeal and a central position in American politics, elections, and social life along with the usual rhetoric on boosting economic growth, which is embodied in popular calls for “scaling up the cake.”
A graphic precursor of the rising popularity of the ideas currently voiced by Sanders was the widespread interest of the American, European, and the larger international public in the best-selling book by leftist French economist Thomas Piketty entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century following its initial publication in 2013. In his book, Piketty draws attention to how the ever-rising level of excessive inequality, as far as the distribution of wealth and income within and among nations is concerned, has become deeply-engrained in the way the system operates, even to the extent that such a fundamental distortion threatens to derail capitalism itself. The author argues for higher taxes to be levied on the narrow minority of individuals who nevertheless monopolize a huge portion of the globally-generated wealth and income.
That even those at the heart of the global economic system have felt the urge to take cognizance of Piketty’s solid reasoning, and the widespread acceptance of the fact that even developed countries like the U.S. suffer from high degrees of inequality, together explain why Sander’s novel call for a “political revolution” and his electoral campaign based on the promise of alleviating austere inequality through the taxation of the wealthiest few were received with great enthusiasm by the American public. Sander’s promise to become a president capable of striking a balance between the competing demands of “democracy, justice, and equality” strongly resonates with the overwhelming public mood. However, he has a habit of pushing any discussion of America’s security and foreign policy into the background.
Hillary Clinton’s difference
As for Hillary Clinton, she confronts the democratic socialist presidential hopeful’s rhetoric, which is firmly anchored in arguments against inequality, by depicting herself as the fittest candidate for not only the post of the President but also for the title of “the Commander-in-chief” that accompanies the former. This emphasis is seen as an attempt on Clinton’s part to forge mutual links along the three axes of economy-democracy-leadership, domestic policy-foreign policy, and equality-security; the considerable success of this strategy has sufficed to lend credibility to her bid for presidency.
Clinton’s popularity as the First Lady during Bill Clinton’s presidency and her success as a former secretary of state under the Obama administration further beef up her reputation. She gets ahead of the game whenever debates revolve around topics of security and foreign policy, whereas Sanders leads the field – by a wide margin – when debates center on the domestic economy and widespread inequality. That said, not a single prior female nominee before Clinton has managed to get this close to the Oval Office, which is an important political asset that serves her hand.
Inequality or security? A democratic and fair America or an America that once again leads the world? Equality and fair distribution in domestic politics and social life, or a focus on the globalized world, leadership, and security? Considering that a Democratic candidate is likely to win the presidential elections, the choice between Bernie and Clinton will actually determine not only the democratic presidential nominee but also who will lead the U.S. – and the ideals their government will pursue – for the next four years.
Donald Trump, new populism, and a criticism of globalization
No doubt Donald Trump, a real-estate magnate, has emerged as the most popular figure throughout the campaigning period before a national as well as global audience. Indeed, his popularity has overshadowed even that of Sanders. Trump has stolen the spotlight not only due to his genuine political tone, electoral strategy, and vision; but also his wording, attitude, looks, and iconic hair-style.
Trump’s profile as a presidential hopeful impersonates a growing political stream which disturbs even hardline Republicans due to its racist and highly otherizing undertone, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant emphasis, extremely nationalistic and authoritarian approach to economy and politics, and its total disregard for law, morality, and political appropriateness – in the full sense of the word.
In their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler almost predicted Trump’s inevitable burst into political prominence. As the authors’ argument goes, a fatal overlap between economic crisis and social polarization, which fuels “widespread fears that the social fabric and communal order are falling into decay,” creates fertile ground for the likes of Trump to flourish through feeding on overblown anxieties and a steep rise in polarization with the ultimate aim to sustain their despotic rule. Their study emphasized that the U.S. political scene itself is on the verge of entering a period marked by populist leaders who sustain their position through fanning the flames of public anxiety, fear, and polarization while at the same time making generous pledges to fix the economy.
Within this context, Trump has been observed to be pursuing an electoral strategy and political roadmap that (i) opposes globalization particularly in the fields of trade and labor; (ii) responds with a ‘xenophobic’, ‘anti-immigrant’, and ‘anti-Islamic’ discourse to popular anxieties shared by ‘average Americans’ already overwhelmed by unemployment and inequality; (iii) promotes a uniform definition of the entire society that is based upon a specific identity, thus alienating or excluding all remaining social segments; and (iv) turns a blind eye to law and morality. This is certainly reflective of a populist and authoritarian understanding of politics…
Ironically, those who opt for Trump say Sanders would be their second choice. This leads us to the most crucial point: the U.S. Presidential Elections show that the global system is faced with a serious crisis not limited with the realm of security, but also extending to humanitarian issues and morality, public welfare, and the unfair distribution of income. The system is apparently inclined to evolve into one that is either driven by extreme polarization accompanied by an increasing degree of authoritarianism, or that addresses pressing questions of injustice and inequality. The former political tendency seems to be gaining strength, even should Trump himself fail to win the polls. And that should be of the utmost concern for all of us.
*Turkish version of this article was first published at Analist monthly journal’s June 2016 issue.