I am writing from New York where, as the city gears up for Christmas and the New Year, politics seems to be on the minds of everyone that I meet. The critical question is who will get the Democratic nomination to run against Donald Trump in November next year.
The two front-runners are clearly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The major problem faced by the Democratic Party is that it has, to a very significant extent, been captured by big money and corporate interests. These interests would like a candidate of the centre, just as they preferred Hillary Clinton last time around.
The problem for the party is that, of course, the voters did not prefer Clinton, with the result that Trump won the election. A number of studies showed that if the Democrats had run Sanders against Trump in 2016 they would probably have won the White House.
There was a long period, often dated to when Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, when both the Democrats and the Republicans held to what the British historian and political activist Tariq Ali calls “the extreme centre” on economic issues and used issues like abortion, prayer in schools and gay rights to distinguish themselves from each other.
But everything changed with the financial crisis of 2008. Suddenly ordinary middle-class Americans realised how precarious their hold on middle-class life was, and issues like student debt and healthcare alienated a whole generation of younger people from centrist politics. Some veered to the left, arguing that the primary problems in the US are inequality and the control that the billionaire class holds over party politics and government policymaking. Others veered to the right and scapegoated racial minorities and migrants for their own declining standards of living.
The emergence of the Occupy Movement in 2011, as part of a wave of global activism that began in North Africa, exacerbated the polarisation in US politics. The emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2013 continued the trend towards polarisation. As social movements, both Occupy and Black Lives Matter were, like all unstructured forms of organisation, short-lived. But they both made a huge cultural impact on US society.
In the wake of these three events – the financial crisis of 2008, the emergence of Occupy in 2011 and then Black Lives Matter in 2013 – a centrist candidate deeply enmeshed in the space where the political and corporate elite meet was never going to win the 2016 election.
Trump ran a scurrilously racist and xenophobic campaign that motivated his increasingly reactionary white base. Clinton was not able to speak to the real issues faced by voters, many of whom were experiencing a steep decline in their life prospects, and, although she still won the popular vote, Trump took the election.
Elizabeth Warren is a little to the left of Clinton, and, of course, is not part of a now-discredited political dynasty. She would certainly be a better candidate in 2020 than Clinton was in 2016. But Warren is only on the left of the “extreme centre”, and is not even a genuine social democrat.
The military coup in Bolivia has clearly illustrated where Sanders, Warren and Trump sit on the political spectrum. Trump enthusiastically endorsed the coup, Warren said nothing and Sanders strongly condemned it. On this issue, as on so many issues, including migration, increased taxes for the rich and the mass incarceration of poor black and Latino men, Trump is firmly on the right, Sanders is firmly on the left and Warren equivocates.
Sanders has had an extraordinary impact on young Americans, and especially young intellectuals, a good number of whom now identify as socialists. In a city such as New York, there is now a vibrant left with constant debates and discussions that are keenly watched from around the world, including South Africa.
But, at the same time, Trump has reinvigorated the American right. He has also formed an international right-wing network with Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and Narendra Modi of India as his key allies. In the US, racist language and attitudes that would have been unacceptable a few years ago have become normalised. There have been massive steps backwards in terms of gender, and the sight of migrant children being held in cages has shocked the world.
The normalisation of right-wing ideas has affected South Africa where the Institute for Race Relations, Politicsweb, and the faction of the Democratic Alliance that calls itself “classical liberal” have all taken up right-wing ideas with a confidence that would have been impossible a few years ago. Helen Zille’s paranoid hostility to Marxist ideas, and critical race theory, both of which she clearly doesn’t understand at all, comes straight from the script of the new right.
But while Modi seems well entrenched in India, Johnson looks very vulnerable in the United Kingdom, and may well lose the next election to Labour’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. Bolsonaro no longer looks as well-entrenched as he once did now that former Brazilian president Lula da Silva has been released from prison and the Brazilian left has been reinvigorated.
It is not impossible that Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump could each fall to a significantly left of centre rival. If this happens, the world will be a very different place, and discussions about issues like climate change and migration, as well as global trade, will take very different forms.
What happens in these three countries will have a global impact, and will be very important for South Africans too. If Trump can succeed in winning another election via racism and xenophobia we’ll face a very tough path ahead for the next few years. But if Sanders can win the Democratic nomination, and then the election, the world will be a much kinder place, and that will be good for everyone, including South Africa. DM
A groundhog is actually a type of squirrel.