The system is rigged. We’re going to drain the Swamp and take down the corrupt establishment. We’re throwing out the rulebook and going for big, structural change.
Sound familiar? Well, those themes certainly worked for Donald Trump in 2016, and damned if they aren’t working for ol’ Bernie Sanders in 2020. It’s as if we’ve been treated to a stereo version of political upheaval.
Most of us thought the Vermont senator had missed his moment four years ago. He came excruciatingly close to achieving the impossible. As a cranky, unknown socialist fire-breather from a tiny state, he commenced the takedown of the Clinton dynasty, a task ultimately completed by Trump.
Was that all? Hardly. Bernie defied conventional wisdom with a second act for 2020 but then fell victim to something that would raise the red alert for any 78-year-old candidate: a heart attack. However, far from shrinking his famously hyperactive schedule, he was back on the campaign trail within a few days, rested and ready, looking none the worse for wear. And he has now rolled up three victories in as many contests, lapping the field in Nevada and sending cold chills up and down the spines of the 20th-century liberal establishment that has enjoyed unchallenged rule over the Democratic Party for time in memoriam.
If Bernie makes it four straight in South Carolina, good luck trying to derail the freight train. It’s said two of his wins don’t mean much because the caucus system unduly rewards activists. It’s also said he has a problem with minorities. But he captured the Hispanic vote impressively in Nevada, and if he can finish atop the heap in the minority-heavy Palmetto State, the final questions about his appeal in primaries (which attract more casual voters than caucuses) and among the party’s most important constituencies will be answered, and nothing short of a civil war within the party will likely be able to stop him.
If the established power bases in both parties don’t understand by now the seismic shift taking place right before their eyes, they never will. We have now seen five consecutive political sub-cycles – four nomination fights and a general election from 2016 to 2020 – that affirm one inarguable point: With the arrival, finally, of candidates in both parties who are unattached to the old and discredited way of doing things, a dam is bursting in real time. Trump’s overwhelming support among Republicans and Bernie’s growing lead among Democrats threaten the established order as never before.
Lest we dismiss it as a silly slogan, Feeling the Bern is a real thing, just like Trump’s Make America Great Again. Both taunts aim at the heart of the bland, encrusted establishment forces that seek only to consolidate and perpetuate their own power. The salad days of the Clintons, Bushes, Biden, Romney, McCain, and Kerry are over. Their influence has been drained away by truly independent candidates unbeholden to tradition who are saying – and, in Trump’s case, doing – what so many workaday Americans have long been thinking about and hoping for regarding the corrupt status quo in Washington.
The voters have pounced on the unique opportunity before them to shake D.C.’s world with this duo of outsiders, sensing the time is ripe for true populism. This means a return to the simple proposition that politicians will pay attention to what the voters, not the powerbrokers, demand. With the rise of these forces on both the right and left, one wonders if the toothpaste can ever go back in the tube in a return to the old ways.
Whether this populist uprising comes in the form of Trump’s radical revival of capitalism or Bernie’s revolutionary Marxist agenda is almost beside the point. The true narrative is Americans’ willingness to enforce what is written in the Declaration of Independence, which describes the forces of government as “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and then the money passage: ”whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government …”
While electing Trump, or Sanders for that matter, is not the same as abolishing our form of government, it is certainly in keeping with the spirit of this fundamental but generally unthinkable founding admonition. It likely comes as close as we’ll ever get to the nuclear option of dismantling the political structure of this unique constitutional republic.
The GOP powerbrokers took a long while to accept Trump’s takeover of their party. Democrats thought they had dodged that bullet when Hillary Clinton survived Bernie’s challenge. But here comes the old warrior again. The Democratic elites are right to believe Bernie could lay the whole party low with his radical policies, and they may use every scare tactic available, throwing Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg — and the kitchen sink — at him and his unshakable supporters who threaten everything they hold dear. But the baseline lesson of this pivotal era in American political history is that there is one thing they cannot control, like the GOP bigwigs in 2016 who were horrified by the rise of Trump.
They can’t stop people from voting the way they want.
Read more from Tim Donner.