President Dwight D Eisenhower once threatened to leave the Republican Party unless it reflected the progressive, centrist principles that he advocated.[i] Were he alive today, it is fair to say that current developments within the GOP would have forced the former president to act on his threat. The race to secure the Republican candidacy for the 2016 US Presidential Election has seen the populist, radical Donald Trump appear as the frontrunner. The multimillionaire New York property mogul has courted controversy throughout his campaign, notably pledging to build a wall across the US-Mexico border to stem the flow of immigrants from Central and Southern America.[ii] Despite the incendiary nature of these comments – Pope Francis used a tour of the Americas to chastise Trump for his remarks – support for the star of the US version of The Apprentice has burgeoned.[iii]
Trump, now a forerunner for the Republicans
Equally, the race to secure the Democrat Party candidacy has been just as contentious. Hilary Clinton, regarded by the media as the frontrunner since announcing that she would like to run for the presidency, is facing considerable opposition to her bid to be the Democrat nominee from the leftist Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old Senator for Vermont. Tapping in to the American public’s anger over particular issues, the tactics of both politicians appear to be moderately successful. As of the 29th of March, Sanders is polling at 42.3 points compared with Clinton’s 51.3. Trump, on the other hand, is now the frontrunner to secure the GOP presidential candidacy, amassing an 11-point lead over his nearest rival, the Texan Ted Cruz.
Sanders, considerable opposition to Clinton for the Democrats
It is important however to not look at political proceedings in the United States in isolation. Exploration of current developments in European politics suggests that progressive, centrist and mainstream parties on both sides of the Atlantic are facing similar challenges. As illustrated by a recent report from The Guardian, electoral support for parties occupying the centre of European politics has fragmented, with growing backing for movements on the left and the right of the political spectrum. In the December 2015 Spanish General Election, the populist leftist Podemos (‘We Can’) Party gain 21% of the vote, with the liberal Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) Party polling at 14%.[iv] The electoral gains made by these two newcomers deprived the mainstream parties of the Spanish centre, the PSOE and the People’s Party, of an electoral majority.[v] The recent Slovakian parliamentary elections, similarly, saw no one party achieve an overall majority. Instead eight parties from across the political spectrum were returned to the National Council, each with more than 10 seats.[vi]
Seemingly, the reasons behind the electoral success of these radical movements are similar to the factors being attributed to Sanders and Trump’s victories in the US state primaries. Recent years have seen an exponential increase in the number of immigrants arriving in Europe, combined with a steady influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum.[vii] Far right parties, such as the German AfD, have exploited the significant anger amongst sections of the public towards these developments, adopting an anti-foreigner rhetoric. Such an approach saw the AfD make significant gains in the German regional elections in March this year.[viii] Left leaning parties, simultaneously, have sought to question the significant welfare and spending cuts advocated by many mainstream, centrist politicians across Europe. Utilising the Greek public’s resentment towards these austerity policies, the leftist Syriza Party won a landslide election in Greece in September 2015.[ix]
Mainstream politicians on both sides of the Atlantic must therefore find an effective means by which to either tackle or circumnavigate these radical, populist challenges to their electoral dominance. To ward off the threat of Sanders and Trump – for only divine intervention would now prevent the latter from securing the Republican nomination – it is imperative for Clinton to soothe popular resentment towards issues such as immigration and unemployment. Already she has sought to heighten her social media presence in a bid to win back youth voters and has pledged to reform the immigration system should she be elected.[x] Failure to secure the presidency – or even failing to persuade the Democrat Party to support her bid – may compel Clinton to do what President Eisenhower threatened to do all those years ago and leave politics.
Clinton, stepping up her campaign in the face of Trump and Sanders’ success
[viii] ‘German elections: setbacks for Merkel’s CDU as anti-refugee AfD makes big gains’ <http://ww w.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/13/anti-refugee-party-makes-big-gains-in-german-state-elections> 14 March 2016.