The great policy void

The past week has been particularly shocking for those taking an interest in the US presidential race. This is remarkable given how shocking the race has already been.

The fallout from the leaked Access Hollywood tape only increased after the second debate where Donald Trump threatening to throw Hillary Clinton in jail if he became president, his denial that what he said to Billy Bush described sexual assault, the fact that he invited women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault in a gross attempt to intimidate Hillary, and the way he stalked Clinton around the stage.

All of this is getting the attention it deserves in the media as more and more women come forward with stories about Trump’s harassment, and as Republicans continue to distance themselves from the party’s candidate. This seems in part motivated by fears that his toxic campaign will result in significant losses for Republicans running for the Senate and the House.

What isn’t getting much attention, however, is the extent to which policy once again took a back seat to discussions of temperament and character attacks.

Several significant foreign policy issues were largely absent from the debate. There was no substantive discussion of nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, or climate change; indeed, each of these topics has received scant attention in either the primaries or the presidential campaign.

Clinton did tackle climate change in passing while answering a question on energy security. Yet her brief attempts to talk about issues such as health care, energy security, and economic reform, as well as foreign policy, merely highlighted the fact that her opponent was incapable of doing the same.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to global security in our time. Yet this, like many other issues that will present the greatest challenge to the future president, are getting sidelined while near daily revelations of the Trump campaign’s sexism, racism, bigotry, and incompetence. This has also resulted in remarkably little serious critique of, or engagement with, Clinton’s positions on significant issues.

The decisions the next American president makes will inevitably have an impact far beyond its own borders. This is perhaps obvious when it comes to foreign policy, yet it is also increasingly the case domestically as well. The distinction between domestic and foreign policy is far more tenuous than ever before.

The 2008 global financial crisis proved this in devastating fashion. The subprime housing crisis, which precipitated the collapse of several large financial institutions, not only affected the global financial sector, it also affected the price of oil, commodities and food, and indirectly contributed to food protests in the Middle East towards the end of 2010 and the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Our global financial, trade, food, climate, health, and human systems are all deeply and complexly interconnected. Trump’s desire to essentially pull up the American drawbridge and inoculate its people from the dangers and challenges facing the globe is fantastically absurd. Yet he is tapping into a very real and justified sense of fear and uncertainly about the future.

It is not just Trump’s supporters though who have expressed anti-globalisation views. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely animated by the same concerns.

In the past 30 years Americans have watched as wealth has become concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of people who live lives of extraordinary privilege. Wealth and income inequality has thus seen many Americans once considered middle class sliding ever closer to the poverty line.

Unemployment, and under-employment are endemic across the country. Education is prohibitively expensive, and health care is still far too costly for many.

America is insecure. It’s not surprising that populism in different forms has been so appealing to voters. The great danger though is that populism is often popular for a reason. It offers simplistic and often unrealistic solutions to complex and difficult problems.

The great danger of a populist campaign is that it can never possibly deliver on its promises. This will inevitably leave a large number of Americans feeling even more angry and disenfranchised than they already do.

While Clinton has continued to talk about policy in the days following the second debate, Trump’s campaign has spiralled into alarmism and conspiracy. He has frequently claimed that if he loses it will be evidence of a rigged election and that his supporters should be watchful. As his polling numbers continue to slide he has also declared that Clinton is at the centre of a global elite that has taken away the jobs and dignity of American workers.

There is a sad irony to Trump as the champion of the working class given his own record of gross exploitation of countless workers and reliance on cheap offshore manufacturing.

Once upon a time this, this or any of the countless other offences Trump has committed would have been enough to end a campaign. That Trump has made it this far is evidence of a deeply worrying cultural and political shift in America – one that is likely to shape it for decades to come.

Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

This article first appeared in The Conversation