Hillary Clinton, by Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons.
The US presidential election is everywhere you turn in the States. That much is familiar and reassuring, but so much else this year – and in the longer-term –points in the exact opposite direction: a country not at ease with itself, a failing economy and imperial over-reach.
On Monday this week I went to an election campaign rally in the beautiful grounds of St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire and heard Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren speak. The latter touched the crowd’s emotions much more than Clinton with fighting talk and calling out Trump on behalf of ‘nasty women’ (which Trump had called Clinton the previous week in the last debate) saying ‘nasty women vote’ and ‘nasty women have really had it with guys like you.’
The atmosphere at this rally was warm and welcoming, but hardly ecstatic for Clinton. The biggest cheers were for Warren’s more partisan, fiery oratory, or for the points various speakers, Clinton included, made against Trump. There wasn’t any sense of electricity or expectation of far-reaching change. Not surprising, perhaps, when the crowd was overwhelmingly white, with the solitary black person, predominantly female overall, middle aged to elderly, and professional. Missing were the old faces and voices of the Democrat coalition such as trade unions and marginalised, poorer America: a fair representation of today’s Democratic Party.
How can we understand the mood of America? How can outsiders understand it when large parts of America, including experts and elites, have so misunderstood the sign of the times? Trump we were repeatedly told wasn’t meant to happen, and would just go away – a joke candidature for an overblown ego. Instead, two weeks out while he looks certain to lose, he is still in the game, still competitive, and more importantly, this is Trump’s election, to win or lose.
Trump has, unlike constant compromiser Hillary Clinton, shaped the political waves of America 2016. Of course he is a born opportunist who has spotted a gap in the market, and then framed a political offer of anger, fury and rage at the very elites in which he is a major player. The audacity of anti-hope took the voices of authority by surprise, but they misread the mood of the country in places and the failure of political elites over the last fifty years.
How did people not see Trump coming given recent decades? How did they not manage to factor that Trump, or someone like him, would manage to position himself as a truth teller for the people who feel so let down? In the UK that rage has expressed itself through UKIP led by ex-City trader Nigel Farage. Trump’s language, like Farage, is of a nationalism at war with cosmopolitanism and modern times. Trump has asserted that ‘Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo’: just the sort of thing Farage would say in the UK.
The old two party coalitions – Democrats for the have nots and the New Deal alliance and the Republicans for the haves, business execs and country club set – no longer holds. It has been fraying since the political shockwave of 1968 when the corrupt party system which did represent a ‘rigged’ system broke down: the Democrat leadership that year imposing Hubert Humphrey as their Presidential candidate without him winning a single primary, thus, aiding, schisms and infighting, and the victory of Nixon’s not so ‘silent majority’.
This was the beginning of the morphing of the parties into their current predicaments. The Reagan revolution shaped the tide of anti-government populism which has spawned Trump. But equally culpable has been the post-New Deal Democrats of the Clinton and Obama Presidencies, who have occupied centre-right ground, not remade the case for active government, and waged a never-ending assault on some of the traditional Democrat constituencies such as welfare for the poor and black people.
To outside perspectives, all that may seem to matter in the US 2016 presidential elections are gender and race. After its defeat in 2012 the Republican Party post-election analysis admitted that the party’s problems with women and non-white voters had to be tackled if the party was ever to win again. The main leadership all made noises to this effect, and yet such is the toxic populism which runs through the party, instead they have ended up with Trump. The surprise in all this is that to anyone Trump came as a surprise, given the politics of hatred, which has been fermenting for years.
However, America’s divisions are about more than gender and race. They are also about class, status, insiders and outsiders, who has economic and social capital, how they see the future for themselves and their families, and critical cultural issues about identity and diversity.
The two party reconfiguration which has been emerging since 1968 now sees the Democrats as proudly and unashamedly the party of cosmopolitan elites and diversity, while the Republicans have become that of moral conservatives, free market dogmatists and the white working class. Many of the winners of the ‘new economy’ in hi tech companies and elsewhere are Democrats with a poll of Silicon Glen CEOs finding 88% of them planning to vote Clinton and 0% for Trump. Such an alignment isn’t a simple politics of left v right, or have nots v haves, and leaves a huge swathe of America unrepresented and without voice.
Thomas Frank, one of the most consistent liberal critics of this state of affairs, puts it succinctly when he says: ‘The GOP is a business elite; the Democrats are a status elite, the professional class’: a politics in which majority America is on the outside looking in.
It also leaves class problematic. Once upon a time, ‘working class’ was a term of pride, organisation and hope. No longer. The term has become even in Bruce Springsteen songs, a lament and loss for people who are voiceless and literally have no institution behind or beside them for support. Even worse, ‘white working class’ has become a phrase for many of caricature – but what it does do is pose class through the prism of race – rather than talking about who has won and lost the class wars of recent decades. That’s a discussion that mainstream Democrats and Republicans don’t want to have.
To some in Europe the ascendancy of a Hillary Clinton presidency will mark a return to a politics familiar and one that they think they know – of moderate, responsible, evidence based government and politics. But that is to misread the times we live in. The Clintons are part of the insider class and elite who have enriched themselves in recent decades – neither old Democrats or making a convincing case for a new kind of Democrat politics while governing from the centre-right, slashing budgets, welfare and not making any convincing case for government. Of course, as human beings and individual politicians, the redeeming case can be for Bill and Hillary Clinton, but as part of a class the charge sheet against them is legion. They have both travelled far from their bright new left hopes as part of George McGovern’s ill-fated idealistic campaign against Nixon in 1972 which went down to huge defeat.
Clinton will win and then the gridlock, stand-offs and impasse will continue, of two elite tribes fighting over ownership and control of some of the key institutions of US public life. Meanwhile, the deeper problems of US society: of punishing poverty, failing public services and infrastructure, mass incarceration of the black male population, an economy that no longer delivers good jobs and incomes, and an empire at permanent war, but in serious decline, goes on unchallenged and undebated in the corridors of power.
The Clinton campaign has touched none of these issues, instead relying on pious, tired Democrat slogans such as ‘Stronger Together’ and only hitting home runs when it takes on the misogyny and racism of Trump. Hillary’s campaign has literally nothing to say about the economy, beyond a series of policy wonk initiatives and empty gestures to pretend to challenge her friends and funders in Wall Street. It lacks the messianic faith in globalisation of the first Clinton presidency, shared by Blair, Brown and New Labour. Without it, it isn’t clear what her politics or that of the Democrats really is. Maybe my self-identified libertarian taxi driver taking me to the Elvis Costello gig in Boston on Tuesday was right when he said that the two parties represented a ‘kabuki theatre’ politics – ‘pretending to disagree with each other, while behind the scenes agreeing on so much.’
The vacuity of the Democrat leadership is self-evident in Hillary Clinton and her empty promise of a presidential campaign which doesn’t herald well for the future. Similarly, the imminent implosion of the Republicans post-Trump’s defeat shows that the party is ambivalent about whether it should embrace modern America, or declare war on it in the latest version of the culture wars.
This is still by far the richest country in the world and the only superpower on our planet and yet its politics are dysfunctional, broken, captured by elites, and atrophying at every level. It isn’t an accident that 2012’s Presidential election turnout was just above 54.9% – a trend which has been evident at every US election since 1980 – bar 2008 (reaching a nadir of 49.0% in 1996 and having to go back to 1968 to get a turnout over 60%: 60.7%). And those figures are of registered voters. US democracy for all its hype of ‘Camelot on the Hill’ is a rigged system: just not in the way Trump means it.
Of course a Clinton presidency is preferable to Trump. Yet, it is Trump who has set the tone and direction of the future. He has shown that America’s two great parties and all the processes around them are close to being shams. And that it is possible to walk into one, turn it upside down and disorientate the whole of US politics. The Trump train may prove to be a train wreck, but it is one which has taken a lot of its passengers on a journey they are barely aware of the consequences of yet.
What comes after the interregnum of the Clinton presidency and Trump wreckage is a troubling question, but more than likely US politics is going to get a lot worse, before it has any prospect of getting better and answering the fundamentals: of an economy which doesn’t work, decline in trust in government and authority and an imperial empire in disarray and decline.