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View: It’s the victory of centrism in US elections, for the time being

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Donald Trump’s unexpectedly victory in the 2016 US presidential election was widely called part of a global swing away from conventional centrism to populist extremism. Does Joe Biden’s victory prove that was just a temporary blip, and that the world is returning to conventional centrism?

No. Do not think Americans have suddenly turned massively against racism, immigrant-hate, extreme partisanship, crudity, fake news or alternative facts. Trump still has 48% of voters. Covid and its accompanying recession worried voters sufficiently to nudge them to the comfort of familiar centrism. When disease haunts the nation, the public focus naturally shifts away from nativist politics. Covid has caused immigration to crash more than any policy change could have.

But for Covid, Trump would have won a convincing victory. Once Covid passes, the fundamental issues that bred populism will return. So may Trump in 2024. In Europe too, Covid has hit once-rising right-wing populist parties like the National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany (AFG), Northern League in Italy, and Freedom Party in Austria.

They have lost ground in recent regional elections to conventional centrists — Emmanuel Macron in France, Angela Merkel in Germany, Giuseppe Conte in Italy, and Sebastian Kurz in Austria. The earlier demand for radical change has given way to the comfort of traditional centrism. Yet, there is no guarantee that the new mood will outlast the virus.

Optimistic Democrats hope that when counting ends, Biden will win 306 electoral college votes, comfortably above the 270 threshold for victory. He will have five million more popular votes than Trump. His party already controls the House of Representatives and may just possibly control the Senate too after re-runs of two senate elections in January. So, can we say Trump’s populism has been vanquished conclusively?

Alas, no. Opinion polls had predicted a sweeping victory for Biden, but he just squeezed through. Given the handicap of Covid, Trump did very well. His party gained many seats in the House of Representatives.

In mid-term Congressional elections, voters almost always swing in the opposite direction from a presidential election. So, the Republicans will regroup under Trump and charge in 2022, hoping to carry both Houses. Republican rebels under banners like ‘Never Trump’ and ‘Lincoln Project’ had hoped that a Trump electoral debacle would lead to his being dumped by the party, letting the centrists come back. That is not going to happen.

Three forces — stagnant productivity, globalisation and automation — have created a serious long-term problem for blue-collar workers in the West who can no longer look forward to decent jobs and rising incomes. The Democrats passionately seek tough measures to combat climate change and a Green New Deal. But banning fracking will kill thousands of jobs, and the same workers cannot quickly or completely be shifted to producing solar panels or wind turbines. Tough environmental rules will cost further job losses. High fuel taxes are urged strongly by Democrats, but when tried in France spurred a major revolt from poorer folk with high transport costs. Humans are always sceptical of ideas that threaten their jobs, one reason why blue-collar Americans are sceptical of climate change.

Biden will be welcomed by foreign governments that widely view Trump as a menace. But in the toss-up states that nudged him victory, Biden will face problems in keeping his flock intact once fear of Covid recedes. Trump and his blue-collar crowd will keep snapping at Biden’s heels. The defeat of populism and triumph of centrism is anything but assured.


Views expressed are writer’s own.

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