A tale of two conventions

Shahid M Amin

The two main US political parties held their National Conventions in July 2016 and formally announced their candidates for Presidential Election this year. Donald Trump will be the candidate of the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party candidate. Hillary is the first woman in US history to be named as Presidential candidate of a major party. This in itself is an epoch-making event and a great victory for American women. There was intense competition between several contestants seeking the Republican nomination. After a bruising campaign, Donald Trump, a billionaire, managed to become the Republican nominee. In the Democratic Party, the front-runner was Hillary Clinton but she had to face tough opposition in the primaries from liberal-minded Senator Bernie Sanders, before she clinched the nomination.
The process to choose the US President is complicated and time-consuming. Firstly, a long campaign between rival candidates, through the primaries, is held in fifty US states (provinces) to secure delegates for each party’s National Convention. After the two presidential candidates have been chosen, they engage in intensive pre-poll campaigning, ending with the election in early November. The US President is elected for a four-year term and cannot serve more than two terms.
Since around 1850, the electoral contest has been between two major political parties – the Democrats and the Republicans. The classical political division between the left and the right is less visible in the USA. President Franklin Roosevelt once described the two parties as tweedledum and tweedledee, meaning they were almost identical in their policies. However, in recent times, the Democratic Party has tended to be more liberal, whereas the Republican Party is more conservative. The Democratic Party has been in the centre-left and supports social justice, the welfare state and a mixed economy. It is strongest on the East and West Coasts and in major American urban centres. Ethnic groups like African-Americans and Latinos, as also the trade unions, largely support the Democrats.
African-Americans once solidly supported the Republican Party which, under President Lincoln, brought an end to slavery after defeating the southern states in a bloody civil war. By the same reasoning, the defeated south became the stronghold of Democratic Party. But more recently, the situation has reversed and Republican Party now enjoys strong support in much of the south. The ideological orientation of the parties explains this phenomenon. The Republican Party is less progressive in areas of racial, gender and social justice. It has an American conservative platform with emphasis on free enterprise economy, fiscal conservatism and traditional values. It is pro-business, believes in less government and state rights. In foreign policy, it wants the US to remain the dominant power in the world but also has yearning for the old US tradition of isolationism. Evangelical Christians wield considerable influence in Republican Party. It is the party favoured by relatively less-educated male whites, and enjoys support of the south, the mid-West, and suburban and rural areas. The Republican Party has the nickname of “Grand Old Party” (GOP) although it came into being later than the Democratic Party.
In this year’s election, the above-mentioned pattern of US politics seems to be dominant. Donald Trump is seen by most observers as loud-mouthed, coarse and politically inexperienced, but he has managed to secure the Republican nomination. Trump’s catching slogan is “Make America Great Again.” What he has done successfully is to become the mouthpiece of dissatisfied American whites, frustrated with the steady erosion of white dominance (e.g. a black man is the US President for the last eight years).The sense of insecurity since 9/11 and periodic terrorist incidents in American cities, involving Muslims, has fuelled Islamophobia, which has also been exploited by Trump. He has vowed to stop entry of Muslims in USA. Many Americans are angry with the apparent decline of US power abroad, as shown by the lack of success in foreign policy ventures, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump has vowed to make American allies pay for the common defence and he might seek a US withdrawal from the Middle East and other places. To block illegal Mexican immigration, he has promised to build a wall separating the two countries and make Mexico pay for it. In his speeches, Trump gives a dismal picture of the way things are shaping in America, portraying it as a kind of “dystopia”, the opposite of utopia.
These were the themes of speeches during the Republican National Convention held in Cleveland from July 18-21. In his speech, Trump portrayed the US as facing myriad problems which he “alone” could fix. Some of his supporters showed a lynch mob mentality and there were calls to imprison Hillary Clinton. An embarrassing faux pas in the Convention was when Trump’s wife plagiarized sentences from a speech delivered by Michelle Obama some years ago. One of his rivals Ted Cruz refused to support Trump’s nomination in his speech at the Convention. More disturbing for Trump is the fact that key leaders of the Republican Party remain opposed to him, including former President Bush and unsuccessful Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Many refused to attend the Convention or even address it by video.
The Democratic Party Convention was held in Philadelphia a week later. Though Bernie Sanders made an unequivocal announcement of support for Hillary, some of his supporters remain unreconciled. But by and large, there was a strong mood for unity behind Hillary. President Obama and his wife were the star speakers and Hillary made an inspiring speech. She ridiculed Trump for his claims that he “alone” could fix America’s problems. Instead, Hillary’s slogan was “Stronger Together”. A poignant moment in the Convention was the speech by a Muslim American whose son died on duty while serving in Iraq. The show of unity by the Democrats was greater than that seen at the Republican Convention. It is curious, however, that Trump and Hillary seem to be speaking about two different countries. If elected President, Trump’s policies could lead to disaster at home and abroad. Racial tensions can turn into racial riots. His Islamophobia could create serious difficulties for Muslim Americans and could strain relations with the Muslim world. Hillary is a much safer bet but the decision rests with the American voter.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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