Rise of Trump and Sanders reflects polarisation in American politics

The former has gained favour with the Right in much the same way as the latter appeals to the Left.

 |  5-minute read |   10-02-2016
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As results from the New Hampshire primary poured in on Wednesday morning, two things became clear. One, support for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump remains strong. He won New Hampshire with a commanding 35 per cent voteshare. Two, Marco Rubio, following a poor performance in last Saturday evening's Republican debate on ABC TV, is slipping. He finished fifth with 10 per cent voteshare. A week ago he looked like the centrist Republican candidate most likely to beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election this November.

Hillary herself lost to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire's Democratic primary but is leading her rival nationally by a large margin. That margin though may narrow in the coming weeks as Hillary's problems over classified email tampering mount. 

The rise of Trump and Sanders reflects the sharp polarisation in American politics on both the right and left. Sanders is a socialist who appeals to young middle-class voters cut off from the great American dream: a good job, a nuclear family, and a suburban home with a pool and barbecue pit. Young Americans with a college education have, on average, debts of nearly $100,000. Some will have reached retirement age by the time they pay off their education loans and house mortgages.

Middle-income wages in America aren't rising. Unemployment hit a low of 4.9 per cent last month but jobs often offer little above the minimum wage. While the rich have grown richer, the poor are stuck in low-paid jobs and high debt. Sanders has tapped into this angst. Hillary, in contrast, represents Wall Street: sharp trading practices, million-dollar salaries and huge bonuses.

There was an outcry when Hillary recently disclosed that she had received $6,75,000 (Rs 4.60 crore) for three speeches. Most middle-class Americans with wages of $25,000 a year earn that much in a lifetime. Left-leaning Democrats see in Sanders a man committed to their values, not Wall Street's. 

By playing on the rising fear and anger among Americans over Islamist terrorism and illegal immigration, Donald Trump has polarised the right in much the same way as Sanders has polarised the left. Trump has a narrow but strong support base. In a fragmented field that he has so far faced in the Republican primaries, the split is enough to help him win. But as the field narrows, Trump could run into a wall. Consider the math. 

In head-to-head presidential match-ups, Trump trails Hillary by five per cent. In contrast, Rubio leads Hillary by 4 per cent. Trump also has the highest "unfavourable" rating among Republican candidates. According to Public Policy Polling, Trump has a net "favourable" score of only seven per cent. Rubio has the best net favourable score (28 per cent) among Republican candidates. In a head-to-head against Trump, Rubio leads 52-40 per cent. That though could change after Rubio's meltdown in New Hampshire.

Despite his poor performance in Saturday's Republican debate (where New Jersey governor Chris Christie accused him of being a neophyte and unprepared to be president), Rubio is still the man most likely to appeal to centrist Republicans. If he does well in South Carolina (which holds its primary on February 20), Rubio will recover lost momentum. He is the one Republican with crossover appeal to Democrats. As a Hispanic, and the son of poor Cuban immigrants, he will attract America's largest minority comprising 17 per cent of the electorate. If Hillary wins the Democratic nomination - which is likely despite the New Hampshire verdict - she will be electorally most vulnerable to Rubio among all Republican challengers.

Hillary could also suffer an anti-incumbency  backlash  after President Barack Obama's eight-year tenure. Resentment against America's first black president has been building steadily. The US remains a closet racist society. Till the early-1960s, people of colour were legally barred in southern states from entering white-only restaurants or enrolling in segregated schools. It took Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to drag America into the modern world. John F Kennedy's presidency in the early-1960s may have been the Age of Camelot for most Americans but for coloured folk in states like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina it was the age of institutionalised, legalised racism.  

With such history to live down, race and religion play an important role in US politics. The evangelical Christian right is powerful and backs Ted Cruz who invokes God in every rally speech. The parallels with India are stark. Dalits and Muslims still face discrimination. Like African-Americans and Hispanics, they vote in blocs. Religion and caste play as important a role in Indian elections as religion and race do in US elections.

Anti-Islamist sentiment in America is strong. Unlike in India, however, Muslims comprise a tiny one per cent of America's population. The need to pander to a make-believe secularism is absent. But as a mirror image to India's communally-charged politics, American politicians pander ceaselessly to Christian evangelists who can make or break a candidate's electoral fortunes.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush's unexpectedly strong fourth place finish in New Hampshire (behind Trump, John Kasich and Cruz with 11 per cent voteshare) has given him a straw to clutch on to. Nationally though, Bush trails Trump, Cruz and Rubio by a wide margin. Along with Hillary Clinton's faltering campaign momentum, that underscores how different America's electoral democracy is from India's in at least one respect: your surname gets you to the starting block, but not past the finishing line.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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