After watching Donald Trump mock and bully his way through the Republican primaries over the past year, leaving the GOP in complete disarray, the general election of 2016 is setting up to be one of the most polarizing and downright nauseating presidential elections in American history.
According to a recent poll from Reuters, about 47 percent of Trump supporters say that their main objective in voting for him will be to prevent a Clinton presidency, while 46 percent of Clinton supporters similarly want to block Trump. Never before has the “lesser of two evils” principle been so prevalent in the minds of voters — and never before have the two presidential candidates had such horrific favorability ratings (that is, since pollsters began keeping track).
As Niall Stanage points out in The Hill:
“[Clinton and Trump’s] negative ratings are unlike anything seen in the modern era. And since candidates are household names, having been celebrities for decades, it’s tough to change people’s views.”
Whether Trump tone’s down his polarizing rhetoric or Clinton triangulates back to the right, popular opinion is unlikely to change significantly for either of them — especially during a nasty, attack-fueled campaign season.
Some may wonder how two of the most disliked politicians in the country could manage to become their respective parties' nominees. In a healthy democracy — even in a dysfunctional democracy, which is inevitable in a sprawling and heavily populated country — one might expect presidential candidates to be at least mildly liked or trusted by the populace.
Of course, American democracy is beyond dysfunctional — it is terminally ill. The two-party duopoly that has long persisted in American politics has become increasingly plutocratic as corporate interests have infested Washington over the past several decades. As the late Gore Vidal once put it,
“The United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.”
The partisan polarization that has steadily built up over the past 30 years has created an illusion that the two parties are radically different from each other. Republicans object to almost every domestic policy that President Obama supports, and frequently call him a socialist and dictator (even as they call him weak on foreign policy just moments later — a contradiction that the mainstream media never seems to pick up on). Watching this obstructionism and incessant bickering might lead one to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are as politically different as the Red and White Armies, when in reality, their differences are more analogous to the Bolsheviks debating the Mensheviks. (The Democratic and Republican parties are both firmly committed to corporate capitalism.)
When you compare the policies of Obama with his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for example, it becomes evident that the GOP’s obstructionism and refusal to compromise over the past seven years can be attributed at least in part to political theater, not substantial philosophical disagreements. (On the other hand, Democrats have been quite forgiving to Obama for policies that they would have at least questioned had a Republican been giving the orders.)
This is especially true on foreign policy, where Obama has continued and expanded many of the same Bush era counterterrorism policies that Democrats once criticized, such as targeted killings, drone warfare, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detentions. On the domestic front, Obama has governed as a centrist, and even the Affordable Care Act, labeled socialism time and again by conservatives, is a policy that Republicans once cheered. Introduced by the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation in the early '90s, the individual mandate was first implemented in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney.
It goes on and on. The Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history (including Bush), and has used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers more than all presidents combined since it was first passed in 1917. Moreover, Obama’s unyielding support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, widely opposed by unions, environmentalist organizations, and progressives in general, places him firmly on the Right of the political spectrum.
None of this means the parties are identical, or that Trump and Clinton are one in the same. They aren't. This is especially true when it comes to social issues, which have long distinguished the parties as their economic and foreign policies converged; plus the fact that Republicans have gone even further to the right since the Democrats embraced neoliberalism.
Partisan Democrats have always been keen on reminding those on the Left about the 2000 election, while cursing Ralph Nader for giving us Bush (as opposed to the electoral college, the Supreme Court, or Gore’s insufferable personality and neoliberal politics). And now that progressives are starting to express concern about Clinton and her recent shift to the right, these same Democrats will be scolding the left for empowering “Dangerous Donald.”
The notion floated around by some that Trump is a better option for progressives is obviously wrong. Trump may not be a standard corporate-backed Republican, and he is not an ideologue like Ted Cruz, but his unhinged nature, incredible ignorance, and willingness to appeal to racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, should be enough to disqualify him from the presidency.
But, by the same token, Clinton’s extreme hawkishness and ties to corporate America don't rouse much hope.
Karl Marx’s aphorism on capitalist democracy, paraphrased by Lenin in "The State and Revolution" (the Bolshevik leader did not reference which of Marx’s work he was thinking of, but it is likely "The Civil War in France"), proves quite fitting for modern American democracy:
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
Clinton and Trump are both members of a thriving political and economic elite — but this is beside the point. To expect either of them to confront the military industrial complex, Wall Street’s hold on Washington, or the many other special interests inside the Beltway, is wishful thinking. Private spending on the 2016 election will in all likelihood surpass the already obscene amount of money spent in previous elections, and both candidates will be vigorously competing for that money. It will be a charade, full of sophomoric name-calling and demagogic fear-mongering,
A century ago, the progressive movement — and subsequently the New Deal — emerged after decades of popular protest throughout the Gilded Age. The plutocratic class eventually