By Robert A. Vella
Centrism versus Populism
A couple of years ago, I watched a televised town hall meeting with MSNBC host and former Senate Democratic staffer Lawrence O’Donnell. In response to a question from the audience about why the Democratic Party can’t adapt to rising populism among the electorate, he admitted that its leadership simply won’t change. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but O’Donnell basically said that they are who they are regardless of whether they win or lose elections. I was disheartened by his answer because it told me that the party cares more for itself than it does for the nation and for the American people.
Over the weekend, the Democrats’ Great White Hope Joe Biden reiterated the same rhetoric spoken by 2016 loser Hillary Clinton.
Facing thousands of voters in his native Pennsylvania for the second time as a 2020 contender, the former vice president offered a call for bipartisan unity that seemed far more aimed at a general election audience than the fiery Democratic activists most active in the presidential primary process. He acknowledged, however, that some believe Democrats should nominate a candidate who can tap into their party’s anti-Trump anger.
“That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it,” Biden declared. “I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what the party’s always been about. That’s what it’s always been about. Unity.”
Biden’s moderate message highlights his chief advantage and chief liability in the early days of the nascent presidential contest, which has so far been defined by fierce resistance to Trump on the left and equally aggressive vitriol on the right. Biden’s centrist approach may help him win over independents, but it threatens to alienate liberals who favor a more aggressive approach in policy and personality to counter Trump’s turbulent presidency.
“I want aggressive change. I’m not hearing that from him yet,” said 45-year-old Jennifer Moyer of Blandon, Pennsylvania, who attended Biden’s rally and said she’s 90% sold on his candidacy. “I don’t want middle of the road.”
Moyer’s sentiments are indicative of rising populist angst around the world. Voters are not responding to mealy-mouthed establishment centrism. They want bold action, and if the only candidates who offer it are far-right politicians, then so be it. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is also running for president again in 2020, understands this. In a challenge to Biden, he said:
“Beating Trump is not good enough.”
“We’re going to create the kind of excitement that we need to bring out the large voter turnout. “The truth is that our campaign, I think, can generate that excitement.”
I agree with Sanders. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won soundly because of a massive anti-Trump backlash. However, it wasn’t a presidential election. They didn’t have to run behind a single leader serving as the figurehead for the party as they will in 2020. The political dynamics of a presidential election are very different where personality and charisma are often decisive factors. If voters perceive Biden as a return to the status quo politics which were electorally rejected in 2016, then his path to victory rests solely on Americans’ own motivation to oppose Trump. As we’ve seen in other countries, such a strategy hasn’t worked very well.
NEW DELHI — In Hungary, Viktor Orban demonized immigrants and secured an expansion of his power. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan purged his enemies and won a new term. In Australia, Scott Morrison shrugged off calls for tougher carbon-emissions rules and was unexpectedly kept on as leader.
And in India, where the world’s biggest Parliamentary election appears to be boiling down to a binary choice — Yes or No on Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the electorate seems poised to bring back Mr. Modi, extending the wave of victories by right-wing populists around the world.
“It’s all coming from the same phenomenon,’’ Mr. Varshney added, “a rise in populism.”
For years, India was run by fractious, weak governments that got tied up in parliamentary dogfights. Big initiatives failed to take off. India struggled to assert itself internationally. In the eyes of his supporters, Mr. Modi is the surest bet for this country to grasp glory and actually get something done.
These days, it’s not unusual to hear Indians describe Modi as “our Trump,” which is said in antipodal ways, either with pride or scorn.
In Europe, the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections will provide some indication for how effective a centrist strategy might be elsewhere.
Politicians from mainstream parties across Europe have called on voters to shun the far right in this week’s European elections after Austria’s vice-chancellor resigned over a video sting that showed him offering public contracts in exchange for financial and campaign backing.
Centrist leaders across the continent made clear they hoped the repercussions of the vice-chancellor’s downfall would make themselves felt beyond Austria in the European parliament elections, from 23-26 May, in which populist, nationalist and far-right parties are forecast to make gains.
The Freedom party is a key member of an alliance of European nationalist parties led by Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League, who held an inaugural mass rally in Milan on Saturday with the the French National Rally of Marine Le Pen and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
“It’s long been known that rightwing populists destabilise our democracy,” Germany’s Socialist justice minister, Katarina Barley, tweeted. “Sebastian Kurz and the ÖVP brought them into government … The Strache case is a warning to all conservatives: do not work together with far-right populists.”
In the meantime, the populist surge continues.
Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky called snap parliamentary polls in his inaugural speech Monday and said his top priority is ending the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman resigned in protest shortly afterwards, saying Zelensky had rejected his proposals and “chose another path.”
The legal status of Zelensky’s move to dissolve parliament is uncertain but it is still likely to go ahead, political analysts said.
Zelensky also called for the sacking of the head of the state security service, prosecutor-general and defence minister loyal to his predecessor, although this has to be approved by parliament.
In other news
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Anti-money laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank recommended in 2016 and 2017 that multiple transactions involving legal entities controlled by Donald J. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, be reported to a federal financial-crimes watchdog.
The transactions, some of which involved Mr. Trump’s now-defunct foundation, set off alerts in a computer system designed to detect illicit activity, according to five current and former bank employees. Compliance staff members who then reviewed the transactions prepared so-called suspicious activity reports that they believed should be sent to a unit of the Treasury Department that polices financial crimes.
But executives at Deutsche Bank, which has lent billions of dollars to the Trump and Kushner companies, rejected their employees’ advice. The reports were never filed with the government.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday took no action on appeals seeking to revive two restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws from Indiana, even as debate rages over a new measure in Alabama that would prohibit the procedure almost entirely.
Neither Indiana case was on the list of appeals on which the court acted on Monday morning. The court could next announce whether or not it will hear the cases on May 28.
Both Indiana measures were signed into law in 2016 by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor and were struck down by federal judges the following year. The state of Indiana is appealing to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court on Monday sided with a Wyoming hunter charged with off-season hunting, ruling 5-4 that a 150-year-old treaty between a Native American tribe and the western state was still active and protected the man’s rights.
Clayvin Herrera was charged in 2014 with off-season hunting, but he argued that an 1868 treaty between Wyoming and the Crow Tribe protected his ability to hunt at that time.