As the US presidential race heats up, two key ideological poles have emerged in the form of Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates have framed an unconventional narrative on opposite ends of the political spectrum – one driven by conviction and the other by pure politics – challenging the status quo.
Bernie Sanders is the longest serving Independent senator in Congress and one of the rare politicians actively aligned with the core base of American Democrats, who are disgruntled with the failures of the ‘Hope and Change’ promise of the Obama administration. He has been in public life for decades and has championed multiple social issues. Sanders was an activist during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders was an organiser for the Congress of Racial Equality and campaigned against segregation in public schools. He was part of the legendary march on Washington and one of the earliest champions of same sex rights when the issue used to be political suicide. Sanders has a consistent progressive voting record, defending the manufacturing sector, climate-change awareness and the lower and middle income class, as well as supporting legislation to address income inequality.
Sanders supports the concept of universal healthcare. Calling it a fundamental human right, he is in favour of a ‘single payer system’, and aims to replicate the healthcare infrastructure of Australia and Canada in the United States.
Sanders was one of the architects of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, a bill that sanctioned $5 billion for better healthcare for armed forces personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also one of the architects of the Climate Protection Act of 2013, a bill which levies a carbon pollution fee on manufacturers, polluters and importers, diverting funds into green power technology.
On education, Sanders is an ardent advocate of affordable higher education for American students, millions of whom face crippling debt from student loans. In fact, his most popular policy promise is increasing taxes on Wall Street and corporate America to fund higher education. On the policy front, Sanders is the poster boy for Democratic voters, especially young Americans.
Having a radical approach is the key difference between him and Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, who is more calculating in the Presidential race. For Sanders, the policies he has championed for decades are the central issues in American politics today. His no-nonsense demeanour and rustic Brooklyn persona set him apart from Hillary Clinton, whose public image seems continuously ‘touched up’.
On campaign financing, Hillary Clinton has received millions from Wall Street via Super PACs while the majority of Sanders’ campaign is funded through public donations and support from multiple labour unions. Sanders has raised over $2 million through public donations and is closing in on Obama’s record from the 2012 elections.
His appeal among Democratic voters is also driven by his effective use of social media to promote his policies and track record, in a nation where internet penetration is almost 90 percent. Consider the first Democratic debate. While the mainstream media gave the win to Hillary, social media gave the edge to Sanders, and he continues to dominate the political space on the web. With Hillary Clinton there is the temptation of electing the first female US president, but Sanders is more of a Democratic activist than a politician.
It seems the Democratic Party’s head is with Hillary, but it’s heart is with Sanders. Their national approval ratings are still neck to neck, but Sanders is ahead of Clinton according to the pre-poll survey of the first primary in New Hampshire which goes to the ballot in February. The result will be a crucial indicator of where the two leaders actually stand.
And then there’s Donald Trump, the front runner for the Republican nomination. He has alienated multiple vote banks via his controversial statements. However, he has become a lightning rod for the extreme right-wing Republican voters. Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, he has called illegal immigrants from Mexico drug smugglers, criminals and rapists, and even said that tough gun laws contributed to the tragedy in Paris.
Trump seems to have come as a relief to Republican voters who have been aching to shed political correctness. His words seem to have empowered those who believe that immorality and savagery are rooted in certain cultures and that social security is only for ‘true Americans’.
A Public Policy Polling survey of Trump supporters found that 66 percent of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, 61 percent believe he was not born in the United States while 63 percent favour amending the constitution to end birthright citizenship. Since Trump galvanises the far-right, he is ahead of his competitors as none of them have succeeded in consolidating the support of moderate Republicans.
Trump is a businessman and his approach to elections is the same. It is how anyone who wants to storm into the national scene approaches politics. Trump has tailored a product after studying consumers and he is marketing it effectively. He doesn’t really believe that Muslims should be banned from the United States. He has extensive business ties in Muslim nations including Indonesia, UAE, Dubai, Qatar and Turkey, and even his business partners in these nations understand his strategy. The objective is simple – to win.
Just like the tag line of his show The Apprentice, ‘It’s nothing personal, it’s just business’ Trump has emerged bigger than the Republican Party, but he has damaged the party’s image as well. No matter how many times his competitors for the Republican nomination denounce him for his views, they are still unable to break his support base. The real-estate magnate has pledged to spend around $1 billion on his presidential campaign. He believes he is the most powerful man in the world and now he wants the world to know that too.
Sanders and Trump are not traditional politicians. They are wild cards in their respective political arenas – one driven by principles and the other by the need to win. Support for both candidates is rising as this election becomes a clash of extreme ideologies. Conviction vs politics, virtue vs pandering – what will emerge as the stronger political force? This presidential election will reveal the soul of 21st century America.
The writer is a senior news editor at CNN-IBN in India.