2016 may well inaugurate a “new normal” in American politics. What exactly is new?
First, the politics of personal appeal has a new importance. Now, the “authenticity” of candidates seems to matter much more than anything they actually say or know about public policy or how they plan to govern. The current leading examples are Donald Trump’s plurality support among Republicans for the GOP presidential nomination and Bernie Sanders’ strong support in his competitive Democratic nomination race with Hillary.
Neither Trump nor Sanders has a well thought–out set of policy positions or a sound approach to governing in the White House. Trump claims he primarily relies mainly on himself when taking foreign policy positions. His lack of depth in such issues as a presidential candidate is stunning. Sanders, in a recent interview with the New York Daily News could not explain how he would break up the “big banks” or what authority the president has to do it. Major economists, right and left, describe the economic plans of Trump and Sanders as pure fantasy.
A second trait of the “new normal” is the flip side of the appeal of authenticity over policy substance — the rise of verbal abuse as a campaign art. Donald Trump has no peer at the art of professional insult, often goading his GOP rivals to abusive responses.
A Donald Trump supporter confronts Bernie Sanders supporters outside a Sanders campaign stop at the Scranton Cultural Center in Pennsylvania on April 21. (AP photo: The Times & Tribune, Christopher Dolan)
Time and again the media assumed his abuse would serve to sink his candidacy, but that has yet to occur. The plurality of Republicans who support Trump tend to describe themselves as “angry” and seem to like it when The Donald directs abuse at rivals. Courtesy and comity be damned.
Sanders has been less abusive than Trump, but still harsh in his criticism of Hillary Clinton. His supporters’ attacks on Hillary Clinton has been strongly strident. Sanders himself has even termed Clinton “unqualified” to be president despite her tenure in the Senate and as Secretary of State. He has frequently secreted bile at her in the Democratic debates. Hillary has replied in kind.
A third trait of the new politics is the rise of inexperienced and unconventional candidates to electoral predominance. Trump and Sanders are again leading examples. Trump proudly showcases his nonexistent governing experience and frequently shifting policy positions. He seems to be a recent convert to the Republican Party. Sanders has long defined the left edge of national politics and as recently as 2013 declared he was not even a Democrat. Sanders’ long career as Congress’ only Socialist is not marked by significant legislative accomplishments.
Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota
Unfortunately, Minnesota pioneered this “new normal” in American politics when it elected Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998. Jesse, a very unconventional candidate, was “authentically” not a career politician who had little governmental experience and frequently subjected rivals and critics to verbal
Jesse Ventura, Governor of Minnesota 1999-2003.
How did that work out for Minnesota? Not so well. Jesse’s inexperience and scorn for other politicians rendered him largely ineffective in office. After some legislative successes in the wake of his election, the state legislature largely ignored him as his term wound down. He left office with low approval ratings. His subsequent media career only highlighted his essential
Though Minnesota has recovered somewhat from the Jesse experience, it is far from clear that the nation will recover from the Trump and Sanders candidacies. That’s because four new characteristics of our national politics help to promote the politics of authenticity, personal abuse and oddball
These characteristics were absent or much less consequential 20-25 years ago than they are today. When Jesse ruled Minnesota, the following influences were far less important. So the Jesses of today may have more staying power than did Ventura.
Social media et al.
First is social media, which did not exist twenty years ago. In politics, it operates on the assumption that “Everyone is entitled to my opinion!” Trump is King Troll of Twitter, castigating “horrible” people, such as that “dope” Mitt Romney. The Sanders movement is inconceivable without Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites propelling
Second is reality television, which did not exist twenty years ago. This is how Trump created his media “brand” and became known to millions. It’s a new pathway to political stardom for a person with zero experience in political
Sanders’ is engaged in his own form of reality television. His unvarnished rhetoric allows him to “act out” in ways eschewed by more conventional politicians. That thrills his supporters. It’s a great “real” performance on TV that has no relationship to actual governance.
Third is cable “opinion” news, which only began about twenty years ago. Sensational opinions draw viewers and profits to Fox News, MSNBC and CNN nowadays. Trump brings in viewers, so he gets all the airtime he wants, vastly eclipsing his opponents in media exposure on these channels. Sanders hot rhetoric provides juicy soundbites for cable news as
Fourth is national talk radio, which mainly affects GOP politics. It was just being pioneered by Rush Limbaugh twenty years ago. Now there are many big mouths, most leaning right with big audiences, giving Trump the exposure he wants, again eclipsing his rivals. Has this improved our politics?
All of these factors seem here to stay in national politics, creating our “new normal.” Its onset should dispel the illusion that history is progressive — that we in our society and our politics are more enlightened than those unfortunate humans who lived before us.
The article was also published in Politics in Minnesota (print and on-line) on May 4, 2016.