If Trump and Clinton are the best we can do, Go home, Democracy, you’re drunk
How, exactly, did we get here, with the two least likable and most ethically compromised candidates who ever shambled the earth as our two parties’ “prohibitive favorites?” I’m going with: ‘nothing less than a systemic failure of democracy.’
But before I round up the litany of stress fractures now crippling the body politic, including massive media malpractice, the money moat and the “missing ingredient” in our participatory democracy, it’s worth touching on just HOW awful Clinton and Trump really are as candidates. Both are under water and continuing to bubble down in their national favorability ratings. In the most recent Huffington Post tracking poll, 62.3 percent of the nation holds a dim view of Trump, and almost 54 percent of the country doesn’t care for Clinton. Edit on 3/22: Clinton’s net favorables are now -21, a record on the Dem side, according to CNN: “The previous highest unfavorable rating since 1984 actually belongs to another Clinton — former President Bill Clinton, who in 1992 had a net negative rating of -17.”
The “apples to apples” historical data on favorability only goes back to 1992, but the only candidate in recent history to win an election with upside down numbers was George W. Bush, who was re-elected in 2004 with a 47 percent favorable number, generating headlines like this one worldwide:
The powers of incumbency and fears about “changing horses in midstream” while the U.S. was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undoubtedly protected Bush. But shouldn’t a presidential candidate have to be viewed favorably by at least half of the country to get elected on the first go?
We may soon find out, if the charismatic xenophobic bigot with no discernable filter ends up facing off with the charm-challenged former Secretary of State, who is juggling a small handful of federal investigations while pushing two hotel carts full of baggage uphill, half left over from her polarizing first turn in the White House as FLOTUS and the other half from her controversial and middling tenure at State.
It’s fair to say that neither candidate would be in the position they are today without a significant assist from the “Fourth Estate,” whose shameful abdication of responsible and fair journalism in this election would generate 100-point headlines except they would have to be the ones to write them.
Clearly, the corporate media’s “baked in narratives” about Trump and Clinton helped each get where they are today. On the one hand, they continually insisted no one should really take Trump seriously and that he would soon flame out. On the other, they declared Clinton such a prohibitive favorite that none of her challengers, especially the socialist one, should be taken seriously.
Neither Trump nor Sanders were deemed “real contenders,’ by the cognoscenti, but if Sanders could have gotten a tiny fraction of the coverage for his progressive proposals that Trump did for his bigoted clown show, there is little doubt we’d be looking at a different race today. That Sanders still has a path to the nomination at all, albeit a narrow one, is a testament to just how underestimated he was.
Check out this chart, which shows Clinton receiving double the coverage of Sanders, which he needed more, given her near-unanimous name recognition. The figures include positive, neutral and negative coverage, though negative coverage is weighted less heavily.
The boost to Clinton (and the foot on Sanders’ neck) is even more obvious when shown over time, because much of his coverage, grudgingly given and mostly focused on his fundraising prowess, has been in recent months. He struggled get the “earned media” oxygen his campaign could have used to introduce him to voters much earlier in the cycle.
The Bernie Blackout, which, to Charles Blow’s credit, he did write about this week, continues to this morning. Using the terms Sanders and Seattle, there was no major national news outlet reporting that some 17,000 people showed up at Seattle’s Key Arena to hear him speak. Instead, we got Politico channeling DNC operatives telling Sanders to ‘Wind It Down.’
Meanwhile, the media, addicted to Trump’s clickbait appeal, fairly blanketed the airwaves with Trump’s every snort and bloviation. They gleefully amplified Trump’s counterpunches early in the cycle — remember when Republicans initially tried to take him on? The media effectively helped him to cow his challengers, who pivoted to lower-risk attacks on one another instead.
In all, Trump’s earned media added up to $2 billion in free airtime, which dramatically limited how much money he had to pony up for his “self-funded” campaign. Which brings us to:
The Money Moat
You can’t get elected President in the United States today without spending obscene amounts of money, which is more true this election cycle than ever before. That fact effectively winnows the field to billionaires like Trump (or Bloomberg, who threatened to Jack-in-the-box into the race earlier this year) and very rich people who can access the pockets of billionaires, like Clinton. If Sanders were to defy the odds and become president, he’d be the first non-millionaire to do so since Harry Truman, who left office in 1953. Today the poors, like Truman, Lincoln, Madison and McKinley, wouldn’t have a prayer of moving into the White House.
Some $2.13 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential race, and 2016, the second since Citizen’s United turned on the firehose of corporate and oligarchic spending, is shaping up to blow that one out of the water.
In ad dollars ALONE, Obama and Romney spent some $22 per vote in that election, which brings me to the final point I’ll wrap up with today:
Participatory Democracy Requires Participation
Everyone knows that turnout in U.S. elections is bad, but it’s even worse than that for anyone expecting “everyman” outcomes from the political process, because in this country the very rich and the highly educated are overrepresented in the meager turnouts we do have, as Demos researcher Sean McElwee argues this week in this excellent article in Salon. Consider this chart that demonstrates how much of an outlier we are from the rest of the world in this regard:
Turnout of that makeup makes it easier for politicians seen as favoring the wealthy (Trump) and friendly to corporations (Clinton) to win elections.
As McElwee notes:
“These divides lead to turnout that is overwhelmingly anti-redistribution, and biases the political system toward policies that favor the wealthy. As I’ve noted, among 18- to 24-year-olds earning less than $30,000, turnout was 12 percent in 2014, but among those earning more than $150,000 and older than 65, the turnout rate was five times higher, at 65 percent.”
The way that Sanders has kept himself in the game with Clinton at all is by marshaling an “unlikely voter” army of first time and other young voters, independents, and disillusioned middle-aged-and-older voters who he has brought back to a political process many had long given up on. If he somehow manages to pull the Democratic nomination out despite not having a super Pac — possibly with the help of superdelegates — Bernie Sanders would do so by breaking all the rules of politics that have brought us to the point of having Trump and Clinton as our likely nominees.
Fighting media headwinds, armed with nothing but small donor campaign funds and shepherding new and prodigal voters into his fold, Sanders would make good on his “political revolution” promise in more ways than one.