The U.S. primaries are starting in Iowa. The fight for the White House is not fought out between left and right but between America’s political elites and the angry common man.
Let’s start off with the positive side: This is the most exciting and entertaining election period America has experienced in a long time. Sparks fly in TV debates. There seldom has been so much real talking going on and no matter how much you dislike the vulgar, loud-speaker Donald Trump, you, like pretty much everybody, will not have been able to suppress a smile at his brazen yet fitting tweets about his political opponents.
However, politics is not part of the entertainment industry. In Democratic states, politics is there to negotiate serious and sometimes fateful questions. The uproar against the establishment currently present among the voters can be frightening.
And that does not only apply to Trump in the conservative camp. The Democrats are also experiencing a rebellion at their foundation thanks to Bernie Sanders, who melts the hearts of the young and is making life difficult for Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states holding the primaries. And this is despite the fact that the self-proclaimed socialist is advocating a program that could not be more old-fashioned and left-wing.
But, this is as if to say that the old utopian socialist welfare state models had not been overtaken by reality. Since the 1990s the Democratic party under Bill Clinton has made arrangements with the economy and Wall Street. Sanders now denounces this arrangement. He wants to milk the rich, expand the state substantially, annihilate banks and distribute benefits over the country.
However, as Margaret Thatcher once said: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Sanders is aiming for a welfare state with a European imprint at a time where it becomes more and more clear that such a state is hardly affordable and is one reason for the continent’s low growth.
Where Anger Meets
There is a point where Sanders’ and his followers’ anger and that of Trump’s fans meet. They believe that politics has been bought with big money, that the elites have manipulated the system for their benefit while the middle and lower classes are disadvantaged. Trump channels the anger of the losers, of the ones that lost the globalization game and of the middle classes that worry about social descent. His demand to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and his anti-Muslim slogans make him appear to be a far right hardliner.
As a matter of fact, he is more of a mix of America’s political spectrum. He is neither religious nor a tea party representative, who would advocate a balanced household and a less prominent state. His economic populism partly resembles that of Sanders.
Contrary to the conservative orthodoxy, Trump does not intend to cut back Obama’s health program. Like Sanders he opposes free trade agreements. The trade unions are worried now that Trump could also get into the heads of their members.
The rebellion of the Trump supporters is often explained by using opposite pairs such as whites and non-whites, the rich and the poor, religious and secular, city and countryside. Sean Trende from RealClearPolitics suggests a new categorization, which he calls “cultural traditionalists” against “cultural cosmopolitans.” The Republican establishment actually also belongs to the sophisticated cosmopolitans, educated at the country’s best universities and having very little in common with the conservative masses.
Casually Dressed at the Shooting Range
During election campaigns they diligently eat burgers, have their photos taken on shooting ranges, appear casually dressed at county fairs and appeal to religion and family values — to then return to their cosmopolitan high society lives in Washington. The Republican elite would have liked to give up opposition toward gay marriage a long time ago.
And in their world, Hispanic immigrants are mainly cheap labor that help the economy and maintain their gardens for little money — whereas the working class sees them as rivals for jobs.
The worlds of both groups, no matter if they are right or left, hardly have any contact. The traditionalists feel scorned by the cultural cosmopolitans, who have always occupied America’s high world of discourse, and feel they try to silence them. The Democrats have pushed many of their traditionalist members, which Bill Clinton knew how to keep, into the arms of the Republicans with their minority agenda and their aggressive modernism.
And that aggravates the conflict between the elite and the base of the party, which Trump skillfully takes advantage of. It is the people who do not understand why they should not wish their fellow citizens a Merry Christmas anymore, who think it is crazy to take in refugees from the Muslim world after the attacks in San Bernardino. And who do not understand why America apparently is not capable of protecting its borders from illegal immigrants. Who do not show a lot of understanding for the subtleties of the gender discourse. And who are immensely delighted to see the establishment squirm when Trump causes another stir.
Rift Between the Elite and the Rest
The rift between the elite and the rest [of the population] also exists in Europe — populist parties in many European countries are proof of that. Populists often have an intuition about what is going wrong, but they do not have solutions as to how the problems can be solved pragmatically.
Trump’s ideas, such as making the Mexicans pay for a border fence or forcing better terms of trade from the Chinese, are just as unrealistic as Sanders’ ideas of imposing a compulsory health insurance on the country or making the rich pay for a welfare state paradise.
America’s bipolar system, however, makes the populist rebellions potentially more dangerous. In continental Europe, populists have to found new parties, which generally do not get a majority and — in the worst case — are coalition partners in a multiparty government. There is a riot going on in America’s big parties, and if the constellation is favorable, the possibility that a populist will be the top candidate and might even have the chance to get to the White House cannot be ignored. The West is currently suffering from a rebellious fever, from a desire to rebel against the established policies, which could unsettle our political systems. This is also a reason why the commencing primaries in the U.S. are like a pilot.
About this publication