A Presidential Election in the Year of the Monkey

For political pundits surprised that the 2016 election is not a traditional dynastic clash between the Bushes and the Clintons, the Chinese zodiac may provide an answer.  The arrival of the Lunar New Year of the Monkey on February 8 may explain it all.  The New Hampshire primary election was held the following day featured non-establishment politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz in the winners’ circle.   With their unconventional styles, these political outsiders seem to be perfect manifestations of the Year of the Monkey.  

The monkey, as a sign of the zodiac, while clever, energetic, impulsive, and mischievous, is prone to risky behavior, swinging precariously from one tree branch to another.  The addition of the zodiac element of fire to the year 2016 portends possible aggressiveness.  The “Red Fire” Monkey also points to political conflict and transformation, as the fire element is both scorching and combustible.  Monkey years can also bring upheaval.  The eve of the Lunar New Year witnessed both a violent earthquake on Taiwan and the launching of a long-range missile by North Korea.  The latter event drew attention in the recent Republican presidential debate.

Previous Monkey years heralded the American Revolution in 1776, the coming of war in 1812 and 1860, the military turning point in WWII with the D-Day landings in 1944, and the Lunar New Year Tet offensive in 1968.  American elections in the Monkey Years of 1788, 1800, 1860, 1932, and 1980 saw the emergence of transformational American presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Political transformation, symbolized by Monkey Years, occurred in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln, a largely untested prairie lawyer, led a brand-new Republican Party to victory in a country on the brink of Civil War.  Another example would be 1932 when, in the depths of the Great Depression, the American people turned to Franklin Roosevelt and his promise of a New Deal.

Monkey years also symbolize tumultuousness, as in 1968.  The launching of the Tet offensive during that year’s Lunar New Year festivities was a turning point in the Vietnam War, creating a crisis which led directly to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election.  A sense of crisis escalated as Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June, and the streets of Chicago turned into a battleground between anti-war protestors and the Chicago police during the Democratic National Convention in August.  Election Day saw a political transfer as Richard Nixon led the Republicans to victory for the first time in eight years.

The next Monkey Year, 1980, was also a time of turmoil.  With an economic slump and an ongoing Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide.  The Monkey Year, 1992 saw a young Bill Clinton, coming seemingly out of nowhere to defeat incumbent President George H.W. Bush, previously considered invincible as Commander-in-Chief during the First Gulf War.  

So what does this all signify for 2016, as the “Red Fire Monkey” enters the stage?  Asian-American celebrants of the Lunar New Year make up the fastest-growing ethnic voting bloc in the United States.  A January 7th article in the Los Angeles Times pointed to the growing political clout of these voters:

“In 2014, a Virginia exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund showed that Asian voters sided with Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, over Republican Ed Gillespie by 2 to 1.  At the time, Asians represented 3% of the electorate.  Warner won by less than 1% of the overall vote, meaning that Asians alone roughly accounted for his victory even in a state without a huge Asian population.” 

This year’s mischievous Monkey could thus place control of the White House in a close election in 2016 in the hands of Korean-American voters in the swing-state of Virginia.  Issues like immigration, taxation of small businesses, and terrorist threats will likely be critical for these voters.

Crises, from Syria to the South China Sea and from North Korea to Iran, will play prominently in this Monkey Year election.  A sluggish economy will as well – remember the 1992 Monkey Year slogan: “it’s the economy, stupid?”  As a result, a transformational figure rather than a traditional member of the political establishment will likely move into the White House on Inauguration Day in January 2017, just as the Year of the “Red Fire Monkey” comes to its raucous end.

Dennis Halpin, a former Congressional adviser on Asia, is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.