Letter from America – Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: June 10, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Those who advocated primary-style elections in the British Labour Party should learn their lessons from the shambles of the presidential process in the United States, if they had not already done so from the Labour leadership ­election. One of those lessons should be to realise the differences between US and European political systems.

American political parties are not parties in the European sense. They do not have members and little or no structure through which ordinary voters can influence the process.

That is why Donald Trump, until ­recently a Democrat donor, can become the Republican candidate, or why Bernie Sanders, a life-long socialist, is one car crash away from the Democrat nomination. (In case that looks as bad as it should, Hillary Clinton invoked Robert Kennedy’s assassination for staying in the race against Barack Obama when all electoral hope was lost!) American parties are essentially coalitions of candidates trying to seize the spoils of success.

As we approach the end of the grueling primary elections in the US, Hillary Clinton has been declaring victory for months because of the so-called super delegates, who are essentially self-appointed party functionaries who have not put themselves through any significant electoral process but who do know whence the cheques will be coming.

To be fair, much of Bernie Sanders’ success, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, comes from voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party and over the years of Vietnam, followed by the Bill Clinton years.

Like me, they had changed their registration to “Democratic Party” solely in order to vote for him or voted in states that allowed open primaries, where independents could vote in the Democratic primaries.

That highlights a major difference from the British system – in the US, the primary elections for party candidates are run by the government, just as if they were normal elections. Meant to rescue elections from smoke-filled rooms in Tammany Hall, the advent of television advertising in effect restricted primaries to people who either had money, or could raise it.

The Clinton family business was famous for courting Wall Street – for the same reason that bank robber Will Sutton explained his choice of target. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” Bill Clinton’s avowed purpose of eroding the influence of what he called “special interest” groups – such as the unions, minorities, pensioners who might oppose austerity measures, deregulation and free trade pacts. Blair like what he saw his chum doing and emulated him.

Money is the root of all evil in politics – and as soon as we had one person, one vote in the British Labour Party, Lord Levy’s money swung the balance for Tony Blair, while John Prescott had to pay off his own campaigning bills later. New Labour designed a procedure to elect the party leader so that influxes of cash from Sainsbury, Zabludowicz, Levy, ­Ecclestone and the like could combine with a rabid media to shoo-in the ­candidate that they wanted.

For both Corbyn and Sanders, new social media has been a gamechanger, upending previous assumptions. Initially, the Democratic Party establishment ­clearly regarded Hillary Clinton as the anointed and decided that saying anything negative about Sanders would just draw unwanted attention to his candidacy. The establishment tactic was to schedule the debates infrequently and at unpopular times which in retrospect proved quite effective.

The more voters saw of Sanders the more they liked him – and seemingly the more they saw of Clinton, the less they liked her but her early victories gave her crucial delegates. If Sanders had had more exposure earlier on, it is likely that he would have a lot more delegates at the Democratic Convention by now.

Polls show that many of his supporters are not instinctively going to vote for Clinton. They support Sanders precisely because of his distance from New ­Democrats and the Clinton family ­business. This is dangerous ground as show by polls indicating that in a race between Trump and Clinton, she is far less assured of success than Sanders. To be fair, Trump’s thuggishly authoritarian attitudes make him a frightening prospect, so we can only hope that Sanders’ ­supporters will hold their noses and vote for Hillary if necessary.

As a less sanguinary wish, many Bernie supporters, even if they discount the chances of assassination that she ­herself has raised, are watching with keen interest the FBI investigation of the former Secretary of State over her ­definitely careless and possibly criminal use of emails. An indictment before the Convention could, of course, mean that all bets are off.

And as a legacy, the Platform Committee that decides the policies Democrats will fight on have a significant and vociferous Sanders contingent, while he is lending support to like-minded candidates for Congress. Win or lose, we have not seen the end of the Sanders’ database.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent