The upcoming CNN Republican candidates debate on 16 September and the surprising victory by Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party in the UK allows J BROOKS SPECTOR to speculate on whether there is a bigger, broader movement on the global political stage.
This Wednesday night, at 9 pm (3am Thursday in South Africa), CNN will host the second Republican Party presidential candidates debate leading into the 2016 presidential election in the US. This time around, unlike that earlier Fox News debate, Carly Fiorina will be included in the main event. And assuming no load-shedding manages to take place in the writer’s neighbourhood, he will drag himself out of bed to watch it for you.
Specifically, CNN’s announcement of its selection criteria had said: “In the event that any candidate is polling in the top 10 in an average of approved national polls released between 7 August and 10 September, we will add those candidates to our top-tier debate, even if those candidates did not poll in the top 10 in an average of approved national polls between 16 July and 10 September. We have discussed these changes with the Republican National Committee and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and they are fully supportive.”
Thus, as things stand now, unless one of those selected individuals suddenly opts out of the presidential candidate contest, and thus the debate, the participating candidates on CNN will be Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Chris Christie – and Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP and the star of the warm-up debate that preceded that earlier internationally broadcast Fox News event.
Drops out, you say? Why would someone do that? Well, yes, in fact, former Texas governor Rick Perry has essentially just done that very thing. Of course, Perry really was a no-hoper from the start, particularly after his disastrous performance in a nationally televised 2012 debate for Republican candidates in which he managed to have a memorable brain freeze, thereby becoming the butt of comedians and commentators alike, when he forgot a key element of his policy agenda for streamlining the government. But given the lack of any enthusiasm for him this time around by would-be voters, supporters or campaign fund contributors, he has pulled the plug, rather than subjecting himself to further humiliations on the campaign trail or in the grovelling needed to attempt to raise the funds needed to keep going.
As a result of the Perry campaign shutdown, the beginning of the great winnowing is now in progress. And some of the would-be candidates who have not made CNN’s final cut, such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former New York governor George Pataki, now that they will not even be on the stage in the upcoming CNN debate, may well have second thoughts about continuing any further. Despite that burning desire to rise to the top of the heap and to deliver the inaugural address they have probably already been thinking about late at night or in the shower, they will eventually – and probably sooner rather than later – decide to stop subjecting themselves to further torture before bowing to the inevitable.
But beyond the enormous number of people who apparently think of themselves as presidential timbre, the truly amazing thing about this Republican race so far, of course, has been the seemingly improbable rise of both Trump and Carson – both of them thoroughly non-politicians. Realistically, most Americans have been largely uninterested in the evolution of the Republican candidates race so far. It is way too early for most people, given that the past several months have been the traditional American summer vacation time, downtime for many. While political groupies and partisan activists are right in there, reading and watching every word on television, the newspapers, the internet and social media; realistically, most people have not been. But now, however, the country has just moved past Labour Day (the traditional end of the American summer) and on into the autumn. Now the rhythm of life has quickened as people return to work from their respective vacations, their children are back in school, and the US-oriented news cycle now begins to pick up speed in earnest.
This is not to say that the candidates themselves have not been busy. They have been. A modern presidential hopeful must begin setting up a campaign organisation and a vigorous fundraising effort, an eternity before the actual election. There are those superPACs (allied fundraising and issue advocacy bodies not formally tied to a particular candidate) to establish and fundraise for (again, not directly tied to the candidates but with their respective issue positions firmly in mind in their activities). In addition, there is the all-important effort to establish a solid electronic/social media/internet presence to garner vast lists of supporters for the campaign ahead – and to carry out that fundraising as well.
And somewhere in the midst of all this, a candidate usually must think about what he/she stands for and what policies he will articulate and advocate. Then, too, there must be a near-constant round of travel to dozens of places across the country, but especially to early primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina and the early caucus state of Iowa – to generate the momentum that comes from such activities, as well as the media coverage that comes from that sense of momentum. With a bit of luck, the overall effort becomes a win-win cycle, a virtuous circle of rising attention, popularity and support, as a candidate’s issues or personality catch on with growing numbers of people and he takes on an increasing aura of inevitability.
But of course the flip side of this process can happen as well when a candidate’s story becomes one of a slumping campaign unable to attract funders, supporters and allies – and increasingly out of step with the needs, desires or interests of an electorate. That’s when a would-be candidate finally has that late-night moment of truth and an honest conversation with self, and then decides this soul-crushing grind is simply not worth the effort – just as Perry has just done.
This year, however, in some ways that ‘traditional’ playbook is being overwritten – at least in this, the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. Both Trump and retired neurosurgeon Carson have risen to the top among likely Republican primary voters (not the nation as a whole as some articles have misstated it) almost certainly because they are seen as non-politician ‘truth tellers’ in a roomful filled with those usual suspects, or at least that is the view on the part of their respective supporters.
As Ben Weigel wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post: “What is clear is that Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, will enter the second GOP (Grand Old Party) debate Wednesday, polling behind only Donald Trump, another non-politician in the presidential race doing little of what’s expected from candidates. And that seems to be the takeaway, so far, of the 2016 Republican nominating process. Like front-runner Trump, Carson is running laps around the candidates who have conventional political experience and are reading from a playbook that seems to have stopped working this year.”
Carson, of course, is an internationally renowned neurosurgeon who practised medicine and taught at Johns Hopkins University’s hospital centre. Over the years, his own life story has become integral to his larger public message of social conservative positions, both through a popular personal memoir, as well as via a vigorous round of motivational speeches he has been giving across the country.
The Donald has parleyed a successful, albeit cut-throat, real estate/casino development buccaneer and reality show television star career into a position as the ultimate iconoclastic office seeker persona. In this, he has positioned himself as the sole truth teller in a pack of fools and dolts, but also fastening onto a sense of real unease across the land about the presence of many undocumented aliens in the country, even as he feeds on the idea such people are stealing American jobs and causing crime, while the country’s leaders are wilting under the relentless challenges of China’s economy.
In fact, both Trump and Carson have found their way to tap into an uneasiness that politicians, the usual political process, and the parties are simply not speaking honestly to the issues people really worry about in their lives. It is also true that support for such candidates comes preferentially from veteran tea partiers and other social conservatives, rather than the GOP’s libertarian wing or the remnants of its neo-conservative internationalists – in opposition to the party’s establishment figures. As a result, going forward, real questions self-identifying Republicans will need to ask – and answer – in the coming months include whether they wish to hand over the reins of their party to a person who argues that the political system is a rigged game only susceptible to change from someone who has never participated in it in the first place. But are they also tapping into a larger narrative of unease about politics as usual in the national – or even the international – political landscape? As an aside, the author suspects that this upcoming CNN debate will be one where some of the candidates finally tackle Trump and Carson both, head on.
Meanwhile, over on the Democratic Party side of the equation, independent socialist senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders is increasingly challenging the very person whom the smart money all felt was (and should be) a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination – one Hillary Rodham Clinton. While Sanders is hardly a non-politician, political outsider, having spent many years in Congress (albeit as a rather lonely, solitary socialist, rather than a leading member of the Democrats), he is working hard to position himself as candidate running against politics as usual and all those politicians complicit in that wicked game. And as with both Trump and Carson, Sanders has connected with a growing body of people who say they too are tired of the usual politics. Only in Sanders’s case, of course, he is speaking to people – mostly younger, mostly better educated, better-off whites – who say they have lost faith with the system and who say they are increasingly less and less comfortable with the comfortable old Republican-Democratic division.
And it is here where Bernie Sanders’ exertions (as well as Trump’s and Carson’s to some considerable extent as well) may be congruent with a nascent, larger global trend. As everyone who follows international developments knows, this past week, in the UK, an unconventional but hard left MP, Jeremy Corbyn, won an unexpectedly large victory to become the new leader of the Labour Party. In his victory, he handily defeated several other contenders who more closely advocated those Tony Blair-crafted, New Labour-style policies that had given the Blairite wing of the party three straight parliamentary victories by cultivating that political ‘middle way’.
Corbyn too – just as with Trump, Carson and Sanders – had painted himself to be a virtual outsider to politics-as-usual. In his case, he is offering policies that are a reach-back to old-line left views. In his case, were he to come to power, he would push for largely re-nationalising many basic industries, moving away from the long-time British alliance with the US, and reinvigorating many of the social welfare policies now under threat from the Conservative government. (Of course, if his Labour Party critics are correct in their fears, Corbyn may even lead to a virtual split within the Labour Party, something that would virtually guarantee parliamentary pre-eminence for the Tories for years to come.)
While there is a problematic element to Corbyn’s victory, in that his win came about through a vote by some 500,000 supporters, many of those had only recently joined the party as supporters, upon payment of £3, so as to vote in the election, rather than via the selection system that had been in place for many years in which long-time party members picked their leader via a party caucus, Still, Corbyn’s win may yet be read as a kind of rejection of the old-style party political system and those usual suspects in the game. In connection with that large vote total garnered by the United Kingdom Independence Party in the most recent election (even if it was largely not reflected in the final parliamentary results) as well as the astounding sweep across Scotland by the Scottish National Party, the British political system may be teetering on the edge of a significant break-up of the long-standing Conservative-Labour political duopoly – and with it an unpredictable future for the nation’s political landscape.
Moreover, Greece will shortly have yet another parliamentary election following the complex negotiations with its international creditors, and that election will be followed by ballots in Spain and Portugal later this year. While the old-style left parties in the three nations may have been blasted as a result of recent political and economic developments, the question must be asked if these countries are also on the cusp of a realignment of politics whose results would not be entirely consistent with the old, easy-to-describe, left-right dichotomy that has come down to us from that revolutionary French assembly which put supporters of the king and his antagonists on opposite sides of a meeting chamber?
Of course, things may well settle back into their respective usual grooves politically. However, if one had to make a bet on the American denouement this time around, neither Trump nor Carson will be on the GOP presidential ticket, come November 2016, nor will the equally unlikely Sanders be on the Democratic one. If for no other reason, this is because, as most analysts agree, the vast preponderance of votes in the American polity lies squarely in the middle and the country oscillates in a fairly narrow band between being a centre-right and centre-left nation and all three of these men score outside that band.
While the class distinctions in the UK are deeper than in the US, still, with the gradual disappearance of so much of the workshop/factory/mining economy that gave birth to the modern Labour Party, it does seem unlikely that the sharply leftward tilt of the Corbyn wing of that party will be able to capture the modern British middle class. Nevertheless, the discontent of voters in various countries who see their nations’ circumstances in need of a cleansing may well lead to a reassembling of the various constituent political parts. Twenty years from now, in Europe, in the UK, in the US, political scientists may look back and discern 2015-6 as the real birth of some new and as-yet-uncertain political realignments that will reflect the fundamental changes taking place in these respective national economies. DM