Iowa caucus shows US election will be fought on a platform of new left and rightwing extremes

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Tea ladies watched in school halls as the first Iowan caucus for the nominations for the US Presidential election in November produced a battle of extremes on both the left and the right on Monday. The results can be seen as a litmus test, a reaction and a protest against the political establishment in Washington that many people in the country feel has left them marginalised and unrepresented by the political elite. Inequality has risen exponentially, seemingly for the lifetimes of many younger voters, with wage rises in blue-collar America having remained stagnant for decades and having fallen far behind the colossal increases in the wealth of corporate America. This anger and ill-will is without even considering the fury generated by the financial crash and the institutions responsible, together with their political enablers, who not only have not been held to account but have actually thrived off the meltdown and have continued with business pretty much as usual. Middle America might not have an ivy-league understanding of politics, but they know when they are being screwed.

To the millions of Americans feeling marginalised by the political process; marginalised and alienated socially and economically, candidates from what would normally be considered the fringes of the two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, have emerged into the mainstream. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist – a virtual communist to the Republican Party, who will no doubt be attacked as such if he wins the nomination regardless of who gets the nod from Republicans – has risen on a tide of left-of-centre discontent at the excess of Wall Street, while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have risen on the fears and anger of middle America that Washington has failed to respond to the problems they face: immigration, unemployment, bad housing, crime, a chronic lack of investment in their local industries and failed education. Into this political vacuum of discontent has swept Trump and Cruz like raging tornadoes to give voice to and to magnify their fury.

On the left, Hillary Clinton is viewed a continuation of the political elite; an establishment figure that failed to reign in Wall Street and hold it to account for its destructive effect on the country’s economy. At worst, she is even viewed as complicit in its greed and unaccountable power and influence over the nation’s political process. While left, left-of-centre Sanders calls for a ‘New Deal’, with America detaching its sacred political institutions from the corroding influence of big business, Wall Street and corporate America. He calls for a UK-style free national health service and for a realigning of the US economy. In calls for a New Deal he receives criticism in democratic circles for lacking Hillary’s more progressive, gradual, and practical grasp of numbers and experience of the trying-to-ride-a-bike-through-a-swamp-like nature of instigating real political reform through an obstinate and filibustering congress.

On the right, there is more than touch of irony that Donald Trump heralds from corporate America. He has spent his life taking advantage of the very system that many would say has done more to stagnate Middle America, marginalise millions of people, and keep wages and incomes low. Yet he has the perfect political ear and tone to hype Middle America’s fears and align them with the real problems of lower-income America. His skill and oratory deftness is in creating a bogeyman and slaying that bogeyman in the same theatrical performance, thereby at once identifying a problem, solving that problem, and creating a better future for all Americans in an hour or so of political grandstanding. It is a tactic that has proved very popular. Yet is it a tactic? Is the bandwagon: Set out stall; hone performance; reap in plaudits; repeat, repeat, repeat. Is this all there is to Trump? America will find out soon.

In viewing this performance from afar, Middle America could do well to ask itself whether immigration is the cause of the problems they face, or whether neoliberalism and corporate excess, permeated through society, from top to bottom, is the more likely cause. Aggressive capitalism instead of people-friendly capitalism. Whoever or whatever is to blame, Trump aims to fix it and make America great again, though he seems less sure on the details of how this will be achieved, except that he will build a wall on America’s Mexican border, and his fervent followers, he’s-behind-you-esque, will shout out, in true circus fashion, who will build it and who will pay for it.

In echoes eerily similar to the Labour Party in Britain lurching further to the left after defeat at the general election, the Republican Party has lurched to the right as a consequence of Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008 and re-election in 2012. The candidates now, in vying for the Republican nomination, and during the live televised debates, seemed to have spent their time constantly trying to out-right each other. Now for Republican Middle American it goes without saying that you have to hammer immigrants, even though America was founded on and became great through immigration, and this, despite the perceived wisdom that no candidate, Democrat or Republican, can win the White House without a sizable chunk of young and growing Latin-American support. It is also obligatory to be anti-establishment, and to stand up for the marginalised, the economically repressed, and the left behind, even though unrestrained free-marketeerism must course through your veins at the very core of your being. Abortion has to be evil. Evolution a conspiracy. You have to say guns and religion are America’s salvation. You have to be tough on terror and foreign policy (though not necessarily show much understanding of it). You have to say you’ll carpet bomb Isis and the Middle East and make the sand glow. Whereas a commitment to working with other nations in the region to invoke real, lasting peace, righting past wrongs, thereby defeating the call of Isis, would be suicidal to your prospects.

Ultimately, Sanders might produce a surprise, which would be a sensation, but it looks like Hillary battling it out for the White House, and winning quite comfortably in the end, against any one of the ultra-rightwing fringes from the Republican Party. The question is, and only area of mild contention and interest, is which one? And what next for the Republican Party after November? Will it be a case of even more fruit in the fruit cake?

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