American Election: Endgame for Party System?
American Election: Endgame for Party System?
Does the current presidential campaign in the United States have an ideological content?
Having covered six of the last nine campaigns as a reporter and followed the other three from the sidelines my answer is “yes and no”.
Let’s start with the no side of my equivocal answer first.
The current campaign is focused on two themes that leave little room for the broader questions the US faces with dramatic demographic, cultural and societal changes at home and the crumbling structure of world order.
The first theme of the campaign has been the personality of Donald J Trump. No leader in American history has been the subject of such vilification as Trump.
Jimmy Carter was mocked as “the peanut farmer” and Ronald Reagan dismissed as “Hollywood cowboy”. Bill Clinton was laughed at as “the skirt-chasing bozo” while George W Bush generated an industry with his Bushisms. Barack Obama was dubbed “the ventriloquist’s dummy” who, as Hillary Clinton quipped, “makes a speech each time there is a crisis”. Before that, Richard Nixon had been branded “Tricky Dick” and Lyndon Johnson castigated as serial liar.
Even in the halcyon days of the great democracy, cutting the president down to size, the American version of lese-majeste, was often in vogue.
This time, however, vilifying the president is conducted like a military operation. A segment of the media seem to regard Trump-bashing as a sacred duty while in chattering circles putting in a word for Trump could ostracize you.
Not being fan of conspiracy theories, I don’t share the view that Trump relishes the rage he provokes among elites. What is certain, however, is that the fire, if not ignited by Trump, is fanned by him. Trump has benefited from the fact that personal attacks leave little room for a cold clinical critique of his policies.
More than any time in recent history this election is a referendum on the personality of the incumbent.
The second theme that makes this campaign unusual is that of fear fomented by both sides. Supporters of Joe Biden, the Democrat nominee, are warning Americans that re-electing Trump would not only mean chaos in government and misery across the land but also death by Covid-19 that the incompetent president is unable to understand.
The Covid-19 scare is used and abused to the limits. The US is depicted as the world’s number-one nation for deaths caused by the virus although facts and figures tell a different story. With over 185000 death due to the virus, per one million inhabitants, the US ranks seventh behind Brazil, Mexico, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Peru, and Spain. The same is true of the number of people infected. Widespread testing has revealed six million cases of infection in the US. However, few other nations have had testing on that scale. France, for example, is facing a dramatic rise in number of infections in a new testing program.
Even then, lack of credible figures from most countries, notably China, Russia and Iran, makes any accurate ranking difficult.
Using fear as shorthand, Democrats have failed to offer a proper critique of Trump’s way of dealing with the crisis.
The Trump camp also uses fear to woo voters.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, the President himself used fear as a prop. He branded Biden as “the Trojan horse of Socialism” who would turn the US into a larger Venezuela.
Other Republicans claimed Biden would allow rioters masquerading as protesters to loot and burn small businesses, and release thousands of hardened criminals from prison to run riot in peaceful suburbs.
Let’s turn to the “yes” part of my answer. Behind the rhetoric, two visions of America may be detected in filigree.
One vision could be termed statist in the sense that it emphasizes the role of the central government as a mechanism for welfare and promoting progressive social and cultural norms. In recent decades the Democrat Party has morphed into a vehicle for that vision.
The other vision, represented by the Republican Party at least since the 1970s, is that of a small central government while emphasizing free enterprise and conservative socio-cultural norms.
The American two-party system resembles cartel arrangements in business: it restricts access to power to two gigantic machines that, like big business driving out little business, prevent diversity and competition on a large scale. As a result, small radial groups are forced to infiltrate the two parties and push them in directions not necessarily wanted by the mass of their followers.
The principal aim of the system is access to, and exercise of, power in an almost fetishistic manner. This is why the Republican Party, for example, could start as the party of slave-owners under Thomas Jefferson but ending up as liberator of slaves under Abraham Lincoln. More recently The Democrat Party has moved from center right to center left to resemble European Social Democratic outfits.
Before the War of Secession, the ideological divide was between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.
The Hamiltonians were nationalists who favored a strong state offering a primitive version of what became the “welfare state” in Europe. Jeffersonian wanted limited central government, prioritizing the rights of states and individual freedoms.
By 1800 Republicans emerged as the dominant party with three successive presidents, all from Virginia: Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
In 1828 President John Quincy Adams tried to revive the federalist narrative with his National Republican Party but was defeated by Andrew Jackson whose new Democrat Party revived Jefferson’s narrative with a stronger dose of “master race” shibboleths.
Between 1828 and 1856 Democrats won six of the eight presidential elections. In the 1830s, Adams’ National Republicans returned front stage as the Whig Party with Henry Clay as leader; a coalition of groups opposed to status quo that included slavery.
The two-party system offers unusual political stability.
The reverse side, however, is that it narrows policy options to two and the role of elections to deciding the exercise of power rather than its substance.
The current campaign has revealed the limits of the system and its vulnerability to take-over bids by political buccaneers of right and left.
Whoever wins next November one thing is clear: the traditional Republican-Democrat pas-de-deux no longer reflects America’s increasing diversity and rising tensions.