Paying (some) attention to the Presidential primaries


Four years ago I wrote a long and detailed account of the Republican primaries – the laborious process the American Republican Party uses to choose its candidate for President.

Obama, a Democrat, was in the White House. He was seeking a second term, and his chances of getting one seemed to depend on who the Republicans chose to go up against him.

As it happened, the Republicans went for the most moderate, electable candidate of the pack, and Obama won anyway, so I arguably needn’t have bothered particularly since I nor anyone else I knew had a vote.

In 2016, I don’t have the time or the inclination to do the same again. The primaries go on for six months. In the beginning, there’s one every week or so. Come the end, there can be several in one day. And, most offputtingly of all, this year there’s twice as many of the things to try and follow as there were in 2012 – back then, it was just the Republicans traipsing from state to state, but this time the Democrats have to choose a candidate too.

The argument for paying at least some attention to what goes on is the same now as it was in 2012. American politics, however brainwashed, anti-democratic and frequently despicable, is probably the most important when it comes to deciding the future direction of the species as a whole. That’s very bad, but it’s the situation we’re in at the moment. It’s therefore in everyone’s interests to get the least-worst President possible.

But at the same time, there’s nothing those of us outside the US can do about it. It’s like a sickeningly high-stakes chess game we’ve got absolutely no control over. Watching it too closely is therefore a very quick and easy way to utterly lose your marbles.

So I’m going to middle-way it – dipping in and out when I can be bothered. At the moment, it’s quite interesting. 

Jeb Bush of the Bush dynasty, who at one stage looked like the natural Republican frontrunner, has been spectacularly swept aside by Donald Trump, who at worst veers worryingly close to the sort of corporate fascism envisioned in so much ‘80s sci-fi – “every bit of Donald Trump campaign coverage looks like a RoboCop insert”, says perennially switched-on Frankie Boyle.

Meanwhile, on the Democrat side, something flabbergasting has happened – the American political system has produced someone worth voting for. Bernie Sanders, Senator for Vermont and until recently the longest-serving Independent in congressional history, is a self-described ‘democratic socialist’, which in many parts of the US is still like saying you like having sex with children. But now he’s both joined the Democrats and launched a bid to be the party’s candidate for president.

Trump is an abrasive, misogynistic multibillionaire real estate tycoon best known for being the Alan Sugar-equivalent in the original American version of ‘The Apprentice’. Clearly a megalomaniac, he probably sees the US Presidency as no less than he deserves after a career making repulsive amounts of money doing nothing of any social worth whatsoever. He wants to build a massive Pink Floyd-style wall to keep out Mexicans, and ban Muslims from entering the US.

Frighteningly, though, dog-whistle pronouncements on race and immigration aside, Trump is actually quite moderate compared to the rest of the Republican pack. He’s suggested rich people should pay more tax. He hates Obamacare, like every other Republican in the world – but wants it replaced because people’s premiums are too high, and insists that all Americans need some sort of healthcare cover. Yes, he says he’s anti-abortion and anti-gun control, but I don’t think he especially cares – these are just the things you have to say if you want grassroots Republicans to vote for you.

If he wins, of course, it’ll be catastrophically bad, and a positively subterranean new low for Western civilisation. But as shocking as it is to find myself saying it, I’d probably rather Trump be president than, say, anti-abortion fanatic and fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz, who likes the idea of a flat tax – ie a shelf-stacker paying same the same proportion of their earnings in tax as Donald Trump – and says things like “the simple and undeniable fact is the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.” If that were the case, your average Democratic primary would be a lot more interesting.

The Sanders phenomenon is even more extraordinary than Trump mania – a self-described socialist apparently gaining traction in the most passionately anti-socialist country in human history.

On our side of the pond, Sanders is being seen, largely accurately, as a Corbyn-type figure. There are differences. Corbyn is a near-life-long Labour member. Until 2016, Sanders had been a left-wing independent for decades. He’s always had a loose arrangement with the Democrats – often voting with them to foil the Republicans. But generally, he’s made a career occupying a lonely, mildly left-wing fringe of the wholeheartedly hard-right American mainstream.

I’d say their personal ideologies are probably quite different too – while completely acknowledging I know a lot more about Corbyn than Sanders. Like a lot of his generation of Labour left-wingers, Corbyn is really just a very pragmatic libertarian communist – albeit one forced to adopt a much more moderate position as Labour leader. I get the impression Sanders naturally is much more moderate, even if in practice he and Corbyn are calling for much the same – anti-austerity, a huge fightback against inequality and corporate dominance, and a return to public sector-led investment and growth.

It’s interesting how two different societies can generate the same sort of political reaction at the same time – both Corbyn and Sanders have been around and political active for decades, of course, but it’s only now they’ve become leaders of movements. But then I think Trump is part of the same political upheaval as well.

On both sides of the pond – in societies across the Westernised world, I’d wager – people want anything other than what they’ve got at the moment. The machinery of government, the commanding heights of the economy, have been monopolised by high-functioning sociopaths out to maximise personal gain at the expense of everyone else. Neoliberalism, the institutionalised psychopathy that’s resulted, has ruined literally billions of lives to benefit the relentless self-servers at the top. And while a great many of those people unfortunately don’t understand why it’s happened to them, they’ve certainly noticed life getting worse.

Corbyn and Sanders, and Trump and the likes of Nigel Farage, the EDL and others, represent two popular responses. One from a politically switched-on coalition of the young and tech-savvy, the remnants of the left-wing baby boomers and assorted others, who’ve correctly identified the source of the problem – neoliberal capitalism, ran by and for people who, in a sane and just world, would be in jail.

And one from people who’ve had their ability to think critically systematically destroyed, after decades subjected to anti-leftist Cold War propaganda, and daily bombardment by the criminally impartial mainstream press. Very often, these are the people who’ve been hit harder than anyone by the neoliberal blitzkrieg – and yet at the same time have been engulfed entirely by the fuck-you-buddy every-man-for-himself culture it’s left in its wake.

It’s Corbyn and Sanders, unsurprisingly, that have managed to coalesce and harness response number one – encouraging people to take a stand against the lawless sect that’s spent forty years trampling over us all. And it’s Donald Trump and friends who’ve roused response number two – directing people’s entirely justified anger at their lot in life at vulnerable scapegoats, immigrants, poor people, single mothers and the like, rather than the true culprits at the top.

At this stage, I think Trump will win the Republican nomination. It’s possible Sanders could win the Democrat one, too – he’s just beaten Hilary Clinton in New Hampshire. I obviously hope he does, despite harbouring colossal scepticism about the none-more-corporate American political system actually letting him get anywhere near the White House – or letting him do anything if he does somehow get inside. We’ll see.

What are primaries?

Primaries are how the two main parties in US politics – the Republicans and the Democrats – pick who they want as their candidate for president.

Each primary is a mini-election. There’s a Republican one and a Democrat one in each of America’s 50 states. On their state’s primary day, Republicans and Democrats come out and vote for which of their party’s wannabe presidents they like the best.

Each state is worth a certain amount of points – and whichever candidate gets the most votes in a primary gets that state’s official nomination, and all those points. At the time of writing, for example, Republicans in New Hampshire have just voted to nominate Donald Trump. New Hampshire Democrats have just endorsed Bernie Sanders.

At the end of the primary season, the Republican with the most points becomes the Republican Presidential candidate, and the Democrat with the most points becomes the Democrat one. By the end of the summer, the totals have been totted up, the winners are announced, and both parties start to gear up for the proper presidential election in November.