The race for this year’s US Democratic nomination says much about the current state of American politics, and where it may be heading.
On paper, as well as in the latest national polls, Hillary Clinton remains the favourite. The spouse of a former two-term President who became a New York Senator then US Secretary of State, she has amassed a towering profile over the past 25 years.
The real prospect of Clinton becoming America’s first female commander-in-chief makes her, on one level, an outsider. But as a super-polished player reportedly able to amass and spend as much as $2 billion on her campaign for the White House, she is the consummate ‘insider’.
Her main rival, Bernie Sanders, is the quintessential ’outsider’. At 74, he is the ‘junior’ Senator from the small, rural state of Vermont. If successful, he would be the oldest president ever.
A socialist as US President?
Sanders has been describing himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ on a crusade for America’s poor throughout his nearly five decades in public life. This in a country where associating with socialism in any shape or form is usually a political kiss of death.
Yet he routinely attracts crowds of up to ten thousand people to his rallies. The grassroots groundswell for Sanders’ ‘Feel the Bern’ campaign is not only found in progressive states. It is spilling into conservative heartlands as well.
The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary show just how potentially potent the Sanders campaign is as a political force in this year’s race.
Sanders described his narrow loss to Clinton in Iowa as a ‘very profound message to the political establishment (and) to the economic establishment,’ a message reinforced a week later with his overwhelming victory in New Hampshire.
The ‘outsider’ as a political force
It is worth pausing over the ‘outsider’ phenomenon in American presidential politics to begin to understand Sanders’ improbable appeal. The ‘outsider’ figures prominently when the US political system is seen manifestly failing to connect with, and represent the needs of ordinary people as well as the downtrodden.
Outsiders draw upon quasi-religious traditions that speak to America’s sense of destiny as democracy’s shining light. With straight talk and promises of fair-dealing, they seek to expel – Jesus-like - the moneymen and dissemblers who have been corrupting the temple of American Democracy.
The outsider, in effect, is a change agent intent on refreshing and returning democracy to its true masters – the people.
Abraham Lincoln is the most enduring symbol of the phenomenon. A small time lawyer from the Midwest, his log cabin-to-White House journey gave him the credibility and courage to lead and win a bloody civil war to upend slavery.
More recently there was Ronald Reagan, B-grade actor-turned-president whose homespun homilies ridiculing Washington’s elite and their addiction to big government was the foundation of his popularity.
How outsiders implode
While the outsider connects with some of America’s deepest myths and aspirations, the coin is two-sided. Think Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, who rode all the way to the White House on the back of public disgust with Watergate. But now most recall a legacy of outsider naivety and a failure to master high politics.
Sometimes the outsider convinces many of their ability to deliver authentic transformation. Then all deflates as change falls hostage to incumbency (think Barack Obama and his now largely discredited ‘change you can believe in’ mantra).
Most outsider candidates fail to get anywhere near the White House because they never manage to emerge from their fringe group origins.
Their campaigns, full of shambolic fire and dreams, fail to connect in any lasting way with the mainstream and implode (think Democrat nominee George McGovern’s bid for president in 1972 or that of the ultra-libertarian Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964).
Sanders and his campaign have all the hallmarks of ‘fringe’. Much of his change program is way beyond anything Washington’s political establishment, including Hillary Clinton, is prepared to speak about, let alone consider.
He calls for massive tax hikes on the rich. He talks of big reforms to an economy ‘rigged’ to favour rapacious corporates and embed massive inequality. He urges huge spending increases in education, health and other social services to restore ‘economic justice’.
When he’s not driving his own modest car to rallies, he flies economy class. He shuns three-second sound bites and photo ops for sermon-like speeches in which he ‘instructs’ the American people to start a ‘political revolution’.
What makes Sanders run?
In theory, his quixotic campaign should have self-destructed months ago. But fringe is the new mainstream in 21st century America where unprecedented numbers of Americans feel deeply alienated from US-style democracy and capitalism.
The living standards of the middle class have been in free-fall since the 1990s while the uber-rich gobble most of the economic pie. A competitive education is out of the reach for many young people without incurring crippling debt. The American Dream has become a waking nightmare for an ever-burgeoning underclass of the low-paid and unemployed.
America’s democracy is meant to redress these imbalances. But most average Americans now see it for what it has become: a system captured in toto by corporate interests and narrow ideology, unable to move beyond hyper-partisanship and rent-seeking to address their basic needs and concerns.
Fewer than one in five Americans has faith in their government to do the right thing for and by them.
We see Donald Trump mining the same quiet rage coursing through Main Street America. It remains to be seen if a protected and privileged billionaire can continue to impersonate an anti-establishment ‘outsider’.
But the underlying dynamics driving someone as improbable as Trump in the direction of the White House are the same as those giving a self-declared socialist a chance of becoming the leader of the free world.
Again, the hard probabilities of politics point to Clinton - backed by most of the Democratic Party establishment - winning its nomination then the presidency. Her success will be hugely significant and symbolic for American politics and restore some of its tarnished lustre, at least for a time. But ultimately it will show that, at this point at least, insiders continue their dominant hold on American politics.
The outsiders revolt
Potentially the real significance of the 2016 presidential race is not so much about the candidates or even who wins. That’s because, as commentators put it, if Bernie Sanders did not exist, someone would have had to invent him.
He gives voice not only to a longing among low and middle-income Americans to confront the powerful elite who has deeply injured their hopes and dreams. He voices their deep longing to reconnect with America’s political and economic systems which, at least on an abstract level, they continue to cherish.
Sanders represents nothing short of a looming revolt of the ‘outside’ against the ‘inside ‘of American politics which most recognise as either unable and unwilling to defend the many against a powerful few.
Banner Image: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by Disney/ABC Television via Flickr