The triumph of a thrice-married reality TV star in one party and the surprising success of a 74-year old “Socialist” curmudgeon from Vermont in the other has had American political pundits flinging mea culpas like an alcoholic the day after a family wedding. We had all gotten used to the predictable structure of American national politics and 2016 has been a shock in terms of what has happened. The apparent reasons it happened, however, aren’t particularly surprising.
For two generations, the parties have campaigned on platforms of improving the material lives of their electoral bases while carefully, deliberately, impoverishing them and their progeny. By allowing business to crush unions, outsource jobs, dodge taxes, poison workers and citizens with impunity, systematically defraud the public, and force employees to individually negotiate their pay, American government has decisively shifted the balance of power away from workers, consumers, and the public toward shareholders and corporate managers. The inevitable result has been a stagnation and decline of real purchasing power for average Americans even as necessities like housing, education, and healthcare have become dramatically more expensive in a way that undercuts all the happy talk about the benefits of technological change. What has been clear this year is that voters have noticed.
Although the rhetoric is different, what Trump and Sanders have in common is that they connect with the anger of ordinary Americans about the loss of their economic power and firmly associate it with political malpractice. Both Sanders and Trump have accused our political leaders many times of corruption. The bleating of mainstream pundits about this “extreme” rhetoric does nothing to obscure the fact that this charge is obviously true. The fact that those who write the laws that define bribery are the same ones who benefit from the cozy exchange of “access” for the endless quantities of money needed to buy thousands of 30-second TV advertisements to bludgeon the public subconscious into submission does nothing to change this fact.
What this year’s craziness tells us is, I think, that a plurality of the public has finally gotten the word about what’s been done to them; and that the magic of the 30-second TV ad has died. The only “establishment” candidate to achieve any success in this cycle’s nomination contests has been a virtual former co-President, as well as a retired Senator and cabinet secretary of senior rank. Even Hillary Clinton, however, still hasn’t clinched her nomination against an idiosyncratic misfit who wasn’t even a Democrat 18 months ago. Bernie Sanders started his quixotic quest for the nomination polling at three percent.
Meanwhile, the scion of the Bush Dynasty blew $150 million to go exactly nowhere in the family business. Political heavyweights (sorry) like Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio disappeared like coffee at a twelve-step meeting. Everywhere, the conventional approach to campaigning has failed in unpredictable contests against strategies built around mobilizing rage.
It is in this context that Sanders’ favorable poll performance against Trump makes sense. It’s why I’m skeptical about Clinton’s prospects against the orange menace. It was, after all, during her husband’s administration that some of the most damaging trends accelerated or originated. In any case, it’s time to take conventional wisdom out behind the barn and put it out of its misery.