The US presidential election is more than a year and a half away, but primary fever is in the air as the Democratic field is swamped with ambitious contenders. Like a hornets’ nest disturbed by President Donald Trump’s proverbial pawing, the Democratic field is alight with passionate contenders ready to sting. The already hyper-competitive field was thrown into further disarray with the entry of Bernie Sanders last month, the socialist firebrand from Vermont, who has stubbornly refused to give up his quest for the presidency.
In contrast to the last election, Sanders did not need to invest in name recognition. His platform, formerly considered radical, centered on free college education and tax reform, has largely been adopted by his new primary opponents. Sanders is entering this field not as an underdog challenger, but as a frontrunner, already raising US$6 million in just the first 24 hours and breaking records since his announcement. His followers have a devotion bordering on a messianic fervor, and his grassroots network is vast and quickly mobilizing into action.
There is no doubt that the upcoming primaries will be consequential for the future of not only the Democratic Party but for US politics itself. We are living through one of the greatest realignments of American politics.
Continuation of 2016 populist revolt
With Sanders joining the race, combined with Tulsi Gabbard’s own campaign for the presidency, the Democratic primary is shaping up to be a continuation of the great populist revolt of 2016. In the last election cycle, Donald Trump, a brash billionaire and political outsider, managed to stage one of the greatest coups d’état in American political history by leading the populist wing of the American right and wresting control of the Republican Party from the McCains, Bushes and Rubios, and remaking it in his own image.
On the left, the Democratic establishment faced a similar revolt from Sanders. Although the Democratic elites, unlike their Republican counterparts, succeeded in subsequently destroying this rebellion, they did not do so without suffering severe punishment in the end. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the champion of the Beltway machine, faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of Trump. Democratic voters, like the hordes of peasants who were forced to fight for the Scottish nobility in Braveheart amid the betrayal of their folk hero, were not sufficiently inspired to fight for Hillary’s victory. Since then, the Democratic establishment has been gradually ceding control of the party to the progressive wing led by Sanders.
The current Democratic primary field is a continuation of the unfinished business of 2016. With Sanders leading the party’s relentless march leftward, it has become clear that the primaries are not just about the nomination but about fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party itself. If Sanders is successful, 2020 will finally see the epic clash between the two populist wings of the American left and right that 2016 had promised but did not deliver.
Blurring of old political lines
Americans are indeed living in interesting times. In a political atmosphere that is undergoing great tectonic shifts, the old labels of what constitutes a Republican or a Democrat are quickly becoming blurred. For decades during the Cold War and after, both parties kept up a semblance of competition but were largely dominated by a recognizable Washington establishment under the sway of neoliberals who advocated for free trade on behalf of corporate interests and neocons who wanted a foreign policy obsessed with regime-change wars and interventionism.
In 2016, the establishment faced an unprecedented challenge to its power from both Trump and Sanders. The two are polar opposites in many ways. Trump is an arrogant tycoon from New York with a history of insensitivity to women and minorities. Sanders, the socialist senator and committed left-wing ideologue from Vermont, has a decades-long history of stubbornly decrying social and economic injustice.
In a political atmosphere that is undergoing great tectonic shifts, the old labels of what constitutes a Republican or a Democrat are quickly becoming blurred
However, as different as the two figures are, in many ways they are two sides of the same coin – they have both rejected the dominant mantras of the Washington consensus that for decades were considered unassailable. Both figures rejected the notion that free trade brought about an unquestioned net positive, with Sanders demanding that trade policies protect the rights of American workers and Trump fighting to remake trade rules to protect American industries and manufacturing.
Both candidates campaigned on the rejection of decades-long policies of incessant regime-change wars and foreign interventionism as a massive waste of life and treasure and both similarly advocated investing those resources at home instead. As different as the two men are, they share a powerful ability to appeal to the common man, which is reflected by the passionate loyalty of their bases. In 2016, both represented a threat to the establishment and faced significant smear campaigns. Since taking office, however, Trump has filled key positions of his administration with longtime neocons, perhaps as a concession to ensure his political survival.
The alternative media revolution
In the last election, three political figures dominated the political stage – Trump, Clinton and Sanders. Of those three, only one was a representative of the old neoliberal school that had dominated since the end of the Cold War.
If the 2020 election comes down to a race between Trump and Sanders, it will result in a competition that truly ends the old paradigm of US politics where both parties had differences in policy but in reality, merely represented varying shades of the same neoliberal and neoconservative duopoly.
The massive change in public consciousness did not come from a vacuum. Fueling this shift toward rising populism on both ends of the spectrum is the information revolution. Buoyed by social media and the Internet, alternative voices outside of the mainstream media outlets are more prominent than ever, and their influence is only growing.
YouTube has allowed the rise of extremely popular alternative news platforms that often run contrary to or in defiance of the content found on mainstream news channels. Social media, meanwhile, have allowed individuals to segregate themselves into their own political tribes and echo chambers, thus creating a more fragmented political spectrum where a recognizable center is becoming increasingly hard to define.
On many key issues, from interventionist wars to free trade, public opinion has shifted beyond the standard rhetoric of the mainstream media. This has resulted in recent years in major upsets such as the Trump presidency and Brexit. Like dead men walking, the narrative of the neoliberal and neoconservative schools of thought are quickly losing their legitimacy, though many establishment politicians refuse to see the writing on the wall.
With the exponential rise of alternative media and messianic populism driving increasing divergence between the left and the right, and with a recognizable center fast disappearing, US politics looks likely to see a combination of both greater polarization and also surprising overlaps between the two camps in the years to come. Regardless of the outcome, what is clear is that the traditional establishment’s hold on power and information is quickly fading and a raw and new populism is surging to new heights.