Lessons From The 2016 US Presidential Election
It certainly came as a surprise to many people. Though all national polls in the USA indicated that the race was tightening in the run-up to the elections, almost all indicated a Hilary Clinton win. With 279 Electoral College Votes to Hillary’s 228, the world increasingly has to come to terms with a Donald Trump presidency. There are several lessons we can learn from the election:
One, Trump’s victory could signal the ascendency and ultimate mainstreaming of right wing populism. This is a growing phenomenon in Western democracies, which is epitomized in backlashes against multiculturalism, growing anti immigration sentiments and fears about the changing demographics that come with it. In the UK, this rightwing populism was very eloquently expressed in the Brexit. In smaller countries like Denmark parties that articulate right wing populism have managed to be part of the ruling coalition government. In bigger countries like United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, such parties influence the agenda of campaigns without being allowed to be part of the ruling government.
In the US, Donald Trump was not the first presidential candidate to premise his campaign on right-wing populism or stoking the fears of the White majority. In 1964, the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater campaigned against civil rights. In 1968, ex-Democrat George Wallace, who ran as an independent, built his candidacy on a combination of promises to repeal the civil right laws and continue the segregation of Black and White people in public institutions. There was also Pat Buchanan - who tried to get on the Republican ticket a couple of times in the 1990s but ended up running for president for the Reform Party in 2000. Buchanan built his candidacy on attacks on government’s immigration policy, transnational corporations and global competition as well as trade deals that benefited Mexican workers.
In 1992 Ross Perot made a very strong showing as an independent candidate. He also ran as presidential candidate of the Reform Party in 1996. On both occasions, he built his campaign on opposition to the government’s immigration policy and what he saw as the outsourcing of American jobs. Again after Obama’s election in 2008, a movement known as the Tea Party emerged based on a combination of several different resentments about bank bailouts, taxation, big government and a Black President in White House.
If Trump’s victory is the first time rightwing populism will triumph in a major Western country, how will that translate in governance? Will the famed American institutions be able to restrain his excesses? Or would his campaign rhetoric just be smart strategies to play up the fears of the White majority in order to win the election? Only time will tell.
Two, another important lesson from the American election is that the democratic space can contract or expand irrespective of how old a democracy is. American democracy is over 200 years old. During the campaign, we saw the prevalence of features that are usually associated with ‘new democracies’ or ‘democratizing societies’ such as allegations of ‘rigging’, questionable intervention in the process by the FBI only 11 days to the election and voter intimidation or what we call thuggery here in Nigeria. This has raised the question of whether American democracy has suffered reversals, has run out of steam or is under serious threat from anti democratic forces. Trump was probably the first candidate in modern American political history to question the integrity of the country’s democratic process. And a poll conducted by Rasmussen Report published on October 24 2016 showed that many Americans agreed with him.
Three, though Hilary Clinton did not win, that she worked very closely with President Obama, was an important lesson on strategic planning and alliance. It should be recalled that Obama and Hillary Clinton fought a very bitter campaign in 2008 during the Democratic Party’s primary. Though Obama triumphed, he eschewed all temptations to ‘neutralize’ her and her family – as our politicians here would have certainly done. In exchange the Clintons campaigned for him and after he won the election, he appointed Hilary to the powerful position of Secretary of State. Mrs Clinton resigned after four years on the job to prepare for another shot at the presidency. Once she got the Democratic Party’s nomination, Obama and his wife Michelle campaigned enthusiastically for her. Clinton in turn promised to preserve Obama’s legacy. This is an important lesson on how to build alliances and coalitions – despite hurtful words that both candidates used on each other during their bitter primaries in 2008.
Four, the election tells us that there are group dynamics in politics everywhere in the world. While in Nigeria we talk of the fault lines of religion, ethnicity and regionalism, in racially mixed societies these dynamics will coincide with race. This means that groups – racial, ethnic, regional, social classes- are often conscious of how particular government policies impact on them and will react accordingly or bottle up resentment that could be expressed in other ways such as by being silent supporters of candidates like Trump. In essence, there is a need for those in power to take cognizance of ideas and grouses expressed by opposition and even insurgent groups – however offensive such ideas may be. The unexpected victory of Donald Trump tells us that such ‘lunatic’ ideas may be shared by more people than openly express them. When therefore people talk of ‘issue-based campaigns’, they wrongly give the impression that there is a clime where campaigns are run like academic seminars – in arcane language that is devoid of emotions. The truth is that campaigns play up on people’s hopes and fears.
Five, it is remarkable that though all the candidates in the election are rather old, age never became an issue in the election. Donald Trump is 70; Hilary Clinton 69, Jill Stein, the presidential candidate of the Green Party is 66, while Gary Johnson, the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, is 63. When Hilary Clinton tripped during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump capitalized on it to ask whether she was strong and healthy enough to be president of the USA. That trip negatively affected her poll standing for a while before she recovered from it. This will suggest to us that the vitality of the candidates should matter more than their chronological ages. In Nigeria, there is this abiding myth that younger people will necessarily bring vitality and new thinking to governance.
Six, now that Trump has beaten all the odds to win, what should we expect of his presidency? It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. He promised several things but never bothered to elaborate on how he will deliver on them. As President, he cannot escape the ‘how’ question. It is remarkable that he sounded very conciliatory in his first public speech after being declared the President elect. Will he be a President who will heal the wounds of a bitter and polarizing campaign and unify Americans as he promised to do? Or will he further polarize the country? Time will tell.
Oyegun, Oshiomhole and APC’s lingering crisis
As the internal crisis in the ruling APC lingers, with Bola Tinubu openly calling for the resignation of its national chairman Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, one is not surprised that various interests are beginning to use surrogates to subtly promote some candidates as Oyegun’s possible replacement. There is nothing wrong with this. Politicians are political investors.
When I read that the outgoing Edo State governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, whose second-term as governor ends today (November 12, 2016) has been “pencilled down” to replace the embattled Oyegun as the party’s national chairman, I smelled a rat. When I add to this what I read earlier that the leaders of the APC in the south-south geopolitical zone have passed a vote of confidence on Oyegun, I concluded that the campaign for Oyegun’s post is now in full swing.
There is no doubt that both the ruling APC and the opposition PDP need to get their acts together for our democracy to thrive. In particular, more than one- and- half years after it became the ruling party, the APC is still behaving like an opposition party that is mired in confidence crisis after losing an election.
The APC needs as its chairman, a calm-headed person and a good listener who has sufficient emotional intelligence to work not just with the President but also with other political gladiators of different ambitions and temperaments. It is not going to be an easy assignment for anyone. But my gut instinct tells me that there is sometimes too much of the labour activist in Adams Oshiomhole - too much of the love of the political podium and too much political combativeness - that makes one doubt if he really has what it takes to be a unifier for a party like the APC.