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Prospects in the American Democratic Primaries and Possible Futures

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Since the beginning of the election cycle, the vast majority of media establishments have predicted an overwhelming victory for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primaries. This is not to say that people do not like Bernie Sanders — by all accounts his supporters are ardent and numerous, compared to the lackluster and complacent conservatism which drives the Hillary campaign — but that his position as an outsider on the left-wing of the Democratic Party and a self-identified “socialist” in a nation defined by anti-communism make his candidacy improbable and a Sanders victory unthinkable. Senator Sanders’s performance has surpassed all expectations, holding his own against Clinton in key battleground states and demonstrating the profound gap between the Democratic Party establishment and its voter base. Sanders has avoiding slipping out of the race and national memory like his former competitors the woefully unprepared and utterly forgettable Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and Martin O’Malley, but he remains 200 delegates behind — not including ‘superdelegates’, a group of party officials not responsible to popular vote — and most sources still predict an inevitable loss to the juggernaut of the Clinton campaign. Although not entirely inaccurate, these expectations do not reflect a depth of analysis befitting the monumental nature of the 2016 Presidential Election. This article will demonstrate that while Hillary Clinton’s superior position is undeniable, her advantages are largely spent at this point in the campaign; a Sanders victory — and possibly a Sanders presidency — is still possible, if not probable. The potential characteristics and challenges of a Clinton or Sanders administration will also be discussed, with emphasis on domestic stability and international relations in a crucial period of global history. This map, showing the county level results of votes in Democratic Primaries, is a good place to start.

Democrats Primary 2016

For reference, the blue indicates counties where Hillary Clinton has won a majority, the green corresponds to counties where Bernie Sanders has won a majority, the dark grey corresponds to counties with a tied voted between the two candidates, and the light grey indicates that a state or territory can not yet held their caucus or primary. Although the map may not necessarily reflect voting percentages or the number of delegates given to each candidate, it has major advantages over other ways to represent electoral date for predictive purposes — and certainly over the state level majority maps commonly used.

This geographical representation of data, especially at the county-level of analysis, allows for a number of important insights about the distribution of voters for each candidate. What becomes striking first is the electoral strongholds of each candidate, with the South a swathe of pro-Clinton blue featuring only minor exceptions. The epicenters of support of Sanders are also clear: the rural areas of the Northeast and Midwest, the Great Basin, and the Pacific Northwest. Historically both of these trends make sense, Sanders is funded almost entirely by unions, a force which has been simultaneously excluded and reviled across the South, where the unique development situation of the sunbelt has resulted in a continued lack of unionization up to the present; it makes sense that Clinton should overwhelmingly prevail in this region. The centers of support for Sanders demonstrate a more recent history, that of growing disillusionment and economic decline following the Great Recession. While some pro-Sanders counties reflect an idiosyncratic leftism — such as the Sanders victory in the quirky leftist city of Austin — most areas where Sanders has seized victory have been traditionally conservative areas of the American heartland. The support for Sanders has come from the disaffected lower and middle classes of rural America, who have seen real wages drop, unionized factory jobs be moved overseas, their savings vanish, and blame the fat cats of Wall Street — not incorrectly — for their economic ills. Clinton is representative of the Northeastern corruption and elitism which the West has long resented as unfairly dominating American political life  — while the Midwest was not seized by 99% movement, the general sense of disenfranchisement and despair among the ‘flyover states’ is conducive to political outsiders and populists, like the turn of the century People’s Party.

Most of the predictions made on the Democratic Primaries assume that the disparity between Sanders and Clinton is consistent between states and geographic areas, something the provided map demonstrates is profoundly untrue. At this point in the primaries, Hillary Clinton’s advantage is mostly spent. The sunbelt states which have reliably supported Clinton to the near total exclusion of Sanders voters have already voted in the primaries. The only states which will almost certainly vote Clinton are New Mexico and Kentucky, although even then the immense poverty and distrust in Appalachia and the self-sufficient attitude of New Mexicans will result a smaller Clinton victory than elsewhere. Despite winning massive victories across the South, Clinton is only leading Sanders by around 200 delegates, a gap that could be easily closed with victories in the upcoming primaries in California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Neither side, however, can be safely guaranteed a victory in the popular vote. The division of white, rural battleground states like Ohio and Nebraska between Sanders and Clinton demonstrates that electoral lines are still unclear and important states — like Pennsylvania, California, and Indiana — will likely be hotly contested.

The issue of superdelegates makes the situation that much more complex. A confusing part of the party apparatus in America, superdelegates are prominent members of the Democratic Party leadership, perhaps serving as Senators, Representatives, or Mayors of major cities. Unlike other delegates, who are normally mandated to vote in reflection of popular consensus within their district, superdelegates are expected to represented the best interests of the Democratic Party and are thus only accountable to their own judgement. Right now it is expected that the majority of the superdelegates will support Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate who clearly represents the interests of the financial base behind the Democratic Party. But if Senator Sanders does manage to eke out a victory in the popular vote, the superdelegates may decide to back him — fearing that a move by the party establishment against the popular vote might be the nail in the coffin of the Democratic Party’s popular support and good(-ish) name. The situation is especially fraught because the Democratic Party has 712 superdelegates, a massive amount compared to the current delegate gap and more than enough to tip the election. I would sincerely hope, for the future and reputation of American democracy, that the superdelegates would not in favour of which even candidate wins the popular vote. Should this not happen — almost certainly in the form of the party establishment forcing Hillary Clinton onto the ballot — the Democratic Party will have dealt itself a massive blow in terms of legitimacy and support, potentially thrusting masses of white voters with a distrust for Wall Street and the Super PACs into the arms of other anti-establishment candidates like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump when the actual elections comes to a head in November.

I will end this exposition with a brief summary of what I believe a Sanders or Clinton presidency might look like, focusing especially on how each candidate might deal with the crises of the day: unemployment, poverty, wealth inequality, institutionalized racism, gun violence, Daesh / ISIS, conflict in the South China Sea, Russian revanchism, mass immigration, and the thousand other civil wars and communal conflicts bubbling away from the lens of the global media establishment.

To begin with what I believe to be the most likely situation, a Clinton presidency would be, in a single word, depressing. Depressing because the American public, for a very large part, knows what to expect; social problems would continue unabated, the systematic inequalities highlighted by Bernie Sanders would remain unaddressed, and politics would remain a gridlocked world of elites built upon half-truths and false promises. The greatest casualty would be psychological, as hope would leave large parts of the nation on both left and right who dreamed for a radically different America. This would be another breakdown in the decline of democratic strength in the West, as more and more of the population would become disillusioned and disenfranchised, ultimately giving up on politics as an essentially rigged system benefiting on the elites; although I do not predict that the Union will be subverted as of yet, this degradation of politics in the public imagination potentially leaves the door open for non-democratic and illiberal movements like those that seized power in Spain, Portugal, and Italy during the inter-war period. As for most social issues, a Clinton Presidency would likely not be significantly different than the Obama administration, the significant difference would now be that those issues are more pressing. The social anxiety and public anger that comes from massive income inequality, poor quality of employment, and racially-affected violence will grow rather than dissipate, and who is to say when those issues will come to a head. Although President Clinton would support poverty assistance schemes, unlike essentially all of the Republican candidates, they would not make up for the declining quality of life for many Americans. Hillary Clinton will also be much less able than President Obama to control the omnidirectional frustration and anger of the black poor in America; the riots and communal violence that will take place after yet another young black man is mistreated by the security forces and judicial system will last for longer and be bloodier will Hillary Clinton in office. The root issues of mass access to firearms, the gross scale of incarceration, and the unforgivable and continued poverty of black communities will almost certainly remained unresolved under President Clinton.

Although the mercurial nature of Clinton’s politics leaves many specifics up for questioning, Hillary Clinton has made it clear that she is much more hawkish than the current administration. As the unpopularity of counter-insurgency operations would go against public opinion, Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness would likely be directed not against Daesh or radical forces elsewhere in the world, but against the other ‘Great Powers’ of the contemporary world: the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Clinton has made her opinions of both their regimes clear, and has pledged to defend against the expansion of Chinese and Russian influence. This policy will go over well with America’s Pacific and European allies, but poses severe logistical problems and carries the potential threat of conflict with not one, but two, nuclear-armed states. For the past decade, the United States has reconfigured its armed forces in the face of insurgencies and budget cuts to deal with the issues of state-building needed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, but at the cost of US advantages in conventional war. A strong and hawkish American position in defense of jingoistic allies in Eastern Europe and the Pacific could propel the US into limited conflict — China views the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and past experience along the Sino-Indian border indicates that China is willing to incur high costs for something it believes to be a sovereign right, and the Russian experiment with hybrid and grey-zone warfare leaves open huge potentialities for miscalculation and direct conflict between the world’s most powerful states. During the same period as the US has shifted its specialization from war-fighting to state-building, Russia and China have invested heavily in anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) systems, a class of weapon systems specifically designed to prevent the effective mobilization of superior forces, such as those possessed by the United States. A conflict with one of these states, let along two of them, would impose severe logistic limitations on the United States and possibly challenge the ‘two war principle’. Besides the risk of costly hostile engagements, the Clinton approach to foreign policy will serve to exacerbate the current tensions in the world, and continue the American tradition of jumping from crisis to crisis rather than dealing with issues preemptively. Clinton, know for her strong connections with the Gulf, is likely to continue supporting the present system of alliances, ignoring the social issues and instability bred by many American initiatives. Like Obama, her hawkishness is unlikely to translate into effective action against Daesh or humanitarian interventionism. A world under Hillary Clinton is likely to see an increased chance of conflicts caring exceptionally high risks, a failure to fundamentally resolve the regional tensions which underlie conflicts, and a continuation of the stopgap solutions to crises; the difference is the consequences for failure continue to rise, as the world approaches a series of crossroads in which the United States requires decisive and visionary leadership.

Much less is known about what a Sanders Presidency would look like, because Senator Sanders has not been clear on exactly what his opinions are on a number of issues, especially in foreign policy. The greatest hope invoked by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is that the weight of poverty and income inequality will be lifted from American shoulders. Although Congress will undoubtedly block almost all of the legislation that may actually resolve the structural issues within the American financial system or create a genuine economic systems based on employment rather than growth, many of the policies proposed by Sanders will increase social benefits, expand the safety net, and increase real wages for a large proportion of the most disenfranchised population. These changes will not be radical by most standards, nor address many of the root causes within American regulatory systems which allow for large gaps between rich and poor, but they will ease the immediate woes of many struggling Americans, especially the young, and calm the popular discontent and disillusionment which threatens to seize the country. For most domestic issues, the ambitions of Bernie Sanders are not matched by his capabilities, support, nor political reality. While Sanders has indicated that he plans to introduce tougher gun regulation — as does Hillary Clinton — and spoken against the institutional factors driving black unemployment and persecution, his plans for accomplishing these tasks are murky at best and any plan will face almost insurmountable opposition from both the Republicans and conservative members of his own party. The foreign policy of a Sanders administration is even more opaque, with the only certainty being that Sanders is less of a hawk than Hillary Clinton, and significantly less experienced. Many of Senator Sanders’s statements indicate that he is in favor of integrating America more firmly into the world system, doing away with some portion of American exceptionalism. With his intensely domestic focus, it is unlikely that Bernie Sanders would be willing to sacrifice American men and monies on expensive engagements in the Middle East, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific, threatening the specter of American retreat from its central position on the world stage. If any decline in American presence were to occur during his tenure, it could mark the beginning of the end of the unipolar world which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growth of spheres of influence loyal to regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, or Russia. Although the intense hawkishness of Hillary Clinton may drag America into unnecessary wars and endanger our citizenry, the inclinations of a ideologically directed Sanders administration could lead to a collapse of the Pax Americana, with all of the risk and chaos that that might entail. The greatest hope is that, unlike many previous and self-confident leaders, Bernie Sanders will surround himself with intelligent and skilled men to advise him on the many points of domestic and international policy in which he is weak or inexperienced. The best thing that can be said about Bernie Sanders is that he provides a glimmer of hope for America, a possibility of a future where the American Dream is achievable and the country collectively possesses the strength and virility to fix the numerous problems besetting it. Whether America can muster the will to solve these issues remains to be seen, but at least Senator Sanders gives the nation a chance.

 

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Author: Sam

I study international relations and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. My research is focused on political systems and economic development in Post-Soviet states.

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