The U.S. elections may be over but the political turmoil that has roiled the world’s most powerful nation are really only beginning. For many observers, regardless of who won, the fact that the results were so close, dragging on for days, was the worst possible outcome. The uncertainty and instability will no doubt be felt in the days and weeks ahead. At the time of this interview, the outcome was still uncertain, though it seemed increasingly likely that Joe Biden would claim the presidency by razor thin margins. Still, an outcome is not necessarily a way out of the darkness. Donald Trump’s vote bank was, my any measure, substantial – as much as 70 million votes, with Biden’s haul topping 73 million. The result in the popular vote demonstrates just how divided the U.S. remains. Can it ever heal its divides?
Adnan Khan: America is firmly divided into two camps. How would is firmly you characterize divided these camps?
Ilter Turan: With the ascent of Trump to power four years ago, populist politics has gained significant ground in the U.S. The essence of populism is that it is highly critical of the establishment and identifies itself as “good” people fighting the corrupt establishment. In Trump’s case, we have populism of the right, but one may also identify a populism on the left represented party. by Bernie Other candidates Sanders in on the the Democratic Democratic primary list were also somewhat more populist inclined than Joe Biden, who is an establishment centrist.
When populism sets in – either on the right or the left – in a society where competition has ordinarily been characterized by a moderate right and left politics, you would expect the moderate forces to band together to fight it off. But almost without exception including in the U.S., this has not happened. The way the centrist parties have tried to cope with the populist challenge has been to try to embrace elements of it to arrest the loss of votes to the populists on their side. In the case of the U.S., both the Republicans and the Democrats have began to move away from the center.
So the rise of populism has eroded the center which is said to constitute the essence of stability in democratic politics. And once polarization sets in, people that identify with one pole or the other close themselves off to messages from the other side, producing a distorted perception of reality. This, in a sense, leads to the disappearance of the socalled rational voter who makes decisions mainly on the basis of enlightened self-interest based on reliable information. Populism produces an emotional and, we might say, an irrational voter.
Adnan R. Khan: Is America doomed then to a clash of populisms?
Ilter Turan: Populism on one side inevitably stimulates populism on the other, but the extent to which it will take hold will also be determined by the attributes of the voters that support a political party. All research indicates that the Democrats get the votes of more educated and more urban people. These are groups that are somewhat less susceptible to populism. When you turn to the Republicans, you find voters who are less educated, less cosmopolitan, and those who subscribe to fundamentalist or dogmatic versions of religion. So, it’s not surprising that populism made a bit more headway on the Republican side than on the Democratic.
Adnan R. Khan: Protests in the U.S. have revealed a populist trend on the left as well, characterized by the popularity of Bernie Sanders. Biden has tried to reach out to these people. Do you think he will pull them toward the center or will he be pulled toward populism?
Ilter Turan: I’m inclined to think that the Biden administration will feel obliged to address some of the concerns of these people. Although these movements may appear to be radical, their complaints are not necessarily always unreasonable. Biden will have to reach out to these people and try to accommodate some of their expectations. If Biden wins, I suspect that even those associated with the party’s populist wing will give him a chance to address their problems. But a lot of difficulties lie ahead. The problems are deep and multidimensional and do not lend themselves to easy and quick solutions. We have been talking about American domestic politics but there are international dimensions intertwined with the domestic that render dealing with them even more complicated. For example, in addition to whatever problems the U.S. may be facing domestically; at the international level, it is having to make an adjustment to no longer being the leading empire on Earth and not being able to have its way in international politics. Historically, many imperial systems have tried to make this adjustment and not many have been successful. This is a very painful process that involves much domestic adjustment. Certainly, difficult days are awaiting the U.S.