The true significance of the 2016 US presidential election

Hype around Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the race to the White House shouldn't be allowed to conceal the deep issues in American society.

Maurice Vile
29 September 2016
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The 2016 election is surely the most extraordinary political event in recent American history.

All attention is focused on the phenomenon that is Donald Trump: his demagoguery, his extraordinary behaviour and the possible consequences if he were to be elected. However, our fascination with this performance should not blind us to the deeper significance of this election and what it really tells us about America. In particular, we should not to assume that this is a moment of madness that will disappear when Trump is no longer in the news. While it is devoutly to be hoped that there will be no repetition of the present circus, the underlying causes will persist, and the future outlook for the American political system is not encouraging.

The most frequent reason given for the fact that so many Americans are prepared to support Trump is that the present economic conditions result in increased levels of inequality, and the realisation that for a section of the population the American Dream is no longer credible. This is certainly part of the explanation. There is great deprivation in the ‘Rust Belt’ where industrial decline has left a wasteland. Many jobs have been lost due to ‘outsourcing’ as a consequence of the availability of cheap labour in China and other Asian countries.

Over the past fifty years American society has undergone fundamental change

This aggravates an already fraught political situation; if economic policies could be devised to reduce inequality and increase growth, compared with the present dismal level of debate the general tone of politics might improve. But the deep-rooted conflicts that divide Americans would not go away. The fact is that Trump’s support goes well beyond the economically underprivileged, and includes many well-to-do sections of the electorate, such as Evangelical Christians who are prepared to vote for a man who falls far short of their moral standards because he would, if president, nominate Supreme Court Justices likely to change the Court’s approach to abortion and other policies that offend them.

Over the past fifty years American society has undergone fundamental change, and the political system which seemed to give such good results is no longer functioning. To be sure, it was never as successful as it was cracked up to be, particularly in relation to the denial of basic civil rights from black Americans for so long. Ironically, the improvement in the political role of the black community is one of several factors which gives rise to the intensity of the divisions in society -- and the polarisation and increased partisanship of both the electorate and the legislators.

Factory near Cleveland

Factory near Cleveland. Bob Jagendorf/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

At the beginning of the 20th century the American political system worked reasonably well because the political parties did not reflect the divisions in society, but helped to paper over them. Republicans and Democrats were divided along historical and regional lines: the Republicans dominated the north and the east, the Democrats the south.

In the southern states the determination of the whites to maintain political control led to the establishment of one-party systems in those states comparable to the domination of a single party in any communist regime. Blacks were excluded from political participation, the whites voted Democrat whether wealthy or poor, city dweller or farmer. When Congress met after the 1904 election, from 10 southern states there was not a single Republican in the Senate and only two Republicans in the House of Representatives compared with 86 Democrats from these states.

The domination of the Republicans in the north and east was not so comprehensive; the influx of millions of poor migrants had resulted in the setting up of political organisations in the northern cities, most of them adopting the name of the Democratic party to distinguish themselves from the surrounding bastions of Republicanism. Thus the mere party label of a voter or politician gave no clue to their policy inclinations. Party discipline in Congress was very weak. Issues were decided by shifting coalitions of conservative and liberal Democrats and Republicans. Presidents often depended on support from members of the Senate and the House from the opposing party to defeat opponents within their own party.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the American political system worked reasonably well because the political parties did not reflect the divisions in society, but helped to paper over them

This system -- strange to European eyes -- began to change after WWII.

During the administrations of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson the Democratic party became increasingly committed to a programme of civil rights, which was anathema to the southern Democrats. As more black Americans were able to vote, over 90% voted for the Democrats. Southern whites became increasingly disillusioned and lent more and more towards the Republicans, so that after the elections of 2012 there were 14 Republican Senators and six Democrats from these same ten southern states, whilst in the House, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 91 to 38.

A large proportion of the white population of the southern states was voting Republican and the blacks were voting Democrat. The conservative element from the south had deserted the Democrats and joined the conservatives in the Republican party. The Democratic party began to be much more the party of ‘minorities’, women, blacks, Hispanics. The high level of party cohesion in Congress meant much less cross-party voting. Partisanship in Congress began to resemble that in European parliamentary systems. Achieving compromise between a President faced with a Congress dominated by the majority of another party became almost impossible. American politics would never be the same again.

New immigrants were under considerable social pressure to learn English and to 'Anglicize' themselves

Other fundamental changes were taking place in American society. Before the American Revolution there was little sense of America as a nation; the colonists saw themselves as Englishmen living in Virginia or Ulstermen living in South Carolina. Thomas Jefferson saw the need to create an American identity through education, and an increasing sense of nationhood was fostered, sometimes boiling over into aggressive nationalism. This sense of nationhood was maintained by an ‘Anglo’ elite, insisting on the sole use of the English language, venerating the Constitution and a political and legal system based largely upon British precedents. Over many years new immigrants were under considerable social pressure to learn English and to 'Anglicize' themselves, to the extent that many changed their names from the original form to an English equivalent.

President Theodore Roosevelt gave strong expression to this practice when he wrote, "We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house." Social pressures to conform were very strong, and formal legal rights, such as freedom of speech, were often nullified by the clear disapproval of dissent expressed by neighbours, work-mates or family members.

Teddy Roosevelt speaking at the back of a railroad car, May 25, 1907.

Teddy Roosevelt speaking at the back of a railroad car, May 25, 1907. Jared Enos/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This conformity began to crumble during the Vietnam War years with the open opposition of the young and social non-conformists, and as military defeat undermined American self-confidence. The greatest challenge to the ‘Anglo’ dominance, however came as a result of the Hispanic influx, legal and illegal. Hispanics refused to accept Anglicisation, and Spanish began to be used in public in a way that had never been the case with German, Italian or other immigrant languages. Demands came for Spanish to be recognised as a language to be used formally in the courts and in other ways, immediately resulting in moves to pass laws establishing English as the sole official language, and that has been done in some states. Psychologically more important for many whites is the prediction by the US Bureau of the Census that before the year 2050 the non-Hispanic white population will be in a minority, largely because of differential birth rates.

Before the year 2050 the non-Hispanic white population will be in a minority

The significance of the Hispanic vote for the future of the American political system is uncertain. Hispanics are not a ‘race’, they are drawn from a number of ethnic groups and are often of mixed origin. Their religion also tends to make them socially conservative. Although a considerable majority of Hispanics favour Hillary Clinton over Trump, some polls show a big difference between the voting intentions of new immigrants and those who were born in the United States, with the latter supporting Trump as strongly as the general population.

A vital characteristic of American politics is the role of class. As the quintessential capitalist state, according to Marxist analysis, the United States should be the arena for an intense class struggle, but it is not. There is a great concentration of wealth, with estimates suggesting that 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth. Most people, however, are more concerned about their income, and defending the property they own, rather than inequality. The poorest -- those who suffer deprivation -- are the group that most closely fits the concept of a ‘working class’, but they are in a minority.

The following table shows income distribution in the United States, giving the proportion of each ethnic group that falls into five different levels of income. The black and Hispanic groups are clearly the least well-off, although Asians are, if anything, better off than the whites. But it is the majority white population that shows an extraordinary income distribution. A significant proportion of whites are to be found in the two lowest quintiles, but the proportion of whites actually increases as the income groups go up. Nearly 65% of the white population are in the top three income groups, representing 45% of the total number of households in the United States.

Percent Distribution of Households by Quintile, 2014.

*Figure in brackets shows the percentage of ethnic group in the total population. Does not add up to 100% because mixed households are not included. Source: US Bureau of the Census.*Figure in brackets shows the percentage of ethnic group in the total population. Does not add up to 100% because mixed households are not included. Source: US Census Bureau 

Indeed, if you take the top three income levels for all ethnic groups they make up 59% of the American population. Far more people have more to lose from a fundamental change in the American system than would be likely to gain. It is this that makes America such a conservative society.

If that is the case, how do we account for the Bernie Sanders phenomenon? Socialists have never been a significant political force in America and socialism has been equated with revolution and oppression. Yet Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, gained very considerable support during the Democratic primary campaign, and at times seemed to be a real threat to Hilary Clinton. He drew a lot of support from the young and from some of those who might otherwise have been attracted to Trump, as both Sanders and Trump oppose the proposed trade deals that have been such an important part of Obama’s economic policy.

Whatever he himself may believe, Sanders’ political pronouncements bear no resemblance to a socialist programme. His agenda for the 2016 election campaign makes no reference at all to public ownership; his attack on the large corporations and the banks has a long history in America, going back to the Progressive movement and the Anti-Trust legislation of the 1890s. Much of his political programme can be read as a way to make American capitalism work better for the benefit of the poorer sections of society. His speeches could well have been made by Franklin Roosevelt, and he appeals to the same values as Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Fair Deal of Harry Truman; he is well within the broad tradition of American liberalism, arguing that the present-day Democratic party has lost the will to pursue these aims.

116th Street Festival portrait

116th Street Festival portrait. Jorge Quinteros/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Far from fitting the Marxist model, where the majority is oppressed by the minority, in the United States the minority is oppressed by the majority. At the extreme this is illustrated by the fact that American anarchists, and there are quite a lot of them, are on the right-wing of politics. Libertarians, Preppers, Christian militia, believe that government should leave the individual alone, but they differ from left-wing anarchists in one important respect; they believe that it is the duty of government to protect private property.

The widespread American belief in the right of the individual to own guns -- which goes far beyond the ranks of the ‘anarchists’ -- is the constitutional prop used by these groups to justify their methods. This makes the ills to which America is prone all the more difficult to attack; the extreme poverty of a large section of the population, the failure to provide basic healthcare to all its citizens, the high level of domestic violence, the discrimination against black Americans, the excessive ownership of wealth by 1% of the population. Only if the well-to-do, largely white, majority is prepared to share its wealth, or to find some other way to improve the prospects of the poor can the present tensions in society be reduced.

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The divisions in American society are unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future and are almost certain to get worse as the white population feels more and more threatened. The American constitutional system, which has worked so well in the past to enable compromise between contending groups, does not work well when deeply entrenched interests feel themselves threatened. The hype that surrounds presidential elections conceals the fact that the promises that candidates make are so often empty. In domestic politics presidents do not have the power to deliver; they can propose laws and agree to or veto bills, but it is Congress that writes the law. Obama’s much vaunted ‘Yes we can,’ was always a vain hope. Perhaps one can only cry out, ‘God Bless America.’

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