Elections from afar: What’s in a name?

Although the campaigns have been raging for what seems like forever, the 2016 American presidential election is finally drawing near. In these last weeks leading up to November 8, the UK will be speaking with Americans at the RUG about why this year’s election matters to them and what it’s like to witness the madness from across the ocean.
By Traci White

Question: Is Clinton a true liberal? Is Trump a true conservative?

I’m sorry for being a philosopher about this, but it depends on what you mean by ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

Clinton is literally liberal in the sense that she is open to new ideas (e.g. her eventual acceptance of gay marriage and changing views on criminal justice and enforcement). And she is an exemplary Democrat. The present Democratic party (and Clinton as its exemplar) leans strongly towards the center of center-left in a lot of political issues, so if you think of ‘liberal’ as being leftist, then she is definitely not liberal.

As for Trump, it’s instructive to think about his slogan ‘Make America great again.’ It’s weirdly conservative in the sense that it doesn’t want to preserve the status quo, but roll things back to a time when things were supposedly better. Trump occasionally says things that are progressive, for example about abortion rights and gay marriage, but none of that is represented in the party platform that was developed during his nominating convention -indeed, the platform seems to be one of the most regressive ever. In contrast to Clinton, who I think is liberal or to the left in a complicated mix of metrics, Trump seems conservative and right leaning on pretty much every measure.

I don’t believe it’s possible to categorise the candidates on whether they are purely conservative or liberal.

So far, both candidates have been extremely focused on public profiling. I think that this may be the reason why a man like Trump is able to gain so much support; he is inconvenient, unpredictable and something very different in his own right compared to previous presidential candidates.

The tough question here is what liberal means.

In the American sense – usually equivalent to progressive – then yes, but to a lesser extent than an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. She’s basically a conventional center-left American. I actually think that ‘liberal’ in the European sense – meaning generally supportive of free markets, the liberal international order, and individual liberty – better fits Clinton. For his part, Trump is no conservative: his brand of populism is only conservative in its appeal to traditionalism and nativism. But there’s little hesitance toward radical change, no respect for governing institutions, no time for international commitments, etc.… in his politics. That’s definitely not conservative.

I think that, like Bill, Hillary Clinton is a neoliberal rather than a traditional liberal in the American sense.

She has dialed back some of Bill’s policies a little bit, but she definitely stands for the centrist, hawkish, pro-business section of the Democratic party. Personally, I don’t see Trump as a traditional conservative. He has, at times in his career, taken somewhat liberal positions on some issues, such as gun control and abortion rights. Although he wants to take America back to an imagined past – Make America Great Again – I think he nonetheless is something of an iconoclast and his denunciations of the political establishment mean he doesn’t quite fit as a conservative – in this respect, Clinton is far more conservative!

Clinton is old-school politics.

She’s less liberal than Obama, for instance. Trump does not seem conservative per se. I would call him a demagogue!

Clinton is ‘liberal’ – socially minded, on social and environmental issues – where she graciously took some cues from Bernie Sanders.

She has been classically liberal on free trade, but has been wavering toward the protectionist mode. She’ll continue in Obama’s footsteps on domestic, environmental and trade issues. She’s more aggressive than I like in foreign issues, and I’d expect her to be less cautious than Obama, which I’d also regret. Trump is a populist who is sensitive to his own resonance in the public sphere but also overconfident. He’s not a conservative in the classical European sense – such as Burke and Metternich – who might recognise an ethical obligation in social issues, nor in the American sense such a classical liberal à la J.S. Mill. He’ll be protectionist in trade issues, less interested in foreign policies like NATO and the Middle East, and a catastrophe for the environment.

Both character and platform are extremely important in this (and every) election.

Both Clinton and Trump have platform parts that cross party lines. Liberal doesn’t necessarily mean Democrat and conservative doesn’t necessarily mean Republican. For example, someone on the far right (in the Tea Party perhaps) might claim that Clinton is extremely liberal — but compared to what? Sanders was more liberal than Clinton on most issues, but not all. It’s all relative.

I guess that depends on your definition of liberal and conservative.

My kind of liberal would never get elected in America, so I think Clinton is liberal enough.


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