The 2016 election is defying traditional political expectations. On the Democratic side the once inevitable frontrunner Hillary Clinton is fighting off a surging Bernie Sanders while Donald Trump has emerged as an unexpected and dangerous frontrunner for the Republicans. It appears that this is the year “anti-establishment” politics has become mainstream. Indeed both Sanders and Trump are favorites to comfortably win the upcoming New Hampshire primary.
The media and electoral prognosticators are scrambling to make sense of this new political reality. Such fringe candidates are expected to fade, it is assumed, long before the first caucuses and primaries. Yet what is sending shockwaves through the status quo, however, goes beyond frontrunners being potentially unseated. It is that their challengers are espousing ideas—socialism and explicit xenophobia, respectively—that until recently were far outside the bounds of acceptable political debate.
It is tempting, therefore, to explain these developments as driven by a potent mixture of emotion and ideology. The dominant narrative that has emerged is that people are angry and turning to extreme beliefs. For the Right this means falling prey to Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim crusade. For the Left, it means embracing Sander’s inspiring message of democratic socialism.
Based on this assumption, so-called moderates are renewing their efforts to paint these candidates and their ideas as either ideologically threatening or politically naive. Those within the Liberal establishment, in particular, have recently begun rallying around the cause of Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism and reform agenda. As Paul Krugman ominously warned recently warned his readers: "Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence."
Not surprisingly, though, even mainstream politicians are being pulled in by this radical tide. Republicans are competing seemingly nightly to see who can be the most extreme Conservative – ranging from increasingly blatant Islamophobia to false claims against women health providers to the continued demonization of the LGTB community, to name only a few.
Clinton, meanwhile, has zigzagged sharply to the Left to try to tap into the energy of Sanders. She has positioned herself famously as a “progressive who likes to get things done” and been touting herself as the true change candidate. While her legislative record and evolving policy positions clearly belie this claim, she has even recently attempted to paint Sanders as more part of the political establishment than herself.
Yet these efforts miss a key element of this radical surge. It is not just or even primarily about ideology. Nor is it being fueled by unreasonable emotion. It is instead a matter of trust. Voters are increasingly mistrustful of mainstream candidates in a system that appears to be bought and sold by corporations at the expense of every day citizens.
These feelings were captured at the recent Democratic Iowa townhall forum where Hillary Clinton was asked directly by a member remarked “I don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, what I have heard from quite a few people my age is that they think you are dishonest.” Her answer that “I was on the frontline of change and politics since I was your age” was perhaps convincing in the moment but it only takes a quick internet search to reveal that her career is marked less by a consistent commitment to progressive causes and more to one of centrism and at times even down Conservatism.
Recent polls reinforce this public mistrust. As Professor Jerome Karabel has recently noted,
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Beneath Secretary Clinton's problematic favorability ratings lies a deep reservoir of public mistrust. When prospective voters are asked whether or not she is "honest and trustworthy," their response is sobering; her rating on this dimension is a net negative 24 points, with 60 percent answering no and 36 percent answering yes. The contrast with Senator Sanders is striking in that it is precisely the opposite: anet positive of 24 percent, with 55 percent responding yes and 24 percent no.
Underpinning this distrust is a deeper issue – one that establishment candidates cannot easily escape or explain away. It is that the rhetoric of politicians matters considerably less than who is funding them. Their ideology, in this respect, is a smokescreen for the elite interests who are their real puppet masters.
For Clinton, these charges are especially damning. The public – especially the younger generation and lower income voters – has thus far remained skeptical about her claims that she will “take on” Wall Street given her close financial ties to the financial industry. Questions of whether she will release the transcript, for instance, of speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs persist and seem to be growing stronger. It would appear that for many voters, in the face of rising inequality and oligarchy – while the 1% is willing to pay top dollar to hear Clinton speak for the other 99% her talk is cheap when compared to her record.
It is exactly this reason why Sanders and Trump are so respectively popular. Sanders’ is not accepting any corporate money and has a long track record of rejection corporate support in favor of fighting for progressive causes. Trump, by contrast, is almost entirely self-funding his campaign – giving him credibility (whether legitimate or not) as someone who is immune to the pull of special interests. Quoting one cable news commentator, "I think the difference here between Trump and Sanders is Trump can't be bought (he doesn't need 'em) and people love that. Bernie Sanders won't be bought. He won't be bought. He's been around for a long time, he has proven that."
This election is shaping up to be a referendum on the country’s corrupt political system.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren articulated these feelings well in a recent Senate speech, declaring, “A new presidential election is upon us…Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who want to run this country like some private club.”
The implications of this election, nonetheless, could be ideologically monumental. At stake is which political ideology can best mobilize and direct voter’s anger linked to this profound feeling of democratic powerlessness. Bernie Sander’s political revolution appears most poised to provide the country with a progressive alternative that more than simply expands the government would fundamentally reform it.
Present is the potential dawn of new politics where interest is as—if not more—important than stated ideology. For the average voter, a candidate’s rhetoric increasingly pales in comparison to where they get their money. Only time will tell whether this will lead to a more accountable and less oligarchic democracy.