Comment is a collection of views, opinion and insight from Edge Hill University’s academics about topical issues, current events or areas of expertise. Commentators from across the University use this space to discuss their views as well as sharing their own knowledge, research and interests.
In the UK the scheduled May elections were delayed for a
year but in the US there is the Presidential and other elections in November
and, more trickily a series of primary contests to select candidates.
Primaries (and caucuses) select delegates according to
candidate. The delegates then go to
Conventions which nominate the chosen candidate.
Normally this time of year would feel like a parade of
never-ending contests. Instead the coronavirus crisis has meant many primaries
are postponed, and some have now become all postal vote affairs. And even though there is no real challenge to
Donald Trump on the Republican side, and the main challenger to Joe Biden
(Bernie Sanders) has
suspended his campaign on the Democrat side, the primary votes will happen.
The shutdown and postponed votes however means more to the
Democrats than Republicans. Normally
this succession of contests would be a massive profile raising opportunity for
a challenger. Instead Joe Biden finds it
an increasing struggle to stay politically relevant. While State Governors and Federal legislators
have an obvious platform, he doesn’t.
Biden can of course organise on line Town Hall meetings and
he can broadcast statements. But the logistical challenge is more easily
solvable than that of message and profile.
In news terms the only game in town is coronavirus and the response of
Donald Trump. Biden is campaigning
heavily on this, tweeting to attack previous lack of preparation, for example
this one from April 4 “In January, while
Donald Trump was downplaying COVID-19, I wrote an op-ed calling for immediate
action to combat the growing threat. In it, I also said Trump was the worst possible
leader to deal with a public health crisis. I stand by that statement.”. The Democratic presumptive nominee is taking care however to accompany his
attacks with proactive suggestions such as the Biden
There is one primary date that didn’t change –
Wisconsin. Most primaries are run by the
State so the State legislature makes the decision. And in this case Wisconsin
kept its date (7 April) with a small window of opportunity for postal
ballots to arrive back seven days later.
The Democratic Party Convention, at which the Presidential
and Vice – Presidential candidates are nominated, has
been shifted back to mid- August but even with the new date it is not at
all clear how much of the normal Convention can take place.
And of course in the Democratic Party the focus now moves even more closely to the Biden Vice-Presidential pick.
The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a still widely read 1964 essay for Harper’s Magazine outlining what he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. Marked by “a sense of heated exaggeration”, suspicion, and wild fears of political conspiracy, it was, he argued, a common part of American political life. It dated back to the rise of the antislavery movement before the Civil War, and every so often, it resurfaced at times of national crisis.
Hofstadter was alarmed to see this way of thinking infuse the politics of his own time. One example was the “Red Scare”, a series of anti-communist investigations and purges led by Senator Joe McCarthy. And then there was Barry Goldwater, the Republican party’s 1964 presidential nominee.
Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, was an outsider in the Republican party, known for his staunch anti-communism and opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He surprised everybody by beating the better-known and more moderate Nelson Rockefeller to become the party’s choice for president.
Goldwater picked up support from conservative voters who feared their role in society was under threat – that the fast-changing US was being taken away from them and their kind. “Traditional American values” were being undermined by left-wing intellectuals; the country was in danger, under threat from communist aggression abroad and Soviet spies and sympathisers at home.
Mainstream political leaders didn’t understand these fears, or simply chose to ignore them. But Goldwater did understand, and he won over grassroots activists by speaking directly to their concerns.
At home, he promised to reduce government spending and cut welfare payments. Abroad, he was committed to militant anti-Communism, including the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. He summed up his views at the Republican party convention in 1964: “
I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Goldwater was admired by Republican activists, but the wider electorate considered him beyond the pale. In the November election, he was crushed by the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s campaign fundamentally changed the thinking of his party – and five decades on, the conditions that led to the rise of Goldwater are on full display once again.
Fear and loathing
In his 1964 essay, Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style tends to resurface when class, ethnic and religious conflicts come to the fore. All three are roiling the US today.
The gap between the political elite and middle- and working-class Americans is as wide as it’s ever been. The uncertainty that set in after the economic crisis of 2008 endures; it has left workers deeply anxious about jobs and wages – and they fear labour competition from immigrants, especially Mexican ones. Internationally, the rise of radical Islam has threatened American interests abroad – and a series of “home-grown” extremistterrorattacks have only reinforced the image of a nation under threat.
Mainstream politicians have been slow to respond, but like Goldwater before him, Trump has seized the moment. He has promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, keep out Muslim immigrants and cancel free trade agreements to protect American jobs. As for the rest of the world, he has promised tough measures to wipe out the so-called Islamic State and has talked particularly tough on China.
As a self-proclaimed crusader against a corrupt political establishment, Trump has promised to see Hillary Clinton thrown in jail. He will “drain the swamp” to clean up the political system.
As Hofstadter put it, the paranoid style of mind creates “heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed”. Sure enough, many of Trump’s supporters apparently see their candidate as a knight in shining armour who can do no wrong. From this standpoint, attacks on his campaign aren’t grounded in reality or motivated purely by political differences; they are the work of a political conspiracy.
Trump has successfully cultivated an image of martyrdom, which goes a long way to explaining why he has survived myriad allegations of personal misconduct that would have destroyed any normal campaign. To his devotees, accusations of tax evasion and scamming are over-egged or false, while the women who have accused him of sexual harassment are lying gold-diggers bankrolled by the Washington establishment.
So while Trump may seem like an anomaly, his campaign is in fact a constellation of familiar themes pulled together at a particularly fraught moment in US history. And candidates like this have won before.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, another ideologically conservative Republican outsider, was elected president. To some on the right, Reagan – who spoke in Goldwater’s favour at the 1964 convention – represented the ultimate vindication of Goldwater’s vision. The thread connecting the three candidates was on full display in Reagan’s convention speech in 1980, where he pledged to “make America great again”.
It remains to be seen if Trump will enjoy the success of Reagan or go down in flames like Goldwater. Either way, Hillary Clinton should understand his political appeal as well as anyone: in 1964, aged just 17, she campaigned for Goldwater herself.
But then again, conventions have always been strange beasts, especially when viewed from abroad. Voters in many democracies are used to at least annual party conferences that combine various functions from policymaking to PR, from internal elections to training grounds for candidates and party workers.
In the US, however, the conventions come along once every four years and they are really only about one thing: nominating a presidential candidate.
Of course, by the time a convention comes along, the candidate has usually already won. It’s now very rare for the decision to be brokered at one of these events, and although there is often speculation about this, there is also pressure on those involved not to leave things to the convention floor. So the event acts as a shop window, both for the candidate and the other figures clustered around them.
The choice, for example, of who else will speak is often a good pointer to who is viewed as a rising star, or who has managed to negotiate that appearance. And supporting speakers are often chosen to highlight particular themes. So we can learn both from the contents and delivery of the speeches as well as from who is up there on stage.
While the political establishment in each party may well know a lot about a vice-presidential nominee, the vast majority of voters will not. This matters because a running mate is often chosen to “balance” the ticket and broaden its appeal, whether on ideology, age, gender, or religion.
Trump’s choice, Mike Pence, will need to establish himself as a known quantity with all those citizens outside his home state of Indiana, and the convention is his first and best chance. This means giving his audience a sense of himself as a person as well as a politician.
Sarah Palin, John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 running mate, is a good parallel here.
Lipstick on a pitbull
The McCain campaign surprised almost everyone when it unveiled Palin the day after Obama accepted his nomination. Alaska carries as little weight as any other state in presidential elections and is far removed from most Americans’ lives, so Palin had no national profile to speak of.
Even in the few days between the announcement and her speech, various unflattering stories emerged that threatened to make her toxic before she’d even been formally nominated. But when she spoke only days later, she silenced her critics (albeit briefly) with a remarkably assured and powerful performance for such a newcomer.
Watching it again, its power is still striking. Confident and assured beyond her experience, Palin spent an inordinate amount of time talking about her family, with the camera focusing in on her children, husband and parents – a powerful tactic to quickly make herself seem familiar and sympathetic, a humble Alaska “hockey mom” with a son fighting in Iraq.
But the speech is best known for one of those memorable soundbites that find a permanent place in the political lexicon. There is but one difference, said Palin, between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick. In one short phrase, she encapsulated a highly effective brand: a tough, protective mother just like millions all over the US, one who just happened to be a competent and effective governor.
Clearly Mike Pence can’t claim the cachet of a hockey mom. But when he speaks on July 20, he will need to find his own way to become relatable, as well as to convey some of those qualities which Trump’s campaign will want to highlight. Besides his religious and social conservative credentials – things for which Trump is hardly noted – his strong suit will be competence and executive experience.
While Trump has had trouble attracting party heavyweights to Cleveland, many of the other speakers at conventions are rising stars being offered one of their earliest national platforms. Some have gone on to run for president and to win; there are few better examples than Barack Obama, whose remarkable 2004 speech launched him as a national figure.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a rising star when he was chosen to nominate Michael Dukakis in 1988, but the speech he gave is remembered mostly for the audience’s audible relief when he uttered the words “in closing”.
Ultimately, conventions are chances for the campaigns and their principals to test whether their brand will work in the autumn campaign – massive market research exercises where themes, phrases, and people are road-tested and focus-grouped for the intense autumn sprint.
In this most unpredictable of election years, it’ll be fascinating to see what survives the jamborees in Cleveland and Philadelphia and makes it through to election night in November.