By Ali R. Abootalebi | (Informed Comment) | – –
The 2016 American presidential election can prove to be a turning point in the development of American politics. This is not because a declared democratic socialist is running for the post or because of Donald Trump’s outrageous statements and proclamations pointing to a serious rise of the far right politics. This election is important because the viability of the American political system itself is in danger. The forces of globalization and political erosion in the United States are seriously threatening the viability of responsible politics in the country. The future of good governance in the country now more than ever demands an end to the two-party system domination. The emergence of a third alternative, a Social-Democratic Party, let’s call it the SDP—unlike the earlier ambitious but ultimately failed attempts at the creation of a Socialist Party– can strengthen the cause of political development and true democracy.
A political revolution, as Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called for, cannot be realized without a ‘revolution’ in the American party politics, reinvigorating the legislative branch. The creation of SDP can go far in improving the cause of governance through popular social empowerment. Senator Sanders should take advantage of the presidential campaigning momentum to rally his supporters to build a national Social Democratic Party with a vision for long run progressive change platform. This can prove more important than his bid for presidency.
The American electorate has historically preferred moderate candidates and policies, avoiding the extremes of both sides of political spectrum. Some may see the current ideological divide in the party as ephemeral and that the political clock will once again swing back to the middle. On the political left, Hillary Clinton’s campaign attack is propagating the idea that Senator Sanders cannot win a presidential contest with whoever the Republican Party nominee may be. The argument is that Senator Sanders’ democratic socialism does not resonate with the overall American peoples’ belief system and values. After all, the United States’ experience with political democracy has almost always favored the political center and moderate candidates. As this claim historically may be true, the causes of the polarization of the American public opinion are more pronounced than ever before.
The forward-looking, technologically savvy millennial generation has heard the ‘Yes, we can’ message loud and clear, while witnessing their American dreams for better future evaporating by incompetent politicians and their allied corporate interests. The promises of globalization has turned into a nightmare for the American laborers and the middle class in general who have lost economic power because of it. Thus, the popularity of political left and far right politics in the country should not be viewed as ephemeral but due to a structural shift in the American electorates’ policy preferences in view of the failure of the political system to respond to the net negative impact of globalization of trade, finance and market on their livelihood.
The political and popular polarization in the country should raise serious questions over the future development of American politics. The congressional political squabbling and its historically low popularity and the popularity of Senator Sanders on the left and Mr. Trump on the far right is a sign of drastic changes in the country since the 1980s and the changing parameters of global political economy. Americans’ historical preference for moderate politics may have been true during the cold war years, and especially in the prosperous two decades after world war two. However the end of the Bretton woods and gold-based fixed exchange rate international monetary system, the arrival of ‘supply-side economics, deregulations since the 1980s, and the end of the cold war changed the calculus for the American
, and the international, political economy.
The country’s middle class continues shrinking and the ‘triumph of capital’ over responsible social policy and governance has become widespread. This is evidenced in the repeatedly occurring and worsening economic crises since the end of the cold war, including the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, the 2000 U.S. stock market crash, 2007 subprime and housing market crisis, the 2007-2011 global financial crisis, and the ongoing soft world economic performance.
The political and popular polarization in the current presidential election in both the Republican and Democratic camps is a reflection of deep political problems. The weak political party system in the country–reflected in little party establishment control over its members and their ideological leanings and decentralized and fractured organizational setup–no longer serve the best interest of the American public. Political democracies need to continuously evolve, presenting themselves as viable and responsive to the ever changing socioeconomic, political, and cultural shifts and the demands of the electorate. Otherwise, political systems are subject to political stagnation and erosion, resulting in, what the late Samuel Huntington called, ‘political decay.’ Political parties are only ‘shields’ protecting the legitimacy of the democratic political system functioning within its legal and constitutional boundaries. As such, party organization and platform, its leadership and discipline, vision, and proven proficiency in meeting the demands of its members and constituencies are crucial for the viability of the party itself, as well as the legitimacy of the political system.
The mechanics of electoral politics through such tools as gerrymandering, redistricting, super-delegates, electoral-college, and winner-take-all, among others, have contributed to the erosion of competitive politics and democracy in the country. Consequently, as some critics like the Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders argue, the American democracy has turned into an ‘oligarchy,’ dominated by the rich and special interests. The media and the Supreme Court also have not helped the cause of responsible politics in the country either. The perception is, more true than not, that the corporate ownership of the mainstream media means profits and not the citizens’ welfare is the priority for the rich. The Supreme Court’s split decision to treat corporations as individuals, endowed with the right to free speech, also means unlimited financial contributions by big businesses and Super PACS, robbing the electorate their rights to legitimate participation in, and the demand for, competitive politics and fair political outcome.
When it comes to voting behavior, the American electorate participation is unsurprisingly dispassionate and divorced from the reality of party politics and political partisanship. The People usually vote knowing well that what the politicians tell them at campaign rally can and will be ignored or forgotten in the polls-driven and ‘special-interest’ dominated politics. Overall popular participation at local, state, and federal elections remain unenthusiastic and below the participation rate of Europeans and other democracies. The presidential elections seem particularly long, full of personal attacks, devoid of substantive debates over issues and policy, and with special interests and money fundamentally determining the political outcome. Americans overall view of politics in recent years stands at historical low.
And, we have come to rely on interest groups to further connect the ruled to the rulers. The presupposition is that in a ‘pluralist democracy’ such as ours, interest groups are agents of ‘interest articulation’ and can promote civil society and citizen participation in politics: They mobilize people with similar interests into interest groups in pursuit of their ‘narrower’ interest that also serve the cause of responsible citizenship and political participation and good governance. In reality, however, groups in support of organized labor and progressive social advocacy groups have lost ground in competing with business interest groups and their lobbying partners: the interest of the main street has increasingly diverged from those of the Wall Street. This has been particularly true since the 1980s.
The deregulation of the 1980s, including the revocation of Glass Steagall Congressional Act, and the globalization of finance and market capitalism since the 1990s have further sharpened the labor-business divide over the distribution of economic and social resources and the extent of government intervention in the market and society. The evidence shows a shrinking American middle class and an extraordinary wealth gap between the top 1 percent of the Americans and the rest of the populace, as well as racial, ethnic, and income disparities. The age of globalization and technological revolution has dashed the earlier hopes of the millennial generation for a secured and free future in the face of irresponsible politics, much of it in a span of only few years since the end of the cold war in 1989.
The structural changes needed in the American body politics demand reconnecting the governed and the governors after years of political underperformance. This task calls for the creation of an alternative SDP to address the needs of the American electorate on the political left–and possibly the creation of a conservative party on the political right as well. Bernie Sanders’ political revolution requires not only popular input in electing a progressive candidate like him, it demands continuous popular engagement in politics through disciplined and well-organized party politics participation. Progressive candidates in the Congress can help the cause of progressive politics in the executive office, further mobilizing popular opinion to demand structural changes in the body politics and the better distribution of national resources though more effective governance. In that case, the American courts also will be more responsive in considering the popular will in their overall balancing calculation of legal and political rights. The inaction alternative will only see the continuing political decay. Then, no amount of political rhetoric and false promises through short term economic ‘bandaging’ and irresponsible fiscal borrowing will resolve the country’s deep-rooted political problems, nor will it rescue it from its international decline.
Professor Ali R. Abootalebi teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire (UWEC). He is the author of Islam and Democracy (2000) and numerous articles on Islam and Democracy, Arab Political Development and Global and Middle Eastern Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org