Sunday, August 23, 2015

Trump and Sanders, the populist outsiders

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have taken the US presidential primaries by storm. Let's reflect on some aspects of their emergence onto the American political stage and the 'establishment's' responses to this. 
By all reports, Sanders appeals to the young, liberal and college-educated demographic, and it is this group that is vocally supporting him on social media and at his enormously well-attended rallies at various towns across 'liberal' America, particularly those with liberal arts colleges. Sanders' appeal is based on his recognition of the economic challenges that young Americans face today, and their declining faith in both the state and the market. They are often in precarious jobs or are under-employed, while being burdened with huge education debts. They are often steeped in discourses about social inequality and economic inequality, and the two are seen as being inextricably interlinked. Essentially, Sanders' comments on education and the welfare state offer hope to many of these young people who are deeply suspicious of the market - where sky-rocketing compensation for those in the upper tiers of the economy stands in stark contrast to virtual wage stagnation (if not decline) and increasing casualisation of work in the lower tiers of the economy. They say voters vote out of self-interest, and why would young people who face increasing uncertainty in the job market not vote for a candidate that offers the dream, however improbable may be its realisation, of free education and social welfare in America. Therefore, the establishment's response (although it must be said that many new media outlets have offered positive coverage of Sanders), of calling him a 'socialist', or of deriding the intent of the campaign, or indeed his supporters' concerns, is not going to address the core issues that have propelled Sanders' popularity.

The mainstream media have not taken kindly to Donald Trump's surging popularity in the polls. While there's plenty of information on Trump's continuing rise in the polls, there is also a great deal of heavy editorialising and persistent criticism of Trump, focusing on his various self-evident flaws. It may be inferred by a reasonable observer that while the likes of Fox News and Forbes are anxious because Trump poses a threat to their favoured GOP candidates, the likes of NYT and Washington Post (which cannot otherwise be clubbed together as belonging to the same end of the political spectrum), and the vast gamut of progressive online media outlets, are anxious because Trump is proving to be a catalyst for a backlash against political propriety. It's quite contradictory to call Trump anti-elite, but sentiment against elite control over politics - in cultural terms and in financial terms - is exactly what he's channeling. Trump's support, which is growing across several demographics and in several places, rests in large part on his bombastic disruption of the orthodoxies of modern political discourse and the entrenched power of the donor-politician-bureaucrat nexus. According to interviews with Trump supporters, people don't necessarily support him because they believe that his policy positions are viable; rather, they believe that political thought has congealed into a top-down monolith, and that Trump, with his incorrigible bombast and his seemingly indomitable spirit, represents an antidote to the prevailing system. So what does the establishment GOP, which essentially symbolises one half of the 'system' that people are reacting against, do about this challenge? They come up with a conspiracy amongst the other candidates - all favourites of a variety of big PACs or donors - to jointly attack his campaign in a series of ads planned for the coming month(s). If the establishment's response is going to be to discredit Trump and consequently appear to undermine the political engagement of his supporters, the result is not going to be increased legitimacy and support for the other establishment candidates. It will look like just another day in the world of elite politics where professional politicians and their big donors get to tell people who they should vote for while simultaneously ignoring the issues that they've raised. So, it will look like just another day in the world of Top Down Politics (TDP). It must be hard fighting off Trump's growing popularity but as a strategy, it's hard to see this paying dividends. And, ultimately, if it comes to a three-way contest, the establishment will regret alienating those who want a change from TDP. 

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