What it is ain’t exactly clear …1 And maybe that’s because I’m political but not tied into the party structure and punditry of this country. My political and economic blogs usually deal more with philosophy, root causes, and underlying assumptions than any appraisal of this or that candidate, proposed bill, or current slogan. And yet, having watched the 2016 primary election process in both parties—a slow-motion train wreck, in my view—suggests some kind of political earthquake is going on. And I don’t think anyone, either working in the mainstream media or opining on the pages of right- and left-wing blogs, has the current situation exactly in focus.
Neither do I. But I can sense a rumbling, the low-frequency hum of shifting tectonic plates, and it both scares me and excites me. Excites me, because we might for once see real, radical change in this country, and not just in the usual progressive direction. Scares me, because actual change is always interesting in the sense of the old Chinese curse.
First, let’s take the Democrats. For the past six months or so, we have watched Hillary Clinton fight off Bernie Sanders. Ever since the 2008 primaries, she has been the presumed heir apparent, the next in line. This is largely because she’s a woman, and the favoring of special interests which is the hallmark of the Democratic Party long ago dictated that, first, we needed an African American to be the standard bearer in 2008 and, now, a woman to follow after him. That was the order of precedence. And after a woman, presumably, would come a gay candidate, then perhaps a Hispanic, and then—given the current focus of favoritism—an openly transgendered psyche.2 Merit, experience, and qualifications count for something in this process, of course, but pride of place goes to ethnic or gender identity. In Hillary’s case, it helps that she has name recognition as a Clinton; experience as first lady, senator, and secretary of state; has campaigned nationally before; has access to massive funding; and is backed by the party establishment. She also has lots of baggage—but so does any politician of her standing.
And Bernie Sanders? What has he ever done? He was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and then sole representative in Congress for that state, and finally, later one of its senators? Styling himself a progressive and social democrat—well, some kind of socialist—he was a longtime independent who criticized the Democratic Party and only joined it late in 2015 for his 2016 presidential run. A brief look at his political career shows he was most active in opposition to pending legislation rather than sponsoring any landmark, direction-changing bills of his own. “Leader” is not the first word that comes to mind with Bernie. “Gadfly” and “old white guy” come closer to the truth.
And yet the young people love him! His avowed socialism has been, as they say in Silicon Valley, a feature not a bug. Medicare for all! Free college tuition for all! He would gladly spend another $20 trillion that we don’t have, on top of the $19 trillion we already owe.3 And he would make up the difference by taxing into elimination the wealth of the “top 1%”—even though that wealth, when taken into the public treasury, would fund the government for about one fiscal quarter.4 What the young don’t understand is that modern socialism does not lead to communal enjoyment of shared resources but to the crony capitalism of China and Japan, where the government anoints economic winners and losers. A young person under Bernie’s kind of socialism could kiss goodbye his or her dreams of inventing the Next Big Thing—whether groundbreaking technology or a popular internet app—in the garage. The benefits of innovation, if it exists at all, will flow to established companies with big legal departments and lobbying power. And the worse danger is that Bernie would lead us, not to Denmark and Sweden, but to Venezuela.
In reaction to Sanders’s success at the polls, Hillary Clinton has pushed far to the left. Perhaps when she gets in office she can be flexible and “triangulate” her way back to reasonable economic and social policies, as her husband did after the 1994 midterms. But perhaps not. She has seen the future and it is the Big State, Leviathan, government as absolute solution, the collective will of the majority, written in stone.5
Then, in the Republican Party, we’ve had a howling mess, with up to 17 candidates competing for national prominence. In addition to a sprinkling of governors and senators with no clear dominance of the status quo, we’ve had a real-estate developer, a high-technology CEO, and a brain surgeon.
My common sense says that for an executive office like the presidency, the natural choice is a person with the closest comparable experience, such as a state governor. This was the path of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Barring that, someone with corporate experience as a CEO would know how to lead a large, complex organization like the Executive Branch. And yet in the 2016 primaries, governors Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush dropped out early, and John Kasich was a woeful laggard among the survivors. Carly Fiorina as a corporate chief executive with a history of tough choices was always a distant seventh or eighth. (Simply being a woman or ethnic minority doesn’t cut as much ice with Republicans as it does with Democrats.) And of the senators in the race—the path formerly taken by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barack Obama—the near-front-runners Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have made their names as outsiders to the party establishment and spent their political capital attacking each other.
Until the recent shedding of all other candidates after the Indiana primary, most of the Republican candidates opposed and distanced themselves from the party establishment over key issues. And at this late stage, the candidate with the most primary votes and the likely nomination is the real-estate developer and reality-television host whose connections to the party and its philosophies are, at best, tenuous.6 He has clawed his way to the top of the heap with braggadocio, smears, insults, wild schemes, visceral intolerance, and childlike petulance. The rest of the candidates all damaged themselves by attacking and smearing each other rather than clearly stating their own positions and solutions—although, of course, the structure of the primary debates as media circus and moderator-directed free-for-all did not help them here.
My plaintive call for the past six months has been, “Where are the adults?” Where are the wiser heads, the party elders, the experienced people who are supposed to watch over our traditions and not let such muddle and confusion get out into public view. I think they are in hiding, hunkered down, waiting for an explosion or the apocalypse. I am reminded of the white magicians of Monte Albano in James Blish’s wonderful novel Black Easter, which was about letting all the demons out of Hell. As chaos ensues, the champions of order and justice try to gain control of the situation by summoning heavenly angels to humankind’s defense—but the only spirits who will come down to their mountaintop retreat are either fidgeting and distracted or headless and terrifying. God knows what’s about to happen, and it ain’t pretty.
So … what is happening here? I think that, on both the left and the right, we are seeing a massive frustration with the way things are going. And the result is that radical and irrational choices are becoming almost … sane.
After seven and a half years, President Obama’s progressive transformation of the country—so horrifying to conservatives and Republicans—is not moving fast enough either for the young people who follow Bernie Sanders or for the old-line Democratic Party faithful for whom half-measures and methodical approaches are anathema.7 But after a strong start, the progressive surge has run up against the natural resistance of a country whose politics are still pretty much centrist. The surge has also encountered the inertia that all utopian efforts experience when they meet the frictions of real-world economics, party politics, hedging, compromise, and everyday complacency. At the same time, the Republican attempts at stopping this transformation, bolstered by midterm elections that brought into Congress the Tea Party and other uncompromising conservatives, have encountered the frictions of congressional rulemaking, ridicule from the mainstream media, and an assured presidential veto. And so, for those same horrified conservatives, the Republican Party establishment’s opposition is not strong enough or self-assured enough to earn their confidence.
Like a giant wad of saltwater taffy, the country is being pulled by the poles of its two parties in opposite directions: Utopia Now! on the left, and Stop! Back Away! on the right. No one is specific or patiently descriptive about the kind of country and political systems toward which or away from which they want to move. When you’re temporizing and building castles in the clouds, you don’t use actual bricks. But everyone knows the direction they want to go—toward or away.
As in the 1960s, and in the song with which I started this meditation, the notion of revolution is in the air. In the Counter Culture—the environment in which many in today’s Democratic Party cut their baby teeth—the word was explicit. Today, “revolution” has become “transformation,” although the intent is the same: whatever we have at present is bad, throw it away and start over, building something really good. But it’s hard to call for explicit revolution—with its attendant riots, economic and political disruptions, social upheavals, attempted military interventions, and ultimately a change of government—when you’re the party in power. Still, the notion is there, fostered by the mechanics of agitprop and agitpunkt in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. All of that Counter Culture rebellion was aimed at creating so much chaos and collapse that the status quo, “the System,” “the Man,” and eventually the government would be overturned and not just gradually transformed. But old habits and attitudes die hard.
And on the right, notions of backlash and abolition—or of outright secession and ultimately civil war—are also in the air. If the transformation cannot be stopped, maybe it can be sidestepped by creating a separate and more comfortable reality. Donald Trump has already suggested a Summer of ’68–type revolt if he does not get the Republican nomination in Cleveland. His calls for political violence are stirring some instinct in his followers—and I can’t believe they are all skinheads and white supremacist thugs, who have never amounted to more than a pimple on this country’s politics. Trump is appealing to many people, though not especially to conservatives, because his solutions are bold, uncomplicated, and uncompromising. Build a wall! Ban the Muslims! Rip up the unfair trade treaties! Return to greatness! (Make the trains run on time!) His followers are no longer interested in half-measures and methodical approaches, either.
Like utopias, revolutions and rebellions have the beauty of imagined simplicity—so long as you are not specific about outcomes, or body counts, infrastructure collapse, famine, or what parts of the status quo actually have to come crashing down. Revolutions and rebellions are also unpredictable: once people start reacting with their guts and smashing anything they don’t like, the wave can move in unexpected directions.
But one thing I can predict: none of the players who started the ground shift this year will end up in power when the tectonic plates finally stop moving. In this I am reminded of the coalition of Social Democrats and other reasonable political reformers in Imperial Russia, who forced the Tsar’s abdication and set up a constitutional government but soon fell to a second revolution by the Bolsheviks, who before that had been nothing more than a pimple on the country’s politics. And I think of the National Socialists, who had been only a comic nuisance—mere street thugs and beer-hall orators—all during the years in which war reparations and the Weimar Republic ran the German economy into the ground, but when things finally fell apart and wiser heads tried to take control of the chaos, the Nazis rose to power.8 Stranger things have happened in recent history than the sudden warping and disappearance of two old, established, cherished parties such as our own Democrats and Republicans.
Like the fidgeting, headless angels of Monte Albano in Black Easter, God knows what’s about to happen, and it ain’t pretty.
1. Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” 1966. This song was popular just as the Counter Culture was taking off in the year I graduated from high school. It seems particularly relevant today.
2. Suggesting that a brilliant political career lies ahead for Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner.
3. When I was in college, we studied economics from Paul Samuelson’s textbook. He taught, and we all believed, that the national debt didn’t matter because “we owe it to ourselves,” and no one was going to call it in. That was then. Now the public debt is held variously by the governments and central banks of China, Japan, the European Union, and by the Caribbean banks. If we lose the reserve status of the dollar, thereby goring their national economies, these governments might just call in our debt. And yet no one in the current election cycle is particularly addressing this astounding overhang of $19 trillion—an amount we can never repay with any amount of simple spending cuts and revenue increases.
4. And when you start taxing wealth instead of income, you have the government probing even deeper into your life and personal finances than it does now. Besides, taxing private holdings would crash the economy by removing the major source of investment for many corporations and charities. See It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010.
5. For this I blame my generation. While those of us who were centrist and conservative went into business and the professions, the campus radicals who protested the Vietnam War and “the System” went into government and teaching positions. We made money and built our careers, while they prepared the next generation for cultural, political, and economic revolution. And now, for the vast majority of young folks today, the air they breathe and the water they swim in is democratic socialism, if not soft, silent Marxism with a small “M.”
6. My personal feeling was and still is that Donald Trump is a Democratic Party plant and the “October surprise.” He is a longtime friend of the Clintons, a friend and patron of East Coast Democrats, and a manipulator and partaker of government influence and largesse. He has structured a campaign designed to appeal to a Democrat’s caricature of the Republican voter: greedy, intolerant, racist, and isolationist. If or when he gets the nomination, I fear he will do something outrageous at the last minute—well, something even more outrageous—in order to throw the election to Hillary.
7. Like the Affordable Care Act. For progressives, this bill was never about ensuring that everyone bought and paid for their own medical coverage through the insurance industry. It was a Trojan horse, loaded with adverse measures like community rating and mandated minimum coverages, designed to break the current private-insurance model of health care, bankrupt the commercial insurance companies, and force the transition to a nationalized, single-payer health care system. But such legislative cleverness is lost on people for whom single payer is an obvious and worthy goal that they feel should be enacted immediately.
8. For further analysis of these historical references, I suggest Bertram D. Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution on the origins of the Bolsheviks and their takeover, and William L. Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the Nazis. Both old but good and thorough reading.