Innovations in Presidential Elections: The United States, France, and Austria in Comparison
Percentage shares of the popular vote in key presidential elections in 2016 and 2017
The candidate of the political left (and center)
The candidate of the political right
Austria: first runoff of presidential election on May 24, 2016
Alexander Van der Bellen (Independent/The Greens): 50.3%
Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria): 49.7%
United States: presidential election on November 8, 2016
Hillary Clinton (Democratic Party): 48.2%
Donald Trump (Republican Party): 46.1%
Austria: second runoff of presidential election on December 6, 2016
Alexander Van der Bellen (Independent/The Greens): 53.8%
Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria): 46.2%
France: runoff of presidential election on May 7, 2017
Emmanuel Macron (En Marche/La République En Marche): 66.1%
Marine Le Pen (Front National): 33.9%
United States: In the United States, the presidential elections are being dominated by the two major political parties, the more left-leaning Democrats (Democratic Party) and the more right-leaning Republicans (Republican Party). The last elections have shown new movements and changes. Many voters are not satisfied with the current system and do not feel represented by both parties, which means that there may be a growing platform for political newcomers in the primaries of the two dominant political parties. Donald Trump was officially a candidate of the Republicans, even though he did not hold a prominent political office there before. Therefore, he cannot be seen as a typical Republican politician. Many of his supporters and voters hoped with his election for better changes within the political system. Change is necessary, due to several developments in the United States. The election results showed divisions within the country. Election results differ in rural and urban regions but also in reference to age and education (CNN Politics 2016). The split is enormous in society and is being amplified by trends of an increasing economic inequality between the people. The income gap is widening, posing fears that people are slipping from the middle class to the lower class. The typical “American Dream” is coming under pressure. Growth of inequality can lead to a differing voting behavior, when there is a growing skepticism that none of the existing dominant political parties (forces) can address the current problem effectively. This could also explain why more people lean more toward “radical” groups or leaders. Also, in contrast to the traditional media, also (new) social media and the web (Internet) are now of a greater importance. Elections are being accompanied by asserted fake news, conspiracy theories, and leaks of various documents. The far-right parties have established an online ecosystem which exploits legitimate sites for their own purpose. During and in the aftermath of the US presidential elections, there were (and are) also allegations that a foreign power tried to influence the outcome via a specific cyber strategy. It is being asserted that these cyber strategies (e.g., the targeted leaking of documents) were more harmful for the left-leaning Hillary Clinton than the right-leaning Donald Trump.
Austria: In comparison, Austria has a multiparty system, where the two main parties (the Social Democratic SPÖ and the Christian-Democratic/Conservative ÖVP) ruled over the last decades (mostly together in grand coalitions). For many it was a big surprise, when two third parties won more votes for the presidential elections in the first round than the usual mainstream parties. The two candidates came from diverse oppositions, Hofer from the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Van der Bellen, officially an independent candidate, was supported by the left Green Party. Although Van der Bellen self-presented himself as an independent candidate, he had past experience as a politician and cannot be compared with Donald Trump in this respect. The results of the first election (before the runoff) expressed a disillusionment with the two established main parties (Social Democrats and Christian Democrats/Conservatives), the so-called grand coalition in Austria. A strong polarization of the political landscape was notable during the whole campaign. The presidential election results show the split within Austrian society. The results also differ in regions, age, education, and even gender (Zandonella and Perlot 2016a, b). Inequality is also visible in the Austrian society. Also the social media were used by many young voters to support their candidates in the second and third election round.
France: Like Austria, France has a multiparty political system with a “center-left” and a “center-right” coalition cluster. For third parties, it can be difficult to enter the two major coalitions, but the far-right party, Front National, was successful in capturing growing electoral margins. Similar to Austria, two very different candidates were chosen for the final runoff cycle in the French presidential election race in 2017. Macron, as the candidate of the center (and of the “left”), a former politician and minister (under the Socialist president François Hollande), resigned, so also to run with his own new centrist party “En Marche!” (La République En Marche) for the presidential election. His challenger was Marine Le Pen from the right-wing populist Front National. Macron won the runoff with a bigger margin, but also in France, there clearly are divisions within society (Financial Times 2017; The Telegraph 2017a, b). So the victory of Macron was also a popular-vote reflex against the far-right Front National. Also in France, there were Macron-critical leaks of Macron documents in the social media before the election. However, these leaks did not have a negative effect for Macron as strong as was the effect of leaks against Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election (of 2016).
Propositions About Innovations in Presidential Elections
The New Right focuses on the working class, and the New Left focuses on the middle class (Proposition #1): In western democracy, a conventional voting behavior pattern has been that the (lower) working class was in support of the political left and the (higher) middle class in support of liberal of conservative forces (the “political right”). There is the assertion of a partial political alienation of the working class with the left. Reasons for this are fears that the working class cannot participate anymore in economic progress and that the inequalities and divisions increase. This the New Right (right-wing populist parties and politicians) sees as an opportunity for trying to attract the working class, often in association with national or nationalistic programs. This “to the right” leaning of the New Right, however, then can mobilize a countermovement in the middle class that fears the radical agenda of a New Right. For the New Left (moderate, centrist, liberal, green or ecological parties and politicians), this identifies an opportunity for attracting and drawing in electoral support from the middle classes, also in an attempt to neutralize possible gains of the New Right in other segments of the population. Put in other words, there is a partial political alienation between the middle class and the New Right (Campbell 2016). In that sense, the voting rationale of Traditional Left against Traditional Right is contrary to New Left against New Right. However, the axis of competition between New Left and New Right has not replaced the axis of Traditional Left and Traditional Right; they both continue to coexist. This, obviously, complicates political markets and political competition.
There has not been a general political swing to the right in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2017; perhaps even the contrary, an anti-rightist swing, was the case (Proposition #2): The to-leave-majority in the UK Brexit referendum of June 2016 often was interpreted to represent a victory that associates closely with ideas with a right-wing populist character. When the focus is on the three identified presidential elections, however, the picture is quite contrary. In institutional terms, the more-to-the-right-leaning Donald Trump has won the US presidential elections. But based on the popular vote, not Trump, but the more-to-the-left-leaning Hillary Clinton actually won the race. Because of the specific institutional setup and design of the state-wise electoral colleges in the United States, the popular-vote defeat of Trump was translated into an electoral college victory of Trump. In a theoretical reasoning about democracy, there are probably good arguments that the popular vote should be regarded as being more important when being compared with any other institutional rearrangements of votes. In the context of presidential elections in France and Austria, there only the popular vote counts (particularly for the runoff phase), and every outcome contrary to popular-vote majorities would be considered to represent a case of “electoral fraud.” How has the institutional victory of Trump played into other presidential elections in Europe? There were speculations that this may benefit the political right in general. However, in the presidential runoff voting cycles in Austria and France, the candidate of the right (right-wing populist in Austria and far right in France) was always defeated by the left challenger (Austria) or centrist challenger (France). Therefore, in this particular framing, the institutional victory of the more-to-right-leaning Donald Trump in the United States has had in Europe perhaps even a contrary effect, producing a political swing to the left or at least an anti-right swing and move against the political right in Continental Europe. In that sense, the political swings in the United States were (are) contrary to political swings in other countries (with an advanced democracy). However, based on the popular-vote results, the recent presidential voting swing in the United States (2016) was in fact similar in tendency when being compared with Austria and France.
The partial shift from a party democracy to a politician democracy and the opening of political parties for political newcomers and political independents (Proposition #3): In a democracy (and advanced democracy), how important are political parties and how important are the individual politicians? There is the assertion of a gradual trend of an increase of the influence and importance of individual politicians, while the parties are suffering, at least partially, from a decrease in importance. Still, the political parties are important and do matter. But the individual politicians and the political party leadership may matter even more. Political diversity and heterogeneity can increase when new so-called third parties are entering the political field (and market). However, equally important is the move and push of political parties to open the parties for political newcomers and independents or to create alliances (voting alliances) and networks of the political parties with civil society. Back in the US presidential election of 1992, the (more-to-the-right-leaning) Ross Perrot had run as an independent candidate, but had lost, even while attracting a 18.9% share of the popular vote. By many, Donald Trump was not being considered as a typical Republican. Trump did not have a professional track record in politics. But Trump did not decide to run as an independent but to participate in the primaries of the Republican party, and by securing their nomination, he could rely on the platform and networks of the Republican party in support of his candidacy for US presidency in 2016. Primaries (preelections) represent one approach for widening the boundaries of a political party. Another option for political parties is either to allow political newcomers or political independents to run on voting tickets of the party or to craft network-style voting alliances of political parties with civil society (representatives). This should increase the attractiveness of political parties to be voted and grants a greater importance to individual politicians. Thought about consequently, the political (election) leaders of a political party would not have to be party members in a formal sense. In the French presidential elections of 2017, Emmanuel Macron was not the frontrunner and candidate of any of the established political parties, but ran as an independent, but with support of the newly and flexibly organized party En Marche, which he had formed a year earlier back in 2016. With his presidential victory in May 2017, Macron reorganized En Marche to La République En Marche, which ran for the French national legislative elections in June 2017. La République En Marche comes close in resembling a centrist party. At the same time, the party was designed to represent a network alliance of a traditional political party with civil society, since a substantial share of positions on the electoral list of candidates was reserved for political newcomers and independents (without a longer professional political record in the past). Also, the list of candidates was balanced in terms of gender criteria with a female and male equality. In the French national legislative elections of June 2017, La République En Marche produced a huge victory and won an absolute majority of 308 seats (out of a total of 577 seats).
The political media markets are changing, with a growing importance of New Social Media and the Internet, but also the dangers of cyber-attacks are increasing (Proposition #4): Increasingly, distinctions are being drawn between the established traditional media and the so-called New Social Media. Sometimes, the established traditional media are being additionally classified as “Top-down Media” and the New Social Media as “Emerging Bottom-up Media” (In ’t Veld 2010, pp. 9, 11). Both media forms are also rooted in the Internet, but for the New Social Media, the Internet is even more important. In fact, the New Social Media exist (more or less) only via the Internet. One key characteristic of New Social Media is that they can be produced, reproduced, and distributed through the Internet at almost no cost. Messages are being diffused and “go viral” with (almost) cero expenses. What can matter is the degree of name recognition, level of awareness, familiarity, and reputation of the New Social Media organization (or network of the message carrier). There are controversial debates, to which extent the demands for more democracy during the Arab Spring were sparked or amplified by New Social Media (Xavier and Campbell 2014). Different types of New Social Media and the different formats of the Internet have the potential to impact how political campaigns or political elections are being carried out (see, furthermore, Kaiser et al. 2017; Bernhardt and Liebhart 2017). Furthermore, there are partial asymmetries, which types of media are being addressed by which types of politicians or political parties. It is being said that particularly populist or right-wing populist politicians and political parties are inclined to utilize the New Social Media formats, because the established traditional media often view such populist political manifestations more critically. Also, politicians now have the chance to establish their own information and message channels through such New Social Media and by this become more independent from the established traditional media. For example, the US President Donald J. Trump has his own publicly accessible Facebook account, which was subscribed by almost 24 million persons as of July 2017 (https://de-de.facebook.com/DonaldTrump/). This increasing Internet orientation of the media markets makes political communication and elections potentially vulnerable to cyber-attacks (from inside or the outside). It is being said that consequent (massive) cyber-attacks took place in the United States during the presidential campaign of 2016. The primary source of cyber-attacks should have been a foreign power. There is the assertion that the Russian government (may) have tried to intervene with various strategies into the US elections in a way so to harm particularly the prospects of the more-to-the-left-leaning Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. On this subject the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2017) also launched a systematic investigation.
Conclusion and Future Directions
The rise of third parties as well as far-right parties and radical groups can be found in almost every country. They try to replace the established (old) main parties and the current political system. The so-called losers of modernization are being (partially) attracted by such parties and movements, in a hope for better changes of the present situation, where inequalities are getting bigger and bigger. Because of such circumstances, it is becoming increasingly difficult to foresee new election results based on old standards. Nowadays, the social media (New Social Media) and their impact should not be underestimated, because they can play a significant role in society.
One of the possible effects of such developments is that the style of election campaigns might change in the future and that other parties, which are seeking for more popularity, will make use of populist techniques more frequently and openly. That implies that strong emotions like fear could be adopted and empathically discussed not only by extreme parties of the political spectrum but also by parties, which are located at the center of the political spectrum.
A big topic in the presidential elections in Austria and the United States was the questioning of the democratic tool “voting” in general. Because the outcomes were extremely close, there were some skeptical voices claiming manipulation, raised by the losing parties but also by Trump himself (Spiegel Online 2016). Because of the successful contesting of the election in Austria and the serious doubts about the rightfulness of the voting procedure, democracy as it exists in western states, combined with the rise of right or left forces, could lead to a destabilization of the western democratic systems and further a questioning of legitimacy of the main democratic instrument, which is voting.
Proposition #1: The New Right focuses on the working class, and the New Left focuses on the middle class.
Proposition #2: There has not been a general political swing to the right in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2017; perhaps even the contrary, an anti-rightist swing, was the case.
Proposition #3: The partial shift from a party democracy to a politician democracy and the opening of political parties for political newcomers and political independents.
Proposition #4: The political media markets are changing, with a growing importance of New Social Media and the Internet, but also the dangers of cyber-attacks are increasing.
These political innovations are not necessarily restricted to popular-vote trends in presidential elections but may indicate greater political transformation trends that refer to elections in (advanced) democracy in general. The discussed innovations address the dynamics and processes of elections. But they also address the ways and design how political campaigns and political marketing management may be increasingly organized and reorganized. Possibly, this has the potential off additionally impacting political leadership in political processes (furthermore, see Helms 2012a, b; Wineroither and Kitschelt 2012).
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