Shock and disbelieve spread across the world late on the night of November 8, 2016. American democracy had been Trumped. Subsequent prognostications by the usual pundits attributed the statistical-political surprise to any of a number of causes. Social media and cable TV have fully exemplified Wednesday-morning quarterbacking, so I need not rehash them here. More important, what does the dethroning of the Democratic Party Establishment actually mean?
And, equally important, what does the election of a narcissistic, apparently sociopathic, surely unscrupulous businessman whose only value appears to be winning, who spouts racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and megalomaniacal promises, and has zero experience in government, mean for the future of American Politics, culture, and even survival? So-called “liberals” were shocked. The Democratic Party National Committee had picked its establishment candidate, despite the surge of popular support for party outsider, Bernie Sanders. Therein lies the rub. The Washington establishment does not like outsiders, rich or poor, popular or not – they can disrupt long-established relations of convenience and profit.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump came at their populisms from opposite directions. They responded in very different ways to the deep pain and anger that had become widespread among the American people. The appeal of populist ideas emerged in different ways for the white working class and isolated poor communities of color. Ultimately, anger trumped both ideology and democracy. I am convinced that Bernie would have won against “The Donald.” He not only responded to white working class anger with the Washington establishment, but offered concrete programs to reestablish the needs of the American people, including excluded ethnic groups, as the primary driver of public policy. His New Deal liberalism has a life-long consistent track record.
As we all know, and Trump so skillfully exploited, the dominant political feelings among regular people have focused resentment against government corruption and indifference to the people. Most people resent the pandering to “special interests,” particularly corporate and Wall Street financial interests, to the detriment of society as a whole, and to them in particular. Despite the continued existence of party loyalists who have consistently voted their party tickets, many democrats and republicans resent that their party elites largely represent the interests of the powerful, not the people.
Both Sanders and Trump responded to that resentment. The democrats nominated an establishment politician beleaguered by continued attacks from the right. The Republicans chose a sleazy celebrity businessman with a track record of shady business dealings and little taste for toeing the Republican party line. Yet he played to the racist elements of populist resentment on the right, and ruthlessly exploited the fears and anger of diverse anti-establishment demographics while ignoring or insulting diverse ethnic and gender groups. Trump made his appeal as a political outsider.
Hillary Clinton did not. She could not. Her public policy support for women and children is well established. But so is her close association with financial and political elites, the establishment targets of so much public disaffection. On matters related to Wall Street she waffled. On matters of the Washington Establishment, well, she embodies it. Hillary attempted to shift from her corporatist party right-centrism to adopt half-hearted watered down versions of some of Bernie’s proposals. For example, she proposed “debt free” college education for some, not tuition free higher education for all. Too many people saw her efforts, accurately, as campaign strategy, not personal commitment. The DNC, having lost all semblance of traditional liberalism except for ritual use of its lexicon, ruthlessly undercut Bernie’s primary campaign. So did the corporate mass media.
Not only did the corporate mass media supply Trump with hundreds of hours of free media exposure – in response to his celebrity and attention-getting skill. The media assumed his unelectability, while pandering to his sensationalism. To the establishment “journalists,” he just as well could have been a Kardashian. The same media power elite virtually blacked out any exposure of Bernie Sanders to the American people, many of whom had never even heard of him. In spite of that, Sanders progressive brand of populism caught on. He was tapping into the same pain and anger as Trump, but with a big difference: he proposed policies and had a plan.
The corporate “journalists” of the major media identify with the technocratic Ivy League elite of the Washington establishment. They identify with the centers of power in Washington, D.C. They simply branded Bernie Sanders as illegitimate because he opposes the existing power structure with which all candidates are supposed to align themselves. Bernie bashing became a dominant theme for the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Donald Trump won the election because there was no other anti-establishment choice. Republican gerrymandering and the anti-democratic Electoral College helped, of course. So did FBI Director, Comey. People were willing to overlook Trump’s otherwise monumental flaws simply because he skillfully presented himself as outside the establishment that has failed ordinary Americans for decades. The rules of the establishment game certainly did not fail Trump; he exploited them ruthlessly, enabling him to avoid paying income taxes for almost two decades. The surge of rural white disaffected voters and the slack turnout of educated white women also made a difference. The failure of the pundits and statisticians to predict Trump’s victory resulted from the failure to factor in the pain and anger of large segments of the American population, as well as the sense of betrayal felt by many progressive democrats. That pain and anger led to a level of resentment that allowed many to accept the Trumping of Democracy rather than put up with more of the same.
But NO is not enough. On numerous fronts, we are in for a very rough ride. We live in the most interesting, and dangerous, of times. The most disruptive of all trends, climate destabilization, will continue to amplify political, economic and social crises. The U.S. government is likely to ignore and deny it for four more years. That alone is enough to push us past the point of no return to climate stability, leading to further economic, social, and political chaos. Only a mass movement of global citizens can possibly make a difference now.
 For an astute historical reading of the replacement of traditional liberalism with a hollow shell of rhetoric that now veils the Democratic Party’s obeisance to corporate interests to the detriment of society, see Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books, 2010).
 For an insightful assessment of the power-elite favoring partisanship of the major media outlets and the cooptation of journalism itself, see Thomas Frank, “SWAT TEAM: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders—and real reform” Harpers Magazine (November 2016) pp. 26-35.
3 thoughts on “No is not Enough: Democracy At Risk”
This situation can be places squarely at the feet of Debbie Wasserman Shultz. When forced to choose between a fake democrat and a real republican, Americans will choose the real republican every time.
Really really good, Bob. Thanks.