As part of the CPPR talk series, the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) organised an in-house talk on February 24, 2020 on “US Presidential Elections 2020” by Dr Michael Warren Sonnleitner, Fulbright-Nehru scholar, with a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Minnesota.

Dr Sonnleitner began the talk by mentioning that in contemporaneous times we have regressed back to empire states from nation states, which are based on economic might complemented by the military might of the nations. He added that military expenditure is a heuristic that we can employ to a fair degree of reasonability in evaluating an ‘empire’s’ influence on a global stage. America with over 80 military bases overseas and 40 per cent of more military expenditure than global average, records the highest global military expenditure. He said that an ill-informed or uninformed head of state sets a dangerous precedent not only in the form of nuclear escalation and engagement but also other global concerns like climate change that needs immediate actions.

Talking about the US Elections 2020, he commented that the US electoral system is seriously flawed. The basic factor to be considered in the US Elections is the voter turnout. He reminded that the US has one of the lowest participation rates of any democracy in the world.

“Among the democratic candidates, there are now 6 remaining strong candidates of which only 2 are significantly progressive than others. They are potentially real change agents but others are more of the same as in the past,” he said. “Trump has a core base of 30 per cent of the population and almost all white and relatively uneducated or undereducated voters from a rural background might vote for him,” he said.

Dr Sonnleitner opined that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, being strong democratic candidates, have the potential of ushering in a new sustainable and green era that would provide an impetus for inclusive growth, accommodative of the marginalised sections of the American society. “Trump needs to be defeated in the November Elections by a progressive candidate who the world has faith in—an honest person who is worthy of support”, he added.

He predicted that the voter turnout would be as high as 64 per cent or more if the Democrats nominate someone like Bernie Sanders. Then, not only will Donald Trump lose the Elections, the Senate will be controlled by Democrats and it will be a historic victory for the Party. “It is all about voter turnout. Among the people of 50 years old and younger, Bernie Sanders is preferred by 50 per cent, Joe Biden is preferred by 16 per cent. What the Democrats need is a candidate who can mobilise women (who are majority of the population), non-whites (who are becoming a very large part of the population) and the young voters”, he added.

“Trump comes from a privileged background and is largely unable to empathise with the majority of the masses, with the greatest economic divide as income inequality in the USA. Voters are more concerned with their immediate economic tribulations than what would the US’s foreign policy in West Asia,” he added. On the other hand, someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can predictably mobilise the young, non-white people and people of progressive politics.  

Dr Sonnleitner deconstructed the widely misconstrued notion held by some that Trump is an isolationist when it comes to trade. He said that Trump is advocating economic nationalism and wants to dominate the economy worldwide. America, the pioneers of global trade has seen a reversal of their stance from 2004, but it became increasingly evident in the recent years and remarkably visible in Trump’s tenure as the President. The idea possessed by Trump regarding a deal is not something where the benefits accrue to all the stakeholders involved; contrarily, it is one that puts America on a pedestal, at the cost of others, reinforcing the MAGA rhetoric widely held by American ultranationalists. 

Talking about the first state visit of US President Donald Trump to India, he said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to feed the ego of the former. “The visit could result in a trade deal, but at what cost we do not know”, he said.  

He concluded the talk by questioning an Indo-US trade deal based on criteria such as carbon emission and unnecessary military trade. Dr Sonnleitner also said that he did not believe that increased global trade is the way to stop the climate change emergency and advocated for the Gandhian approach to economic life.

CPPR Senior Research Associate Gazi Hassan delivered welcome remarks. Dr Gopinad Panangad, Projects Consultant, CPPR, presented a memento as a token of appreciation to Dr Sonnleitner.  

The report is prepared with inputs from Devassy Auseph, Intern at CPPR.