The 2016 American primary elections have revealed considerable popular discontent and resentment towards the political class. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump got lots of support from angry anti-establishment voters. Despite significant economic growth in the last few decades, many people suffer hardship whilst others prosper grotesquely. There is a growing realisation that politicians, in seeking political donations, have aligned themselves to the interests of the wealthy – so many people blame the political establishment for their problems. Others blame their problems on immigrants and globalisation.
Trump hasn’t been part of the political establishment. He seems to be offering solutions to people’s problems: he has pledged to build a wall against Mexican immigrants and he has advocated protectionism as a way to defend jobs from foreign competition. In reality, anti-immigrant rhetoric could result in hostility towards the millions of Hispanics and Muslims who are already well settled in America; this would lead to a rise in hate crimes – which rose 57% in Britain following the similar rhetoric used in the recent campaign to leave the EU. And protectionism destroys jobs, as it did with America’s tariffs on Chinese steel. Trump’s ‘solutions’ are unworkable and would not benefit people.
In a representative democracy people elect politicians to understand complex issues, to speak for them and to govern. Populist politicians with siren voices, though, can lure people to follow paths to disaster – ignoring complex realities to seek apparently easy solutions. Donald Trump is now in a strong position to win the American presidency, being seen as a strong and successful individual who financed his own election campaign and who offers to magically solve people’s problems. The condemnation of senior politicians merely adds to his credibility as a champion of ordinary people. Since Hillary Clinton is seen as part of the political establishment, supporters of Bernie Sanders might vote for Trump rather than for her.
The presidential election is now largely a contest between Trump and Clinton. Neither candidate is hugely popular. Trump has antagonised many voters with some of his more outlandish statements, but his anti-establishment stance and populist pledges might yet succeed in winning him the presidency. Fortunately, though, the American political system was designed with checks and balances, so Congress could prevent some of the damage he might otherwise do – but he might not address any of the real problems either.
Since criticising Donald Trump just strengthens him in the current political climate, Hillary Clinton would do better to ignore him and focus instead on concrete measures to address people’s concerns. Carefully-constructed arguments alone are not going to persuade people to support responsible politicians; positive messages need to be delivered with passion and emotional appeal. She might then win the Presidency, which would be the best outcome for America.
Even if she wins, though, her hands would be tied if Congress opposed every initiative. What is also needed is for the politicians in Congress – whether Republican, Democrat or Independent – to be elected on more moderate and responsible platforms. The recent political posturing, trying to score points off the other party, needs to be put aside. The country needs politicians of all stripes to work together to fix some of the problems which have caused the popular discontent. Otherwise there is a risk of American politics sinking into yet further disrepute. Politicians need to tackle several issues:
At a minimum, they need to pledge to overhaul campaign financing to reduce the influence of money in politics – so that they are accountable to the population as a whole, rather than favouring wealthy donors.
They need to overhaul the tax code, so that the rich pay at least the same percentage tax as the middle classes. The Active Financing Exception, which allows wealth to be hidden overseas to avoid paying tax, needs to be quashed.
Improved productivity is better than protectionism as a route to full employment, so wealthy people need to be incentivised to invest in real industries rather than hiding their money or speculating.
People need to be reminded of the benefits of free trade. Protectionism increases consumer prices and costs jobs in the rest of the economy.
America is a nation of immigrants. Immigration needs to be better managed, to streamline the legal way of entering the country; there would then be less incentive for people to try to enter illegally in future. Border security needs to be tightened, but an amnesty is needed for some of those who came in illegally but who have contributed to American society for several years.
Poverty can be reduced with an increased minimum wage and some income support.
None of the measures suggested above is inherently exclusive to either Republican or Democrat values, although the two parties would place different emphases on them. The American Constitution envisaged negotiation between the members of Congress to develop solutions for the benefit of the population as a whole. Whoever becomes President, Congress should aim to constructively serve the American people and give them less cause for resentment.