The Next American President and the Prospects for the Rise of an Anti-Globalisation Regime

Brendan McCaffrie

Research Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Political events in the Western Democratic world in the past few months have repeatedly proven surprising, particularly to political insiders and elites who thought they understood, and even controlled, the way their politics worked. In May, Donald Trump, an outsider candidate, became the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee; in late June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union; throughout 2016 Bernie Sanders stunned American political elites by running a competitive campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination, although he did eventually fall short. Now in September we face narrowing Presidential polls, which mean that again we must face the possibility of an unthinkable election result.

Each of these campaigns has been led by political outsiders, who were widely predicted to be minor sideshows. We were reassured by politicians, journalists, academics, and other experts, that the presidential primaries would end the same way they always did, with establishment candidates convincingly winning the nominations. The UK referendum would retain the status quo, as major party leaders campaigned towards an easy victory for the Remain vote. And even though Trump won the nomination, he would be thrashed by the more plausible Clinton. However, in each of these campaigns, the old political certainties have been absent, and the political elites have underestimated the outsider candidates, their supporters, and their messages.

These campaigns each have a common core of anti-globalisation and anti-elitism that has resonated with a large portion of the electorates in question. Each of the elite groups, Republicans, Democrats and UK major party politicians underestimated the anti-globalisation sentiment that drove various shades of argument against unrestrained capitalism, against immigration, and against free trade. The elites underestimated these arguments because the globalisation agenda has been the core driving force of Western democratic politics for at least 30 years, and the major parties in most Western nations have come to accept that this agenda is the best, or only, way to progress their societies. As the elites have supported this agenda, they have marginalised the large number of people who have not benefitted from globalisation, and who have now found leaders who speak for them. We must now ask, how much can the anti-globalisation agenda achieve? Are we witnessing the end of the hyper-globalisation regime?


Stephen Skowronek’s Partisan Regimes

Stephen Skowronek in his 1993 book, The Politics Presidents Make, outlined a history of the American presidency and of American politics, based on a series of “partisan regimes” that defined the key political ideas and policies of five eras of American politics since the end of the 18th century. The current regime, which started under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, was built on the ideas of free market economics, including freer trade, and contained a strong anti-government streak, with its ideas of “small government” defined by a reduction in government spending. Similar regimes were institutionalised across the Western world, as advanced democracies reduced trade barriers and welcomed the age of globalisation. The Western world had never been so open to those looking to trade, travel, or emigrate.

However, while many benefited from this globalisation regime, globalisation created an increasingly unequal society. The Reagan regime particularly favoured the more educated in society, whose skills made them employable in the growing professional class. For those with traditional working class jobs built on manual labour, opportunities narrowed, as manufacturing increasingly either moved to mechanical production, or to offshore labour in countries like China and India. The migration of people from less developed countries to the West, happened at a rapid pace, creating a perception among those who lost their jobs, that immigrants had taken jobs that could otherwise be theirs.

The reality now is that the group excluded by globalisation, and the elites on both sides of politics who continue to perpetuate it, is big enough that it can be mobilised to form a major electoral force. It is unclear how big, and how stable any such force can be, but in many Western democracies we can now ask whether the old parties of the Left and Right have more in common with each other than they do with this rising force. If so, this could have profound effects on the future of party systems in these countries.


The Creation of a New Partisan Regime

Leaders like Trump and Sanders have provided a voice for those excluded by globalisation, but this is not enough to usher in a new regime. Even were Trump to win the election, there is no guarantee that he could reconstruct American politics on such a scale. Scholars building on Skowronek’s work have defined three tasks that reconstructive presidents who usher in new partisan regimes must complete (Nichols and Myers 2010). They must (a) shift the main axis of partisan cleavage, (b) assemble a new majority coalition, and (c) institutionalise a new political regime.

Shifting the axis of partisan cleavage requires a leader like Trump to alter the nature of the political discourse, so that political discussion focuses on his issues, and major political arguments are about his positions, such as raising tariffs and reducing immigration. A successful shift could occur in a number of ways, but it would require these protectionist, anti-immigration ideas to become the new orthodoxy in American politics in an enduring way, beyond Trump’s own involvement in politics.

Assembling a new majority coalition requires that Trump creates an ongoing force of supporters who can consistently advocate for the new regime. It is particularly important that this is the case in the legislature, but also through interest groups and organisations in the broader society. Trump’s support is weak in these elite areas, and this is one of the major challenges to him, or anyone in creating a new regime built on those without power.

Similarly, institutionalising the new regime would be a major challenge for Trump without significant elite political support. Institutionalisation would require that the institutions supporting the current regime, such as the Federal Reserve, and various free trade agreements were either destroyed or reformed so as to stop providing support for the globalisation-friendly regime, and to start supporting a new Trump era. Elite support is also crucial also for the creation of new institutions that protect the Trump era policies beyond his presidency.

Trump is not necessarily the best standard-bearer for this anti-globalisation movement. Friction between him and leaders in his own party is suggestive of the difficult relationship he would have with Congress should he emerge victorious in November. His best chance to improve this situation is through a resounding victory that brings with him a large number of new Congressmen and Senators, providing not only Republican majorities, but a large number of potentially like-minded supporters, who felt they owed their place to Trump and were committed to his goals. Regardless, there would likely be significant resistance within the broader machinery of government, which would remain very difficult to overcome. When other partisan regimes were replaced in the 20th century, it was driven by changes in the elite consensus as to how the business of government should be conducted, and particularly which economic ideas should underpin government action. Trump would seek to overthrow the elites from the outside, an effort that would no doubt result in major push back from politicians, the bureaucracy, and various interest groups with power in Washington.


Conclusion: Four Bitter Years without Progress?

The opportunity for a new regime built on anti-globalisation ideas exists now in many parts of the democratic world. Rising inequality has created an angry segment of society that in some countries may be large enough to provide anti-globalisation candidates a strong chance of winning national elections. However, elite resistance from the major parties in most countries, and within government bureaucracies, means that overturning the globalisation regime remains an enormous challenge, even for an American president. So far the leaders of the disenfranchised have largely been outsiders who are unlikely to be able to overturn the globalisation regime and remake the politics of their nations. However, leaders like Hillary Clinton, who wish to preserve the existing regime, will need to work to remove the conditions that make the globalisation regime so vulnerable. The obvious starting points are to work to improve the startling economic inequality that the present regime has created, and to ensure that those who feel left behind at the moment begin to feel connected to their democratic leaders. However, Clinton is not well placed to provide the unity her position in history requires. She is a polarising figure in American politics, and is seen as one of the elite who have helped cause the inequality and exclusion in the first place. For those who wish to continue the globalisation project, it is essential that she overcome this perception. For those who would overthrow it, it is essential that Trump proves capable of converting more elites to their cause. Currently, it is uncertain that either can succeed, and whoever wins the November election may be facing four bitter years of partisan stalemate and frustration, in which they cannot meaningfully progress their agenda.

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