A tale of two conventions

The theatrics of this year’s US presidential race surpass that of any in the past
The two major US political parties recently concluded their presidential nomination conventions back-to-back over two separate weeks. This is a formal process in the US presidential election nomination to put the final seal of approval on the respective party’s official candidate for the election this November.

This year has been more intense and dramatic than other election years in recent history. This was made interesting because of the entry of two mavericks in the race, the flamboyant business mogul Donald Trump as a Republican, and a self-declared socialist and a mesmerising speaker, Senator Sanders as a Democrat.

Female delegates cheer as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton accepts the nomination on the fourth and final night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
Hillary supporters don’t lack passion

A principal reason why this year the American public interest has been riveted by the presidential race is the unusual characteristics of the two contestants. Donald Trump, the loose-lipped Republican presidential hopeful who turned to politics only last year, and Bernie Sanders, a lifelong independent politician and a senator from Vermont who sought Democratic nomination for presidency.

Trump, a wealthy business tycoon who made fortunes in real estate and entertainment industry, made his entry into the presidential race by attracting a vast majority of white working-class Americans with his rhetoric against immigration, free trade, and fears of terrorism mostly centring on the Middle East Muslims.

Senator Sanders, although is in his mid-70s, appealed to a mostly young voting population with his strident criticism of growing income inequality in the country, blaming it on the big corporations and their oversized influence over US politics. His vision of a more equitable distribution of wealth, support for a universal health care system, and free higher education for all, inspired a whole new generation, and made the youths rally around him.

On the other side, Trump was able to draw into his camp large sections of disgruntled white Americans who had pent up frustration against the Republican establishment for its perceived inability to help them. Trump successfully played upon this frustration by planting and stoking their fear of immigrants, terrorism, Muslims, and blaming free trade for job losses in America.

The main attraction of this year’s presidential race is the success of the two mavericks in the nomination process. At the beginning of this process, more than a year ago, most political analysts believed that Trump would be rejected in the primaries and caucuses (party elections for choosing a nominee) sooner than he had begun. Yet, Trump showed his appeal to the Republican voters, ultimately winning the majority of the votes necessary to claim the nomination.

Bernie Sanders was also considered a remote challenge to the Democratic Party favourite, Hillary Clinton. Although he did not end up getting the majority primary votes, he was able to keep up the fight till the very end and kept on gathering a large loyal following to his ideas.

The success of Donald Trump in securing the nomination of the Republican Party by garnering enough delegates, however, came at a cost to the party. Trump, who was not a favourite of the Republican establishment, destroyed too many eggs in making his omelette.

He not only upended the Republican party stalwarts and past presidents, he also offended them as well his other presidential contestants with his rough-and-tumble behaviour, insulting and mocking remarks, and use of language unfit for a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, the more combative and abusive remarks he used, the more he was cheered by his supporters. To them, his politically incorrect behaviour became the cornerstone of his personality.

The more criticism Trump received from the press or other leaders, the more defiant Trump became, brandishing them as conspirators who were out to deprive him of his rightful claim to nomination. His way of attacks and thoroughly repulsive comments on his opponents crossed all limits of decency.

Within the party, a sizeable opposition grew to deny him the nomination, which came to be known as the Never Trump movement. The movement did not, however, succeed to the point of actually finding an alternative to Trump, but it was enough to bring dissension in the party against him. The Republican Presidential Convention exposed this intra-party dissension.

The Democratic Party — although initially divided between two camps, Bernie’s and Hillary’s — was able to bridge over the difference after Bernie conceded victory to Hillary toward the end of the race. Due to the fact that the party’s division was not deep-rooted and Hillary herself was not a divisive leader, there was much less intra-party tension within the Democratic Party than its rival.

The road ahead for the American public is critical, because this election gives them a stark choice between a maverick, unpolitical, untested scare-mongering candidate, and a seasoned, rationalstatesman

This was the overall background under which the two parties held their respective conventions, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, over the last two weeks of July consecutively. The conventions were held with usual fanfare, but there was a lot of anxiety over the Republican convention in Cleveland with apprehensions of severe anti-Trump protests by both the Never Trump group from within the Republican Party, and other groups who did not like Trump’s message.

The feared riots or massive protests did not happen, but the scene within the arena of the Republican convention did not portray a placid gathering of happy campers either. A good number of Republican stalwarts refrained from attending the convention, included among whom were former Presidents George HW Bush, George Bush, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and governor of Cleveland Kasich who was also a contender for presidential nomination this year.

The most significant sign of a seriously fractured party came from Senator Cruz, the runner-up in the presidential nomination race, who did not endorse the party’s nominee Donald Trump to the dismay and shock of his supporters. Contrast this with the Democratic Party convention held a week later in Philadelphia. Where the Republican convention was marked by a nearly all-white representation (the Republican Party is 90% white), the Democratic Party convention was represented by a mélange of colour and race; white, black, brown, and a diversity of cultures and beliefs.

Where the Republican convention was marked by intra-party tension and strife, the Democratic convention was of unity and solidarity. Where the Republican Party convention was marked by non-endorsement of the party nominee by the runner-up, the Democratic convention was marked by an enthusiastic and whole-hearted embrace of the party nominee Hillary by the second running Bernie Sanders.

Apart from the political differences between the two conventions, the other significant dissimilarities between the two were the messages and tonal differences.

Almost all speakers in the Republican convention, starting with Donald Trump, spent more time in criticising Hillary Clinton, dwelling on her perceived failures and illegal acts, than on any substance or policies. They painted a picture of doom-and-gloom and warned people of a dire future if the party nominees were not elected. It was, as some columnist stated, a name-calling and insult-a-thon fest where policy took a back seat. The Democratic convention was just the opposite. It was built on a promise of hope for a country that has achieved substantial progress over the years through relentless efforts and hard work of all its citizens irrespective of race, colour, or religion.

Unlike the Republican convention, it was attended by an impressive array of Democratic stalwarts and leaders including President Bill Clinton and President Obama. The message they gave, in particular, nominee Hillary Clinton, was to not to succumb to fear and prejudices, but to forge ahead to strengthen the country working together, not separated by race, religion, or colour. She gave a message of hope against one of fear and scare.

The road ahead for the American public is critical, because this election gives them a stark choice between a maverick, unpolitical, untested scare-mongering candidate, and a seasoned, rational, and internationally known statesman.

This is unique as never before a hitherto unknown person has successfully raided an established political party, and wrested the party’s nomination for president. It is unique because never before in the history of the United States a woman has been nominated as president by a major political party.

Who will the American public elect? A flamboyant, rabble-rousing, scare-mongering, and irrevocably insolent man, or an experienced, sober, and highly-skilled woman who has been in public service for the last four decades? We can only hope that in November the populace vote for sanity against insanity, pragmatism against irrationality, and nation against parochial party interests.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.