The US presidential elections are still over a year away, but they are already capturing headlines. The reason is that the two main parties, Republicans and Democrats, are experiencing strong and unusual challenges from fringe candidates.
Real estate tycoon and misogynist Donald Trump is actually the poll leader on the conservative side with more than double the figures of Jeb Bush, the person expected to emerge as the Republican candidate.
Bernie Sanders, a genuine dyed-in-the-red socialist, has emerged as Hillary Clinton’s primary challenger. Though she retains a comfortable margin, she has seen her lead plunge 20 percentage points in just a year — with almost all of it going to Sanders.
Trump and Sanders would be eccentric leaders for any mature democracy — but doubly so for the world’s most powerful nation. There is a sense among both Americans and the rest of the world that all is not right among US citizens. There is a large number of Americans who are alienated from politics. This is partly the continuing impact of two inconclusive wars, the global financial crisis, the return of inter-racial violence, and a remarkable degree of polarisation on issues like abortion and gun control.
Things have been little helped by a Washington gridlocked by ideological confrontation between the two parties. The number of Americans who feel their country is moving in the “wrong direction” is double that of those who think otherwise. So an anti-establishment rebel like Trump garners support because he acts and sounds like a caricature of a politician.
On the other hand, Sanders’ socialist leanings give him an outsider status in the US.
There is no particular reason to believe that either of them would enter the White House next year. Almost every US electoral contest has been marked by unusual candidates. But such candidates do highlight deep problems within US society.
While the plight of black Americans is long-standing, both Trump and Sanders have drawn support from another social problem: a white working class that has seen its income stagnate or decline for the past two decades.
It doesn’t help that Clinton and Bush are names that enhance a sense of continuity and, thus, a privileged US establishment. A large chunk of the US electorate is unhappy and rebel figures are best suited to capture this sentiment: hence Trump and Sanders.