A Sea Change in the Way Politics is Done in the United States

At the time of this writing, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is surging.  He has just won the New Hampshire primary.  His main challengers for the Republican nomination – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are spinning their wheels.  The odds are, barring some (highly possible) meltdown by Trump, he will be the 2016 Republican nominee for president.  Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders just missed beating longtime favorite Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucasus and then scored a clear victory in New Hampshire.  While he is not the favorite for his party’s nomination like Trump is, he is now a serious contender.

Trump and Sanders have been labeled outsider candidates, cast by some as the main characters in a political tale about a unique political cycle where angry Americans reject inept establishment candidates in favor of people who promise to change “business as usual” in Washington.

Well, that’s one way to look at it.  But I think there is something more fundamental underway.   Before explaining, let me tell you about a recent experience in one of the classes I teach.

No More Unread Errata

I made a mistake during one of my lectures recently.  I was trying to explain a PowerPoint slide I had put together about formal and informal fallacies (it was a research methods class) and in trying to confuse my students, I confused myself.  In times past, I would have just smiled, shrugged my soldiers, said something that professors don’t usually say to elicit some chuckles, and kept it moving.  In some instances, depending on the alertness of the audience, I would just move on as if nothing was the matter.

But a thought flitted across my mind this time.  Students have Snapchat, Twitter, and any number of social media applications.  It may not do to just shrug the mistake off or ignore it.  What if one of them takes a picture of the mistake, shares it, and via online communication they come to some definition of the mistake.  Given the rules of group interaction it would probably be the worst definition.  The students could come to a consensus about what just occurred without me having any say-so in the matter.

In the past, one or two savvy students may decide to approach me after class and query me on the mistake.  Then, given the differences in power and authority between us, it would be easy for me to explain the mistake or admit error in a manner that is most favorable to me.  Students may chat amongst themselves, but unless the mistake was egregious (like the spook comment from the Coleman Silk in The Human Stain) the incident would be lost, nothing but unread errata.  By the next class, provided it runs smoothly, it would be forgotten.

Students in my class can (and do) use social media to create their own understandings of what is happening in class, irrespective of me. image credit: http://mediadistractionstocollegestudents.blogspot.com/

Students in my class can (and do) use social media to create their own understandings of what is happening in class, irrespective of me.
image credit: http://mediadistractionstocollegestudents.blogspot.com/

The days of controlling the situation simply with one’s authority are rapidly coming to an end. Traditional authority figures – your teachers, policemen, politicians – do not control the flow of communication anymore.  They cannot define events in ways that are most advantageous to them as easily as before.  People, as a collective, can come to conclusions that are their own, and not massaged by authority figures.

America Never Liked Anti-Establishment Candidates Before…Why Now?

The talking heads are saying that this is a unique election.  The reasons usually given are economic and political.

The economic angle would be that wages are not keeping up with the cost of living, that there is growing inequality, and that the new jobs being created offer low wages and few benefits.  In this scenario, people want an anti-establishment candidate because they may have the skills and vision to fix an economy that has been moribund for about a decade now.  I imagine that Democrats would find this angle the most agreeable, however everyone feels the bite of a bad economy.  Meanwhile, the political angle would be that the leadership we have is simply not cutting it.  Decisions being made in the White House are moving the country in the wrong direction and lowering America’s standing in the world.  Politicians are unresponsive to the electorate, and are more interested in campaigning and raising donations than actually doing anything.  I imagine that Republicans would be more likely to latch onto this angle, although there are many Democrats who are unhappy with President Obama and the frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

These economic and political angles imply that if things change then Americans won’t be clamoring for an anti-establishment candidate.

But there is something wrong with this analysis.  We have had economic problems before, much worse than now: see the Great Depression of the 30’s and Stagflation in the 70’s.  We have been through periods of where we have lost faith in politicians: see Watergate.  But during those times there was no fear of someone as brash as Donald Trump or an avowed socialist like Sanders getting the nomination.

On the contrary, it seems as if it is the establishment candidates who get elected when voters are unhappy.  Roosevelt was not an outsider when he was elected in 1932.  Indeed, he is as established as they will ever come.  He was a former Governor of New York, had run before, and his uncle had been President.  Jimmy Carter was the archetypal Southern Democrat elected in 1976.  Also a former governor.  Before that he was a senator.   Indeed following Carter was Ronald Reagan, which continues the trend of electing people who are with the establishment.  Yes, he was a former actor.  But by 1979 he had given, along with Obama’s, one of the most famous speeches in convention history and was governor of California.

These outsider candidates are not viable because of elected candidates behaving badly. I don’t believe that our politicians are any less competent or less responsive to the electorate than they were in the past (okay, maybe they are a little less responsive, but nothing compared to the politics of the Gilded Age, where smoke filled rooms were actually filled with smoke and people doing deals).  They are not viable because of a weak economy. We couldn’t elect an outsider, socialist candidate in 1932 or 1936 – back when communism wasn’t a dirty word and we were at 11% unemployment.  But we can do it now?


Let’s Get Used to It

The difference is the technology.  The same way I feared that my students would generate their own understandings of phenomena in my class and I couldn’t control it, so it is with politicians.

It is not necessarily that people are choosing an “anti-establishment” candidate.  They are simply choosing the candidate they like, a candidate that happens to not be the candidate that people in power like.  Sure, Trump and Sanders are marketing themselves as outsiders.  But the person who is in office now was also an outsider.  Remember “Change We Can Believe In”?  It is no coincidence that Barack Obama became president in the Digital Age.

Conservative thought leaders have tried their best to discourage the electorate from voting for Trump.  But it ain’t working.  In fact, the more off the cuff or brash or insensitive things he says, the more he is liked.  Actually, what is occurring is that these things are off the cuff or brash or insensitive to people in authority positions, but not the everyday citizen.

Similarly, what will determine if Hillary Clinton wins is not how many endorsements she gets from this Democrat or that community leader.  Ultimately, it will come down to how much charisma she has, and whether or not the people are buying what she’s selling (by the way she is terrible at this, and this is why Sanders has a chance).


The conservative establishment is still dreaming that Donald Trump will go away. He may not get the nomination, but it won't be because of the mass meda...no matter how hard they try.

The conservative establishment is still dreaming that Donald Trump will go away. He may not get the nomination, but it won’t be because of the mass media…no matter how hard they try.


This is not going to change.  David Brooks and Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity and whoever else has been granted permission to broadcast their views to the world are now simply entertainers.  Even if we enter into an economic boom period and polls show a rise in confidence in politicians, it will still be the case that people in authority positions will not be able to tell the average citizen how they should think or feel about an event.

This state of affairs will only become more entrenched as people who are more familiar with social media come of voting age and people who depended on mass media for their daily talking points are no longer with us.  Trump and Sanders are not anomalies.  They are signs of a sea change in the way politics is done in the United States.


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