U.S. Presidential Elections

Commentary No. 408, Sept. 1, 2015

If one follows the media, and especially U.S. media, the prospective 2016 presidential elections in the United States are showing a striking shift in tone and process from anything previously known. I don’t believe that is true. To see why, I propose to review the alleged special features of this latest electoral cycle.

The major characteristics to which the media point in making this argument are two: The first is the unusually large polling figures thus far for two “outsiders” in the campaign – Donald Trump on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. The second is the seemingly unmovable deadlock in the U.S. Congress, where compromise seems to have become a dirty word, especially to a sizable group of Republican members of the House of Representatives as well as to some Republican Senators.

Trump and Sanders have quite different programs. Trump is running on an anti-immigrant platform. Sanders is running on a proposal to increase “welfare state” expenditures that require tax increases, which are blocked by the rigid anti-“compromise” group in the legislature.

Despite the opposite platforms, each is getting consistently high figures in the polls and also seem to draw amazingly large audiences for their speaking engagements. Furthermore, they seem not only to break all the so-called rules governing behavior in the campaigns, but seem also to be rewarded precisely for doing this. So, the media seems to conclude we are now in a different kind of political situation, one whose outcome is quite unpredictable and one that will probably leave a lasting imprint on U.S. politics.

Let us start with the structure of electoral politics, in the United States and most other countries, especially in the North. The normal situation has long been that they hold periodic elections in which there are two main parties in competition, one center-right and one center-left. Of course, they all from time to time have seen the emergence of some third party whose votes in a particular election have hurt one or the other of these two main parties. But nowhere has the two-party structure been affected more than briefly, although in some cases the so-called third party has replaced one of the two previous mainstream parties and become the member of the two-party grouping. A good example of this latter shift in who are the two main parties is the rise of the Labour Party in Great Britain, a “third party” that replaced the Liberal Party as one of the two mainstream parties.

Of course, every electoral system has its peculiarities, which make it easier or more difficult to play the game. But the bottom line is that the system with two parties that have only limited differences from each other (usually primarily on the size of “welfare state” allocations) has been remarkably resilient for a very long time.

In the United States in 2015, there is not even a whiff of a serious third party. On the contrary, the angry people who are dissidents seem to have decided to seek their objectives by going inside the two parties rather than by going outside them. Where will these activists be after the actual elections, if their preferred candidate does not even win the primary nomination? Probably they will return to where they were before – either reluctant voters for the more conventional candidate or abstainers from the electoral process.

The media also assert that the U.S. presidential campaign seems to be going on forever, as though this was somehow unusual. But is this really not true of France or Germany or Great Britain or Japan or for that matter Greece? The reason seems obvious enough. Even if a two-party system offers the voters a very limited choice, the limited choice seems to matter for a very large percentage of voters. And so the prospective candidates and the two main parties can never stop seeking electoral advantage, whatever the formal restrictions on campaigning may be.

Does not the Trump/Sanders phenomenon reflect significant anxiety on the part of the electorate? Yes, indeed it does. But the anxiety is a worldwide phenomenon, in no way an exclusively U.S. affair. And, once again, as we look around the world, there is almost everywhere a rise of support for parties and/or individuals who speak the language of anxiety and discontent.

The economic reality of the world-system has become one of steadily increasing unemployment and ever-wilder fluctuations of market prices and currency valuations. The most common response to this has been a major increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is hard to think of a country in which this is not true. Protectionist rhetoric has come to dominate the political scene, not only in the United States but also almost everywhere else.

But then comes the final riposte of the media: Suppose one of these “outsider” candidates actually wins and/or becomes a part of the government? The answer to that seems all too simple: We have seen such parties become the government (Hungary) or part of the government (Norway). Not all that much changes. If an anti-immigrant party does well, there is some tightening on the entry of migrants and some tightening of welfare state expenditures for the poorest sectors of the population. There is some increased anti-minority violence within the country. These are all negatives. But in the end neither the geopolitics of the country nor the middle-run economic options of the country seems to have changed. Why do we assume that this would not be true of the United States in 2016?

I don’t wish to imply that the elections don’t matter. They do matter, especially in terms of the short-run. But they matter far less than we frequently assume. To be sure, there are real political battles going on. But these battles take place largely outside the electoral processes.

So, I come back to my repeated theme. We are in a structural crisis of the modern world-system. We need to have two time frames: One is the very short-run, in which we have to fight electoral battles in order to “minimize the pain” for the vast numbers of persons who are suffering in the short run. But we also have to fight the longer middle-run (20-40 years) battle of transforming the capitalist system into the kind of post-capitalist one that will be better and not worse than the present one.