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Society & Culture

U.S. Presidential Race Deviates from Mainstream Politics

Mar 24, 2016
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

The US presidential election has evolved into an unconventional one this year. With 15 states already completing their primaries, or about one-third of the total, the election results shocked the US political arena and interrupting the traditional order of the presidential race or even the mainstream of Washington politics.

First, the so-called elite politics is under threat. US politics has always been an elite politics. During this year’s election, however, some of the so-called elite candidates performed poorly and had to drop out of the race, and the so-called alternative runners stole the limelight and are leading in the race. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother both have served as president,was once considered a GOP “rising star” and had the financial and administrative support from the Republican party, withdrew early due to his poor performance in the race. His exit smashed the highly anticipated hope for a new duel between the Bush and the Clinton families. On the contrary, the outspoken real estate tycoon Donald Trump, who has no experience in politics and is running as non-politician candidate, is now the frontrunner. Although Trump is not favored by the Republican leadership, he has outperformed other elite Republican candidates and is leading the race, and stands a better chance of winning the final GOP nomination. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “socialist” and reputed as a “senator from the grassroots”, has been more successful than several so-called elite Democratic candidates, and is poised to become the sole challenger to the campaign leader, Hillary Clinton. This is a scenario rarely seen in the history of US presidential elections, and poses a serious challenge to the elite politics in the United States.

Second, neo-isolationism is gaining ground. It has always been the fundamental national policy and common strategic choice of the past administrations that the United States assumes the most extensive “global responsibilities” and expands its influence to every corner of the world so as to ensure US dominance in the world political, economic and military fronts. The policies preached by Trump and Sanders deviated sharply from that, Trump to the right and Sanders to the left, but both favoring isolationism. They demand that the United States withdraw from the globalization trend, waive its international promises and not to play the role of “world policeman”. They particularly oppose free trade, which they believe would be “a disaster” to American workers. Trump has explicitly expressed his opposition to the free-trade deals already inked, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, advocated for the application of trade protectionism, and urged Americans to buy America’s products such as the made-in-US automobiles and not to import from other countries. He even went further by proposing the construction of a great barrier wall along the US-Mexico border to prevent illegal Mexican migrants and smuggling. This scenario, in which presidential candidates who brazenly advocate isolationism and oppose free trade could lead in the race, clearly indicates the resurgence of isolationism, which had died out for more than 100 years in the United States.

Third, populism is winning an upper hand. The US media have termed outspoken Trump as narrow-minded and radical, who has derailed conventional politics. His paranoid remarks include: declaring that “sadly the American Dream is dead”; keeping a high profile in opposing free trade; expressing racial prejudice and discrimination, describing illegal migrants from Latin America such as Mexico as “criminals” and “drug traffickers” and calling for them to be repatriated; calling for a complete entry ban on all Muslims until the elimination of the IS threat; and advocating, in violation of humanitarian principles, a restoration of torture for IS terrorists and threatening to execute their family members. Such of his remarks run counter to US politics and traditional American values, and were denounced by mainstream US politicians and media. Surprisingly, despite his radical remarks, he has gained popularity among a big number of voters, become a popular political star and is in the pole position in the primaries. The occurrence of such an illogical and unconventional scenario indicates a growing fragmentation and populism in the value system in the American society.

Fourth, the presidential race is evolving toward entertainment. To please his audiences and show his distinct differences, Trump resorts to various gags and weird words, chooses to be sensational in attacking other countries and to use vulgar language on women, and fabricates some weird scenarios to get laughs and attention. It is puzzling that his behavior does not disgust his audiences; instead he wins applause. Some media therefore say that his “hippy-styled performance” helped him “get treated like rock stars and super sports stars”. The US presidential election has become entertaining and vulgar: Is this progress or degeneration of US politics? It is a question worth contemplation.

The alienation festering in the presidential race is the result of profound changes in the US political system and the popular will. In the 21st century, particularly after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, problems in US society have emerged and are getting worse, such as its sluggish economy, growing income disparity, racial tensions and discrimination, woes in the political arena, massive illegal immigration and a growing number of gun-related killings. On the global stage, the dominant role long held by the US is on the wane, and the prices the United States has paid for the anti-terror war it led and globalization were high, with losses far outweighing gains. The general public has lost faith in the so-called elite ruling echelon, has a strong desire for change, and even radical change. Under such a scenario, political mavericks like Trump have emerged and are gaining ground.

Although the ideas and views of both Trump and Sanders have drifted away from mainstream Washington politics, the two are distinctively different. Trump, out of his ignorance about international affairs and the trends of the times, attempts to cater to populism by going to extremes and deliberately playing negative in his speeches and remarks. Sanders, meanwhile, also has taken a negative tone, but he did employ some socialist elements to reflect calls from the middle- and low-income voters for fairness and justice. His views could be considered progressive. Although Sanders is pretty popular among the young and the middle- and low-income voters, he still lags far behind Hillary Clinton, who has the favor of the top echelon of the Democratic Party, and it would be practically impossible for Sanders to be officially nominated by the party.

If everything goes well, the presidential race this year will ultimately turn out to be a duel between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There is no perfect presidential candidate or perfect president, and after weighing their advantages and disadvantages, the less disadvantaged should be chosen. Who will win finally is up to the voters, who will then make their rational and sensible decisions.

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