It has been a long time since it seemed that the election of Obama’s successor to the White House would be played out between the Bush and Clinton dynasties, with millions of dollars being spent on lavish campaigns. The last few months have brought unexpected candidates to the forefront, which seriously calls into question the way the two large parties operate. This change has been particularly evident in Donald Trump’s success since last May.
So, property magnate Trump tops the polls ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in Iowa, the first state to vote in the primaries on Monday, Feb. 1. Trump is also in the lead in New Hampshire, which is the second state to vote on Feb. 9. Although all 50 states will vote in turn from February to June, the first states to vote play a more important role because the media-generated excitement surrounding the first results influences those that follow. It is therefore quite possible that “The Donald” could receive the nomination.
How did we get here? An explanation is beginning to develop, which is quite critical of the Republican Party establishment. It draws attention to the increasing mismatch between the aims of the party base — who now vote for Donald Trump — and the party elite, which started in the 1980s. For a long time now, the strategists and leading politicians of the Grand Old Party have prioritized fiscal policies that benefit its wealthy donors, especially in the financial sector. This explains why George W. Bush reduced the tax rate for the highest income brackets in 2001 and 2003. In Congress, the Republicans spent part of their term unraveling the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which aimed to reform the financial sector. The GOP has also put forward measures that broadly support the availability of immigrant labor called for by big business.
During this time, the party’s grassroots electorate, mainly made up of the white middle class, has seen its economic situation deteriorate. The return to full employment following the subprime crisis has not been accompanied by a rise in salaries. Household debt has risen. How can parents finance their children’s education and repay their mortgages? Won’t immigration increase pressure on the wages of the least well-off?
Despite their vagueness, Trump’s proposals reassure this anguished middle class. As we know, he uses violent and inflammatory language on immigration, and the other Republican candidates have joined him on this issue. Financing his campaign with his own money, he does not need to please the country’s billionaires and proposes an end to tax exemptions for hedge fund managers.
The Trump phenomenon brings into the open a misunderstanding that emerged at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, when the radical, ultraconservative tea party movement rocked the country. As the journalist David Frum said in the latest issue of The Atlantic, “Against all evidence, GOP donors interpreted the tea party as a movement in favor of the agenda of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.” However, tea party activists wanted to prioritize protection for the middle class over rewards for the elite.
Social issues, which certainly play an important role for the Republicans, seem to have been pushed into the background. Cruz, who is much more conservative than Trump on religious and moral issues, has not been able to overtake him. In any case, by rallying for him last week, Sarah Palin has given Trump part of the evangelical vote.
On the Democratic side, there is an equivalent failure. The success of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, can be seen as a mirror image of Trump’s success. Sanders also personifies the challenge by the middle class and college graduates to a Democratic Party that since Bill Clinton’s time has been favorable to both big business and Wall Street; an attitude that has been obscured by progressive rallying cries on social issues, such as the protection of minorities, gay marriage and abortion. Sanders speaks against free trade treaties and is in favor of greater redistribution of wealth akin to the European model. Financing his campaign through small online donations, he rejects large donors and their demands.
So, even if the choice between extremist candidates is worrisome, the good news in the 2016 American primaries is the return of the electorate to the democratic process. Since the Citizens United decision of 2010, when the Supreme Court lifted all restrictions on campaign donations by businesses and unions, observers have been worried about the inordinate role that money has had in electoral campaigns and American politics in general. The party establishments seem to be resigned to sacrificing the interests of their voters to those of their donors. So we can see in the 2016 campaign the end of the era of cash as king in American politics because the electorate ultimately refuses to play the game. By abandoning the mainstream candidates, whose programs prioritize the elite to the detriment of the middle class, the electorate has shown that the election cannot be bought. This is where American democracy shows its resilience.
So what will happen now? Will the parties react to this situation? The next president will presumably nominate several new justices to the Supreme Court. The court would be well-advised to put back in place a system to restrict the financing of political life. This would enable politicians to return to being attentive to their true electorate.