So what ‘agendas’ are driving the 2016 presidential campaign? Much has been written about the phenomenal rise – at least to the mainstream – of candidates perceived as outsiders like Trump and Sanders. But an agenda drives their success even if it is unarticulated and mostly characterized by a vague, overarching sense of disquietude. The obvious propellant is anger – anger at income inequality, residual anger over the bank bailouts of 2008, the perception, correct or no, of a rigged system, the corruption of vast sums of money putting thumbs on the scales of electoral politics and, in direct consequence, politicians understood as bought and paid for, the sense that government only works for the rich if it works at all, and the economic bottom line: wage stagnation. All these issues are related, and they cross pollinate and feed on each other. And they spawn often ugly or bewildering progeny: a circling of the wagons against any kind of outsider or ‘furriner’ to protect what little you think you have left, a shoot first and ask questions later mentality, an abiding distrust of our ability to work together for the common good, an enthusiastic embrace of ideas once regarded as radical.
Thus we have an extremely entertaining if often dismaying campaign season. To the degree to which it has thoroughly flummoxed the political establishment, it has already fulfilled one facet of voters’ agenda: a tremendous desire to ‘stick it to the man.’ But a much more interesting question is how various candidates sync with voter anger.
Something inherent in human nature longs for a messiah. We want to be saved, redeemed, vindicated – brought into the light, Sans Christos mythology, the Greeks couldn’t make their theater work to their satisfaction without a deus ex machina. We desperately want the world to be fair; we see clearly that it is not. A nice savior seems highly desirable: someone who can ‘make it right.’ An election by definition is an exercise in hope and belief about the future. And this election particularly is infused with messianic longings.
Donald Trump is our present John Wayne. He seems part and parcel with the common man, a plain spoken, shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy. Yet his billions proclaim that he has made it in a hyper-capitalistic world, something a very great many of us feel we have not. They also make him seem above the fray, perhaps personally corrupt, but also in some sense incorruptible. He’s not worried about playing by the rules or speaking the script: any savior worthy of the name is above all that. He offers simplistic solutions, if they can be called solutions at all, to complex problems – exactly what a nice deus ex machina should do, just re-engineer the entire plot. He doesn’t even come close to meeting the demands of Republican orthodoxy and that is precisely his appeal to the great masses of lower income Republican voters who feel betrayed by that orthodoxy.
Bernie Sanders is the modern day reincarnation of the progressive movements and leaders that emerged from and went head to head with our first Gilded Age. He’s also a direct descendant of Occupy Wall Street and the masses who elected and re-elected Obama in ’08 & ’12 but find the messianic hopes invested in him unfulfilled. If hyper capitalism is a big part of the problem, he’s the anti-capitalist. (If matter is partially defined by anti-matter, messiahs are at least partially created by what they stand against).
Bernie is the primal scream for every single specific ingredient in voter anger, and his policies are meant to address them directly and absolutely. He also understands messianic longings (his is Jewish after all) as unrealistic – he is as afraid of that label as Obama should have been – and calls for a political revolution under-girded by the masses. But what he is saying is still implicitly messianic: a voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the paths. And he rattles Democratic orthodoxy as much as Trump does Republican.
Of the entire pack of candidates, Ted Cruz is the most overtly messianic. He embraces that mantle with the gusto and conviction of a true believer, on emboldened by his certainty that he has been called by God. And he is explicitly enamored with second coming mythology, working hard and consistently to portray himself as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. His message about the causes of and solutions to voter anger is also imbued with Biblical overtones: the trouble is we’re a fallen people who have strayed from the true path. We need to be redeemed, like it or not, by being dragged back to that path. This is why he can’t and won’t compromise: his ends are so obviously right, so obviously ordained from on high, that they justify any means. This is why he touts himself as a ‘pure’ conservative, the only pure conservative in the race, and by inference “the anointed one.” But he also cloaks his blatant religiosity in some familiar Republican shibboleths: remember Reagan’s ‘government is the problem’? Cruz channels that perfectly (and deliberately). All his solutions are simplistic and retrograde: reduce taxation and its infrastructure to a bare bones minimum, abolish rules, regulations, subsidies – except, of course, to the shoot whatever moves crowd. No question about Crusaders needing an Army. He prattles on about God certainly, but also that other conservative god, the Constitution. Manipulate the letter of that 233-year-old text to make sure we can’t do anything new or progressive. And he is a classic political animal; his solution to anger is a very old political one: give it a scapegoat on which to vent itself. Everything’s Obama fault. That has been the Republican tactic of choice for the past eight years and, except for his inferences at a fall from righteousness, a need to re-embrace Christian orthodoxy and by implication, grace, Cruz doesn’t stray from it.
Obama is especially handy for this because he’s black. The other thing interesting and significant about all the above candidates if we’re trying to tease out subliminal agendas is that their supporters are overwhelmingly white. This could be called the ‘trickle-up’ phenomenon. Lower and middle class whites are now struggling with the same problems that have long plagued minority communities. And these same communities now feel embattled and under siege. The world they thought was their birthright, their oyster, their cachet, seems to have disappeared or to be disappearing fast. The very celebration of not being politically correct is a celebration of a world of white talk and white power where the darker hued, the multi-cultured, the unorthodox of lifestyle, are second class citizens. When Trump says ‘Make America great again!’ these people hear ‘Make America white again.’ After all, so called traditional values are the values of the old traditional white class. For Sanders’ supporters, it’s more like taking the Civil Rights movement to the lighter skinned, but the deep seated unease that fuels it is one newly found among lower and middle class whites. With Cruz, this phenomenon is a bit more nuanced because there are certainly black and Hispanic evangelicals. But the crowds he draws are mostly white, and left unsaid but palpably present among these, is the certainty that the ‘chosen people’ are white.
In the meantime, the agendas of the political elites of both political parties is to reason, cajole, or coerce these candidates and the agendas they represent out of existence. (In the case of Clinton vs Sanders, co-opting is not off the table). Even if these establishment prerogatives meet with temporary success, the forces driving these candidate agendas are not going to quietly disappear. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to be addressed with substantive policy or agendas now seeking political redress are going to find less socially acceptable outlets. There are some real and abiding discontents simmering in the land, and they are creating persistent gnawing hungers demanding to be fed with substantial change. When they’re not shaking their heads in bewilderment, the billionaire class is already picturing mobs with pitchforks in their dreams. So there are raucous times ahead, and we’re not just talking the election season. As the Chinese proverb proclaims, “May you live in interesting times.” Both a blessing and a curse.