The Grand Transformation of American Politics
By Frederick Kuo
March 12th, 2019
The presidential election is more than a year and a half away, but primary fever is in the air as the Democratic field is swamped with ambitious contenders. Like a hornets nest disturbed by Trump’s proverbial pawing, the Democratic field alight with passionate contenders ready to sting. The already hyper competitive field was thrown into further disarray with the entry of Bernie Sanders last month, the socialist firebrand from Vermont, who has stubbornly refused to give up his quest for the presidency.
In contrast to the last election, Sanders has had no need to invest in name recognition. His platform, formerly considered radical, centered on free college education and tax reform has largely been adopted by his new primary opponents. Sanders is entering this field not as an underdog challenger, but as a front runner, already raising $6 million in just the first 24 hours and breaking records since his announcement. His followers have a devotion bordering on a messianic fervor and his grassroots network is vast and quickly mobilizing into action. There is no doubt that the upcoming primaries will be consequential for the future of not only the Democratic Party but of American politics itself, we are living through one of the greatest re-alignments of American politics.
A continuation of the 2016 populist revolt
With Bernie Sanders’ entry into the race, combined with Tulsi Gabbard’s own campaign for the presidency, the Democratic primary is shaping up to be a continuation of the great populist revolt of 2016. In the last election cycle, Donald Trump, a brash billionaire and political outsider managed to stage one of the greatest coup d’etats of American political history by leading the populist wing of the American Right and wrestling control of the Republican party away from the McCains, Bushes and Rubios, and remaking it in his own image.
On the Left, the Democratic establishment faced a similar revolt from Bernie Sanders. Although the Democratic elites, unlike their Republican counterparts, succeeded in subsequently destroying this rebellion, they did not do so without suffering severe punishment in the end. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the champion of the Beltway machine faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of Donald Trump. Democratic voters, like the hordes of peasants who were forced to fight for the Scottish nobility in Braveheart amidst the betrayal of their folk hero, were not sufficiently roused to fight for Hillary’s victory. Since then, the Democratic establishment has been gradually ceding control of the party to the progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders.
2019’s primary field is a continuation of the unfinished business of 2016. With Sanders leading the party’s relentless march leftwards, it has become clear that the primaries are not just about the nomination but fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party itself. If Sanders is successful, 2020 will finally see the epic clash between the two populist wings of the American left and right that 2016 had promised but not delivered.
Blurring of old political lines
We are indeed living in interesting times. In a political atmosphere that is undergoing great tectonic shifts, the old labels of what constitutes a Republican or a Democrat are quickly getting blurred. For decades during the Cold War and after, both parties kept up the semblance of a competition but were largely dominated by a recognizable Washington establishment dominated by Neoliberals who advocated for free trade on behalf of corporate interests and Neocons who dominated a foreign policy obsessed with regime change wars and interventionism.
In 2016, the establishment faced an unprecedented challenge to its power from both Trump and Sanders. The two are polar opposites in many ways. Trump is a brash and boastful billionaire from New York with a history of insensitivity against women and minorities. Sanders, the socialist senator and committed left wing ideologue from Vermont, with a decades long history of stubbornly decried social and economic injustice.
However, as different as the two figures are, in many ways, they are two sides of the same coin by rejecting dominant mantras of the Washington consensus which for decades were considered unassailable. Both figures rejected the notion that free trade on its own accord brought about an unquestioned net positive with Sanders demanding that trade policies should protect the rights of American workers and Trump fighting to remake trade rules to protect American industries and manufacturing.
Both candidates campaigned on the rejection of decades long policies of incessant regime change wars and foreign interventionism as a massive waste of life and treasure and both similarly advocated investing those resources at home instead. As different as the two men are, they both share a powerful ability to appeal to the common man, which is reflected by the passionate loyalty of their bases. In 2016, both represented a threat to the establishment and faced significant smear campaigns. Although since taking office, Trump has filled key positions of his administration with long time neocons, perhaps as a concession to ensure his own political survival.
The alternative social media revolution
In the last election, there were three political figures that dominated the political stage, Trump, Clinton and Sanders. Out of those three, only one was a representative of the old neoliberal school which had dominated since the end of the cold war.
If the 2020 election comes down to a race between Trump and Sanders, it will result in a competition that truly ends the old paradigm of American politics where both parties had differences in policy but played narrowly between the lanes, representing varying shades of the same neoliberal and neoconservative duopoly.
The massive change in public consciousness did not come from a vacuum. Fueling this massive shift towards rising populism on both ends of the spectrum is the information revolution. Buoyed by social media and the internet, alternative voices outside of the mainstream media outlets are more prominent than ever, and their influence is only growing.
Youtube has allowed for the rise of extremely popular alternative news platforms that often run contrary or in defiance of the content found in the mainstream media news channels. Social media, meanwhile, has allowed for individuals to segregate themselves into their own political tribes and echo chambers, thus creating a more fragmented political spectrum where a recognizable center is becoming increasingly harder to define.
In many key issues from foreign interventionist wars to free trade, public opinion has shifted beyond the standard rhetoric of the mainstream media. This has resulted in recent years in major upsets such as the Trump presidency or Brexit. Like dead men walking, the narrative of the Neoliberal and Neoconservative schools of thought are quickly losing their legitimacy though many establishment politicians refuse to see the writing on the wall. With the exponential rise of alternative media and messianic populism driving increasing divergence between the left and the right with a recognizable center fast disappearing, American politics looks likely to see a combination of both greater polarization and also surprising overlaps between the two camps in the years to come. Regardless of outcome, what is clear is that the traditional establishment’s hold on power and information is quickly fading and a raw and new populism is surging to new heights.