I’ve been watching American elections—and sparingly participating in them—for a long time. Sparingly participating, because I take my one 300th million share of the popular will in which our sovereignty is supposed to reside seriously, and I regard my vote as something to be earned by persons aspiring to office rather than bestowed on crooks, timeservers, and political prostitutes who provide legal services for the rich. I learned long ago that politicians lie at the feet of a master– Lyndon Baines Johnson, who swore up and down that he’d keep us out of Vietnam. (His opponent, Barry Goldwater, was all too truthful: he promised us a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and, having just survived one courtesy of John F. Kennedy, I was pretty sure he’d deliver.)
I didn’t feel virtuous about my hiatus from the ballot box, but I did feel a little less besmirched by it. I can proudly say that I’ve never voted for a Clinton, and I can promise you I never will. I’ve kept my respect for only one presidential candidate in my lifetime, George S. McGovern. He would probably have made a terrible president, but he was as close to a completely decent man as I’ve ever seen in American politics. (I leave third-party candidates to one side, as, with the exception of George Wallace and Ross Perot, respectively a demagogue and a lunatic, they’ve never stood a chance even for registering a serious protest vote.)
I held my nose and voted for John Kerry in 2004, not because I was anything but disgusted at what he had become since he testified as a Vietnam Veteran Against the War in the early 1970s, but as a protest against the Supreme Court’s stealing the previous presidential election from everybody and given us George W. Bush. I took a chance on Barack Obama in 2008, and lived to regret it even before he took office. The 2012 election, with Obama opposed by Mitt Romney, was as deeply depressing a spectacle as any since Richard Nixon ran in 1968 against the remnants of what had once been Hubert Humphrey.
What I’m saying is that America has lived in the trough of a very long political reaction that has consumed most of my lifetime, dominated by a minority party that by rights should have gone to the dogs long ago but has figured out a way to keep its ideology in power if not in every case itself, so that, rain or shine, both major parties have delivered government of, by, and for what has now become known as the 1 percent—the moneyed interest that has dominated the country as at no time since the post-Civil War era, and, until now, with significantly less resistance. You could say this much for the Robber Barons of the 19th century, that they did build an industrial colossus, however brutally. Our current one-percenters, however, have presided over the dismantling of our manufacturing structure, bankrupting us all for the benefit of their Panamanian accounts.
When a system as ossified as ours has persisted as long as it has, the tendency is to regard it as immutable. That is the mistake cynicism makes, because, eventually, history provides the unexpected. Its subterranean plates may grind slowly, but when enough pressure builds up, something gives, and the ground moves. That may finally be happening in 2016.
Change was in the air in 2008, but Obama stuffed a wet sock in it. Frustration with this produced a dual reaction—the Tea Party movement of 2010, and the shorter-lived Occupy insurgency of 2011. Then came time for another presidential cycle to anesthetize the Republic—the Mormon millionaire against the man who, by his own description, stood guard at the gates of Wall Street to ward off the pitchforks of the unruly masses.
2016 was supposed to have been yet worse, with the Clintons and the Bushes going at it again, shamelessly corrupt dynasties primed by Citizens United cash. But a couple of unexpected things happened. A white-maned Brooklyn Jewish senator from Vermont with all the charm of a nagging uncle and an egotistical casino magnate whose favorite line on his Reality TV show was “You’re fired!” upset the applecarts of both parties, overturning the cozy complicity of Democratic and Republican establishments alike with bankster politics, and provoking, at least on one side, something not seen in American politics since 1968—political violence. Of course, the scuffling at Trump rallies isn’t a patch on the violence that resulted in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy half a century ago. Those events were the climax of an era of mass protests and urban rioting that had divided the country more deeply than at any time since the Civil War, and, with its best leaders slain, led to its rightward lurch under Nixon. Nothing like that is yet on the horizon. But business as usual is out this year, as even Hillary Clinton has figured out. The two major parties will adapt, or, just possibly, die. Bernie Sanders has given the Democrats a blueprint for renewal, for which they have been thus far largely ungrateful. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a wrecking ball poised to demolish a party that has supped too long on its sins. The party of Lincoln died long ago; that of Richard Nixon has now run its course. Its final product was Ted Cruz—“Lucifer in the flesh” in John Boehner’s forever-to-be-memorable phrase—and Trump is its pallbearer. American conservatism doubtless has a future—suspicion of government is too important a function to be left to anarchists alone—but it will need to rest on something more than a Faustian bargain with the devils of racism and greed.
The only authentic conservative in this year’s race is, paradoxically, Sanders. What he is offering the Democratic Party is a return to its New Deal roots. Every major point in his platform represents either the unfinished business of the New Deal, or simply Theodore Roosevelt Republicanism. Single-payer health care available to all as a fundamental social right? The British adopted this in 1948, at a time when they were still living on wartime rationing with an economy kept afloat only by Marshall Plan aid. Harry Truman, who represented the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, adopted guaranteed health care as a plank in the 1948 Democratic Party platform. Tuition-free education in public colleges and universities? No pipe dream, nor simply the spendthrift giveaway of European welfare states, but precisely the system in place when I went to college myself, and got my bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York. Breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, formerly known as monopolies? Trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt broke up U.S. Steel in 1901, and the Republic survived. Bernie Sanders really isn’t a figure of the 21st century. He simply wants us to finish the business of the 20th.
What Sanders has really accomplished, though, is in giving the lie to the assumption that, with Citizens United, our politics was permanently in the hands of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers who could buy elections at will. On donations averaging $27 a pop, Sanders has raised more money than any candidate of either party. If he’s laying off campaign workers now, it’s not for lack of money to pay them.
Sanders and Trump both represent something new in modern American politics, the rise of the independent voter. Forty-two percent of American voters now identify themselves as political independents; only 29 percent do as Democrats, and 26 percent as Republicans. This division isn’t a fluke; it has held steady for several years now. Since the process of choosing a president has been monopolized by the two major parties almost from the beginning of the Republic, this means that a plurality that approaches a majority of the country must settle for a process that does not directly represent it, if at all. Forty-plus percent of the electorate may identify with neither Democrats nor Republicans, but the U.S. Senate contains only two independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King.
Sanders has run for president on the Democratic ticket for a simple reason: the entire election process, from appearance on state ballots to attention by the media, is rigged to preserve the monopoly of the two establishment parties. As for Trump, he no longer conceals his contempt for the party whose nomination he seeks, and he will have staged a coup d’état if he gets it. He has pried loose the Reagan Democrats cast adrift by the failure of the labor movement in the 1970s, and marginalized the Bible Belt social conservatives and their Tea Party fellow travelers. That has left only the exposed Wall Street base of the party, whose money can’t buy the self-financed Trump and whose disdain doesn’t faze him. It’s pretty hard to see anyone reconnecting these pieces, magnetized to begin with only by Nixon’s scowl and Reagan’s smile.
Sanders, on the other hand, is trying to put something together: the old Progressive movement that represents the enduring liberal strain in American politics, and that coalesced for awhile in the New Deal politics that defined the Democratic Party in the middle decades of the last century. The strategy of his campaign is to revive the old Roosevelt brand, whether in the party or outside it. If he is its presidential nominee, his problem will be to lead it without compromising his core convictions; if he is not, it will be to keep the liberal cause he has revitalized alive. Either task will take political gifts of a high order. Bernie Sanders could lead to a future worthy of the country’s better instincts if he can hold the movement he has galvanized together, serving as a bridge to younger leaders.
Donald Trump leads nowhere.