The Ticking Time Bomb Sanders and Trump Both Share
WATCHING WHAT’S OCCURRING IN THE POLITICAL primaries south of the border is like nothing we have really experienced before. Those who thought just a few years ago that Sarah Palin was likely the most extreme establishment candidate to come along now stare agog at how Donald Trump has blown up the long-held “rites of passage” in American politics. It is likely few believed in this era that a serious political candidate running for president would run so afoul of facts that he could say what he wished and get away with it. Moreover, his willingness to entertain the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., or banning Muslims from the country, would have been thought of as political suicide only a few short years ago. But here Trump is, in vital contention for the presidency, and with a large following.
Like Trump, Bernie Sanders is an independent political force establishing himself within the mainstream of traditional party politics in an election year. But the Vermont senator has been an experienced, savvy, and proven political operative compared to Trump. In late 2014, most American media franchises said that Sanders simply didn’t have the clout or the connection with the average voter to turn in any kind of serious campaign. They were all wrong and now each one is covering him in equal measure to Hillary Clinton. Sanders is also promoting ideas that traditional Democrats would have thought unworkable a decade ago. His policies can find acceptance with the party, but it’s his perspective that is the true challenge. It’s not what he wants to build, but what to break up that makes him a true revolutionary – big banks, media monopolies, billionaire democracy.
So, we have an evolving set of political phenomena south of the border that serves as a direct challenge to politics itself and how it has functioned for decades. Traditional candidates in two established parties are struggling for some kind of footing, while two independents, different as night and day, continue to capture the hearts and minds of voters.
We are witnessing a populism explosion that few expected and which could be signaling the demise of democracy in America instead of its rebirth – we just aren’t sure. To maintain that the traditional parties have embedded themselves in a deep collusion with big money, with Wall Street, and with vested interests would be correct. They guarded and guided a political system that over a few decades tolerated, even shaped, the great challenges we face today. So, yes, some kind of “reset” is required.
What both Trump and Sanders have tied into isn’t so much a change as it is a shaping of the burgeoning anger average people feel towards the political and financial institutions themselves. Just as in Canada, where many overlooked or dismissed the deeper yearning for change felt by Canadians and which the Liberals surfed on to majority, Americans, too, have caught the pundits unprepared for how they have expressed similar urges.
To say that populism is on the rise would be an understatement, but it is what it truly wants that can be troubling. Bernie Sanders understands that Americans are fed up with the political and financial classes, but his solutions to that angst revolve around reforming the institutions themselves into workable units that can strengthen employment, education, the economy, healthcare, even tackle climate change. He understands that political parties, colleges, financial businesses, and healthcare institutions have arisen out of legitimate need to assist citizens to move forward in life. When they are broken, fix them.
Trump, on the other hand, sees institutions as a kind of roadblock to popular rule. Somehow he has been able to parlay voter anger into a kind of weaponry against elitism when he is, in fact, the ultimate elitist himself. It defies full understanding, but it is a reality, and it is now a force.
This is what Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous 19th century French observer laid out in his now infamous book Democracy in America. He believed that a free people required restraints if they were to progress their way into the future. And he believed that a healthy people live their collective life out in institutions as the best chance for advancing society – they touch one another through them. Ultimately, he fretted that the “tyranny of the majority” would someday destroy America by removing the very civil and legal rights that had initially made it a light to the world. He perceived mob rule as eventually doing away with the historic lessons of inclusion America had come to represent. It would seem that building walls and deporting or banning entire cultures of people would fit into that category.
We don’t know how the American election will work out, but this much we understand: people are angry. Should that anger focus itself on making institutions relevant again, then democracy will find its renaissance. If it results in collectively avoiding or ignoring institutions, or the primary responsibility of citizens towards one another, will have the opposite result. Right now those two possibilities are playing out in real-time in America.