Letter from America

Election exhaustion

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Santa Barbara, California, on May 28. Photo: LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

Hillary Clinton with her husband and former President, Bill Clinton, during a campaign event in Iowa on January 30. Photo: DOUG MILLS/NYT

Donald Trump addresses the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally on Memorial Day weekend in Washington on May 29. Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Americans have to endure a permanent election season, but most of them find that their votes are worth nothing at the end of the day.

The United States presidential election has gone on for over a year. The candidates of the two main political parties who remain standing, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, seem exhausted, tired by their stump speeches. Others are weary of having listened to them so often. The candidates are tired because they are forced to repeat their speeches several times a day, and then remain on message when the television cameras go on. Across the U.S., political signs look droopy. They have withstood the hottest summer days and the coldest winter frost. Bleached and weatherworn, these signs already look like antiques. The mood of the election is captured in them.

On the side of the Republican Party, the entrepreneur Donald Trump has swatted away 16 rivals. Defined by Trump’s insults, “Lying” Ted Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio, as well as the others, fell by the wayside. They came from within the heart of the Republican Party but could not withstand Trump’s barnstorming politics. When he won the nomination, Trump threatened to recreate the Republican Party into a Workers’ Party. This would be, Trump said, “a party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years. They are angry.”

Trump’s maverick politics rattles everyone. This open rhetoric about unemployment and wage theft comes alongside straightforward denunciation of the U.S. wars of aggression in Iraq and Libya. Most Republican politicians are far too closely linked to the interests of Wall Street and the arms industry to make these kinds of remarks. No wonder Trump retains the image of being anti-establishment. His is an erratic politics, which is what makes him dangerous.

The fight in the Democratic Party continues, with Bernie Sanders, the socialist, picking off delegates from significant primary victories, denying Hillary Clinton the coronation that she expected. Who would have thought that a socialist could come so close to the White House!

By early June, Hillary Clinton had won 27 primary States, while Sanders won 21. She had received over 13 million votes to his 11 million votes. This is a very close contest. Hillary Clinton is close to the 2,384 delegates needed to take the nomination. It is fairly certain that she will be able to edge out Sanders in the slow haul to the Democratic Party’s convention this July in Philadelphia. The big prize is California, whose primary is on June 7.

The contest in the Democratic Party is less about who will lead the party to the November general election and more about the party’s platform. What will the party promise the voters? Will it define itself by Hillary Clinton’s centre-right policies—a combination of protection to the bankers and modest social goods for the poor, war-mongering in the Middle East (West Asia) combined with threats against China and Russia? Hillary Clinton would like to plant her feet in the political centre, avoiding the politics of redistribution for the poor and regulation of the bankers demanded by the Left. She despises the Right for its temperament but shares large parts of her agenda with it.

Sanders’ moment

Sanders has remained in the Democratic race because he knows that his march through the primaries has kept alive his agenda. Income inequality is the main theme of the Sanders campaign. It is the drum he continues to beat. Alongside this is the question of free college tuition, which Sanders suggests would allow the income gap to be closed. Whether this is the case or not is irrelevant. What it has done is to galvanise young people to be part of the Sanders movement. How does Sanders define victory? Not by winning the Democratic nomination or by becoming President alone. That seems slightly unrealistic. Members of the Sanders team are clear that what they are after is putting the elements of their agenda onto the Democratic platform.

Indications of this came when Sanders nominated his five members to the 15-person committee that will write the Democratic platform. All five chosen by Sanders broadly represent the American Left. They are Professor Cornell West, an African-American socialist; Deborah Parker, a Native American activist who was the former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes; Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and leader of 350.org (an anti-carbon campaign); James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a well-known pro-Palestinian activist; and Representative Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in the U.S. Congress.

“With five good members on the platform-drafting committee,” Sanders said, “we will be in a very strong position to fight for an economy that works for all of our people, not just the one per cent; to fight to break up the large banks on Wall Street, who in my view now have much too much economic and political power. We will be in a position to fight for a carbon tax, so that this nation can lead the world in aggressively addressing climate change. We will be in a position to fight to have the U.S. join the rest of the industralised world in guaranteed health care as a right.” This is by far the closest that the American Left has come to a position of authority in the U.S. Whether the Sanders campaign will be able to define key elements of the Democratic platform remains to be seen.

Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton remains plagued by bad news. During her tenure as Secretary of State, she used a private email server. The Republicans had attacked this use of the private server as part of their onslaught on Hillary Clinton for what they saw as lax protection of U.S. diplomats in Libya. When Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi in 2012, the name of that city came to represent, for the Republicans, the essence of Hillary Clinton’s incompetence and corruption.

Relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton led to an investigation of her use of email. Early in the campaign, Sanders said that the email issue was not important, a gesture that won him considerable praise. But the email scandal did not die down. By late May, the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. State Department found that Hillary Clinton had misused her email system. In 2010, she wrote to her aide Huma Abedin that she did not want “any risk of the personal being accessible”. This has come to mean that Hillary Clinton wanted to shield her emails from public scrutiny and congressional oversight. This is fodder to the Right, which has cultivated a venomous dislike for the Clintons. It will certainly weaken her.

Trump, meanwhile, has begun to pick away at what he sees as her great vulnerability—Bill Clinton. Trump’s early attack came along the grain of trade, since it is by now well established that Clinton’s great triumph, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), greatly damaged the job prospects of a section of the American population. Trump has pinned the great frustrations of sections of the American working class to NAFTA. It is this that has allowed him to talk about a Workers’ Party. Rather than point the finger at Wall Street, where Trump’s own class allegiance lies, he gestures in the direction of Clinton. It allows him to both protect his friends and attack his electoral adversary, Hillary Clinton.

But this is not enough for Trump. Trump has also fiercely gone after Bill Clinton for his personal treatment of women. “Is Hillary really protecting women?” is the tag line of Trump’s advertisement, which has a picture of Bill Clinton with a cigar in his mouth and a woman’s voice describing an incident of sexual harassment. It is a brutal advertisement. Although it is unlikely to weaken Hillary Clinton’s support among women voters, it will strengthen Trump’s base among white men. That is its intent.

Hillary Clinton will not necessarily be weakened enough to be beaten by Trump in the November elections. Barack Obama, who is very popular, has not yet entered the race to campaign for the Democratic Party. His charisma will see the Democrats to the White House. But Hillary Clinton will be weakened so that she will not be able to define the party’s platform; nor will she be able to avoid the necessity to campaign from the left of centre.

Sanders’ supporters are religious in their enthusiasm. They will not switch over to Hillary Clinton because he tells them to. She will have to adopt some points from the Sanders agenda before that constituency comes to her side. It is a weakened Hillary Clinton who will not be able to afford to alienate Sanders’ voters. She might be most comfortable with a centre-right agenda, but this will no longer be able to define her. She is being forced to run away from her own record. This has been the victory of the Sanders campaign. The cruel secret of American presidential politics is that only the votes of people who live in a handful of States, such as Florida and Ohio, matter. The rest of the population has been disenfranchised by its irrelevance. There is no question that California, for instance, will vote for the Democrats and that Texas will vote Republican. The voters in these States, who have to endure this year-long campaign, play no effective part in the election. It is the “swing States” and their residents that matter. Come November, it is these States that will be saturated with advertisements and visits by the candidates. Americans have to endure a permanent election season, but most Americans find that their votes are worth nothing at the end of the day. They are taken for granted.