There is so much craziness going on in the political world right now that it makes it hard to think, as random supernovas of strangeness keep exploding in the political atmosphere. But like physicists trying to explain all the seeming contradictions and strange anomalies of how the universe operates, maybe we should be looking for a theory that unifies everything, a theory that can explain all the total weirdness of American politics right now. Today, I go in search of a unifying theory of political everything.
How to explain all this weirdness in the political universe:
After decades of nominating the next establishment guy in line (the first George Bush, Dole, the 2nd George Bush, McCain, Romney), the likely Republican nominee is this bizarro show boat captain, straight out of central casting for a Mad Max-style futurist world gone tragically wrong. Even his nickname, The Donald, captures how truly odd this man is. The second most likely Republican nominee, Ted Cruz, is the most far-right candidate that has run for a presidential nomination of a major party since John C. Calhoun in 1824.
The conventional wisdom punditry’s predictive power has never been sterling, but this year their prediction machine went straight over the cliff, being spectacularly wrong on pretty much all things. If there was a unifying theory of everything about political pundits, it would be: they are just wrong. They predicted Bush would win, probably easily; his name ID, money, and the affection for his family would allow him to dominate his rivals; his early stumbles would be overcome by his money. The pundits predicted that Trump would never run; he would never last; he would blow himself with his incendiary comments and outrageous proposals; he had a hard cap of support that would keep him from winning once the field narrowed. The pundits said that Rubio had the charisma and ability to unite the party’s different elements together; once he became the establishment choice, after Bush and Christie dropped out, he would start winning. Then there is the Democratic side: I can’t think of an establishment pundit who predicted Bernie’s crowds, money raising ability, or his strong showing and staying power in this race. If it was a job requirement for the political experts that they knew enough about politics to get even a few of their predictions right, they would all have lost their jobs this year.
Who are politicians the most angry at according to their election year rhetoric? Well, it certainly seems like it is Wall Street. From Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the right to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the left, everyone is sounding tough on Wall Street and talking about how much they are going to do to take them on, prosecute their crimes, and hold them accountable. Yet at the same time, the big bankers sure seem to have plenty of friends on Capitol Hill and in both parties. A top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee member, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer from Missouri, told a bankers’ conference that he wanted to help them find a way to “neuter” Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile the Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is co-sponsoring a bill to weaken one of Warren’s (and President Obama’s) signature achievements, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The first item, while appalling, I sorta get, as Republicans on the Hill generally have been owned by Wall Street lock, stock, and barrel, and they always want to sound tough about Warren when talking to bankers. But the DNC chair attacking the CFPB? That is weird, but not only weird: it is a sign of how twisted our politics has become.
One more weird item I’ll throw your way: a leading Democratic establishment group, in the year 2016, thinks the election results so far have shown that populism doesn’t work. Yes, you read that right. Because Hillary Clinton is apparently beating back Sanders’ challenge, this proves populism can’t work. More on this odd item in a moment, but seriously: whatever these guys are smoking has to be illegal.
So how do all these strange anomalies of the political universe fit together? I’m glad you asked.
The political version of the Unifying Theory of Everything is that the elites don’t get it. Real voters — the ones out in America’s heartland who rarely get raises, who are stressed and financially pressed by trying to figure out how to support their families and pay for their kids’ college tuition and save a little bit for their retirement — are tired of political BS, and tired of the people at the top getting all the breaks while they get none. For many of those folks, the breaking point came when Wall Street wrecked the economy through all kinds of reckless and fraudulent financial speculation, and not only got to keep from going to jail or getting fired, but actually got record bonuses just months after taxpayers bailed them out from the financial panic — an economic catastrophe which caused massive job loss and the crash of the housing market.
When that happened, Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters alike got incredibly cynical about American politics. In the decades before that, as family incomes stayed flat and politicians made promises they rarely kept, voters were getting fairly cynical, but with the financial crisis and the lack of Wall Street accountability, that cynicism exploded. Democrats less so than the other two categories of voters, because they understood the enormously complicated mess Obama had been left to fix and appreciated his progressive policies in other areas. But everyone except the elites in both parties were totally outraged by the stunning events of 2008-9, and that’s why the establishments of both parties, the pundits, and everyone else expecting business as usual have been so surprised by the events of the previous 12 months. On the Republican side, it has taken an especially nasty turn, as Trump and others have succeeded at getting their voters to believe that immigrants, Muslims, liberals, and poor folks are more to blame for their problems than Wall Street. Voters in general, though, are eager to reject an establishment they think has grown corrupt.
For those of us terrified by the idea of a Trump presidency and the prospect of fascism in America, we need to understand that business as usual in our election strategies is not the way to go. Voters are in a bad mood, and that’s why the analysis of Wall Street-funded organizations like Third Way needs to be rejected. The voters in Democratic primaries who are supporting Hillary Clinton are mostly not supporting her because they like the establishment and because they love careful moderation. The fact that most of Hillary’s margin has come from African-American voters when African-Americans are the most supportive of any demographic group of being tough on Wall Street, raising the minimum wage, and taxing the wealthy to pay for more government services puts that silly argument to rest. Hillary voters appreciate her experience and her toughness, they like her lifelong history of fighting for the needs of children, they might think she is more likely to get things done than Sanders, and probably most importantly are eager for the candidate they perceive as most likely to beat Trump. They aren’t rejecting populism because in fact Hillary has been running as a populist. She has run on a platform of taking on Wall Street and the drug companies and Big Oil, taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage, and expanding benefits and paid leave for workers. And quotes such as these are not exactly rejecting populism:
“Economists have documented how the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top, not just the top 1 percent but the top 0.1 percent, the 0.01 percent of the population, has risen sharply over the last generation,” she said. “Some are calling it a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons.”
Back to the original point: in order to win this election, Democrats need to reject conventional wisdom. Trump is not going to be easy to beat — he is a master at appealing to voters sick of political BS, and that would be most voters right now. If Hillary is the nominee, she will need to reject the advice of all those pundits and donors who have been wrong about everything so far this election cycle.
When you hear physicists talk about their unifying theory of everything, the ideas involved sound really fantastical — quantum mechanics, string theory, dark matter, maybe even 10 dimensions and alternative universes. But no physics theory could be as wild and weird as American politics in 2016. Maybe Donald Trump could be sent to an alternative universe.