Although the next US presidential election is more than a year away, the campaign for the White House is already under way with even greater intensity than four years ago. Because there is no incumbent standing for re-election, the field is wide open for a range of political sensibilities to compete against one another within the broad two-party system.
Unlike European political parties which have historic ideological roots and are thus less prone to radical changes of position, the US Democrat and Republican parties are, in fact, electoral coalitions bringing together a wide range of ideological and socio-political interest groups together, often with a charismatic individual as leader.
An American party could change profile to take into account the political realities of the day, always with an eye on the key question of how to win an election. In American politics pragmatism has always been more important than ideological considerations. However, over the past decades, more precisely since the Great Depression, the two parties have assumed distinct personae that cannot be easily discarded.
Right now the Democrat and Republican parties differ in at least three important ways. The first concerns the distinct roles of the state and the individual.
The Democrats favor a greater role for the state not only in setting the national agenda but also in re-distributing the national income and fixing social and cultural norms. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democrat candidate in the coming election, called her first book It Takes a Village to Educate a Child, indicating the party’s belief in collective cooperative efforts rather than individual free enterprise.
In his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband and current key advisor, lambasted President George H.W. Bush for failing to mobilize the resources of the state to combat unemployment and re-start the economy. “If you can’t use the government, let me do it,” he famously boasted. The subtext was that it was President Franklin Roosevelt’s use of “the resources of the state” that helped end the Great Depression. (The Republicans context that and claim that the depression was already ending when Roosevelt entered the White House.)
The latest expression of the Democrat party’s European-style collectivist sentiment came in the shape of President Barack Obama’s healthcare project, often known as “Obamacare”. The measure is so complicated and confused that it is hard to fully gauge. (At least this writer cannot fully understand it!) However, its aim is clear: to bring some 16 percent of the American GDP into the public sector, potentially the largest nationalization scheme the US has ever seen.
In contrast, the Republicans, playing on the theme of “The American Dream”, emphasize the role of the individual and the family. Their ideal American is one who relies on his own resources but who is always ready to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate than him. The average Republican regards the government as a necessary evil but is certain that politicians and bureaucrats are not to be trusted to spend “the people’s money” wisely and prudently. Thus, the slogan “get Washington of our backs” is always popular with Republican audiences.
Historically, the Democrats’ belief in the leading role of the state has also been used to justify an interventionist policy abroad. Leaving aside the adventures of President Theodor Roosevelt, a Republican, Democrats have been responsible for all the wars waged by the US abroad until President George W Bush’s decision to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. (Another exception was President Ronald Reagan’s mini-operation in Grenada.)
Differences between the two parties are not limited to narrative and history. There are also sociological differences. The Democrats are strong in the two extreme ends of the income spectrum, the poorest and the richest, while Republicans heavily rely on middle classes and the wealthy. Democrats attract more college graduates than Republicans and enjoy greater support among cultural elites and the media. Apart from Catholics who remain evenly divided between the two parties, Democrats’ greatest appeal is to secular segments of society while Republicans do better among Christian communities.
The differences even have a geographical dimension. Democrats do better in most states that board on the oceans, the Great lakes, the major rivers and any other important body of water. (One exception is Texas which, nevertheless, was a Democrat bastion until the 1980s). Republicans do better in hinterland states. While Democrats dominate in big cities, Republicans are the party of the suburbs, medium and small cities, and rural areas.
Over the past decades Democrats have created a solid support base of ethnic and religious minorities. African-Americans (12 percent of the electorate), Hispanics (12 percent), Jews (2 percent), Muslims (2 percent) and Native Americans (1 percent) vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
In contrast, Republicans enjoy overwhelming support only among Asian-Americans (2 percent), Central and East European recent immigrants (1.2 percent), and Irano-Americans (0.5 percent).
Thus, thanks to a united front of minorities, a Democrat presidential nominee starts with almost 40 percent of the votes he or she needs to win. It is no surprise that Mrs. Clinton is trying to re-energize that electoral base by branding the Republicans as crypto-racists who dream of avenging Obama’s election. (The fact that Obama is only half African by descent is conveniently forgotten; what matters is how he looks!)
Having spent ten days touring five states recently, I could discern two important facts in this election.
The first is that national security is making a comeback as a major concern. In that context, Democrats get poor marks without Republicans being able, at least so far, to benefit. Many people I talked to readily admitted that Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster, at least, rudderless. And, yet, most seem to share his claim that the choice is between doing nothing and full scale invasion of other countries, something that few Americans would want at this juncture. No Republican nominee could win the foreign policy debate without showing convincingly that a third choice is both possible and desirable.
The second fact is that a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush duel remains far from certain. This election remains open to surprises.