The Decline of Establishment Politics

It is 2016, and though there will not be any major elections in Singapore this year, things are beginning to heat up over on the other side of the globe. On November 8, the United States is slated to hold its presidential elections and select the next leader of the free world. Before that, however, America’s two dominant political parties must first decide who they will nominate for the presidency. This process involves holding primaries and caucuses 1 across the country, and allowing people to vote for their preferred nominees within each party. Several states including Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada have already voted, with over 10 more due to follow on March 1, dubbed Super Tuesday.


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Initially, a large number of candidates on both sides announced their desire to run for president (6 on the Democratic ballot, and a whopping 17 on the Republican front), but most have since dropped out due to a lack of support or campaign funds. Even so, several names remain firmly in the race, including some who are not established figures within their own parties. The current frontrunner for the Republican nomination is Donald J. Trump, billionaire mogul and media personality with no prior experience in politics. Meanwhile, competing for the Democratic nomination is Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who does not have strong ties to party leadership. On the other hand, politicians with solid reputations within their own parties have struggled on the campaign trail, as evidenced by the high-profile exits of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie after lacklustre poll results.

In referring to the political establishment it is necessary to avoid conflating length of service with ideological conformity. Bernie Sanders, for instance, has had a long and illustrious career stretching back to the 1980s, where he first served as a mayor, then as congressman, and finally as a senator representing Vermont. Few, however, realise that he is actually an independent who has defeated both Democratic and Republican candidates in elections over the years (he caucuses with the Democrats for the purpose of the presidential nomination, but is ostensibly not too well-liked within the party). His record stands in stark contrast to that of frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who is immensely popular amongst party leaders (being married to a beloved former president does not hurt), but lacks experience in elected positions2, having only served a single term as senator for New York. Nonetheless, she wields significant clout due to her moderate policy stances, and has amassed a war chest of well over $100 million in campaign funds, much of it from wealthy corporate sponsors.


Clinton and Sanders may be all smiles here, but they are currently the subject of a schism between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party. (Image source

Trump and Sanders may be worlds apart in their political beliefs, but their core appeal is actually very similar. Both are charismatic populists, attracting those who would otherwise be disillusioned with the state of politics in America, where many leaders (such as Clinton) are beholden to large corporations for campaign funds, and therefore serve corporate interests over the needs of the population at large. Both are known for their fiery rhetoric and willingness to challenge the status quo (Sanders has promised to fight rising income inequality, using the phrase ‘political revolution’ prominently throughout his campaign, while Trump has threatened to ban Muslims and build a wall against Mexico). And both have thus garnered a sizeable group of loyal supporters who will certainly flock to cast their votes in an election. This is particularly crucial in the United States, where voter turnout has hovered at around 50% in recent decades, and securing a large turnout (especially amongst youth and minorities) is seen as a decisive factor in winning elections.

In Singapore, one could make the argument that anti-establishment candidates do not stand as good a chance as their American counterparts. Voting here is compulsory, and since the majority of the electorate is moderate, it appears unlikely that unorthodox candidates can gain any kind of traction, much less score a win. Even so, one cannot rule out the possibility of unexpected results. In the 2015 General Election, independent candidate Han Hui Hui (best known for her involvement in the Return Our CPF protests) registered 10.04% of the popular vote in Radin Mas SMC’s three-cornered fight. The result raised eyebrows among many political observers, especially since it was only slightly worse than that of the Reform Party’s Kumar Appavoo, who barely managed to cling on to his deposit with 12.71% of valid votes.


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In this age of social media, the reach of a standalone candidate can be magnified many times even without the backing and financial muscle of a major party, which has levelled the playing field to some extent. The expansion of the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme to accommodate more ‘best losers’, coupled with the fact that opposition parties are still smarting from their dismal performance in 2015, means that we might see an independent speaking in Parliament within a few election cycles, should conditions on the ground favour it.

The existence of outsider candidates may not be surprising – given Mr Trump’s massive ego, he was always going to run for president – but their unprecedented success certainly is. The impressive numbers they have registered thus far (Trump swept the last Nevada caucus more than 20 percentage points clear of his nearest rival) show that their message is resonating with voters nationwide. After decades of being the world’s only superpower, America’s global stature and economic might are currently in decline. Its two major political parties are perpetually deadlocked, leading to many viewing the establishment as part of the problem, not the solution. Peddling unique brands of populism, Trump and Sanders are perfectly positioned to harness the anger of the jaded electorate; in some ways, the two are the latest in a long line of demagogues extending back to Cleon and Alcibiades of ancient Athens. Ultimately, although anti-establishment contenders can inject a much-needed sense of idealism into a realm otherwise dominated by ruthless pragmatism, they are also a symptom of the fractured nature of modern politics, and may serve to divide rather than unite. From the recent results of the American primaries, it is evident that establishment politics is on the ropes; whether it is truly down for the count still remains to be seen.

Header image from Wikimedia Commons.


[1] A primary is a more conventional process where secret ballots are cast, whereas a caucus is a physical gathering of supporters (the details are complicated) which has its origins in the English Colonies predating the American Revolution.

[2] Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as president, but that was a nominated position which did not involve being directly accountable to an electorate in the same way that a governor, senator, or congressman is.

About the Author

Wei Xiang’s two favourite things are books and music. His idea of a good night is one spent reading a thought-provoking novel, with an album playing softly in the background. Of course he has many other interests as well, but those tend to involve, you know, going outside.