No doubt 2016 is the anti-establishment year for U.S. politics.
Nationally, both Sanders and Trump are polling at about 40% in their respective primaries. In both parties, experienced candidates have gone out with whimpers.
Clinton has been able to hold Sanders off thanks to being in a two-person race; in the scattered GOP field, Trump’s 40% means establishment candidates like Rubio and Bush have been shellacked. At this point, Trump appears unstoppable despite prediction after prediction of his demise coming any day now.
All this is true despite every imaginable establishment advantage: donors have poured hundreds of millions into establishment campaigns to try to hold off the rising insurgent tides. Trump and Sanders have nary a political endorsement to their names (Christie’s cynical realpolitik bid for VP aside). Experienced economists and lawyers denounce their plans as unrealistic. Every respectable media outlet—and even highly partisan right-wing ones—have a singular message: stop Trump at all costs. (It probably won’t happen.)
And yet... here we are. A specter hangs over the establishments. Their most fervent bases—long relied on as pillars of support against the enemy party—are rebelling en masse. The establishment’s days seem numbered; party leaders and pundits alike are left dumbfounded and speechless to explain it.
What on earth happened? As the reality of Sanders’s and Trump’s staying power set in, pundits are scrambling to bring theories to bear in order to look like they’re the ones that have figured it out. Most of these theories attempt to explain the rise of one or the other from an ideological perspective, but these theories can’t explain the simultaneous rise of both at once. And given how many voters are divided between Sanders and Trump, any plausible theory must explain them both. So where do we start?
As we dig into the political history of the past 20 years, we find the groundwork being laid. The terrible irony here is that the planting was done by the very establishment elements that are now scrambling to contain the effects. Each party establishment has sown the seeds of its own demise. The work was not intentional, but it was deliberate, and the parties have nobody to blame but themselves for the dilemma they now face.
In the 1990s, each party began adopting two key new election strategies. The first was apocalyptic demonization of the other party. The second was focusing on maximizing the turnout of its most partisan bases.
Demonization and its Consequences
Voting on election day is an emotional choice as much as it is a rational one. As Jonathan Haidt eloquently explains in The Righteous Mind, the emotions that govern our political behavior are most closely linked to a sense of tribal identity. This tribalism explains why each party can maintain cohesion despite holding to peculiar—and often contradictory—combinations of policy ideas.
In recent decades, each party has refined its fundraising and turnout strategies by framing each election as an existential battle. “Vote for us because the other party wants to do something terrible” is a perennial core campaign message.
To illustrate: in 2014, Nancy Pelosi declared that “civilization as we know it would be in jeopardy if Republicans win the senate.” In 2012, the American Enterprise Institute boldly predicted “10 disasters America will face if Obama gets a second term,” including the end of religious freedom, economic prosperity, and U.S. military superpower status. 2004 election ads compared Bush to Hitler.
The endless bashing of each party has had the intended effect: Americans’ opinions of each party have indeed dropped. But because the effect is bilateral, both parties suffer.
As of 2015, both parties had reached new favorability lows of under 40%. Congress’ favorability, which hovered between 30 and 40% in the decades before 2000, tanked to a cataclysmic 9% (famously lower than North Korea and cockroaches) before rebounding to a meager 14%.
The result? Americans no longer want anything to do with either party. Since 2004, American voters have fled both parties in droves: the number of self-identifying independents has skyrocketed from 32% to a record high of 43%, leaving Republicans (with 26%) and Democrats (with 30%) at record lows.
Is it any surprise that primary voters are scorning the party establishment? We should instead be puzzling why it hadn’t happened already.
A Partisan Focus and Its Consequences
The 1990s also saw a sharp increase in the use of consultants and high frequency, detailed polling in political campaigns. They quickly learned that the most hard-line partisans in each party voted and donated money far more frequently than other voters, and this meant messaging changed.
Rather than championing policy positions that reflected about half of the electorate, candidates learned that the way to win elections was to win this hard-line base by pandering to them. This grew increasingly important in primaries, where turnout is traditionally comparatively low (especially for Congress).
As much as each party tries to also grab for the center in the general election, the damage is often done by the time candidates emerge from the primary as winners—Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 “etch-a-sketch” flap illustrates this problem.
The unintended consequence of this highly partisan focus is that the tail of the party now wags the dog: the candidates that don’t effectively run to the extremes during the primary struggle to make it to the general.
Hillary Clinton--who was expected to be a shoo-in--had to scramble for months to solidify her role as front-runner. Establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, George Pataki, and John Kasich have either fallen by the wayside or have found they have few weapons at hand to oppose Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
If we look briefly at the issues challenging the establishment, we can see this at play:
Democrats have spent the past 8 years blasting Wall Street as criminals and “the 1%” as moustache-twisting robber-barons. They hopped on board with the Occupy Wall Street message when it was politically convenient in congressional elections, and told their base that the financial sector is to blame for their woes. How silly are we to be surprised that the message of “economic revolution” has so much appeal?
Republicans have steadfastly opposed amnesty for undocumented migrants in the country since President Obama took office, calling the plan dangerous, economically disastrous, and even morally wrong for rewarding illegal behavior. Who can wonder why Trump’s plan to “build a wall” and (somehow) deport ten million people has gained traction?
Democrats have rallied their own base by attacking “big oil” and fighting fracking. Given the party’s years of fervor against fossil fuels, is it any question that Clinton’s oil connections are weighing her down like an albatross?
Republicans won the House in 2010 on a message that Washington is broken and its bulk a threat to American interests. The Tea Party Caucus swept in through opposition to the old, “out-of-touch” establishment interests in Congress. After 6 years of conservative campaigning against Washington as a whole, there was every reason to expect voters to see experience as a liability and prefer the guy who has no political resume at all.
The roots of the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been digging into the soil of American politics for decades: this year, they are bearing fruit.
This insurgency can be explained far more clearly by understanding how the parties groomed the electorate, rather than by a sudden and inexplicable shift of a bulk of the electorate toward preferring authoritarianism and socialism.
If the establishment is able to cling to power in 2016, will they be able to pivot their messaging toward more moderate policy proposals? It’ll require a discipline that the parties may not be able to muster. The rebellions of the party bases are likely to grow stronger in 2020, not weaker. Prospects for the establishment are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.
About the Author: Erik Fogg is the CEO of MidTide Media and leads the Something to Consider Movement, which aims to re-build the lost middle ground in US politics. In 2015 he co-authored Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again.