The Limitations of the ‘Outsider’ Vs ‘Insider’ Binary in Politics

The past decade has witnessed the rise of political individuals who are considered “outsiders” to the political system. This has been attributed to several factors especially the disillusionment of a significant section of the working class being disenchanted with the status quo and the belief that establishment politicians are detached from the ground realities. This in no way means that politicians considered “outsiders” have no political experience or rise from humble economic backgrounds or are not well healed before they join politics. 

Former US President Donald Trump who won the 2016 Presidential election against Hillary Clinton —  by winning  rust belt states considered bastions of the democratic party – was dubbed as the quintessential outsider. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Trump differed not just from Democrats but also many Republicans on key foreign policy issues. He changed several of his senior colleagues including Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), John Bolton  and Lt General HR McMaster ( both NSAs), Jim Mattis, Mark Esper (both Defence Secretaries).

Even in the current electoral campaign for the 2024 election differences between Trump and other Republicans like Nikki Haley Randhawa – who also served as the US Ambassador to UN under the Trump Administration are evident. Another Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy also differs from establishment republicans regarding important foreign policy issues such as Russia-Ukraine conflict (Ramaswamy has criticised US support for Ukraine).

Significant developments in US and UK 

The phenomena of the rise of outsiders has not been restricted to US, several other countries in different parts of the world have witnessed the rise of individuals who can be dubbed as “outsiders”.

Recent days have witnessed two interesting developments. In the US a poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College  has shown that in a hypothetical contest between Trump and Biden in the 2024 Presidential election, the former would win in 5 of the 6 battleground states – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. 

Even in terms of popular votes, Trump would beat Biden according to this poll. Biden’s handling of complex foreign policy issues has not gone down well not just with Republicans, but also Democrats. Even Biden’s handling of the economy in spite of reasonable economic indicators has not gone down well. 

It would be important to strike a note of caution, but if Biden were to lose it would again be the loss of an establishment against an outsider. 

Across the Atlantic – in the UK,  former Prime Minister David Cameron has been brought back as Foreign Secretary earlier this month. Cameron a dyed in the wool conservative is an establishment politician. The conservatives had won two elections under Cameron’s leadership. He had resigned in 2016 after calling for a Referendum regarding UK remaining part of the European Union. Cameron was in favour of Britain remaining part of EU but quit after Britain voted in favour of Brexit — or exit from the EU. Cameron was succeeded by Theresa May (2016-2019), Boris Johnson (2019-2022), Liz Truss (September-October 2022) and current incumbent Rishi Sunak (October 2022-till date).

After accepting the offer of Foreign Secretary, the former PM speaking about the current international geopolitical situation and the reasons why he agreed to accept the offer said: “While I have been out of front-line politics for the last seven years, I hope that my experience – as Conservative Leader for eleven years and Prime Minister for six – will assist me in helping the Prime Minister to meet these vital challenges.”

Cameron is likely to be more of an internationalist and in a tweet said “Britain is a truly international country. Our people live all over the world and our businesses trade in every corner of the globe. Working to help ensure stability and security on the global stage is both essential and squarely in our national interest. International security is vital for our domestic security”.

His approach is likely to appeal to the old guard and centrists within the conservative party, but not to the extreme right. 

Cameron’s appointment is important not just in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Israel-Palestine conflagration, but because ties between the Anglosphere and China have witnessed a steady deterioration. During Cameron’s tenure as PM ties between London and Beijing had strengthened significantly and Cameron had spoken about a “golden era” in bilateral ties. Many China sceptics are wary of Cameron’s China policy. Significantly, China welcomed the appointment of the former PM as UK’s foreign secretary.

While it is too early to predict the impact of Cameron’s approach vis-à-vis China, he takes over, as UK’s foreign secretary, at a time when not just the US is trying to calm down tempers with Beijing, the latest reiteration being the meeting between Biden and Xi on sidelines of APEC. Australian PM, Anthony Albanese also visited China earlier this month in a bid to reduce strains between Australia and China. While Albanese acknowledged differences between both countries he alluded to the need for a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis China.

Cameron’s appointment as UK foreign secretary is important for several reasons. Firstly, it remains to be seen whether the UK’s foreign policy will witness a significant shift under Cameron. Second, it underscores the point that while outsiders may be getting traction, in a changing political and economic landscape, it is important not to be dismissive of experience.

[Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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