In this day and age it is difficult for any politician to escape scandal, although even by modern standards US presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have courted it in large measure.
The various controversies surrounding the two candidates for US President have so far dominated the race to the White House and once more surfaced in the recent debate in St Louis. In a particularly hostile exchange, both Clinton and Trump had their shortcomings brutally exposed on national television.
Trump seized on Clinton’s supposedly untrustworthy nature, particularly with relation to her use of a private email server whilst Secretary of State, during and after which time she deleted thousands of potentially pertinent emails. She was further castigated for her alleged disregard of a child rape victim (the alleged attacker of which she had got acquitted during her legal days), and for intimidating the women who accused her husband Bill of sexual assault.
Trump, on the other hand, has far more openly made a rod for his own back. A 2005 video, in which he can be heard making obscene remarks about how celebrities such as himself could grope women, was unsurprisingly a hot topic. Clinton followed this by listing her opponent’s many supposed prejudices, including against Muslims, immigrants and ethnic minorities. There was also a recurring accusation that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns meant that he was basically paying none anyway.
Of course under the scrutiny of the modern media it is difficult to be a pristine politician…indeed you’d have to be pretty boring to be anything but. Consequently, such unsavoury debate is to an extent unsurprising. Yet the clouds hanging over the heads of the two candidates are of such severity that it raises questions about their suitability to be President. Might this have been the year for a serious Independent challenger? A white knight stepping out of the shadows?
The last meaningful performance by an Independent candidate for President was Ross Perot in the 1990s. In 1992, the wealthy industrialist took over 19.5 million votes from the public and yet still ended up empty-handed in the Electoral College. Running under the Reform banner in 1996 he managed 8 million votes.
Such an effort – admittedly backed like Trump by huge personal wealth – is not to be sniffed at. The only other Independent to have gained a measure of acknowledgement was John B. Anderson who won 5.7 million votes in the 1980 election, although it should be noted that he had initially failed in a challenge for the Republican nomination.
Neither Independents nor Third Party contenders have stood a winning chance to compete for the Presidency since the pre-Civil War days, when the Democratic and Republican parties were tearing themselves apart on major issues such as slavery. The 1912 election was an exception, with four parties fighting on an almost equal platform. But again this was more to do with factional splits within the major parties than a genuine outsider straining for glory.
This year’s Independent hopeful is former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin, currently polling between 1 and 2%, although he is making a real push in his native Utah. From the Third Party hopefuls, the Libertarians and Greens are polling in the 5-7% region.
Such statistics are hardly a precursor to an historic anomaly and yet it could be argued that Clinton and (particularly) Trump are themselves Independents, their policy positions changing at a whim and not always reflective of large elements of their party. Trump is particularly guilty on this count, for instance dismissing the view of his own running mate on how to tackle the war in Syria.
A recent piece in Foreign Affairs suggested that the corrupt debacle that is modern Brazilian politics can partially be explained by the ease with which politicians can change parties and policy position. This has ensured that there has never been a consistent party platform for any single political grouping, hence the Brazilian electorate’s susceptibility to elect charismatic but dubious populists like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
The reality in the world’s larger and more established democracies is actually not too dissimilar. Whilst party allegiance is undoubtedly stronger and more fixed, changes on policy position and personal preference makes it difficult for the electorate to decipher many of the differences and similarities between the major parties.
In our era of intense scrutiny and keyboard warriors, it is apparently too tempting to try and please everyone. Politicians as a whole have become less principled and ideological. Policy ceases to exist in their minds or rhetoric; the vast majority cannot be told apart.
This year’s Presidential election is about as populist a showdown as could be seen. There is still very little inkling about what either of the candidates would do if they actually won power.