To paraphrase the hoariest of movie clichés: they don’t get it, do they? They…just…don’t…get…it.
If they got it, there would be articles diagnosing the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as symptomatic of the same disgust with the bipartisan elites who drove our honorable soldiers into a deadly quagmire in Iraq, then plunged our economy into a canyon, then redressed these wrongs to the benefit only of those who were already millionaires.
If they got it, they would say, “Look, before the 21st century, most Americans accepted that politicians were bought and paid for, but assumed that the money bought quality. What kind of quality are my taxes paying for if they react to disasters and inequality by making them worse?”
If they got it, there would be questions about how many Sanders voters may turn to Trump if Sanders drops out, and vice-versa. But that isn’t on the radar of anyone re-published by realclearpolitics.com (read: the mainstream media).
If they got it, there wouldn’t be articles like this one in The New York Times this week, headlined “For Republicans, Mounting Fears of Lasting Split.” The authors write:
Rank-and-file conservatives, after decades of deferring to party elites, are trying to stage what is effectively a people’s coup by selecting a standard-bearer who is not the preferred candidate of wealthy donors and elected officials…”All the things the voters want have been shoved off to sidelines by Republican leaders,” said Laura Ingraham, a talk-show host who was a force behind the primary election defeat of Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, in 2014. “And the voters finally have a couple of people here who are saying this table has to be turned over.”
Quoting the hard-right Ingraham is evidence that the left-centerist New York Times continues to situate the popularity of Cruz and Trump as a sort of turn to the right, as though the establishment is in the middle and the “people” are on the fringe. But real studies of Trump voters make it clear that he’s not only appealing to the hard right; he’s appealing to the disaffected and alienated from a much wider political spectrum, one that these cushy elitists at the Times ignore at their peril.
At no point do the writers even contemplate that registered, rank-and-file, blue-collar Republicans and registered, rank-and-file, blue-collar Democrats might be asking the same questions of their leaders. It makes you think that Peggy Noonan was right when she wrote this in the Wall Street Journal:
The Republicans are finally, fitfully fighting out real issues—ISIS, privacy. Mrs. Clinton is forced to fight no one, makes pronouncements and glides on.
The Republicans draw censure with their big, bodacious brawl. The Democrats should draw it for not struggling, grappling. The Republican Party was told to make Jeb king. No, they thundered. When the Democratic Party was asked to do a coronation, they pulled on their forelocks, bowed and said, “Yes, sire, may I do anything else?”
This is not like the Democratic Party! It was once a big brass band marching through the streets—loud, dissonant, there. “I’m not a member of any organized party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” For generations Democrats repeated that line as a brag. They knew disorganized meant vital, creative, spontaneous, passionate—alive.
Now that party acts like this tidy, lifeless, fightless thing, a big, gray, dead-hearted, soul-killing blob. “I have the demographics,” it blobbily bellows, “I have the millennials.” Maybe it doesn’t have as much as it thinks. It is no honor to the Democratic Party that it is not fighting things through with a stage full of contenders this epochal year.
The Republicans are all chaos and incoherence, it’s true. But at least they’re alive. At least they’re fighting as if it matters.
Noonan’s analysis would be reasonable…were it not for the fact that Bernie Sanders holds a prohibitive lead in New Hampshire and has fought to a dead heat in Iowa.
Gail Collins here seems to be sensing some consonances between Trump and Sanders, though she laments: “But Sanders has such better villains.” What if (she doesn’t ask) their supporters are animated by the same villains, essentially the people in both parties who reacted to Osama Bin Laden, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime mortgage market, Guantanamo Bay, and the Second Great Depression with a combination of fecklessness and recklessness?
I would agree with Collins that Sanders’ detailed proposals make a lot more sense than Trump’s, and even that Trump is wobblier against the 1% — for example, Trump’s tax plan hardly bruises “the hedge fund guys” Trump inveighs against at GOP debates. But the larger point is that both Trump and Sanders entered this race with a certain “pox on both their houses” attitude about the two major parties and the elites that control them, and in this decade that one issue just might – you’ll excuse the verb – trump all other traditional partisan concerns. Collins writes as though she still can’t believe such a thing, as though a Sanders voter could never go Trump or vice-versa, as though they could never form a populist party together.
Another New York Times elitist who is almost starting to get his head around the Trump-Sanders common-symptom-thing is Ross Douthat, who yesterday wrote:
Yet the Democratic campaign has attracted none of the “This Is Chaos!” coverage that’s attended the Republican primary season, none of the garment-rending among pundits and political insiders, none of the talk about civil wars and permanent schisms and a party that may never be the same.
Douthat ascribes this internecine peace to Sanders’ refusal to mud-sling. Could be. It’s also possible that Peggy Noonan is essentially correct. And it’s also possible, as I’ve written before, that cultural issues (or what some call political correctnesses) mean more than ever, and so, because America has never had a female President, even populist leftists are willing to sweep their other concerns under the rug during this election cycle on behalf of their daughters and nieces having that role model. It’s one more way of seeing the political process as essentially broken: well, nobody is actually going to fix our entrenched problems, and since that’s the case we may as well tell little girls there’s nothing they can’t become.
That argument probably has convinced many populist leftists. Yet some are taking it a step further, especially in Iowa: we’re telling our daughters there’s nothing they can’t become except a problem-solver. Because anyone with two eyes understands that President Hillary Clinton will do absolutely no more and no less for Wall Street than President Obama. And that means eight more years of growth for the one-percent and stagnation for the 99%. Is that really so good for our girls, for anyone?
The bottom line is that the discontent in America is much more real than most elites would like to admit. The rage and frustration are genuine. The punditocracy minimizes this, or acts as though the rage will redound to mainstream candidates in the end. This is the same punditocracy that never saw Trump coming a year ago.
Political science is notoriously a science without “controls.” Each of these candidates are in some ways imperfect vessels: we can’t imagine Sanders without socialism, Clinton without scandals, Trump without slurs and sexism, Cruz without slime. So you can’t look at America’s populist outrage and say, “oh yeah then why aren’t they supporting THIS person?” Well, perhaps because that person isn’t exactly Huey Long.
Whatever else happens, America does not want eight more years of Obama/Bush-style coziness with Wall Street and half-baked interventions abroad. Since I’ve spent most of this column showing the New York Times’ blindspots, let me end by showing one Times elitist who gets it: Nicholas Kristof. In his live-tweeting of the State of the Union, he said: “I agree with Obama about the need to tackle cynicism. But we need to do that in part with new policies–like tackling money in politics.” Right. That’s the kind of thing Obama won’t say, and Sanders and Trump will. (Even if Trump is coming about it from the roundabout position of not needing donor money.) And that’s why, if Sanders loses to Hillary Clinton as she’s campaigning now, and Trump wins the GOP nomination, the Democrats should be afraid. Be very afraid.