With No Sanders-Trump Debate, Is the Party Over?
There have been two powerful ideas generated during the 2016 presidential campaign. We rarely get any new ideas in a presidential year, but these two have resonated deeply in the American public, and even more amazing, the men espousing them have received more than two of every three votes cast in the primaries so far among the three top candidates.
The first idea is that the obscene redistribution of national wealth (socialism for the rich) to the top one percent during the past four decades should be placed front and center on the political agenda, and both parties should be held accountable for allowing this to happen. No question is as fundamental to any political community than how the pie is distributed and it is the young who have responded with the most fervor to this message. Sanders has a corollary: in order to re-balance this outrage the people need to reverse the pointy-headed Supreme Court decision that invited Corporate America to purchase politicians and policies with virtually no restraint or accountability. Bernie Sanders has been undeviating in presenting this idea, and Trump, freely admitting he has purchased politicians and favors, has hinted that Sanders is right about the corollary, if not about the disgrace of the pie shrinking for the bottom 99 percent.
The second idea is the insight that political correctness can be a fig-leaf for failure. The true genius of Donald Trump this year is not his ability to get free press coverage, but his ability to link his flagrant violation of the norms of politically correct discourse to the deeper frustrations Bubba has about the direction of the country. To speak honestly, he seems to say, is to violate politically correct speech. Which is the greater outrage, Trump's use of language to describe members of the political class, or the failures of the political class itself in protecting your pocketbook and America's greatness? In picking as targets iconic establishment figures Trump signals his disdain for the political class, for its failures and its vapid pretensions. These fools, he seems to say, are the reason why "we don't win anymore." This is a political critique of our current system, attributing cause and effect, and Trump states it more sharply than any politician in recent times.
There is, however, a second, more emotional, message that mixes into the first. In his flagrant violation of the norms of the political class--calling Carly "ugly," Hillary "crooked," Jeb "low energy," Ted "a liar," again and again--and in using the language Bubba himself might use, Donald Trump for a moment, magically, becomes an empowered Bubba himself, with a Harley emblem on his chest, flipping a bird at political correctness and the political class. Trump's followers want Kelly Megyn or Paul Ryan or Hillary Clinton to be outraged about his language. Their consternation is Bubba's revenge. This emotional linking of Trump to Bubba's anger is powerful stuff--Bernie doesn't come close--not to be underestimated, and Hillary will have more than her hands full finding a way to crawl out of the failed-political-class box Trump will place her in.
Without a debate between Sanders and Trump the public will not have an opportunity to compare the two major ideas of 2016, side by side, a huevo! like they say in Mexico. And with one of the two ideas gone from the general election contest (Hillary will never focus on One Percent), the contest threatens to become another over-scripted television reality show, artificially propped up with breathless updates of the latest polls, and predictable insults from Trump in between. Back in our familiar comfort zones, our minds will, in the words of John Stuart Mill (see yesterday's blog), once again bow to the yoke and we will vote in sync with our statistically calculated demographic cohorts.
This is unfortunate, because until now, the public has shown itself surprisingly responsive to the lure of new ideas, the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. This primary season, for once, showed us all what American politics might be, but almost never is.