Myths of Presidential Electioneering

MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19:  Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) hold up signs w
MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19: Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) hold up signs while he talks on stage during the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention on September 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Five Democratic presidential candidates are all expected to address the crowd inside the Verizon Wireless Arena. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is giving the Democratic establishment heartburn. He's a menace to the cozy arrangement whereby the party's movers and shakers gain an occasional shot at the White House, along with its patronage, in exchange for ignoring their traditional constituencies and thereby relegating themselves to permanent second-class status in America's political constellation. Sanders has shaken their complacent belief that the deal was enduring -- and their faith in Hillary as the bearer of the dim torch carried on their behalf by Barack Obama over the past eight years.

For the hedge fund moguls with a vestigial social conscience, for the self-satisfied "moderates," for the liberal warriors in the GWOT, for the self-conscious elitists who are proud to have "out-grown" the New Deal (like Obama, Arne Duncan, et al) -- there is a distinct chill in the air.

The same is true of the pundit class. They are shocked that their shallow assumptions about what moves the American body politic are being exposed as the facile consensus of those with a stake in the status quo -- intellectual, political and economic. A critical look at those premises reveals much about how skewed our public discourse has become.

1. The locus of political sentiment in the country has swung well to the right. There was some truth to this assertion in the 1980s and 1990s; it is not true today, though. Moreover, the swing that did occur was in broad dispositions toward the philosophy of activist government rather than in attitudes toward specific programs and policies. It was the Democrats' passive acceptance in the trendy doctrines of heroic, self-reliant individualism and privatization, hoary images of mythic America, that allowed the terms of political debate -- and our common vocabulary -- to be shaped by the Reaganites.

As of now, there is undeniable evidence that preponderant opinion is closer to Bernie Sanders than it is to any Republican out there on issue after issue. Whether we look at Social Security, Medicare, minimum wage, environmental controls, financial regulation or aid to higher education -- even immigration -- that is the case. Even more striking is the discrepancy between the center point of sentiment among Democrats out in the country and the Obama administration. The Congressional Democrats' feeble resistance (as on the disgraceful TTPI) to the White House, which does indeed seem modeled on Rockefeller Republicanism of yesteryear, has trapped them in a politically sterile middle ground between two forms of Republicanism. The widespread sense of abandonment by some many traditional Democrats, which has been evident for so long, now is manifest.

The pundits and the business oriented Democrats refer to the Sanders movement as "populist" -- as if "populist' were a word of disparagement that describes a pernicious political program. In fact, it has a long pedigree in the Democratic Party with resonance of backing the 'common man' and amplifying the voice of the underprivileged. What's the alternative -- "we know better than you do what your interests are"?

2. Bill Clinton in 1996 pronounced that "the era of big government is over." The Democrats' power brokers and fat-cats purred. Robert Rubin smiled his Chesire smile. Republicans cheered what amounted to an unconditional ideological surrender. As subsequent events have shown, Democrats never will be able to beat them while mouthing anti-government, neo-libertarian slogans of 1890s vintage. Nor will they be able to govern effectively in the interest of the whole nation. That elementary lesson should have been learned from the romance with deregulation that brought the nation's economy to the brink of collapse, and the severe electoral costs of Barack Obama's unwillingness to enunciate a doctrine that explains why and how effective government is imperative in a modern society. Since 2008, inequality has grown enormously with roughly $1 trillion transferred to the 1% from the rest of us. This is not something that Obama and his die-hard defenders should be proud of -- nor a record on which a 2016 presidential candidate can run.

When Republican presidential aspirants place blame for what hey cynically now condemn as rising inequality since 2008, what can the democratic response be?

To continue on this course is to ensure a low turnout among the very groups who are part of the Democrats' natural constituency. That includes not just self-aware "progressives" -- but also the working people who suffer the most from our warped politics and reactionary public policies. They have grown increasingly disaffected from a party and from persons who have little authentic interest in them or their plight. That was made obvious in 2014 when turnout among them plummeted. Disaffected and disorientated, some are turning to the demagogues who put on an entertaining show and push some emotional buttons that have little to do with their core needs. The risks of their doing so -- or, more likely, staying home rise -- when all the Democrats offer are warmed-over platitudes and stale personalities.

3. The political "pros" and the commentariat are devoted to micro-politics -- or, "small-ball" electioneering. They concentrate entirely on how to calibrate the adaptive moves taken in relation to this or that small slice of the electorate. It is a static view of politics and campaigning. The broad ideological and perceptual factors that have shaped the discourse and framed the issues is taken as a given. Any candidate who veers from the "mainstream" thus fabricated is declared a loser. Sanders was dismissed on exactly those grounds.

In fact, it is this very approach that has been a losing strategy -- especially for Democrats. By comparison, Republicans have been far more ready to dare, to break new ground, to propagate radical doctrines. Failure to recognize the relentless campaign over three decades explains why Democrats now are in such a mess. Micro-politics is to acquiesce in the status quo. Today's status quo favors the Republicans -- ideologically and structurally. The discrepancy between the distribution of public opinion and the positions taken by Republican candidates opens an opportunity to reverse that logic.

But micro-politics won't do it. A frontal assault alone has a chance of succeeding. That is precisely what the Sanders movement is demonstrating. A prerequisite for making it work is manifest conviction accompanied by blunt speaking. Obama had neither. The Democratic leadership in Congress has neither. Hillary has neither. Without the assist from propitious economic events, even Obama's Camelot act wouldn't have worked. With neither in the equation, the only thing conventional Democrats have working for them is gay marriage, abortion, and an array of crack-pot and/or dim Republican candidates.

There is some history to support this thesis. Think of Ross Perot. This is someone who won 19% of the vote in 1992 based solely on a colorful personality and idiosyncratic "straight-talking." He did tap into many things -- big and small -- that were on peoples' minds. Perot put Bill Clinton into the White House. He may have done the same in 1996. This was utterly unprecedented. It also was incomprehensible in the standard terms by which electoral politics in the United States are understood. Yet, no one has drawn the lesson. Instead, Perot in effect has been erased from conventional treatments of American electoral politics. For his performance is too inconvenient. It is too hard to fit into the easily understood categories so dear to the complacent "pros" and commentariat.

4. Finally, there is the premise that money is the sine qua non for electoral victory. Whoever garners the biggest war chest, so the conventional wisdom goes, has a crucial advantage come electoral day. Sure, there is no gainsaying the importance of money in today's political game. With empty pockets, you only can enter the White House via the day tourist entrance. That is what gives enormous leverage to the financial and business moguls who literally have been able to buy our government.

Still, money in itself is exaggerated. All the image-massaging and messaging in the world won't necessarily get you a majority in the Electoral College if you have nothing to say and are a person of obviously dubious character. Since almost all our national candidates are so devoid of substance, and tarnished, money counts more than it otherwise would. Sanders success -- such as it already is, and such as it might become -- forces a qualification of the greenback theory of electoral politics.

Modification of how we understand the process will be resisted, of course -- just as the Perot phenomenon is put down as a fluke. If Hillary and Bush wind up in the finals -- probably still the most likely match-up, all the "pros" and pundits immediately will revert to reiterating the standard line. Their intellectual error will be mistaking a coincidental correlation for a proven explanation. Acceptance of that judgment would have a deleterious effect on American politics. Its acceptance by the Democrats will ensure that they will continue down the road that leaves us with little choice and a country that de facto disenfranchises a large fraction of its citizenry.

Forecast: Hillary Clinton straggles across the finish line and Jeb Bush edges Marco Rubio. Hillary looks politically Dead On Arrival. Jeb offers the only chance of her resuscitation. Winner: Bush.