Summary: The public, and so journalists, focus on the presidential elections as races, reasonable since the political consequences of each party’s victory are large but predictable. The 2016 election is different. Focusing on Trump’s latest outrageous sound-bite conceals the massive change made by his success to date. What if the parties’ control of political money and our political machinery no longer controls election results, and elections become a free-for-all among the power centers of America? This post explores what it means for our future.
Many factors produced the simultaneous insurgencies by Sanders and Trump against the Democratic and Republican establishments. Most obviously, for decades they have ignored vital concerns of their core constituencies, preferring instead to serve unpopular special interests such as Wall Street — and those of the 1% (e.g., favoring mass immigration).
A classic sign of organizations’ senescence is the increasing age of its leaders and their decreasing qualifications for high office. As seen in the candidates offered for President. In the case of John McCain in 2008, the Republicans gave us both — an erratic elderly man (would have been 73 at inauguration) with poor judgment and an unqualified VP (Sarah Palin, chosen with 21 months as Gov of AK).
Now the Boomers are turning over leadership of America, but the Democrats appeal to a new generation with two contenders: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who would be 70 and 76 at inauguration.
These events take place in a nation where the people’s confidence in their governing institutions has been eroding away for decades (see Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions polls). Which brings us to this, the key insight about 2016 (although written long ago)…
“Although Nero’s death had at first been welcomed with outbursts of joy, it roused varying emotions, not only in the city among the senators and people and the city soldiery, but also among all the legions and generals; for the secret of empire was now revealed, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome.”
— From The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus (~56 – 117 A.D.).
Since Goldwater (1964) and McGovern (1972), the establishments of the Republican and Democratic parties have presented us with a narrow selection of candidates to choose among. In 2016 their leaders anointed as favorites two placeholders whose primary qualification was seniority in their families’ dynasties: Clinton and Bush. Even Cruz and Sanders are examples of that process, successful national politicians representing the extreme wings of their coalitions — running with low odds of winning.
Trump is the revolutionary in 2016. Not in the literal sense of using force to overthrow the existing order, but because he shows that a President can be chosen by forces outside the Capitol (in the sense of outside the establishment). Trump used the media to directly appeal to the American people, gaining strength by entirely bypassing the party elites and their machinery. If he gets the nomination, that will be an unprecedented event in American history.
Nobody has seen this. It is the equivalent of Rome realizing that legions in the provinces could anoint candidates for Caesar. There are countless power centers in America that today play minor roles in the political process, yet have great resources and the ability to play the national media. Trump has proven that each has the potential to reach for power, converting themselves from Pawns of the political parties to Queens — King-makers.
Trump might lack the wit and skill to tap the wild energy of America populism — but he was the first to say that Ted Cruz might be constitutionally ineligible. That shows intelligence (or a good staff, equally valuable for a leader). See this by Paul Campos (professor of law, U CO-Boulder) that acknowledges this while mocking Trump), and a more detailed analysis by Mark Field.
But even if the GOP’s leaders crush Trump, his partial success shows their weakness. Political parties have controlled access to America’s electoral machinery. Rebellions such as Goldwater, McGovern, Reagan have been fought by established political figures within its rules — where endorsements, money, organization, and insider knowledge are trump.
This year suggests that system has broken. If a flawed person as Trump — a lone wolf, without institutional support — could go so far, what might be accomplished by special interests operating on their own? By, for example, a powerful and savvy organization representing corporations, or small businessman, or Veterans — allied with rich backers? What alliances could be made to create national movements, tapping as yet dormant yearnings and hatreds in the American people?
Our news largely consists of commonplace events hyped as unprecedented, while the significance of truly revolutionary events is buried under trivia — for good reason: it is usually too disturbing. Now the system is changing but we prefer to pretend otherwise.
This is a revolution in the narrow sense of broadening access to political power — to more of the 1%. Now their influence is bottlenecked by political elites and the party machinery. The 1% see both of these as servants. Trump shows how to bypass them.
In 2014 I said this was coming: Stand by for political realignment in America! Now its happening. We can only guess at the results.
For More Information
- In August I wrote The Donald Trump revolution, dismissed as all revolts are in the beginning.
- Background: Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.
- Trump’s hope: a recession might put him in the White House.
- The four keys to a possible Trump victory.
- Trump, not Sanders, is the revolutionary.