The Thinker

Reading the election tealeaves

I skipped the last Republican debate (for the reason see my last post) but I did catch Sunday’s Democratic debate and even live tweeted it. The dynamics of the coming election are starting to clear up in my mind. The 2016 election, like the 2008 election is a change election. By this I mean a major change election, not just an “oh, I’m sick of the last guy, so let’s try someone that looks good.” It is an election where voters will express their frustration that change is not happening fast enough. The big mystery is whose change version will sell.

Curiously both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are echoing similar themes: do something already! Trump’s approach is radical authoritarianism. He channels the frustration of those who simply put getting things done ahead of the messy business of constitutional government. He will make sure things get done and it’s pretty obvious that he will do it by fiat if Congress and the courts won’t back him. This is crazily dangerous to our constitutional government, but there are a lot of authoritarian-based Americans out there, and they simply don’t care anymore because they can’t remember the last time government worked. Authoritarians are comfortable with the ends justifying the means, providing of course that the ends are ends that they agree with.

Sanders has a similar message. He has specifically ruled out being an authoritarian president but does say that he is a democratic socialist. He appeals to many Democrats and independents because his motivation for being president is clearly not ego-based, but part of a larger agenda. Ironically, by never being a formal Democrat he carries gravitas. He has been an independent representative and senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. This gave him the freedom to vote his convictions rather than to feel he had to tow the party line to gain power. It was a politically smart thing for him to do. For example, it allowed him to vote against the 2002 resolution for the use of force against Iraq whereas others like Senator Hillary Clinton felt arm-twisted to do so to ensure their future political career. Moreover, Sanders is credible. He has been on the right side of history time and again. Even Trump can’t say that, although he has never run as a politician before. Trump’s politics though have been all over the place during his career. In some ways Sanders is conservative, as he votes his conscience and principle, whereas Trump rides the waves of perceived voter concerns.

Hillary Clinton and to some extent “moderate” Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich represent institutionalism, i.e. the traditional party structure which is top-down and consensus-based. The others sense a grassroots uprising fed by the inability of government to act in the people’s interests. Of course each candidate has his or her own idea of what the people’s interests actually are, and they are often so bizarre as to be comical because they bear no resemblance to modern America or even to the values that pollsters report that register the most. Their values are whatever they see in the mirror and they move in circles that amplify that view. In general, Americans are impatient with political parties as they have evolved simply because they don’t represent their interests. Instead they feel pimped by them. They voted for people who say the words but don’t follow up with deeds.

What makes Sanders interesting to me is not just his politics, which I largely agree with. It’s that he is not so much interested in being president as fomenting what he calls a “political revolution”. Even his supporters don’t really understand where he is planning to go. Yes, he wants the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but what he really wants is Congress of and by the people again. If he wins the nomination you will see this in earnest, as he will move from venue to venue, including southern states, to build this grassroots political revolution: a “throw the bums out who haven’t acted in your interests” campaign. The odds are against him, particularly in the House, but politicians underestimate his power. Oddly, both he and Trump hold sway over some of the same voters. I expect that Sanders will be working to convince Trump’s voters that a political revolution is a better approach than Trump’s scary authoritarianism.

To some extent both Trump and Sanders supporters are masquerading their own motivations and anxieties, which they can’t seem to acknowledge. I don’t believe the authoritarians really want to recreate a fake 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” America. What they really want is a social contract again, i.e. a sense of normalcy. They are painfully aware that their carpet has been pulled up from under them. Their dads retired on pensions. They remember good public schools. They remember being proud of being American. But their cheese has been moved. Sanders response is to say, “Hey, your cheese has been moved and it’s not minorities and Mexicans. It’s big business and the very well off have bought an oligarchy”. Sanders has to convince these authoritarians that power comes from uniting on their common interests. This is why when he campaigns in the South he gets big crowds, often bigger than Trump’s. He is tapping into the same anxiety.

I have no idea how this will all fall out. No candidate is perfect and there are plenty of candidates who are reprehensible human beings and make you feel ashamed for your country. Just make no mistake: the real animus in this election is an often-inchoate feeling by many in the middle and on the sides that no one is truly on their side. Unlike Trump, Sanders has a consistent career of more than thirty years in politics that demonstrates he is on their side of these issues. You hear it in his voice and I certainly heard it during Sunday’s debate. Sanders was nearly hoarse from shouting at one point. There is conviction in is voice, in his mannerisms, in his eyes and in his demeanor that is stunningly authentic and sincere. This is certainly not true of Donald Trump, who has never held a consistent position about anything other than perhaps putting his personal profit over people’s needs. It’s not true of Hillary Clinton and it’s definitely not true with Republican weasels like Ted Cruz.

If people truly want an authentic candidate then I expect Sanders will increasingly resonate as they start to tune in, as they are doing during these debates. The question is: can it become a crescendo in time? There are many political and institutional forces that will put up obstacles to such a plain man from the heart, including Democratic Party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. During the next couple of months, this will all become much clearer.


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