Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran insurgent primary campaigns directed against their respective party elites and gained a following of millions, shaking the Democratic and Republican establishments and threatening the dominant neo-liberal order at home and challenging America’s global role. But, despite Trump’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate and Sanders’s victories in 22 states, it is increasingly clear that party elites are slowly winning back the initiative, using their enormous resources to manage and incorporate the challengers into politics as usual. The results are not identical in each party because the Right has greater salience in the GOP than does the Left in the Democratic party. Trump, therefore, has far more room for manoeuvre and can maintain more of his racialized style within the Right, boosted by the fundamental fact that he won the nomination without serious opposition. Sanders, on the other hand, lost, despite frightening Democratic leaders and is now actively backing Hillary Clinton as the progressive candidate America needs.
Yet, this process of selective incorporation and marginalisation is fraught with problems for party elites and the American electorate that has shown its deep disdain for the main political parties’ programmes, records and styles in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War and especially the relentless rise of income, wealth and power inequalities since the financial meltdown in Wall Street in 2008. A large part of Trump’s appeal echoes that of Bernie Sanders’s – of voiceless millions for whom the American dream is pure chimera.
Trump’s choice of conservative Mike Pence and Hillary Clinton’s of conservative Democrat Tim Kaine is a signal that the insurgencies are being defanged. Party elites may believe that they’ve successfully absorbed discontent through means both fair and foul; but the greater danger to the body politic and for America’s global role is for party elites to close their eyes to the massive undercurrents of political and economic discontent that the primaries and conventions have exposed. As Thomas Jefferson noted, a little rebellion from below is significant precisely because it provides a health-check of the political system, opening the way to reform. Ignoring the politics of mass discontent and returning to normalcy may merely store up an even greater explosion – of either Right, Left or both – in 2020 and beyond, crippling American politics and hamstringing its global power.
For Donald Trump to prove his seriousness as a presidential candidate and have any chance of governing the nation should he prove victorious has already forced him to compromise. His selection of Governor Mike Pence – a hard core Tea Party conservative close to the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, who have rejected Trump’s divisive anti-conservatism– is a major sop to party elites, contradicting the anti-conservative political base that Trump’s campaign championed. Mike Pence has alienated the LGBT community, organised labour, and backs lower taxes on the rich and corporations. Since his selection as running mate, he’s also backed Trump’s call to ban entry to Muslims from countries facing terror attacks. Trump’s recent declaration that his administration would reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act is not just an anti-Bill Clinton tactic but also an attempt to shore up his white working class political base and the pent up anger at Wall Street financiers. And party elites have moved reluctantly to accept Trump’s rhetoric and style with a view to be perceived as beyond reproach when or if the billionaire loses the election in November 2016.
Sanders’s incorporation is in fact the greater story of 2016. His role appears to be to bring into the Democratic fold an enthusiastic young electorate and other liberals, disappointed with President Obama’s refusal to challenge the powers that be, despite promises, and eager to change the politics of neoliberal order and challenge the militaristic role of the US in world politics. Yet, Sanders’s defeat was nowhere near total – hence his ability to win elements of his programme onto Clinton’s platform – on college tuition fees, a public option in healthcare reform, the future role of super delegates, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, a new unity commission on party democracy, and so on. Yet, he made only a minor, and probably temporary impression, on Clinton’s robust support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key element of Sanders’s campaign. But (Wiki) leaked emails showing the Machiavellian manoeuvring of the DNC’s leader, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, including trying to tap into Southern Baptists’ perceived anti-Semitism, against Sanders have led to her resignation, opening the way to further intra-party change. Claiming, with Clinton, that the party has the most progressive platform in its history, Sanders appears to be rowing back from calling for a new independent progressive party of the left. Even more than that, Sanders has acted as a cheer-leader for Hillary Clinton and made strenuous efforts to dampen the protests of the very people he mobilised in his campaign.
Bernie Sanders’s anti-Trump stance has helped Clinton promote herself as the last best hope for America, or the least worst. Yet, despite the strength of anti-party elite feeling during Sanders’s primary victories in 22 states, and millions of votes for an overtly ‘socialist’ programme, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate is a major blow to the insurgents. Kaine is a conservative Democrat, hawkish on the issues of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Islamic State, for full blown free trade that’s devastated working class communities and contributed to increasing inequality, and demands a soft line with Wall Street banks and money power, elements of which got him elected as Virginia’s senator in 2012, against a hard core tea party Republican.
In what has been a celebration of the last 8 years of Democratic control of the White House, Hillary Clinton has chosen to defy the millions who voted for Sanders and taken the strategy of winning the centre ground, gambling on anti-Trump feeling to draw Sanders’s supporters into her camp – they have nowhere else to go - by November. Rather than offering a vision to America or a new grand bargain to reduce the power of finance and of America’s global military deployments, Clinton has cautiously moved to court ‘moderate’ Republicans uncomfortable with the overtly racist and alienating character of Trump’s rhetoric and political base. She has chosen to ride two horses – declaring the party platform as the most progressive in its history while also suggesting she’s a safe pair of hands. Trump is now the more radical-sounding candidate in the 2016 general election even as he moves closer to GOP elites and Wall Street in search of desperately-needed election campaign funding.
By November 2016, America may face a choice between a programme of caution and the domestic and global status quo, and an anti-politics right winger claiming to speak for ordinary people while dividing them. Americans will choose from the lesser of two evils rather than a positive vision of economic renewal, popular empowerment, reduction of the power of big money, and a realistic approach to a changing global order.
The crisis of America’s elites is set to continue because they appear to have failed to account for the political earthquakes of 2016.