In New Hampshire, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent and self-declared socialist, leads two-time front runner Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and New York Senator. In numerous nationwide polls, Donald Trump, a New York real estate developer and television personality who has never held elective office, has a commanding lead over more established and familiar political commodities including former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. Observing Sanders and Trump lead the respective parties’ nominating races is amusing to say the least. The last time a socialist and billionaire ran, the former disavowed the epithet and the latter was accused of murder. Now the unkempt radical and the infamously coiffed plutocrat have embraced their caricatures and are full throated in their respective ideological and impolitic selves. Whether their candidacies are either protest phenomenon or the genuine article, they are incontestably scratching an id within each party and the respective establishments ignore them at their peril. And their sizable constituencies too.
Indignation of the Third Estate
In Why Americans Hate Politics, American journalist E.J. Dionne chronicled the collapse of the centrist consensus that prevailed after World War II. Dionne documents how the seemingly pervasive “Vital Center” eventually gave way to the liberal and conservative insurgencies that came to dominate politics after the Vietnam War. As Dionne expertly summarized:
“The New Left despised "Establishment liberals." The right hated "the liberal Establishment." Yet the slight difference in labeling also revealed much--each group put the most important word first. What the New Left disliked about liberals was they they represented the Establishment; what the right disliked about the Establishment was that it was liberal.”
These rebellions have now run their course.
Liberals revel in their Establishment status while conservatives repeatedly show that they can’t be trusted to change the Establishment when they are in charge. The result is a rotating duopoly perpetuated by a partisan-industrial complex in need of smashing.
As American writer Eric Hoffer noted, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Sanderistas and Trumpites, whether genuinely devoted to the man and his agenda or to the defiance he represents, cumulatively constitute a new rebellion against the same statist incumbency into which the Vital Center had degenerated.
Sanders has long stood outside the duopoly and Trump has opportunistically flirted with both parties. Sanderistas are still waging war against Establishment liberals while Trumpites are seemingly prepared to annihilate both liberals and the establishment. Neither candidates has any stake in the duopoly’s longevity and their constituencies are increasingly ready to render an “off with their heads” judgment.
(While very different men, Sanders and Trump do share a unique relationship with the press. Sanders has consistently denounced the press for its portrayal of politics as a horse race, its readiness to dwell on a candidate’s personal life, and its preoccupation with trivia; Trump is practically counting on the press to behave in this manner and has long shown he is an expert at exploiting the proclivities that Sanders denounces.)
Down With The Queen
On the Democratic side, Sanders is capitalizing on the anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment in the party and the corruption she represents. Political corruption in the Clintonian triangulated sellout to corporate interests and betrayal of the working poor and taken-for-granted minorities. Moral corruption in the unceasing greed and semantic dancing on ethical boundaries.
Progressives angrily remember how Vice President Albert Gore won a popular majority in 2000 that William Clinton never did by being finally being more openly liberal (even if marginally). Outrageously, however, the Gore Presidency disappeared in a cascade of discarded votes and ignored pleas from African-American Congressmen. The Bush Presidency was a stolen presidency and the subsequent wars were illegal wars -- thus the unexpected rise (at least to mainstream observers) in 2004 of former Governor Howard Dean. (Also of Vermont, must be something in the syrup...)
Dean was an imperfect vessel because he was never accepted by the party establishment (despite Gore’s endorsement) that prized electability above all.
Nevertheless, Dean resurrected the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders is simply Dean updated, only Sanders is a dissenter that is wholly outside the party.
Unlike Dean and Clinton who were good party soldiers after their respective defeats, Sanders has no such compunction. A lifelong independent, Sanders famously achieved his ascent by eviscerating the Democratic Party in Vermont.
For Sanderistas, the Affordable Care Act is not enough, the rhetoric on income inequality is not enough; for Sanderistas, the goal is single-payer health care and redistributive tax policies and a higher minimum wage. Hillary Clinton, for all the Establishment heft at her back, is a brittle frontrunner and (again) ripe for toppling.
Up With The Donald
On the Republican side, Trump is capitalizing on the anti-Jeb Bush sentiment in the party and the compromise he represents. Compromise by the way of proxy really. Bush 41 enraged the conservative base by reneging on his anti-tax pledge in 1990 and Bush 43 cratered his tenuous majority by proposing comprehensive immigration reform in 2006.
This most recent conservative revolt has its origins in the populist resistance that erupted against Bush’s (and Senator John McCain’s) immigration proposal. Conservatives stood by McCain when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, but this support was reluctant. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent government bailouts and bloated stimulus plans, conservatives moved swiftly to overturn any and all establishment figures.
In rapid succession, Tea Parties across the country ousted long-time incumbents, replacing them with veritable conservative fire-eaters. (The tea party movement’s decentralized nature facilitated the Republican Party’s takeover of the House and Senate in 2010 and 2014; this feature compromised its ability to influence the 2012 presidential election.)
The ideological flavor of Trump’s support in the polls is less obvious, but assuming affinity from the Tea Party movement is a safe bet.
While barely a conservative, Trump has achieved his rise with bombastic takedowns of his Establishment rivals and a singular focus on illegal immigration, a key issue for tea partiers. Promises to build a wall and end birthright citizenship are hardly a political agenda but Trump doesn’t need anything else because, at best, no other candidate has credibility on the issue.
At worst, other candidates are at complete odds with the conservative base on immigration.
As American scholar Charles Kesler opined, “Trump’s populism exploits three frustrations with modern government or, more precisely, with the people who run it—that they’re illegitimate, incompetent, and insufferable.”
None of the Above with a Face
As noted previously, the electoral system is overdue for a third party.
For a time, independent presidential bids were occurring every twelve years. Ralph Nader's paltry 2.7 percent in 2000 was consistent with third party showings, but its decisive role in tipping the election from Al Gore to George W. Bush ironically improved the landscape for the existing duopoly.
After Nader, major political party leaders could demand greater loyalty if only to prevent the other side from winning -- effective at motivating millions of your voting base to show up at the polls, but ultimately counterproductive if the leaders never deliver on their promises.
As noted above, Sanderistas didn’t get single payer health care and Trumpites almost got amnesty. (The first major modern political contributor to run for the presidency, Trump probably has the receipts to illustrate how current leaders have failed to deliver…)
In short, Sanders and Trump are the faces of “none of the above.” If neither is the nominee, then their voters might bolt. Trump has the advantage given his personal wealth, but Sanders has never let the lack of a political organization hinder him. On the other hand, Sanders would still need a major political party to help navigate the mundane matter of ballot access.
A socialist has never influenced the outcome of American presidential election, but if Republicans are not careful, another billionaire amateur politician will help defeat a Bush to put another Clinton in the White House.09/03 Postscript:
The Republican National Committee (RNC) has asked every GOP candidate to sign a loyalty pledge, agreeing to support the Republican Party nominee and not run as a third party candidate. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump signed the pledge today. (Breitbart)