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No country for outliers

"The Democratic primaries are the rank opposite of the Republican primary: more substantive, less personal and a clash of ideas.” Picture shows a crowd cheering for “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders in Decorah, Iowa.  

The United States’s vantage position as the world’s lone superpower lends enormous attention to its presidential elections and even the run-up to it. The U.S. has a particularly stable two-party political system that is heavily dominated by wealthy special interests and this system is firmly pitched in the centre-right spectrum. The executive presidency therefore offers both a stepladder to individuals seeking power as well as the vesting of hope of those who are otherwise disenchanted with the U.S. Congress to seek some succour in the presidency to serve their interests.

The primaries that lead up to the eventual presidential elections offer a great understanding of the aspirations of the politically active participants and the clash between those strongly invested in the political system and those who seek to subvert it from within. This is also because there is virtually no chance beyond the primaries of the two parties for other political forces, in effect making American democracy a circumscribed process that seeks to perpetuate its formally liberal democratic system but which is only a thin veneer for what is considered by many in actuality a plutocracy.

Interstitial shifts
Yet, now and then, due to effects of both long-standing and near-term phenomena, even this system could throw up new possibilities. In the present, the impact of a long period of a state orientation that acted largely in the interests of big capital since the early 1980s (the Ronald Reagan presidency) led to a run of a near-unfettered finance-dominated capitalism. The effect of this was a structural change in the polity, which shifted further to the right, and a financial crisis in the economy leading to the worst recession since the Great Depression. The victory of Barack Obama in 2008 was made possible due to the worries among the American electorate about the recession and for change in the policies that led to the crisis.



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Eight years of the Obama presidency did effect change — largely in the way the U.S. dealt with the world externally — and slowly but gradually overturning a disastrous turn towards ad hoc unilateralism of the George W. Bush era. But domestically, the presidency could only manage limited and incremental reforms, the most well touted and impactful of which was the Affordable Care Act that extended the number of the people with health insurance (mostly provided by the private sector) in the country. These short-term actions (incremental reforms) and long-term effects (the working and middle class in relative despair) have led to a disaffection with the political system. The expression of this discontent, however, is channelised only within the circumscribed two-party system.

It is in this milieu that we should understand the presidential primaries as they took off in the first caucuses in the mid-western state of Iowa on February 1.

Amongst the Republicans, a trend of anti-establishmentarian politics that had set in some years ago heralding the rise of the “Tea Party movement” saw to a peculiar orientation of the race. Long-serving Republican candidates who had executive experience as Governors — such as three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry or Florida ex-Governor and the Bush scion, Jeb — or Senators were pushed by the wayside early in the campaigns. At one point the front runners were the reality TV and realty entrepreneur Donald Trump, the neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina. As the days passed by, the nonsense-spewing Carson and the blatantly lying Fiorina were sidelined but support for Mr. Trump only increased despite a slew of controversial remarks by the front runner.

Read: >The gale called Bernie Sanders

The Iowa caucus saw a win for the rabble-rousing Senator Ted Cruz, who led a near-catastrophic shutdown procedure in the U.S. Congress in order to overturn the Affordable Care Act and is despised by establishment Republicans. Mr. Trump came second, ahead of well-funded establishment candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who finished far behind. Mr. Trump still maintains a large lead in national polls heading into the New Hampshire primaries. His enduring support was initially a mystery, later explained as stemming from the anger of a Republican base, but that would not still provide a basis for why someone who is openly narcissist, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and communal is in line to become the presidential candidate of the U.S.’s Grand Old Party.

His policy platform is largely an empty set of hate-mongering statements that seek to blame immigrants, minorities and the welfare state for the suffering of the working and middle classes. The latter’s support for him indicates the frustration with the Republican establishment which is seen as supplicant to special and moneyed interests. At the same time, it is also the effect of the appeal of the ideologies of hate and victimhood, which persist due to the lack of any substantive political activism promoting a civic consciousness and also due to the circumscribed political system.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy is the naked version of Republicanism in America today — driven by a narrow-minded philosophy of a market-led economy offering solutions to every problem, and a regressive social conservatism that pays little regard to the changed mores of the 21st century. The Republican race lacks substance and differentiation in ideas among the candidates, reducing the contest to a nominal battle based on persona and bluster; in an environment where Mr. Trump thrives, vices such as empty bombast and narcissism turn out to be virtues in this “reality TV-like contest”.

U.S. and Dems

The Democratic Party contrasts itself to the Republicans as socially liberal and economically “centrist” but cut and dried largely in the same neo-liberal consensus that is agreed upon by the GOP. Hillary Clinton was touted to be the presumptive and definitive nominee and yet the race has thrown up a resilient run by the unabashedly “democratic socialist” and independent Senator, Bernie Sanders. Mr. Sanders fought Ms. Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa, winning an outright “moral victory” and an equal share of state delegates, if not an actual win.

The Democratic primaries thus far are the rank opposite of the Republican primary: more substantive, less personal and a clash of ideas. Ms. Clinton has sought to project her experience in government and her centrism as pragmatism to make further incremental progress à la Mr. Obama. Mr. Sanders seeks a “political revolution” of sorts through his insurgent candidacy within the Democratic Party set-up to effect at least minimalist social democratic policies (universal health care, a meaningful minimum wage for example) and a final reversal of “neo-liberal economics” that has fuelled massive income inequality.

Mr. Sanders’s success so far in building up sufficient momentum has been despite the lack of corporate funding and support. He has sought to utilise the “grassroots mobilisation” method of the Obama campaign in 2008, which promised “hope” and great “change”, but with the basis of his policies set in non-Reaganite terms and in social democracy. Mr. Obama as a candidate had a “powerful message” but he was very much a centrist who promised technocratic solutions. Mr. Sanders’s support from the middle and working classes is a consequence of the effects over time in U.S. political economy as argued above. The Iowa tie and an expected win in the New Hampshire primaries will not make his challenge any less tough against Ms. Clinton, but the creditable performances would ensure an extended run in the primaries.

Only an unexpected triumph for Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders in their respective primaries would mark a massive inflection point for both the Republican and Democratic parties and offer a strong threat to the circumscribed political system. As yet, though, such an eventuality is only in the realm of conjecture as the respective establishments of both the parties are much too formidable.

srinivasan.vr@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 7:02:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/us-presidential-primaries-and-the-limits-of-the-twoparty-system/article8184740.ece

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