By Prof.Rajeev Srinivasan
This year’s US Presidential Election has surprised many because fancied candidates on both the Democratic and Republican sides have struggled. The best explanation is that there is a certain sentiment of anger and frustration among citizens, and that this anger is directed towards the traditional ruling classes, including dynasties.
The biggest theme is the apparent pessimism of the US electorate. Long celebrated as the most optimistic, ‘can-do’, gung-ho people around, it appears that the supremely self-confident American of legend is now beset by feelings of inadequacy – he is suddenly not so sure of his country’s place in the world.For someone like me, who lived for a long time in the US, this is downright shocking.
In many ways, despite some good news recently about the economy, this has led to disillusionment about the current administration of President Obama. There was the damning question that Ronald Reagan asked some years ago, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This question could well be asked by Donald Trump today about the eight years of rule by the Democratic Party. Obama is still personally popular, but it is not clear that this will rub off on fellow Democrats.
In particular, statistics suggest that a number of middle-class people have found their standards of living stagnating, and some are even fearful that their children will be less well-off than themselves. This is the first generation in American history that has had to face this alarming possibility, which goes against everything Americans hold dear.
They blame immigration, globalisation and perhaps most damagingly, the elites who are seen to have enriched themselves while presiding over the impoverishment of their countrymen. There is animosity towards what has been called the ‘military-industrial complex’ by Noam Chomsky, and sometimes ‘Deep State’. This includes other forces, including the media, the church and academic elites. They are accused of letting ‘us’ down.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the celebrated author of ‘Black Swan’, has drawn up some instances of elite malfeasance – the medical establishment, after years of telling us that cholesterol is evil, suddenly did a U-turn. Only 36% of scientific papers are shown to be replicable, that is, even ‘science’ is suspect. The investment bankers and ratings agencies that brought about the 2008 financial meltdown, prompting a large bailout at taxpayer expense are also part of the hated elite. And nobody trusts the media to be non-partisan anymore.
This backlash against elites has been a factor in this year’s election, as it was also in the UK’sBrexit vote, where the common voter rebelled against the advice of the establishment.
Hillary Clinton, as the most ‘establishment’ candidate on either side, barely eked out a victory against Bernie Sanders, an elderly socialist from obscure Vermont, and a most unlikely candidate for President. Similarly, the presumed front-runners on the Republican side, such as Jeb Bush, did not get far. This is simply not the elites’ year.
Even the youth vote, traditionally left of centre and Democrat-leaning, has not been enamoured of Hillary Clinton. She struggled against Bernie Sanders, and diehard ‘Feel the Bern’ fans may just stay at home instead of voting for her. Some voters may also choose third-party candidates, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party or Jill Stein of the Green Party.
In addition, Clinton has had her share of unforced errors. The email issue (the fact that sensitive emails as Secretary of State were sent from her personal server, not a trusted government server), the trust deficit (the fact that rightly or wrongly she is seen as not trustworthy, for instance in the unseemly links between the Clinton Foundation and government) and the health issue (there are persistent rumours about her poor health and her bout of pneumonia that she attempted to conceal did not help), have all combined to handicap her.
The damning WikiLeaksrevelations that showed how the Democratic National Committee may well have conspired to deny Bernie Sanders a fair chance at winning the nomination did nothing to dispel the air of intrigue and untrustworthiness some attribute to Clinton.
Hillary Clinton is therefore likely to lose the election, though she has, on paper, all the advantages and credentials. In a sense, “anybody but Hillary” has become the standard meme among some angry voters, leading them to downplay Donald Trump’s negatives. Even the ‘gender card’ is not getting her much support. There was much support for President Obama based on the ‘race card’, the feeling that it was time a black man became President. However, the reasonable proposition that it is time a woman became President still does not give Hillary Clinton a big push, because of the widespread negative feelings about her.
Donald Trump, despite his colourful and extreme positions, is benefitting from this anger. He will also doubtless moderate his stance if he wins. The US government is like a battleship, huge and not easy to turn. Continuity will be maintained by the army of bureaucrats. Therefore many voters discount his occasionally outrageous stances as just election posturing. But he is tapping into the wave of dissatisfaction among the voters, and I expect him to win.
The fact is that there is little to celebrate in the last few years of a jobless recovery in the US; and it is a fact that, all said and done, domestic matters impel voters to take sides. Even on the foreign front, there is not much to cheer.The mess in the Middle East, the unravelling of Europe, a pointless wrangle with Russia in Ukraine and the threat of a resurgent China reducing the US to an also-ran in Asia are all being ascribed rightly or wrongly to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. There is a feeling that the US is past its prime, and that negative message is boomeranging on the incumbent Democrats.
Hillary Clinton’s biggest plus should be that she is the ‘known devil’, so to speak; everything about her, including her deep experience and driving ambition, and her somewhat dubious friendships with Wall Street are all known. Donald Trump is then the ‘unknown devil’. But Americans chose the unknown Barack Obama eight years ago, at that time preferring his message of ‘hope and change’ over Hillary Clinton’s experience and gender (in the race for the Democratic nomination). Perhaps the same willingness to try somebody new is helping Donald Trump this year. He has momentum (the ‘Big Mo’) as he has been steadily narrowing the gap in both total voters and Electoral College numbers leading up to the first presidential debate on September 26. It remains to be seen if he can carry it beyond that debate.
Prof.Rajeev Srinivasan is Adjunct Faculty, Strategy and Innovation at IIM Bangalore. This article is a reproduction of the presentation done by the author at the International Conference on US Presidential Election 2016 organised by CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author is personal and does not represent that of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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