American politics and the rest of us
By close of day on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 as the votes were tallied in the Indiana primaries, the worst fears of many Americans, particularly members of the Republican Party, were confirmed! Donald J. Trump, the tough-talking New York billionaire with no prior experience in an elected office will be the party’s nominee for the November 2016 Presidential elections. This reality has sent all political pundits and connoisseurs scratching their heads for clues. When he launched his campaign in June 2015 to join the crowded field of more accomplished “career politicians”, Mr. Trump was considered a long-shot.
That has all changed, and Mr. Trump is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee! This dramatic turn of events in the Republic Party, also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP), coupled with the spirited opposition to Hilary Clinton by Bernie Sanders, the self-confessed “Democratic Socialist” for the Democratic Presidential nomination, will no doubt have far-reaching implications for American politics and beyond. Both Trump and Sanders were seen to represent the extremes of America’s sharply polarised left-right ideological divide, and were not expected to make any serious impact given the country’s recent electoral trends.
For many analysts and commentators the 2016 elections will be a repeat of the Bush vs. Clinton duel of 1992, when then-Governor Bill Clinton took on President HW Bush. Thus, while others such as Trump and Sanders were expected to bring some excitement to the primary contests of their respective political parties, mainly because of their rhetoric, few both within their parties and the country at large saw them as serious candidates who could pose any real threat to the presumed front-runners. That Clinton has yet to wrap up the Democratic nomination following the stunning performances of Sanders across the length and breadth of the country, coupled with what Donald Trump is doing in the Republican Party, goes to show the peculiar nature of contemporary American politics.
But beyond the obvious impacts of these developments in terms of the nature and shape of November’s Presidential elections, what can we understand from the rise and, indeed, the significant performance of Trump and Sanders? Above all, what are the implications of their types of politics and the massive legions of supporters they have generated for American electoral politics in particular and the neo-liberal order that has shaped the global political economy for years? Finally, what lessons can Ghana and other emerging democracies in Africa and elsewhere draw from the developments in arguably the most competitive and glamorous electoral democracy of the world?
Rise and fall of traditional/establishment politics
For years, the post-Second World War American political landscape has been dominated and shaped by the liberal and conservative ideologies represented by the two main parties -- Democrats and Republicans. The electoral victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 over President Jimmy Carter on the platform of commonsense conservatism represented a repudiation of the progressive and state-centric policies, and the beginning of a process described as the “counter revolution” of neo-liberal social, economic and political restructuring based on the ideas and principles of fiscal and social conservatism.
Such a process had already begun in the United Kingdom a year earlier with the assumption of office by Margaret Thatcher, seen by many as an ideological soul-mate of Reagan. Together they erected a new conservative rationality and governance architecture -- not only in their respective countries but also across the globe where they sought to propagate the ideals of fiscal conservatism and limited government. Thus, the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) across the developing world under the auspices of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) from the early 1980s could be seen broadly as part of the neo-liberal ideological order championed by Reagan and Thatcher.
Reagan served two successful terms as President and was succeeded in 1989 by his political rival-turned ally, Vice President Herbert Walker Bush, to consolidate those conservative policies both domestically and in foreign relations. The end of the 1980s however saw the emergence of economic and social justice as the new election-winning issues in the new post-Cold War world order. The Democrats, led by Bill Clinton rose to the challenge by capitalising on the poor economic conditions of the country to defeat the Bush-led Republican Party. Clinton’s campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”, seemed to resonate with millions of Americans who wanted a new direction in management of the economy. To win the general elections, however, Clinton needed to move to the middle by embracing some of the commonsense conservative policies while pushing social justice and redistributive policies.
In the meantime, in the United Kingdom, Thatcherism seemed to have run out of steam -- resulting in a dramatic ousting of Margaret Thatcher by her party in 1990, which replaced her with Chancellor John Major. A rebranded and re-energised Labour Party led by Tony Blair was to defeat Major and his Conservatives in 1997, in what was described as the worst electoral defeat of a ruling party since 1832. To do that, however, Blair like Clinton before him had to play smart by adopting the phrase “New Labour” to distance the Labour Party from previous Labour policies while emphasising the social interdependency of individuals, social justice, cohesion, equal worth of each citizen, and equal opportunity.
These policies prioritising social and economic justice as well as the ideals of market-led approaches to wealth-creation and distribution have continued under successive Republic and Democratic governments in the United States as well as Labour and Conservative ones in the United Kingdom, albeit with some modifications and revisions. While these policies have resulted in the creation of wealth and prosperity in both developed and emerging economies, it has also resulted in what has been described as a “paradox” in the form of unprecedented wealth and prosperity co-existing with massive poverty and inequality all over the world.
Leadership failure and rise of protest politics
Thus, the implementation of market-led policies of neo-liberal globalisation policies -- such as trade liberalisation, privatisation, migration and so on -- are seen to be worsening inequality gaps and resulting in social and political upheavals. The global financial melt-down of 2007-08 only aggravated the situation and helped to create the environment for extremists from both sides of the ideological divide to emerge and blossom.
The signs of this were evident during the leadership contest of the Labour Party in the UK resulting from the defeat and resignation of Ed Miliband in the 2015 general elections. Thus, the rise of the long-standing backbencher and activist Jeremy Corbyn as the new Leader of the Labour Party signalled the beginning of a new kind of politics resulting from the anger and frustration of ordinary people against a system they consider to be increasingly elitist, detached and uncaring.
We also saw the genesis of the emergence of this new politics in the “Occupy Wall Street” and other protest movements in the wake of the global financial crisis and austerity policies being implemented in various countries as a result. The emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee and standard-bearer of the Republic party, as well as the massive electoral support garnered by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary process, should thus be seen within the broader context of growing discontent not only against global capitalism but, more importantly, it is a rebuke against the political establishment.
Thus, while some of the outlandish rhetoric by Donald may not endear him to his party’s establishment or win him the presidency in November, they resonate very well with primary voters and many across the political spectrum. This should be a wake-up call for all those who care for decent politics and peaceful co-existence of all regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, religion, nationality, and so on.
It also has implications for the rest of the world, particularly those of us in fragile states where there are always dangers to peace and stability lurking in the background. Our political elites need to do more in providing basic needs for the electorate so as to make democratic governance more meaningful, rather than the present preoccupation and obsession with elections and fights over the electoral roll. It is important to make the economy and strategies for transforming it the focus of our politicking.
That a political non-entity such as Donald Trump could literally take over the Republican Party and stick it in the eyes of all the party grandees -- resulting in threats of boycott by many leading members and the unprecedented decision by two living former Presidents not to back their party’s eventual nominee -- goes to show that system failure resulting from the ineptitude and failures of the establishment and ruling elites can result in the rise of populists or demagogues.
Already, some have compared the rise and rhetoric of Donald Trump to those of Hitler, whose record of hatred and crimes against humanity are incomparable. While such a comparison would be an exaggeration, it is important not to underestimate or take for granted the dangers posed to not only America but the rest of the world in the event of Trump being elected as the next Commander in Chief and President of the United States of America!
*Lord Mawuko-Yevugah is a Political Economist, Author and Senior Lecturer at the GIMPA School of Public Service & Governance. He studied as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org