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Three questions and answers about the 2020 presidential elections

During an election year I am often confronted with people who have questions about the American process. This year is no different, but with the current challenges facing the United States I find there is a stronger desire to understand what is going on and how it will influence the elections than there was in other years. Although I am not a political risk expert, I do hope I can provide some answers to these questions for some readers. Although it may not always seem so, American politics has many different aspects and complexities. Many of today’s issues have causes that are deeply rooted in the nation’s history and culture. Some even pre-date the founding of the United States or the colonies that came before. If I were to include all these aspects, this blog post would become so large as to be unreadable. Therefore, in favor of brevity, I have often made the conscious choice to simplify certain answers to some extent. If you would like me to expand upon some questions in a later post, or if you have other questions about American politics you would like me to answer, please drop a comment.

What are Joe Biden’s chances?

This is perhaps the question I get asked the most. Many people see Trump’s presidency as an utter failure and as disgraceful to the office. Any alternative, they believe, would be better than another four years of Donald Trump in the White House. This belief is strengthened by polling numbers that were recently published, which placed Biden in a consistent lead over Trump. Especially telling were certain swing states in which Trump was polling much better four years ago against Clinton but where he is now losing to Biden. Simply put, if the election were held today Biden would beat Trump and become President.

This does not mean Biden is set to win. The elections are still a long way off, and there is plenty of time for the Trump campaign to catch up. In fact, these polls are dangerous to the Biden campaign. They put Biden in the role of the favorite and paint Trump, despite being President, as the underdog. This creates different expectations for both candidates. For Biden, it raises them. He now has to keep his base motivated and happy, while also encompassing the views of other groups who, for now, support him. The candidate in front always has to worry more that people will stay home on election day. Their candidate should win, even without their vote, so why should they take time away from work to go vote? The Biden campaign recognized the threat instantly and immediately stated they were not looking at polls but were instead focusing on the issues, in an attempt to downplay Biden’s position as the one to beat. By repeatedly bringing up the issues instead of the numbers, they hope to shed light on Trump’s poor choices during his term in office and force Trump to play defense.
The expectations for Trump have been lowered by the polls. He is behind, therefore less is expected of him. This gives him the freedom to be the controversial candidate once again and go on the offensive, the strategy that helped him win the first time. Biden is open to very strong attacks due to his age, his voting record, and his problems during the primaries. Trump also has a base that has never wavered in their support of him. While Trump’s approval ratings have never been above 50 percent, they have generally remained stable at 42% to 45%, thanks in a large part to his followers. The fact that he is the sitting President, combined with the conservative policies he passed or put forward, the judges he appointed, and his willingness to get into fights, give him plenty to eventually catch and surpass Biden in the end.

What about Trump’s failure to act on COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter?

Again, this goes back to Trump’s base. Trump is very much in favor of ending the lockdown early, as is most of his base. The lockdown does immense damage to the economy, which hurts his base. In the view of Trump’s base, Democrats are more in favor of the lockdown than the Republicans, therefore the Democrats are bad for the economy and hurting people financially. Besides that, the lockdown goes against their beliefs in their personal right to be free. That other people might die is mostly an abstract concept and does not concern them as individuals. Remember when Trump voters were shocked to find that they were subject to the deportation program they had supported during the campaign? COVID-19 is the same thing: it only happens to other people and is therefore not a problem, until it happens to you. In the meantime, Trump’s base is literally up in arms in protest of the lockdown. The longer the lockdown lasts, the more it will eventually hurt Democrats in the polls as Trump’s rhetoric starts to convince more and more people.

Much the same can be said for the Black Lives Matter protests. Trump’s response at first was in support of law and order. He was very heavy-handed in his approach to the protesters, but considering his abrasive nature, this is not a surprise. In fact, it is very reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s approach in 1968 when riots broke out after the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Nixon also stood by the police officers that tried to put down the riots. He was however more conciliatory than Trump is. He attended King’s funeral and preached about ‘racial healing’. Trump on the other hand flew in the face of public opinion calling for stronger responses against protesters until recently, when he signed an executive order that limits the use of chokeholds and would implement a system of accountability for officers that use excessive force. The effort itself is small and the results will likely not amount to much, but it is there. It is a way of saying that he is listening to the people’s concerns. However, this message is not for the protesters, they would not likely be fooled by it. It is a nod to the people who are not opposed to the protesters but also do not see the extent to which systemic racism affects black lives. To these people, Trump is saying: ‘Look, I gave them what they wanted, another George Floyd cannot happen now. Yet they are still protesting and rioting. We need the police to stop these anarchists, because the streets are not safe. You are not safe. Don’t you agree?’

On the Democrats side of the aisle, the prolonged riots form a different problem. Because the BLM movement does not have clear figurehead Like Martin Luther King or an organizational structure and hierarchy, there are many different views and opinions about what changes are necessary or achievable, and about the methods to be used to demand these changes. At first, these differences can be ignored while everyone is still unified in their goal of systemic change. However, as time drags on, people within the protests will form groups that differ in ideas. While the greater goal has not changed, the paths towards it diverge. The Democrats will have to choose sides within the movement and will collide with other Democrats when they make different choices. This creates a risk of the movement collapsing in on itself, and it dissolves the unity that fueled the protests in the first place. Without this unity, Democrats will become vulnerable to Republican attacks.

In short, while Trump’s approaches may have been weak and bull-headed at first, he is slowly but steadily turning them into strong points for the campaign. Keep in mind, Nixon won the elections with his Law & Order approach.

Could a third party candidate rise up from the BLM movement?

Not on such short notice, and likely not a viable one. We often fall into the mistake of thinking there are only two parties in the United States. There are in fact several more, like the Liberal Party, the Green Party, and even the Communist Party. The reason you hardly ever hear from them is because they mostly do not stand a chance on their own in presidential elections. Instead they often opt to support the candidates from the major parties. There are several reasons for this. First, presidential elections are expensive. In the 2016 elections, both sides each raised over $500 million. Third party or independent candidates will struggle to keep up and it is unlikely that they even can.

Second, a third candidate does not generate the support to even stand a chance. The last third-party candidate to win a state was George Wallace in 1968. Only twelve times since 1788 has a third-party candidate gained more than five percent of the vote. The reason they have so little support is because they generally emerge from the flanks of one of the two major parties. If they manage to hang on until election day, they will take votes from the candidate on whose flank they are positioned, which strengthens the candidate from the other major party. Bill Clinton was elected this way when George Bush Sr. was faced with independent candidate Ross Perot eroding his support. Perot was the last third-party candidate to gain more than five percent.

Third, BLM as a political entity would generally be considered a one-issue party. Their issue is ending systemic racism and police brutality. While an important and worthwhile issue, which will definitely give shape to the elections, it is not enough for a presidential platform. Presidential elections are concerned with many more policy areas, like education, the economy, abortion, gun control, the environment and foreign policy. Many of those areas tie into the BLM movement’s concerns, but not enough that they have formed clear and unified policy ideas for them. This means most voters will abandon the movement in favor of a campaign that has formed such plans. That is not to say one-issue parties are obsolete. They can have influence on a campaign, especially during the primaries. There, when the field is still wide open, they can exert their power and resources to push prospective candidates into policy proposals that are more in-line with their views. After the primaries however, their influence wanes and would draw attention away from the candidates.

BLM as a movement, however, will continue to be a factor for the entirety of the election calendar, even if the protests themselves stop long before then. It is therefore not really in the interest of the movement to field a candidate. It can achieve much more by working with an established campaign.

The above are three questions that have either been asked of me directly or that I have come across online. I attempted to keep my answers as brief as I could, but as you can tell by the length of this article, the questions cannot be answered in just a few lines. American politics is too complex for ten-word answers. Still, in order to keep this as short as possible, I have had to omit certain aspects. If my answers come across to you as over-simplifications, you are absolutely correct. However, leave a comment or a question and I will either answer it in a response or in a subsequent post.

Donald Trump and the Sin of Isolationism

As I’m sure is true for most people, the number one subject in any conversation I’ve had since Tuesday is the result of the presidential elections, and what this will mean for the world. As I discussed the foreign policy implications of his presidency, I was surprised to find that many of the people I spoke with were unfamiliar with the idea of isolationism, which is the base of Trump’s foreign policy ideas.

I had originally meant to write a different piece today, something discussing Loch K. Johnson’s 2007 book Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy, in which he describes seven problems that plague America in its decision-making. I might still write that article later, but right now I want to focus solely on the sin of isolationism.

Isolationism is the idea that the United States can withdraw from the world, that it can lock its borders, cancel international agreements, and protect only itself and its interests. This is often referred to as Fortress America.

Although it seems hard to imagine now with America’s overbearing presence in all corners of the world, the United States started off with a strong isolationist character. The newly created country was still militarily weak and thus wanted to prevent antagonizing foreign powers by joining alliances against them or to be drawn into war by allies. The only entanglements deemed necessary were trade agreements.

This fear of being drawn into other people’s wars has survived throughout America’s history. Think for example of the US’s neutral stance in World War 1 up to 1917 and the country’s refusal to join the allies diplomatically after it did enter the war, and the failure to ratify the League of Nations agreement after. Think also of the late entry into World War 2, which happened only after the United States was itself attacked at Pearl Harbor. For both wars, the United States preferred to have Europe sort out its own problems until American people or interests became threatened.

Having a preference to stay out of war is of course understandable (although some may find it odd that the US even has such a preference), but isolationism goes deeper than that. Staunch isolationists see any international agreement as an entanglement and a constriction of America’s free movement in the world. Treaties on climate change or nuclear disarmament or free trade are subject to this as well, as are agreements on human rights. Although an isolationist America might very well agree with the underlying cause of such treaties, being bound by quotas or being forced to act because of certain articles in a treaty is unacceptable to isolationists. The situation is worse when isolationists reject the underlying cause outright, because then it will not even act towards the greater international good on its own.

Enter Donald Trump, a staunch isolationist. He has rejected the science proving climate change is real, rejects trade agreements that would profit the global economy and the US economy in a questionable effort to save American jobs and markets, and has indicated he wants the US to leave NATO. He aims to make Fortress America a reality once more, and with isolationist Newt Gingrich on the shortlist for Secretary of State the president-elect seems determined to achieve it.

Without US commitment to battling climate change the international community can only achieve so much. When major polluters do not take steps to scale down the damage they are doing in favor of short-term economic thinking, the world is going to be in dire straits, and that is exactly what will happen should Donald Trump do away with the international agreements that have been established. While the international community will remain committed, the credibility of the efforts will have been greatly diminished. Without American leadership and example other nations will choose to ignore these agreements as well in efforts to stay competitive in the short-term.

Threatening to leave NATO is detrimental to the security of the world and especially to that of Eastern Europe. I wrote in an earlier article that Trump could be better for Europe considering his preference for NATO to fight terrorism rather than focus on eastward expansion. Obviously, a decision to leave NATO would destroy that small positive outlook. At a time where Russia is looking to secure its strategic interests abroad, NATO members like Finland, Estonia, and Latvia are depending on a swift American response should Russia target them next. One of the more persuasive deterrents against Russian aggression here is Article 5 coming into effect. Without an American commitment to protect its allies, or worse: with a rejection of the alliance altogether, Eastern Europe faces tremendous danger and chaos.

In and of itself, America wishing to play a diminished role in the world is not a bad thing. The theory of ethical realism to which I subscribe banks on this reduction. However, this is different from isolationism, which seeks to ignore the rest of the world and to act unilaterally in all matters. This reduces the American role in the world so far that it becomes a threat to the international community. Whether the United States, the isolationist movement, or President-Elect Trump wish it so, the United States has become intrinsically linked to the rest of the world. The entanglements are there. Cutting those bounds comes at everyone’s peril.