SINGAPORE — The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in American politics has shocked the world. America has consistently projected itself as the country that could be trusted for political predictability and stability. While extremist or fringe movements might emerge in other countries, American political culture, by contrast, would be dominated by sensible centrist figures, like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Astonishingly, one has dropped out of the race. The other remains, but is shaky.
So what happened? Is this just another passing political phenomenon? Or does it reflect a structural shift in American politics? Here, a comparison with Asia might help to draw out some structural issues that drive politics. To put it simply, the politics of pessimism provides fertile ground for fringe politicians like Donald Trump, just as it does for Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. The politics of optimism which used to dominate American political life has now shifted to Asia. It has led to the election of sensible centrist figures in Asia like Narendra Modi in India (May 2014), Joko Widodo in Indonesia (July 2014) and Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore (September 2015).
In the current pessimistic political environments of America and Europe, politicians get punished for truth-telling.
So why have Asian societies drifted to the political center and America — and parts of Europe — drifted to the fringe? The simple answer is that societies that are hopeful of a better future want to put their fate in safe pairs of hands, like Modi, Jokowi and Lee. By contrast, societies whose populations fear the future are driven to try out fringe figures.
The Trump-Sanders surge sends a clear signal that Americans are losing faith in their political establishment. In theory, America has a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In practice, it has a government chosen by the people to serve special interests, not their interests. This perception of American policies being hijacked by special interests was accentuated by the 2008-09 financial crisis. American bankers almost destroyed the American economy, yet only one top one went to jail. Bernie Sanders captures the American anger well when he says, “The sad reality is that the Federal Reserve doesn’t regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates the Fed. It’s time to make banking work for the productive economy and for all Americans, not just a handful of wealthy speculators.” He also notes: “If Congress cannot regulate Wall Street, there is just one alternative. It is time to break these too-big-to-fail banks up so that they can never again destroy the jobs, homes, and life savings of the American people.”