Bernie Sanders supporters in Greensboro in September 2015. (photo by Caleb Smallwood)
by Jordan Green
The fight seems in for a spoil, one way or another.
First it was the worry among the Republican establishment that Donald Trump would mount an independent bid if he doesn’t get the party nomination.
Now, it’s former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hinting that he may run as an independent if Bernie Sanders gets the Democratic nomination instead of Hillary Clinton.
In either case, the convulsions are the consequence of an undeniable centrifugal force in American politics. Trump and Sanders are upending assumptions about the inevitability of the presumed standard-bearers of their respective parties and the role of money, experience and endorsements in fixing the eventual winner.
There’s little mystery as to why the center has fallen out of the Republican Party: Working-class whites are tired of waiting for a payoff from their dalliance with the big-business establishment that once controlled the levers of power in the GOP. The resentful white voters who thrilled to George Wallace’s demagoguery found their way into Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” under the Southern strategy and eventually formed the core of the Reagan Democrats.
Tired bromides about unleashing prosperity through low taxes and less regulation laced with coded appeals to social resentment towards gays, immigrants and other outsiders or attacks on urban elites who supposedly want to take away their guns won’t cut it anymore. Decades of wage stagnation have rendered that proposition hollow. It’s clear that the wink is no longer effective, and people who have been teased and flattered with veiled bigotry will eventually decide they want the real thing. Which is why a billionaire real-estate developer/media celebrity who espouses protectionist economic views and defames Mexican immigrants while mocking political correctness commands support from working-class whites with low levels of education, and similarly attracts support from a sizable number of women even while displaying unfiltered misogyny to Megyn Kelly.
Conventional politics, in which a telegenic candidate was typically packaged into an embodiment of emotive symbolism and intuitive appeals to key identity groups devoid of a coherent program, no longer delivers.
The managers of the Democratic Party apparatus from the national to local level might be tempted to relish the chaos enveloping the GOP. They shouldn’t be so glib.
As Adrian Woolridge recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “The forces that are disfiguring the right are likely to spread in future years, consuming the Democrats in much the same way as they have consumed the Republicans. The stagnation of the living standards of average Americans is creating widespread angst. The culture wars are extending to new areas. The internet-enabled news-cum-entertainment industry stokes political resentments even as it creates epistemic anarchy. Interest groups are finding ever more ingenious ways to pretzel the political process. Interesting times don’t remain confined to one part of the political spectrum for very long.”
The truth is that the Democratic Party establishment, as embodied by Clinton, has little more ability to deliver on its promises than the Republicans. Clinton’s value proposition can more or less be boiled down to a steady hand in foreign affairs, shoring up progress in LGBT rights and fending off further attacks on reproductive rights, a corporatist outlook modulated by anti-Wall Street rhetoric demanded by the current moment, a politically unviable gun-control agenda and the satisfaction of electing the first woman president — an appeal that has reportedly worn thin even among progressive women in the Boomer generation.
For working-class Democrats who have watched the New Deal social contract erode since the 1970s and endured pragmatic arguments to defer their dreams of economic advancement, Sanders’ call for free college education and universal healthcare is right on time. For Sanders’ supporters under 40, that’s their entire lifetime.
The two parties are starting to look as creaky as the Whigs, which contended with the Democrats in the 1830s and 1840s, before fracturing under the pressure of the slavery question, with part of the base gravitating to the new Republican Party and others joining up with the nativist Know-Nothing Party.
Where does it go? Will there be a new Trump party comprised of working-class whites fed on virulent xenophobia and racial scapegoating, leaving the economic elites of the traditional Republican Party stranded without a political base? Will the urbane, socially liberal elites of the Democratic Party preserve the Obama coalition, or will economic progressives frustrated by the incrementalism of the Affordable Care Act and stagnated wages strike out on their own? Will Trump, having won the Republican nomination, grab enough votes from rank-and-file union members to carry crucial swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in November? Can Sanders woo Trump supporters with his message of economic populism? Does the Black Lives Matter movement matter as an electoral force, or do they split between Clinton and Sanders?
No one knows where this roulette wheel stops, but one thing is sure: If you’re breathing and have enough cognition to formulate a thought, you better toss in your chips.