If you asked me after the first Republican debate in August whether I thought Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders stood a chance at being nominated for the 2016 presidential elections, I would have laughed. Not out of amusement, but because of how the American political system works. Outsiders never make it in, revolutionaries are bought out, and the establishment always wins.
Now, with eight states left to vote, I am no longer laughing. Sanders is tailgating Hillary Clinton and still gaining momentum with Democratic voters. Trump has won his race, with Ted Cruz and John Kasich’s withdrawals guaranteeing his nomination, while establishment favorite Marco Rubio dropped out after losing his home state.
Trump’s policies are illogical, and the racist jargon he capitalises on is terrifying. Yet, I am not angry at the voting trends – this is the purest form of American democracy I have experienced in my lifetime.
We have a problem in the USA: our government is broken. The establishment no longer answers to or is run by ‘we the people’. Financial elites such as the Koch brothers, and lobby groups such as AIPAC and the NRA, push politicians around in a modern-day version of gunboat diplomacy. The results? The Iraq war, unilateral support to Israel, and the non-renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2004, to name a few.
This problem is not limited to the Bush era or even to one political party – President Obama is a player in the game too. Obama’s administration initially agreed with economists that breaking up mega-banks like Citigroup and JP Morgan-Chase was necessary to prevent another financial crisis. Yet when the Brown-Kaufman amendment to so was proposed in 2010, the administration offered no support, perhaps because JP Morgan was the fifth largest donor for Obama’s 2008 campaign. Unsurprisingly, without the administration’s backing, the amendment failed.
Big donors and lobby groups get what they want at the expense of the people’s interests. Foreshadowing his future in 2006, Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that after taking campaign money, “the problems of ordinary people […] become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought”. American politics is a game of power in which elites are kings and queens, and the people are only pawns.
American politics is a game of power in which elites are kings and queens, and the people are only pawns.
Donor favouritism, along with the inability of bipartisan cooperation and congressional gridlock, has left Americans disillusioned not with individual politicians, but the entire governmental establishment.
Trump and Sanders have fundamentally different campaign values, but one driving reason for their success is the same. Voters see anti-establishment candidates as the only ones who will truly represent their interests; the government has failed the people, so the people will take back the government. Both Trump and Sanders pride themselves in not relying on Super PACs or corporate bribery. While the legitimacy behind Trump’s claims are questionable, the fact remains: both campaign on the grounds that they are non-establishment picks who will not compromise their values for donors or partisan politics.
On the Republican side, Trump has been the anti-establishment choice from day one. His lack of ‘political demeanour’ and outlandish ideas initially had the GOP laughing, but now has them in crisis. Rubio or Jeb Bush were quintessential GOP picks – they toe the party-line and are not overly-charged with the hyper-religious or racist jargon, which Cruz and Trump use respectively. Yet, both candidates failed for these exact reasons. Radio host Sean Hannity called Rubio a “pawn [of the] establishment” before declaring his support for Trump. What makes Cruz and Trump unpresidential in the eyes of the GOP is exactly what makes them presidential in the eyes of their supporters.
Trump’s success has frightened the GOP to the point of considering an open convention. If Trump does not secure the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination, the GOP may open the floor for delegates to change their votes and nominate a different candidate, including one not in the race; there has been discussion of nominating House Speaker Paul Ryan. The GOP is willing to ignore the voters wishes just to have their way, which is exactly why voters are supporting Trump in the first place.
Clinton has fared better as the clear party favourite, but the Democratic race is closer than anyone anticipated. In July 2015, Nate Cohn wrote in the New York Times that “Sanders surge is about to hit a wall […] there aren’t many reasons to expect he will break through”. Yet, as of April 27st 2016, he has 1,361 delegates to Clinton’s 1,682, with 1,276 still available. Their clear-cutting difference is the 520 super delegates who have supported Clinton, and who do not represent the American public.
Sanders has surpassed expectations because, like Trump, he actively opposes having a ‘strings-attached’ government. “A vote for Hillary Clinton […] is a vote for the establishment” commented Lucca Leopardo, a 21 year old Sanders campaigner. Clinton’s vote to allow intervention in Iraq, and reluctance to directly support issues such as gay marriage until it aligned with party rhetoric, has left her looking like a puppet. However, Sanders has remained a transparent ‘democratic socialist’, gaining support from voters like Benjamin Schmidt, a 20 year old student at Pitzer College, because “he has always fought for justice and equality and he does not sacrifice his ethics for anything”.
Trump and Sander’s ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric has gained them so much support that some voters are willing to break from their own party alignments. Buzzfeed found some Trump supporters pegged Sanders as their second choice because he is also anti-establishment. Leopardo said if Clinton were nominated, “I would vote Green Party […] I will never support a candidate that runs their campaign on the money provided by corporations and investment banks.” While Schmidt said that he would vote for Clinton if she were to win the primaries, it would be “with the understanding that I am picking the better of two evils.”
The world is shocked that Trump may win the nomination. His outspoken opinions on immigration, women’s rights, and race have even led the Chinese Communist Party to comment that clearly democracy does not work.
Rather, this is exactly what democracy is. In August, I assured my friends Trump could never win not because of his policies, but because the GOP would not allow it. I never ‘felt the Bern’ because I thought the Democratic party would pull strings to ensure Clinton’s nomination. I did not even vote in the primaries, because I thought my voice would be silenced by Super PACs, corporate moguls, and political elites. Democracy failed me, and in turn I gave up in democracy.
The American people are disillusioned with their government, so they are taking it back.
Luckily, not everyone gave up. People are tired of not having a say in governance, of having their interests thrown aside for a signed cheque. They are taking action by voting, and no matter the results of the primaries, the people have shaken the establishment to its core. While education, fear-mongering, and ideology play into polarizing voting trends, there is an overarching reason that the primary elections have gone against all predictions. The American people are disillusioned with their government, so they are taking it back.