By Jonas Nesbo
Correspondent, Joint Honours Economics and International Relations Undergraduate
It’s been nearly a year since the start of the campaigns for the 2016 United States presidential election. As a foreign observer US elections are incredibly interesting, both because of its impact on world affairs and the difference in campaign style from other Western nations. The emphasis on showmanship and individualism is very different from the political elections back home in Norway. This election cycle is particularly noteworthy as candidates on the left and right of the establishment are becoming increasingly viable, a cause for both excitement and dread.
The emphasis on showmanship and individualism is very different from the political elections back home in Norway.
Politics at home is fundamentally about political ideology and the collective; Norwegians don’t vote for leaders, they vote for political parties. Political leaders are nominated internally at their respective party conventions. All the internal bargaining and policy debates within political parties is already out of the way once its time for the elections. Coming from this background it is hard to understand the appeal of electing an individual. All the time spent on making a candidate likable and appealing distracts from the issues; one would think voters are more interested in policy platforms than whether or not you are a grandmother or have a hot wife. At the outset of their campaigns the candidates rarely have a policy platform, which is crucial if voters are to be able to vote appropriately. In general it is quite hard to research what the candidates are actually proposing.
Exacerbating this information deficit, the United States, in contrast to many other Western democracies, has no major state-funded news outlet charged with being non-partisan. Instead, the biggest media outlets have developed long-standing relationships with politicians and actively help to secure the nomination for their preferred candidate. This is not to say that partisan media is a distinctly American phenomenon, but the absence of a neutral alternative complicates the process. As for-profit businesses, media outlets report what sells, making the more vulgar and outrageous statements likely to get airtime. In other words, American news coverage is usually either partisan, sensationalist or both. Fueled by this media bias and sensationalism, the attempts of the Democratic and Republican parties to differentiate themselves from one another has created a polarised political climate.
Exacerbating this information deficit, the United States, in contrast to many other Western democracies, has no major state-funded news outlet charged with being non-partisan.
The role of money in the US elections is also massively disproportionate to elections at home, and the world in general. The Citizens United ruling has created a significant grey area through which big business can influence those running for political office. Through the use of ‘Super PACs’ there are virtually no limits to the amount of money that can be fueled into the campaigns. The coverage of this process by John Stewart and Steven Colbert starting in 2011 is a contemporary gem of tragicomedy. The amount of money to be spent on this campaign cycle is simply staggering; for instance the Koch brothers & affiliates are willing to spend nearly 900 million this campaign cycle.
In contrast to these self-serving tendencies, it has been exciting to see this cycle generate higher levels of political engagement, even from those who traditionally do not get involved. That an increasingly large portion of the electorate has become disillusioned with the ability of the status quo to solve the problems facing America in the future suggests a deeper momentum in favour of changing the dynamics of politics as usual. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both capitalized on the current political climate, fueled by a large number of new voters of all ages. Both candidates seek the presidential nomination on political platforms to the left and right of their respective party’s status quo.
Fueled by this media bias and sensationalism, the attempts of the Democratic and Republican parties to differentiate themselves from one another has created a polarised political climate.
Political leanings aside, there is a similarity between the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in that they share a disdain for the influence of money on politics. The fringe candidates have expanded the political debate from the more ‘standard’ ideological standoffs to include topics such as social democracy and immigration. It would be quite refreshing to see a presidential election about more than God, guns and free-market economics. Their approach to the media however has been radically different. Sanders has largely run a so-called ‘positive’ campaign, although he has become increasingly aggressive on Clinton’s political record as of late. In many ways Sanders is the type of candidate I recognize from politics back home, with a platform based on political ideology and a campaign based upon discussing the issues.
On the other hand, when Trump does talk policy, it is sending worrying signals. He openly campaigns on exerting influence on the domestic policies of other states. His comments on terrorism have at times displayed a lax attitude towards human rights and international law. Economically his repeated remarks about getting ‘beaten on trade’ shows a very mercantilist worldview from the would-be leader of a state who has aggressively championed liberal markets since the end of World War II. Along with his confrontational style these policies are not being well received internationally, amongst world leaders and people in general.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both capitalized on the increasingly large portion of the electorate which has become disillusioned with the ability of the status quo to solve the problems facing America in the future suggests a deeper momentum in favour of changing the dynamics of politics as usual.
The current disillusionment with establishment politics has opened up the debate to a wider range of issues, for better or worse. The way media and money influences American politics is finally on the agenda, but so apparently is targeting non-combatants. Hopefully the presidential election results in a political process more favourable to politicians and less to lobbyists and reality-TV stars, and not in a series of foreign policy catastrophes. Fingers crossed.
Feature images by DonkeyHotey.