observations and opinion
America’s ruling class is deeply contemptuous of the people. And the feeling is mutual.
Early in the series Mad Men, the secretly brilliant Peggy Olsen participates in a focus group of secretaries testing lipsticks. Behind a one way mirror, the women try one shade after another, wiping their lips clean with tissues that get tossed in the trash. At the end, Peggy picks up the trash can and, handing it to ad man Freddy Rumsen, she says “here’s your basket of kisses.”
Freddy is astonished at the poetry of the remark, falling from the lips of a mere woman. In his world, Peggy has just written really good copy. He can’t believe it. Describing the moment later to the guys, he says memorably, “it was like watching a dog play the piano.”
Isn’t that precisely how the American political class, and their media enablers, see the people? You know it is. We are in a moment when the voters – wise and unwise, taught and untaught, young and old – persist in supporting Presidential candidates who do not repeat the tired dogmas of the past. Candidates who speak differently – who speak what the people believe to be the truth, fearlessly and ferociously. The political establishment remain astounded, which is why they watch agog as the most unlikely men draw the largest crowds, saying the strangest things.
To see two so unusual candidates as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump arouse the energy of the people, tells the professional political class that the people must be stupid, unrealistic, duped, or all of the above. The political class can’t even imagine that the voters might actually be on to something – not the candidates (they’re just avatars, kites in the wind) – but trouble. The people smell trouble, they’re worried and they’re interested in candidates who promise to do something about it.
Sanders and Trump.
Both candidates stand out from the pack – present or past – because they are messengers. Very loud, very effective messengers. Bernie Sanders hammers away about his deeply held, historically rooted and seasoned political theory that economic inequality has undermined American democracy. Plutocracy is a cancer in the body politic, according to Senator Sanders; it must be excised.
The plutocrat Mr. Trump disagrees. Trump has, for many years, mouthed a vaguely protectionist, militarily adventurous macho mantra. Lately he has amped it up, with searing comment about illegal immigration, “building a wall” and deporting the outsiders perceived as stealing American jobs. It is hard to think him sincere, given his prolonged nose-down posture at the globalization trough, but Trump talks a good game.
It may offend the Berners and the Trumpettes to think their candidates share anything at all, but they do. They stand at different corners, and they say different things, but both messengers are speaking to the same people, about the same problems. While offering different diagnoses and prescriptions, Sanders and Trump speak to the rage and frustration of the populace.
At the core of both candidacies is an alertness to the alienation of the people from the ruling class. Both messengers point to, and lambaste, the proven incompetence of the American political elite: a brainless war left the country broke, haunted and wounded; a cavalier financial sector unleashed a virus in the world economy; a grossly obstructionist Republican Congress fought every effort to survive and recover, and so on.
You hear a lot on TV about “angry voters.” You hear that a lot, because you hear that a lot: that’s how it works in the media echo chamber. But this easy label is just another way to avoid looking at what’s really there, or thinking about what’s really happening.
Maybe what’s happening is that millions of citizens, of varying beliefs, educations, prospects and backgrounds, have landed on a central unifying insight: the political class is morally and intellectually bankrupt. The political class is incompetent. The political class has climbed into the lifeboat, while the rest of us go down with the ship.
And so, in their differing ways, the American people listening to Sanders and Trump are searching for something. The same thing that Barack Obama offered in 2008: hope. Hope for honesty, courage, determination and competence.
The situation in American politics is actually dire: politicians have mastered phony mantras to stay on the right side of conventional thinking, in their respective parties. The obsession with staying in office, and the price paid to do so, kills thought and policy insight. Make no mistake: it is infinitely worse in the Republican Party than among the Democrats, but the basic illness afflicts them both: private money, huge amounts of it and vested interests have a vice grip on power. Almost everyone in the game is a slave to established privilege and money.
And the people know it, and they’re sick of it. And they’re surprised to find two people actually talking about it. But the ruling class don’t believe this, and can’t believe anyone else does. So their “analysis” must reduce the phenomena of Sanders and Trump to something else. Something aberrant, ignorant, debased.
Hillary supporters denigrate Bernie voters for being idealistic or jeopardizing the election. Everybody denigrates Trump supporters for lapping up the bombastic verbal vomit emitting from The Donald. It is easy to dismiss those voters – a lot easier than to contemplate the possibility that they may be right about something. Far easier to be condescending and superior, knowing and sophisticated, flicking one’s ash off the balcony at the rabble.
The constant amazement expressed about the successes of Sanders and Trump, is the best evidence of the widespread ignorance and blindness of the U.S. political class. That is why, when you listen to anyone on TV talk about the presidential race, or read almost anything published about it, you hear the same basic message underlying every stripe of opinion: the people are stupid. They are dreamers or they are duped. Nobody intelligent could actually want policies like the ones offered up by Sanders and Trump, could they? Sanders and Trump must have hypnotized their voters.
Of course that’s the problem with this so-called political establishment: they think the candidates are the story. They’re not. When a tornado hits, the wind can pick up a tractor trailer and toss it a mile. It’s enthralling, but you can’t just stand there and stare at the truck spinning – there’s a tornado happening, after all. You run, you duck for cover, you leave the trailer park, you move to another state. You do something. Yet the American political class just stands and stares at the tractor trailers. It’s they who are hypnotized.
But Trump and Sanders are just things that have been picked up in the wind. The real story is the tornado – the voters, so desperate for competence and imagination, they’re prepared to toss at least one political party into the whirlwind.
Like a dog playing the piano.