US presidential elections are unlike any elections around the world. Where elections in many other countries are associated with boring policy platforms and candidates posing with grandmas and babies, the US elections are that but much, much more. They are a unparalleled spectacle that entrances the entire country, if not the entire world. Election coverage chews up much of the time of the mainstream media channels, and it often resembles a reality TV show rather than serious political discussion. While the buildup to this electoral cycle has been scary and hopeful and frustrating at times, but it has certainly never been a bore.
One reason that the elections cause such a media frenzy is that the process is so long, which translates into sustained ratings for the news networks. The primary elections for the nominee for each of the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, begins on 1 February in the state of Iowa, followed by New Hampshire and then the rest of the country. This primary process runs up till June, after which each party formally designates their winning nominee at their official party convention. After a series of three major debates, the nominees will face off in the general election to be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is 8 November this year.
You may not hear in the international press much news about election rigging or ballot stuffing happening in the US. This doesn’t necessarily mean that elections there are fair and clean. On the contrary, US elections are almost exclusively bought by mega corporations, such as the big banks or pharmaceutical companies, in the form of campaign donations. Thanks to the relaxation in campaign finance laws since the 1970s, corporations are able to now legally bribe politicians by funding their political campaigns to the extent that the better-funded candidate wins the election a vast majority of the time. These ‘contributions’ which are bundled by neat little political action committees (PACs) have now become the lifeblood for presidential candidates, especially since the projected cost for running a presidential campaign now runs to over $1 billion. The politicians then respond to their donors by implementing corporate-friendly policies when in power.
This presidential cycle seems to be a bit different though. The voters have had their fill of the standard, cookie-cutter politicians with their talking points and pockets greased by big business. The more ideological bases of each party seem to be able to see through the illusion and have had enough. Hence this election seems to be primed for the outsider candidate, the one who doesn’t represent their political establishment running each major party, but is more independent to pursue his own policies.
On the Republican side, we have none other than Donald J Trump. I have written in the past about his demagoguery, and how he represents a proto-fascist threat to the country. What cannot be denied is that through brash and crafty use of the media, he has ignited the populist and reactionary chunk of the party and has shot up to 40% in the polls, dominating the crowded field.
The more traditional candidates, such as Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother and son to two former presidents, have fallen flat in response to the Trump onslaught. Trump holds a slender lead in the polls in Iowa but is leading handsomely in many of the major states. Barring an unexpected rise from one of the other candidates, Trump looks set to ride to victory by the summer. To have expected the real estate mogul and reality TV star to be the leader last year would have been unthinkable, but reality can be stranger than fiction sometimes.
On the Democratic side, the outsider is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite having served in Congress for over two decades, he is a genuine anti-establishment candidate. A self-avowed democratic socialist, he rails against the corporate machine and income inequality, calls for reforms for the banks on Wall Street and a taxpayer-funded healthcare-for-all system. His policies appeal to the progressive left that forms the heart of the Democratic party, and he has led an insurgent campaign that is steadily building momentum. The favourite though at this point is former Senator and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Her major plus points for voters are her association with husband Bill Clinton (still one of the more popular US presidents) and the prospect of being the first female president in US history. Still, with her close connections with Wall Street, war-like tendencies on foreign policy and general lack of authenticity, she elicits little of the enthusiasm that Sanders does. Sanders remains the underdog in this fight.
What is interesting to note is that the major attraction for both Trump and Sanders to their supporters is that they both are not using PAC money to fund their campaigns. Trump is spending much of his own plentiful money while Sanders is getting his donations almost all from small public donations rather than big business. Their appeal is that they will not be beholden to special interests and lobbyists who corrupt the rest of the political process. If the final battle ends up between these two, it may be the first election in modern history in which the rich donors don’t have the candidates in their thrall. Trump cannot be bought while Sanders refuses to be bought. If that will be the end, Iowa will be where it begins.