Make Government Great Again

The 2016 presidential contest so far has been one for the ages. All of the rules and idioms that have governed politics since the middle of the 20th century no longer seem to apply. In particular, conventional, so-called “establishment” leadership in both parties has completely lost control of the process, and it has proven to be a major disruption.

Two factors have led to this moment. First, economic, demographic and global security trends have created a situation in which most Americans are making less money, have less job security, are worried about their futures and feel unsafe. In some ways, this is a result of forces beyond the control of the parties and their elected leaders. The second factor, however, is that neither party has been able to deliver real results or solutions to these problems. Unless and until establishment politicians from both parties are able to deliver, expect the political earthquake to continue.

2016 has brought great shifts in the world of politics. For starters, the concept of and proud allegiance to socialism as a political theory — borderline treasonous 50 years ago — is no longer a career ender. Just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. A 2011 Pew Research Center Poll showed that nearly half of all 18–29 year olds had a positive view of socialism. As the memory of Soviet Russia, the Cold War and the domino effect fade from memory, new visions of the state appear to be more palatable to the American voters (or at least, a significant portion of Democrats). Socialism, as a governing principle, offers concrete answers to the pervasive economic insecurity that an increasing number of Americans experience.

For Republicans, it appears that a combination of nationalism and populism has trumped (pun fully intended) other strong currents that have traditionally guided Republican voters. President George W. Bush was able to form a winning coalition whose centerpiece was evangelical Christians. Bush, though not a saint, was a very devout man whose most memorable speeches and deeply held convictions seemed to spring from a sincere faith. Contrast that with January 2016 where a Casino owning, bible-misquoting reality TV star is earning nearly 40% support among white, evangelical Christians nationwide.

Trump himself has slain many long standing political conventions. He has indicted an entire religion as potential terrorists and promised to bar them from the country and an entire neighboring nation as rapists and drug dealers. He has accused a life-long civil servant and decorated war hero of cowardice. And people love him for it. His polls have kept him in rock solid first place. His success reflects the fears Americans have about their security in a world of ISIS beheadings and regular mass shootings. He also blends this nationalism with an insistence that he cannot be bought by any special interest, instilling confidence in voters that if he were in office, he would not be looking out solely for the economic interests of wealthy donors.

Economic inequality, demographic shifts, global financial instability, terrorism, the soundbite news cycle, the digital revolution and all manner of other powerful forces have converged in this presidential race to fundamentally alter the paradigm by which voters seem to consider and elect their national leader. The strength of non-traditional candidates during this election defies all convention, but such candidates will continue to find success against the establishment of both parties unless mainstream Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House can deliver tangible solutions to voters.

Establishment candidates may yet pull off victories in the primaries, but until voters believe that government can function reasonably well and deal directly with their problems, expect non-traditional candidates to continue confounding pundits and roiling election cycles.

Douglas Farrar is Senior Manager of Communications at the Aspen Institute. The views expressed here do not reflect those of the Aspen Institute.