Yes, it is a crazy campaign season in the United States. Before it all began in summer of 2015 hardly any American would have thought that a TV-star without the slightest political experience will end up as the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Over the last 12 months the Grand Old Party has been fighting a bitter war about what it stands for, which parts of the modern society it still wants to represent and how much Donald Trump will hurt conservatism. This battle has at times been so extreme that when Republicans argued on national TV some form of parental guidance seemed necessary. The discussion on the other side of the political aisle may have been more civilized, but the monthslong combat between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders only showed how fractured the Democrats are as well. Combine that with the gridlock in Washington in pretty much every sensitive issue and you may find that the political system in the United States is in an existential crisis.
As a European and – more specifically – a German observer I tend to disagree with this diagnosis. Certain aspects of what is going on in the presidential campaigns are surely daunting but I find it worth noting that the flashiness of the Trumpian circus overshadows that politics in America are still quite interesting and inspiring and might – to some extent – even offer advantages over our system.
First: Voters have pretty clear alternatives. We cannot fully say that about politics in Germany and other parts of Europe where parties tend to compromise in most major issues to an extent that they have become indistinguishable. Americans can choose and both ways have totally different consequences. What is true for most presidential elections is certainly true this year. The direction the country is headed under President Clinton would be uncomparable to the direction under President Trump. Even if the billionaire would not turn out to be as disastrous a President as a lot of his foes assume, his victory would represent a major setback for globalization and tolerance, personal freedoms and the protection of minorities. And even if a Clinton presidency would not turn out as formidable as most of her fans expect, she would probably try to build on the reforms Barack Obama has started. Two candidates, two ways. This is what elections should be about.
Second: Civil society is a force. This is certainly not a new phenomenon in American politics but this year, as the debate is heating up and Trump seeming to have a real shot at the presidency, various elements of the American electorate are energized more than ever. Whoever has been at a Trump event probably saw the same scenery: Enthusiasm inside the venue – protests outside. Immigrant organizations, students, liberals, climate activists, lawyers, gays: A colorful coalition is mobilizing against the demagogue. The Obama campaign already showed how parts of civil society and elite politicians can form an alliance to effect a certain outcome. Hillary Clinton is not Obama and her Wall Street ties and flip flops on various issues are only two of many reasons why large parts of liberal America have severe problems with her candidacy. But it would not be surprising if the Anti-Trump groups intensified their efforts over the next four months up until the election on November 8th in some kind of coordination with the Clinton campaign – even if they do not share much more than their opposition to the New York real estate mogul.
Third: The „establishment“ needs a shrink. This is actually one of the rather positive effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Just because his views are dangerous does not mean you can neglect thinking about your own flaws. Trump shows how easily an outside candidate can penetrate the American system. Germany and many other European countries may be a little less prone to someone like him given the powerful role of parties and the dominance of professional politicians in the system. The downside of this closed-shop style of politics is that those inside rarely find themselves in the situation where they are challenged by ideas outside the mainstream or outside their ideological framework and – as a result – are forced to reflect on their role and arguments. Even if he loses, Trump’s biggest effect might be that both partie’s elites cannot just go back to normal. You do not have to be a Trump fan to argue that certain aspects of how the parties in Washington work, how they communicate with their constituents and how accountable they feel have gone in the wrong direction. Money plays too big a role in politics, authenticity and consistency is often enough sacrifized for short term results. Party affiliation is already at an all time low on both sides of the aisle. If the parties do not want it to further erode, both – the Republican and the Democratic elite – need to analyze what went wrong, how they can adapt their language and the way Washington functions and presents itself. To put it bluntly: After 2016 there is no way out.
We can easily talk about the embarrassing parts of this year’s camapign season. But these three points may be worth to be considered as well.
Veit Medick, geboren 1980, ist seit Juli 2015 Washington-Korrespondent von Spiegel Online. Zuvor war er mehrere Jahre Reporter im Hauptstadtbüro. Sein Volontariat absolvierte er bei der „taz“ in Berlin.