The primaries represent nothing short of a revolution in American politics, a shaking up of the post-war liberal order.
It may seem unsurprising that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the presumptive nominees of their respective parties for the historic 2016 presidential election – the first likely to feature a female candidate for a main political party. But we should not underestimate what this primaries’ process has accomplished: the unsettling (in the Republican party’s case, toppling) of the established political leadership and parties of the US from both Left and Right, such that the ‘centre’ may be in danger of disappearing or at least being redefined. This is nothing short of a revolution in American politics, shaking up the post-war liberal order. Trump and Bernie Sanders have garnered millions of votes with two clear messages: the ‘system’ is rigged against the working and middle classes and it’s time for the people to take power back from out of touch elites. And America’s role in world must be revised. Whoever wins in November 2016 will have to deal with that fundamental new reality of US national politics.
The July Democratic and GOP conventions will be anything but ‘conventional’. Clinton faces a stubborn opponent in Sanders who’s won 23 states and over 11 million votes for an overtly socialist programme that has made Wall Street a proxy for widespread antipathy to the ‘billionaire class’. He remains bullish that he can swing so-called super-delegates – mainly party stalwarts whose main function is to stop grassroots campaigns against the party leadership – behind him when the latter formally vote only at the Philadelphia convention in late July. Even failing that, Sanders has secured five of his representatives onto the Democratic platform committee that will write the main planks of the nominee’s election campaign. His delegate tally of around 1,800 will ensure that he has a major voice in the selection of a vice presidential running mate because Clinton needs Sanders to urge his supporters to back her in November. Should Sanders manage to secure for Clinton’s running mate someone like US Senator Elizabeth Warren – who is well to the left of the party on matters like inequality and the corruption at the heart of corporate America – a large proportion of his relatively young voters would swing behind Clinton and propel her into the White House. The big question is whether or not Clinton can see past her Wall Street donors and run a presidential campaign offering a vision of change and dealing with economic and political inequality.
On the GOP front, major issues remain: the leadership is swinging behind Trump. Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, has changed his mind and backed Trump for president, as have many other of Trump’s erstwhile Republican opponents. Trump is not their man; he makes embarrassing, openly xenophobic and misogynistic statements, for which Ryan et al are now apologising, and brings the Right into disrepute – but it seems GOP leaders think he can be reined in. Yet, Trump also faces a dilemma: riding a storm of protest from alienated Republicans and newly-mobilised voters and winning the primaries, he cannot now openly change his positions for fear of alienating the very people who brought him the nomination. Yet he has also alienated a wide range of Republican voters, especially women, leaving him requiring a strategy to regain political credibility. But there are many Republicans who are simply unable to accept the idea of Trump representing the US, let alone being able to govern effectively.
The political storms released during the primaries have been building for some time – a reaction to the free trade agreements of the Bill Clinton era, breakneck globalisation, outsourcing of factory jobs and the diminishing role of organised labour in US politics, the increased economic power and political influence of financial institutions, the Bush era disasters of the Iraq war and the war on terror, the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent failure to radically change the position and role of the financial sector in the economy or polity. President Obama missed the chance for radical change despite sweeping to power promising ‘change we can believe in’ – and the power of big banks and big money has continued to grow at the taxpayers’ expense, and social and economic inequality has grown with it.
Sanders’s socialist campaign – against all odds in a country that claims to have abolished class and class inequality – has struck a chord across the US, especially among so-called millennials. He has railed against globalisation and the loss of working class factory jobs. His calls for cuts in military spending and overseas military interventions speak to a large swathe of America that opposes US global hegemony. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric is the most widely covered part of his campaign. Yet, the power of his message goes a lot deeper than that: he too challenges the very core of the post-Cold War liberal order – globalisation, the market and the loss of manufacturing jobs that’s hit his white working class support base. And his call to question the full panoply of America’s core global alliances – NATO, the treaties with South Korea and Japan, its backing of numerous allies in the Arab world – is a challenge to very foundations of the post-1945 US-led liberal order.
The centre-ground of American politics has just one champion left: Clinton. But even she must redefine the political centre if she is to retain and sustain it into the 21st century. Wall Street is a brake on broadening her vision. But the next president will have to govern a deeply fractured nation in an increasingly fragmented world order, put finance in its place and launch and develop a sustainable new grand bargain for America and its place in the world.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of International Politics at City University London. You may follow him on twitter: @USEmpire.