Some valuable lessons from U.S. politics?

Although the Europeans might see the U.S. presidential elections as rather bizarre, it currently presents similar trends to those in Europe. The phenomenon of “antisystem” candidates can now be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Read what Martin Michelot thinks about this development.

As the Europeans watch over the beginning of the American primary season, and have a hard time repressing a contemptuous smile about the spectacle on display by the Republican camp, what the Americans call the “silly season” offers an opportunity for us to reflect on the fact that we may not be as far removed from the U.S. as we would like to think that we are. As a matter of fact, there is even an argument to be made that we may have held some precursor trends that we now see in the U.S.

The results of the primary in Iowa make one thing clear: American citizens are overwhelmingly voting for candidates that can be defined as outsiders. With Donald Trump being out of category, this leaves us with the eventual Iowa winner Ted Cruz, who has spent his campaign honing his anti-system credentials. On the other side, Bernie Sanders, who lost to Hillary Clinton by a few dozen votes, represents the lust of voters to do out with the elites, which Clinton unmistakably represents, and their stale political language. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Europe is no stranger to these trends. Strong scores for “antisystem” candidates in all European countries (and in the Czech Republic in the first place) in the past few years are the symbol of a defiant and perhaps pessimistic public opinion. Europeans seem to be skeptical about the acceleration of the economy, which has done nothing to impact the level of wages or change the trends of an increasing disparity of wealth. Anti-system politicians toy with the ever-present, nagging, idea of strategic decline, especially faced with the diffuse but persistent danger of Islamic terrorism (and for some, of refugees), which our inconclusive military engagements in the Middle East have not been able to solve.

As a matter of fact, the issue of terrorism has created an unexpected transatlantic bond, whereby the likes of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump echo one another’s (racist) statements and pre-packaged solutions on how to fight it, while portraying themselves as the only ones who are able and willing to protect voters from the dangers of open borders. How can the transatlantic bond survive when the forces that compose it are so inward-looking, at a time when greater openness, required for example to successfully pass through TTIP but also to answer the challenges of Russia and Daech, weigh strongly on the future of our societies?

The discourse coming from some of the most popular politicians on both sides of the Atlantic contains the same roots, in part because the role of political parties has been transformed. While they used to be the centers of critical thinking and creative decision-making, parties in the U.S. and Europe seem, for a lot of them, to have become hollow shells in which personal ambitions are projected. Nicolas Sarkozy, in France, has transformed the Les Républicains party into an accessory of his next campaign, oblivious to the majority of voters of his own party who oppose him running for president in 2017. Some, like Trump, who continues to openly consider running as an independent candidate, can altogether do without party support. Traditional parties are therefore cast aside or reconfigured to serve the purposes of one person. Europe is seeing an increasing number of self-styled “movements” take over the role of parties, such as in the Czech Republic with ANO, but also in Spain with Podemos and Cuidadanos. It is far from likely that this trend will be stopped any time soon, and it seems that the slow emergence of these anti-system forces have left traditional parties dumbfounded and slow to react.

What can and should parties do to get out of the rut? The more obvious answer seems to be a quick renewal of their political class. The antidote against the anti-system candidates in self-contained: it turns out that very few of them are adept at being able to transition from being anti-system to being “in the system”, while still keeping their attractiveness intact. This is what has continuously held Marine Le Pen back in France. A younger, fresher, political class that can explain what the EU means within a set of ideological guidelines would create a boost in a lot of European countries. In the U.S., Marco Rubio seems to represent that alternative for a Republican party that has been kept underwater by the hardliners for eight years. Is there a European Rubio in sight?

This blog was originally published on EurActiv.

#USA #elections #antisystem candidates #terrorism

Martin Michelot
Senior Associate Research Fellow

Expertise: NATO and transatlantic security, European foreign policy and defense, French politics, elections and society, Visegrad Four and Central Europe, EU institutional issues

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