US Elections: Of Anti-Establishment Populism and the End of the Political Centre

The US presidential election is no doubt one of the most watched political events on earth and personally I have been an avid observer of American politics especially after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Unless you have been away for the past year or more, then you would have read that on the Republican side, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are currently leading the nomination charge while in the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton is battling out against Bernie Sanders to be the presidential nominee.

Every presidential campaign is unique in its own sense. However, the 2016 elections is perhaps the most entertaining and most divisive ever in the history of modern American presidential elections. So what is new in 2016? As they say a week in politics is a long time. So imagine four to eight years.

If there is something that is strikingly clear today in contrast to the previous two presidential elections that we should take note is: 1) the losing grip of the moderates which by and large dominates the political establishment in both the Democrats and the Republicans and 2) the rise of anti-establishment populism from both sides of the political divide. Just look at the Iowa caucus results; about half of the Republican and Democratic delegates chose anti-establishment candidates; Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for the Republican and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats. What does this means? The rise of anti-establishment populism. 

Rise of Anti-Establishment Populism
L-R: Bernie Sanders (D), Donald Trump (R)
Traditionally, the presidential nominees of both parties have always - or at least most of the time - been seen as party moderates, but not so anymore. Although the presidential nominees have yet to be decided, major polling results since the last several months have shown that Trump has consistently been leading the polls before losing out in Iowa to Ted Cruz - also another anti-establishment candidate. In the Democratic party, Bernie Sanders is fast catching up with Hillary Clinton - the establishment's favourite - in the polls.

How do we explain the rise and rise of Bernie Sanders - the only presidential candidate without a major donor, without a single endorsement from the Democratic establishment and is the candidate with the least mainstream media coverage, yet is seriously challenging Hillary Clinton's lead as the Democratic presidential nominee. These clearly disproves the idea that a Bernie Sanders candidacy is "unelectable" against the Republican candidate.

What about Donald Trump? He is a self-funding multi billionaire who has never held public office and is running a campaign against the myopic idea of "crazy political correctness", against Mexicans and Muslims yet continues to lead the GOP pack in major polls. How do you explain the fact that both the non-establishment candidates; Trump and Cruz managed to garner more votes - 52% in total - in the Iowa caucus than all the GOP establishment candidates' votes combined; Rubio, Jeb, Christie and Kasich? (Jeb and Christie was the latest to drop out from the presidential race)

One, the anger and the disillusionment of the American public towards the system and the political elites which do not seem to represent their views. And this sentiment is often shared by many across the political spectrum. There has been many studies that shows the increasing polarisation in American politics and the declining rate of bipartisan consensus in American politics, as well as the serious lack of trust in both the Senate and the House of Representative.

The only similarity between Sanders and Trump is that they both are running against their own party establishments by challenging what they perceive as the problematic status quo; the political system, wealthy campaign donors and special interest groups. While Trump promises to "Make America Great Again" - whatever that means; Sanders campaigns on a platform of "political revolution". These are the kind of appeal that resonates strongly with a lot of people in America.

Granted, this is not just a unique American phenomenon. The same is happening in Europe which explains the rise of the extremes and the mainstreaming of fringe groups: for example the rise of extreme right wing party, UKIP in the UK. In many parts of Europe, the extreme right wing anti-immigration German-based group PEGIDA is fast gaining popularity. In Greece, the relatively new communist Syriza party has won the recent elections beating other traditional mainstream parties. While in France, the right wing National Front is winning support even among the traditional left-leaning voters.

The End of the Moderates and the Shrinking Middle Ground?
As recent as four to eight years ago, from the Republican side, McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, both are regarded by many as moderates or "establishment candidates" by today's pathetic standards. But they have often been accused of being out of touch with the "reality" or not-conservative-enough. As a result, disillusioned party members and voters turned to the more ideological candidate or "true" conservatives (think Ted Cruz) for their idea of a political "salvation".

To a significant proportion of voters, the Moderates or sometimes labelled as "status-quo candidates" or "compromise candidates" are seen as too weak and incapable of making "real" change for America. This thus explains the emotional appeal towards slogans like Trump's "Make America Great Again" and Sanders repeated mantra of "political revolution". 

And what is even worse is the fact that many would have to agree with former president George W Bush. The war criminal Bush is today viewed as someone who makes a lot more sense than most of the Republicans combined; with the exception of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul - two of the slightly intelligent ones. When 911 happened, Bush did not blame Islam or Muslims. He did not make hateful anti-Islam statements nor did he call for a ban on Muslims coming to America. In a statement of solidarity with American Muslims post-911 he publicly said that Islam is not the enemy and that it is a religion of peace. Contrast that to the hateful, xenophobic and racist rhetoric by Donald Trump who blamed the Mexicans, Muslims and minority groups for all the problems in America. Imagine a potential American president that is a lot worse than the worst American president.

What happened to the political center, or sometimes referred to as the middle ground? Is 2016 marks the beginning of the end for Centrism? Typically, election campaign is all about gaining the proverbial political center. But perhaps not anymore. As we are witnessing today, the so-called "political center" is beginning to become more irrelevant. How is this happening? This is all due to the fact that the old center has shrinked and shifted drastically to the Left and Right and naturally the outside expands, subsequently forming new fragmented small centers.

What are the possible effects? The shrinking and fragmented political center has led to the polarisation and greater participation from the non-mainstream players - whether for good or bad. The domination and influence of the traditional players (read: elite establishments) have seriously been challenged by new micropowers who are relatively more independent in terms of their political views and resources. Small insignificant fringe groups once unheard of in the national stage have begun to make their presence felt nationally. For example, once dormant White nationalists and American neo-Nazi groups, are now openly supports and campaigns for Trump.

However, in order for us to really understand this from a bigger perspective, we need to also understand the changing dynamics of power in politics. Moises Naim has summed up really well in his book, "The End of Power (2013)";
"Large, well established political parties continue to be the main vehicle for gaining control of government in a democracy. But they are increasingly being undermined and bypassed by new forms of political organization and participation."
The above quote perfectly explain the present trend of anti-establishment populism in American politics and the mass appeal of Trump and Sanders. As America tend to lead and shape global democracies, perhaps it is  time for Malaysia to pay more attention in the upcoming election in order to better understand the changing dynamics of politics and democracy in the 21st century.

Published in Merdeka Online