This year’s US presidential election is anything but ordinary – and anything but hopeful. You could call it a two-horse race in which both horses are behind.
On the right, Donald Trump has plumbed challenging new lows of popularity for a presidential hopeful. A consistent 60-70% of American adults view him unfavourably. Hillary Clinton, too, is disliked by a majority of voters; were it not for Trump, she might just be the least popular major party candidate ever nominated.
Interviews and polls are steadily returning the same responses: Trump is a risky choice, Clinton is the establishment; Clinton is more of the same, Trump is a radical change; and most of all, as in this poll in Michigan: “It’s a choice between two evils”; “I find it shocking it’s getting closer. I just can’t believe it.”
A choice between two evils? Radical, risky change for the sake of change? To those of us on the other side of the Atlantic, it all sounds a bit familiar.
The hidden story of the UK’s vote for Brexit, as I have written elsewhere, is that binary in versus out, red versus blue politics simply doesn’t match the richness and complexity of the politics of people’s everyday lives. Reducing politics to two options, even if they are terminally polarised as in the US, sends the message to voters that elite politicians know better.
Voters are ready to send a loud message with their ballots – and perhaps their abstention – that they disagree. America’s Brexit is right around the corner. If there’s one thing you can say for sure in the US and the UK, it’s that people don’t trust politicians. Many are ready to vote in unexpected ways if they perceive a “none of the above” option.
As a result, Brexit won despite opposition from both main parties, and Donald Trump is still in the running despite his contempt for some of the core tenets of Republican conservatism – from world leadership through NATO to the importance of free trade.
There’s a common problem here: having a voice in modern democracy doesn’t mean having power – and many voters are turning away from the usual options to take power over their own lives.
America is an educated, engaged and pluralistic democracy where at a local level the freedom to speak and assemble provides everyday people great opportunities to cooperate, mobilise and do politics in their everyday lives. This isn’t just a culture of furious, reactionary protest; witness the resurgence of powerful public civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter.
The problem with America’s dessicated two-party system is that it can never compete with the richness and complexity of everyday politics. Many young African-American voters, for instance, are wary of Hillary Clinton thanks to her role in the harsh criminal justice policies of the early 1990s, which helped lay the groundwork for today’s racially biased prison system and culture of violent policing mostly targeted at people of colour. But their distrust of the Republican party runs even deeper.
They are confronting the inadequacy of their options head-on. The Democratic Party should be putting such everyday politics at the heart of its policy. It is telling that Clinton apologised for her notorious early-1990s speech about young black male “super-predators” after a young activist with a homemade sign called on her at a rally in South Carolina.
Barack Obama has said that “hope is on the ballot and fear is on the ballot too”, and that he will consider black abstention a personal insult. But this protest was not an insult, an endorsement of fear, or revolt against the Democratic Party; it was everyday politics, real, heartfelt, experienced politics that goes beyond red and blue. Dissolving such voices into a binary choice between hope and fear excludes citizens from playing a role in democracy.
But on the other side of this coin is something darker and more despairing. The filmmaker Michael Moore says that Trump will win what he calls the “Brexit states”: white communities in the struggling industrial heartland, usually known as the Rust Belt. In the coal mining country of Appalachia, West Virginia was for many years a relatively solid Democratic state, but as the economy has moved on and globalisation advanced, it has left the fold. And just as the Leave campaign did in Britain, Trump has won over a lot of its angry, left-behind white voters.
Trump offers up vague pledges to bring back the good old days, less a policy platform and more a concentrated stimulant for white, nativist anxiety about immigration. There are a lot of things going on here: racism, industrial decline, a long-term trend for politicians to tell working class people immigration is to blame for their problems. But xenophobia isn’t the whole story.
Elite politics has left a hole in many American voters’ hearts. Like the Brexit-voting cities of England, the dismantling of industry and the decreasing political influence of local level organisations and unions has left ordinary people feeling politics is done to them rather than with them. Many ordinary white families in West Virginia will regard proposals such as Clinton’s well-funded but hazy (and wordy) plan to rebuild Appalachia as nothing more than elite politicking, completely disconnected from everyday politics.
The great hope
The problem isn’t that Trump is a great candidate on paper; he is no such thing by any conventional measure. Even many of his supporters are probably surprised he’s come this far. The problem is that politicians who speak for hope have forgotten that hope comes from the home.
Citizens have lost trust in politicians, but more than that, politicians in our great democracy have lost trust in voters – be they activists, union members, single mothers, or the everyday white working-class men Sarah Palin famously dubbed “Joe Six-Packs”.
The US’s leaders need to get back to basics and confront the state of their political system. They should at least be discussing alternative, more representative electoral systems such as proportional representation, even if only at a local level. Now America has witnessed the dogged determination of the Tea Party and the stunning grassroots organisation of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, opening up the anachronistic, calcified two-party system is more of a no-brainer than ever.
Most of all, the priorities of everyday life and people who can represent them should be invited into the heart of government. This means welcoming activists and social movements, and recognising them as engines for badly needed change.
America’s best hope is at the grassroots. Everyday voices must be allowed to speak alongside whichever two inevitably wealthy and well-connected people are chosen to represent the entire country every four years. Well-meant work to put new life into America’s poorest communities must start inside those communities. Whether Trump wins or not, America’s Brexit is right around the corner. The time to act is now.